Hi-De Ha-Ha-Ha: Make no mistake about it–Cab Calloway had, in a few short years, achieved a position of considerable fame in show business.
He could draw tony crowds from Midtown Manhatan up to Harlem’s Cotton Club–and keep them entertained and happy with his singing, his dance moves, his orchestra–and his sheer energy.
He could draw audiences to the theaters, where people who couldn’t afford the cover charge at the Cotton Club could see what they’d been hearing on radio and records.
He could enliven a movie–whether feature-length or a musical or cartoon short–with the same energy he displayed on stage.
So, it makes perfect sense that, when the cartoon studios discovered that audiences were willing to laugh at caricatures of the celebrities they heard on the radio or saw in the movies–that Cab would be right up there, getting the same gentle razz that other celebs got.
The celebrity-spoof cartoon was a popular sub-genre in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. But not all studios were interested in this type of short.It seems that it was mainly the West Coast studios that really went in for the celebrity caricatures. The Eastern studios were not as interested in these shorts as were the California-based brethren.
Van Beuren did not produce may of this type of cartoon. Aside from the two “Amos ‘n’ Andy” shorts from 1934, the only one I can think of is Croon Crazy–which has already been written up in an earlier Post.
Terrytoons was not fond of the full-blooded celebrity spoof cartoon. This is curious, as they would later base couple of characters on impersonations of well-known entertainers, such as Ed Wynn or Jimmy Durante.
But they did throw a Cab Calloway spoof into Pink Elephants (1937), a Farmer Al Falfa short that has the old coot and his goat getting soused and seeing the rose-colored mastodos–one of which goes into a hi-de-ho takeoff on Cab. Unfortunately, the currently available print suffers from network censorship so the viewer does not get to see just what got the Farmer and his goat all plastered.
Max Fleischer was also not wont to get into celebrity caricatures. And, again, it’s curious. There have been stories printed and reprinted that Max Fleischer and Cab Calloway became good personal friends during the time that Cab was doing the cartoons discussed in an earlier post. Indeed, a story is told that, just after Max settled in Miami, he unwittingly violated local racial etiquette by having Cab Calloway as a guest at his house–and letting Cab in through the front door!
But West Coast studios were very much into spoofing celebs, of all races and ethnicity. Perhaps it was the proximity to the Hollywood dream factories, and all the stars that were there to make movies.
The West Cast studios also engaged in a sub-sub-genre–the “all-colored” cartoon. Some of these depended upon well-worn stereotypes involving dice, watermelons, stolen chickens, aand the like. But others were musical extravaganzas
One of the “all-colored” ‘toons that emanated from Termite Terrace was Clean Pastures, which featured spoofs on well-known Black entertainers (and threw in a black-faced Al Jolson for good measure). If the number Swing For Sale wasn’t taken from the soundtrack of the 1937 Hal LeRoy Vitaphone short, then it was a lively and lifelike impersonation.
That number must have impressed somebody at Warner Bros. It was repeated, almost verbatim, and reused in Have You Got Any Castles? (1938), one of those “midnite-in-a-bookshop” cartoons that constituted yet another sub-genre at Warner Bros.
Over at the black-and-white division, there were occasional Calloway takeoffs. One of the striking scenes in Wholly Smoke–a scene sometimes edited out by nervous television-station people who don’t want to be accused of racism–a pure white pipe-cleaner sticks “his” head into a pie. It comes out, black of face and quite nappy-headed, and hollers out the main theme of the musical number that is Porky’s smoke dream:” “Little Boys Shouldn’t Smoke”.
Even closer to home is the climax of Porky At The Crocadero, where Porky, after having impersonated Paul Whiteman and Guy Lombardo, dons brown-face and a nappy wig to become “Cab Howlaway ad his Absorbent Cotton Club Orchestra”, to deliver a frenetic performance of “Chinatown, My Chinatown”.
Tashlin would remember Cab Calloway a few years later, in Swooner Crooner. Porky Pig is manager of the Flockheed Eggcraft Company, where the hens lay and lay and lay for the War Effort.
When the hens get distracted by a skinny singing rooster–a takeoff on Frank Sinatra–Porky advertises for a singing rooster to get the hens back into production again.
He auditions–and rejects–an Al Jolson rooster (singing “September In The Rain”), a Nelson Eddy bird (“Shortnin’ Bead”), a Jimmy Durante rooster (“Lullaby of Broadway”)–and a nappy-headed, white-suit-wearing rooster who gives out with some Hi-De-Ho–before he is approached by a rooster smoking a pipe and wearing a Hawaiian shirt, who wants to “take a whirl at those. . . slick chicks”.