NEEDLE DROP NOTES
June 18, 2017 posted by James Parten

Cab Calloway in Cartoons – Part 2

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.

“Porky At The Crocadero” (1938)

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”.

Next week–Cab gets it from a lion, a mouse, and a Proud Lady.

10 Comments

  • Warner Brothers did a lot of caricature cartoons, but some of the blackface caricaturing was also lampooning pieces of literature; so there was the double-whammy of literature and music and movie culture that is often misrepresented and misunderstood today. To me, the success of such titles is whether or not the caricature is as entertaining as the genuine article.

    Warner Brothers’ such films were superior, because they had great musicians and singers to perform the caricatures’ dialogue. MGM wasn’t always hep to the jive, despite cartoons like the TOM AND JERRY classic, “ZOOT CAT” and the use of actual African American vocal talent, there just wasn’t enough of a genuine embrace of jazz and swing to bring a real appreciation. “THE OLD MILL POND” and “SWING WEDDING” were exceptions to the rule, but the “jazz frogs” weren’t quite as “hip” when paired with Bosko’s constant dreaming in the “trilogy” of titles.

    The MGM cartoons look so incredible, though, that you can’t take your eyes off them, even in grainy black and white which is the only way I saw ’em way back when on TV. They are still worth unearthing and seen as restorations *BECAUSE* of the jazz frogs and because, finally, a little boy was voicing Bosko by that time. Perhaps more of a jazz edge would sooner or later come if Bosko was brought over to MGM, once Hugh Harman was directing cartoons in-house at MGM studio, but his last such cartoon was the wild and “magical” “BOSKO IN BAGDAD” where the hip frogs, who seemed to have everything at the clap of their hands, still wanted Bosko’s bag of cookies…so says a little boy’s nightmare on his way to his grandma’s house with the freshly baked treat.

    The best of these is “BOSKO AND THE PIRATES”, the first of the three, because it gave the vocalists more room to perform, before the frenetic chase around the pirate ship and eventual explosion that destroyed the ship and the dream. The chase around the ship often came off as a bit of nicely staged entertainment, with nice animation and sometimes interesting camera angles, but there are times, especially in the remaining two entries, here, where the dialogue is little more than shouted, not sung. Harman kept the visual gag content coming, and some of the musical sequences did sometimes have an almost Busby Berkeley-ish quality, though.

    If you like the afore-mentioned other jazz musical shorts that introduced the caricatured frogs, you’ll be very, very interested in these three films! However, when you look at the incarnation of Bosko as he appeared in his Warner Brothers shorts, where both he and Honey entertained, you sometimes wonder why Hugh Harman forgot about Bosko the entertainer as he morphed Bosko into an actual human form. The “trilogy” and an earlier cartoon called “HEY, HEY FEVER” are the closest they came to realizing the showbiz potential of the character, along with the swing and big band caricatures…but, all in all, that is a subject for another posting.

    Walter Lantz also used jazz in his films, and it is this genuine enjoyment of the music that saves these films as well.

    • Jazz great Jack Teagarden was in several Walter Lantz cartoons including Pied Piper of Basin Street (1945), and The Sliphorn King of Polaroo (1945). (“Sliphorn” is a slang term for the Slide Trombone).

    • I would love to see the MGM Bosko cartoons cleaned up and restored. I hope that Steve over at Thunderbean will eventually be able to release a set of these.

  • Sadly, a lot of the cartoons, as you mention above, with the Cab Calloway caricatures were censored and edited out from future broadcasts on TV. And Porky doing an impersonation of Cab Calloway in Tashlin’s cartoon, singing Chinatown My Chinatown was stellar – Porky going from Cab Calloway to a Chinese man in mid song and back Calloway again – was particularly outstanding!

  • It’s through Warner Bros. cartoons, like ‘Swooner Crooner’ that I have discovered Cab Calloway. I now have ca. his complete discography, but to me he’ll be forever connected to his animated counterparts. 🙂

  • He was name-dropped by Bugs Bunny in one cartoon: “The Count of Basie… the Duke of Ellington… the Cab of Calloway…”

    • Yes, hat was “Knight-Mare Hare”–and don’t forget “Satchmo of Armstrong” in there,too.

      The Count and the Duke also get their names dropped in “Napoleon Bunny-Part” (1956), in which their names, suitably Gallicized, are found on a “juque-box”,alongside such discs as “I Ain’t Got Nobody” by the Guilloteeners.

  • I believe the animation of the Cab Rooster in “Swooner Crooner” is most likely by George Cannata Sr., who also animated some of the opening shots in “Pink Elephants”.

  • Is the “faw down,go boom” gag in CROCADERO an early use or had it been over used by this time? Great to see it….

    • A late 1938 popular song,”I Faw Down And Go Boom” was widely covered by all the record companies, often cut as both a dance record (with vocal refrain), and as a vocal record.
      Among the artists that recorded the song were Eddie Cantor, Annette Hanshaw, Whispering Jack Smith, and the orchestrasof George Olsen, Charles Fulcher and Harry Reser.
      Most of these are found on YT.

      Totally unrelated to the song, but released at the same time the song was being widely recorded, was “We Faw Down” a Laurel-and-Hardy matrimonial comedy, with a music-track, but with no dialogue.

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