Throughout 1947 George Pal achieved successes that had nothing to do with his marquee star Jasper, and his accomplishments validated his expansion beyond the Sambo-figure. Pal’s John Henry and the Inky-Poo won an Academy Award nomination. As with last year’s nomination, Pal lost to “Tom and Jerry” again–this time to The Cat Concerto. In an earlier point in Pal’s career, the nomination may have signaled a new direction towards dramatic puppet-animation of African American folklore and novels. But that was ultimately not to be.In April 1947 James M. Jerauld reported in Boxoffice that Pal was entering feature-film production and working on Tom Thumb for release through United Artists. As a consequence, the filmmaker’s “Puppetoon” series for Paramount ceased production. This shutdown meant the end of the “Jasper” series, but the ethnic images in those cartoons received a rebuke that year from the African American magazine Ebony. On the other hand, Pal would not make more episodes like John Henry and the Inky-Poo, which received critical praise from Ebony, Hollywood Quarterly, and other periodicals.
Paramount Pictures released the last of the “Puppetoons” in 1947. Of the five releases, only one stars Jasper. In Shoe Shine Jasper, the boy, the Scarecrow, and the Crow appear for the final time together. In a break from the standard “Jasper” story formula, the “Jasper” finale is a parody of Cinderella. Instead of a fantasy-laden story about Scarecrow’s scheming, Shoe Shine Jasper casts Scarecrow as a bully leaving home for a jitterbug-dance contest but ordering Jasper to stay behind and shine shoes. A fairy godmother gives Jasper magic golden slippers so that he can enter and win the contest, which he does. The first few minutes are quite dialogue-heavy in order to set up the plot. However, the animation of the dancing by the contest participants, the Scarecrow, and Jasper is superb. Some effort seemed to have gone into animating the jitterbug with some accuracy, and the music sounds as “hot” as any jitterbug score could sound. However, the characters speak in the stereotyped dialect, and they have big lips and big eyes. Thus, Pal’s attempt at new storytelling for Jasper did not deviate from its fundamental roots in ethnic caricature.
In contrast, the penultimate “Puppetoon” release of 1947–Date with Duke–eschews ethnic caricature entirely while still casting an African American. The film is a musical that combines live-action and animation. Duke Ellington stars as himself, performing “Perfume Suite” on the piano in live-action form. The puppet-animation comes into play when perfume bottles on his piano come to life and sing and dance. Date with Duke did not receive the Oscar nomination that Pal had hoped for, but it won kudos from critics.
Both Shoe Shine Jasper and Date with Duke present African American jazz music in extremely different ways, especially concerning African American representation. The latter film showed that African Americans did not have to be subjected to ridicule in order for their music to receive animated treatment. The episode marked the coda to an era that had already ended. By 1947 two years had passed since Universal Pictures issued the last “Swing Symphony” from Walter Lantz, and Bob Clampett’s stabs at jazzy ethnic caricature for Warner Brothers had taken place even earlier during World War II. After the last of Pal’s cartoons, African American caricature became more conventional–more maids, porters, and farm hands.