ANIMATION ANECDOTES
May 20, 2017 posted by

Jim Korkis on Bob Clampett’s “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs” (1943)

Parodying Disney films is nothing new. Three Little Pigs (1933) was so popular that it was often the subject of parody in a number of animated shorts from other studios especially Warner Brothers.

Fantasia was also the target of the Warner Brothers cartoon A Corny Concerto (1943) (“from Corny-gie Hall”). Director Bob Clampett replaced noted musicologist Deems Taylor from the original film with an unshaven Elmer Fudd wearing an ill fitting tuxedo, who introduced two segments.

The first sequence featured Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig in a woodland setting set to the music of “Tales of the Vienna Woods.” It was the classic story of hunter Porky and his dog tracking down the rabbit and the hi-jinks that ensue including a squirrel supposedly shooting all three of them.

The second segment set to the music of “Blue Danube” features a very young Daffy Duck playing an ugly black duckling joining a flock of white swans. He is rejected by the mother swan until Daffy rescues her babies from a vulture.

Clampett was also responsible for the very much still-controversial cartoon short, Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs (1943). It is a modern parody retelling of the Disney version of the timeless classic of Snow White but with black caricatures.

So White and the Prince Chawming see their reflection together in the water the same as the Prince and Snow White in the original. The wicked queen observes them through pulled curtains just like in the original. The heroine wanders through a dark-bluish forest where even the trees appear to have eyes.

The wicked queen who is hoarding vital war rations sends out a Murder Inc. gang to ‘blackout’ “So White” (aka “Coal Black”), but the gang are ‘charmed’ by the young girl. They drop her off safely in the woods – where she soon encounters the newly-enlisted “sebben dwarfs”, who are ‘in the Army now‘. The Queen then tricks So White into swallowing a poisonous apple – and the princess passes out. When Prince Chawmin’s kiss can’t awaken her, it is Dopey’s all-American pucker that makes her pigtails stand up, unfurling into small American flags.

The real origins of this classic cartoon parody came from Clampett’s studying the caricatures in the book, Harlem As Seen by Hirschfeld by artist Al Hirschfeld. In addition, Clampett attended Duke Ellington’s 1941 live musical revue being performed in in the Los Angeles area, “Jump for Joy.”

After the show, Ellington and the cast suggested Clampett make a musical cartoon that focused on “black” music. To prepare for this project, Clampett had his animation unit take a couple of field trips to Club Alabam, a Los Angeles area nightclub that catered to black Americans.

At the time, people were talking about Carmen Jones, a black version of the famous Carmen opera and that might also have inspired Clampett.

“I worked on Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs and I think it was one of the best things I ever worked on. I worked mostly on the Prince,” recalled animator Virgil Ross in an interview with John Province in 1990. “Bob (Clampett) took us into downtown Los Angeles, into the nightclub section, to watch the latest dances and pick up some atmosphere. Some of it was pretty funny stuff that we actually used in the picture: real tall guys dancing with real short little women, and they’d swing their legs right over the tops of their heads!”

To give Coal Black some additional authenticity, Clampett originally wanted an all-Black band to provide music for the short. But producer Leon Schlesinger refused for monetary reasons since he had a band he was paying at the studio. The film was eventually scored by Carl Stalling who tried to create an authentic sounding Blues/Jazz score and had black musicians give their input. The rehearsals to try to capture the same spirit as the black musicians probably cost more than actually hiring them.

Vivian Dandridge

That didn’t stop Bob from trying to give this short an authentic “black” sound. Clampett eventually hired an all-black band — Eddie Beals and His Orchestra — to record the trumpet solos for the “Waking up So White” final kiss sequence in the cartoon. Herb Jeffries, one of the prominent black musicians in that band, always spoke proudly of the cartoon and his work on it.

With the hope that having just the right voices for his characters might give Coal Black some additional authenticity, Bob even hired African American actors to perform the lead roles in his film.

Clampett hired Vivian Dandridge, the singer and sister of black American actress/singer Dorothy Dandridge, to voice “So White” and then hired Ruby Dandridge, Dorothy and Vivian’s mother, to voice the wicked Queen.

Bob recruited Lou “Zoot” Watson to do the voice of “Prince Chawmin” while Mel Blanc provided all of the other voices in the picture. Band leader Louis Armstrong wanted to do the voice of Prince Chawmin’ but was booked on tour.

Many animation fans have wondered why this Bob Clampett cartoon is called Coal Black and the Sebben Dwarfs if the main character in the picture is referred to as “So White”? Well, producer Schlesinger feared that calling the cartoon “So White” would be just too close to the title of the Disney original and could cause problems which is why a change was eventually made in the cartoon’s title but not in the cartoon itself where the heroine is called by her original name.

Most animation scholars and historians consider Coal Black an undisputed masterpiece but it has been the target of controversy because of the caricatures.

Animation is an exaggerated reality, especially in the world of Bob Clampett. And so the characters in the film were just as exaggerated and stereotyped as any other Clampett cartoon character. However, especially in today’s society those stereotypes that were so common in live action films and on the stage are no longer considered appropriately funny but demeaning, something that was never Clampett’s intent.

There is intelligence to the characters in the cartoon that some say helps offset the strong racial images that were a common cartoon “shorthand” at the time. The cartoon even includes black men in uniform serving their country, something you rarely if ever saw in other films of that time.

Cartoon Research editor Jerry Beck examines an original drawing from “Coal Black” at the Van Eaton Gallery in 2011

Audiences, especially black audiences, loved the cartoon when it was first screened and in years afterwards. If Walt Disney saw it, he never commented on it.

In 1968, this cartoon was consigned to the Warner’s “Censored 11” which meant that it was one of eleven animated shorts prohibited from being seen on television or in theaters because of potentially offensive material. So over the years, much like Disney’s Song of the South, since the cartoon short was so little seen, it was assumed to be more racist than it actually was.

In 1979 it was scheduled to be shown at a Los Angeles film festival and the Black Panthers, a militant black nationalist group, objected so strongly that it was removed from the screening schedule.

Later that same day, the group met with Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley (who was black). When they said they had spent the day at a screening of Bob Clampett cartoons, Bradley responded that Clampett was responsible for his very favorite cartoon of all time, but he had only seen in once while in France during World War II: Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs.

40 Comments

  • One of the most amazing and wacky cartoons from the wackiest director. It’s one of the best examples of how Clampett used every creative tool to supplement the animation and squeeze the best out of his unit. A shame people nowadays dismiss it for reasons that aren’t even really there.

  • Jim, thanks so much for posting this! I had never seen the whole thing before. What a brilliant piece of work — Clampett’s greatest cartoon, I think. His manic animation style reached its zenith here.

  • The criticism over the cartoon’s ethnic content actually began well before the 1960s, as my Colored Cartoon book explains. “Coal Black” was one of the first cartoons that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People protested during its original release in 1943. Members called theaters showing the film in New York, asking them to stop screening it. The group wrote to Harry Warner personally to ask him to withdraw the film. In 1943 the NAACP called the film “a decided carictaure of Nero life and an insult to the race” and called the depictions of African American soldiers during wartime as “Sebben Dwarfs” a “disgraceful” image.

    • Thank you for that comment, Christopher. That’s very interesting information. We tend to think of those kinds of protests over perceived stereotypes in the media as being a more recent invention.

    • Just being picky … but it’s “…decided caricature of ‘Negro’ life …”

  • Well, this is a case where I was not made aware of this particular cartoon until I’d seen it shown at a Manhattan animation festival showing mostly cartoons that had been banned from television. In fact, I am sure that most of the titles deemed “offensive” were never shown on TV. Until the books on animation came out during the 1980’s, I’d never heard of cartoons like “GOIN’ TO HEAVEN ON A MULE” or “TIN PAN ALLEY CATS”. The only short series of toons still shown were the INKI cartoons which had no dialogue. I liked those cartoons because all was pure pantomime…and I liked Stalling’s scores for them, including the “dance” of the mynah bird.

    “COAL BLACK”, however is given “honorable mention” on a special feature of the disk, “CARMEN JONES”. That is interesting news that Louis Armstrong was interested in playing Prince Chawmin’. He had allowed himself to be “caricatured” in Max Fleischer’s musical cartoon around the Armstrong classic, “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You”, and almost the same partially African American voice cast can be heard in “GOLDILOCKS AND THE JIVIN’ BEARS”. So, despite the controversy, there were other such cartoons amidst those MERRIE MELODIES, most of which, in the 1940’s, were pokes at fairy tales. This isn’t to say that there were no titles that could offend, even in those days, but the jabs were usually toward how literature and mainstream motion pictures looked at race or featured caricatures of black celebrities and entertainers.

  • The biggest hoax of all is that Disney’s “Song of the South” is rascist. Uncle Remus (an American Aesop) is the hero of the film, a philosopher who keeps a family from breaking up.

    • Ironically I have a DVD purchased online a couple years ago of a European issued Song of the South, and Coal Black is on there as an extra even though it was WB not Disney.

  • This cartoon doesn’t deserve all the hate it gets. (I have seen much worse!)

  • “In 1968, this cartoon was consigned to the Warner’s ‘Censored 11’”
    By whom?

    • By United Artists Television.

    • Jerry, did UA quietly shove away those shorts, or did they announce to the press that they were withdrawing them?

    • Well it wasn’t like that back then. No one really cared if a studio withdrew a few cartoons. It was entirely an internal matter to just not supply those 11 anymore. No press releases needed to be issued.

    • After Martin Luther King’s assassination, you had this fascinating period during the summer and fall of 1968 when all of the entertainment industries did this long overdue change-over in their policies. It is quite fascinating how fast everything happened within just a few months… including the sudden removal of 11 animated cartoons from United Artists TV, all on the sly.

      This was the only year before Eddie Murphy Era of the eighties when a black star topped Quigley’s lists: Sidney Poitier. Of course, he only stayed on top just that once. Paul Newman replaced him soon enough.

      In June, Bill Cosby hosted an episode on the CBS mini-series OF BLACK AMERICA called “Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed”. It was chocked full of vintage old movie stereotypes from BIRTH OF A NATION through Shirley Temple that I am sure made the major companies out in Hollywood cringe.

      Warner Brothers-Seven Artists decided to green-light Gordon Parks’ THE LEARNING TREE that same summer. Before then, films directed by blacks were independent, often low budget, productions made outside the studio system.

      Diahann Carroll had her own TV show on NBC airing by September.

  • Nice piece about a unique cartoon. Thanks Jim. For the sake of accuracy I will correct some voice credits. Vivian Dandridge is indeed correct for So White. It’s Eddie Beal, not Beals, and Leo Watson, not Lou. I think Clampett nicknamed him Zoot Watson, probably because he wore the Zoot suit in the cartoon…..he was never known as Zoot professionally as far as I can tell. He was most famous as lead singer of the noted quartet the Spirits of Rhythm in the late 1930s.

    The big fallacy that has been repeated for four decades is Vivian’s mother, Ruby Dandridge. Early in production she auditioned for the opening Mammy storyteller voice, but it’s Lillian Randolph playing that role in the final cartoon (confirmed at the USC WArner archives by me from original recording logs). If you knew Ruby’s high pitched voice, you would also know there is no way she is doing the Wicked Queen. Bob told Hames Ware by letter in 1974 that it was Danny Webb, who had done other voices for Warner cartoons since 1937.

    • Thank you SO much for these voice corrections. I, and so many others who have an ounce of sense, always defer to you on voice identifications. One of the great virtues of Jerry’s website is that it reaches out to a large and diverse group of experts so that corrections can be made quickly and definitively. As you know, piecing together the history of animation, sometimes we only have unreliable sources that repeat falsehoods so we start to believe they might be true. Thanks again!

  • Considering how easy it is to see a print of this cartoon online, I don’t see why it can’t get an official high quality release. Everybody who wants to see this cartoon has seen it already.

  • ….and in the eighties it became (?) PD and appeared in the home market in super 8 !!!

    • It was never PD. The copyright was renewed in February 1970.

  • What bothered me for the longest time is the Dwarves in”Coal Black” were able to kill The Queen when the Disney version it’s just lightning.

    I heard the Disney dwarves defeated her in the original animation but was cut for being too gruesome so it had to be reanimated for Disney before the film’s release, but I remember the dwarves defeating the queen in some DVD documentary.

    Mandela effect?

    I’m very glad they got the Dandridge Sisters for the voices since they were a forerunner to Motown’s the Supremes.I just wish the Supremes had their own cartoon, theatrical or TV.

  • I have never regarded the black duckling in Corny Concerto as being Daffy.

  • Speaking of the Censored 11, is there a document/memo/anything from UA Television about the Censored 11? I was always curious about that.

    • There is. I don’t know if I have “the” memo itself… I may have papers relating to it… but it was a memo from an TV exec (I have this data buried in my files – I worked for UA from 1978 to 1984 and I collected this info when I was there, as I was allowed to book the offensive cartoons to colleges and repertory theaters in 16mm – it was only on television they were “censored” from. BTW, they were never labeled “the censored 11” at UA in those days. Someone else coined that name later). At some point I’ll dig my internal memos out – might make a good post!

    • At some point I’ll dig my internal memos out – might make a good post!

      Yes, it would, Jerry.

      Not to get too far off topic, but I’ve wondered if United Artists similarly withdrew certain Popeye cartoons they distributed, such as “Pop-Pie a la Mode.” “The Island Fling” and “Popeye’s Pappy”? The Popeye cartoons ran pretty much continually through the 1970s and into the ’80s where I grew up, but I never saw those particular titles. I’ve wondered if they were withdrawn by UA or if that decision was made strictly on a local level. (“Spinach vs. Hamburgers,” a cheater with a generous extract from “Pop-Pie a la Mode,” ran locally, but was edited to remove the “a la Mode” footage.

    • No, they weren’t. Pop-Pie Ala Mode and The Island Fling were still in the rotation into the early ’90s Turner network era. Later on, broadcasts of The Island Fling excised all of the scenes with Bluto’s Man Friday—and the results made little sense, naturally.

    • Thad is correct – there was no edict by UA to withdraw those Popeye cartoons. You’re A Sap, Mr. Jap and Scrap The Japs were also still available. Speaking of those, I always found it strange that Bugs Bunny Nips The Nips, nor any of the Inki cartoons weren’t included in the “Censored 11”. Clearly the “Censored 11” were focused soley on black stereotypes – and even then, the most egregious examples.

  • I never will understand Cartoon Research’s fixation with this particular cartoon. It will never be hailed as a classic because it is, in fact, racist, and it offends a huge percentage of the viewers to whom it is exposed. I am one of them. And no amount of virtual cyber ink by cartoon fan-folks is going to reverse that. But I’m sure we’ll revisit this all in the near future when this site hails it once again as a classic. It seems to be a regular event.

    • There is a difference between flat-out racism and caricaturing stereotypes. An actual racist cartoon would be Freleng’s “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips”, as it portrays all japanese characters as stupid, and Bugs derogatorily calls them “slant eyes” and “monkey face”. In “Coal Black” there is only innocent fun at the original story and maybe some stereotypes, but there’s both smart and stupid characters, good and evil. The cartoon’s goal is not to show someone particularly in a bad light. But you’re free to believe what you want.

    • One wonders if taking as many “facts” as can be found in 2017(including updates here in the comment section that clarify voice actors) and still finding objection dealing with the truth. Icons like Duke & Louis (THE two most important voices in recorded jazz and possibly, in 20th century music) gave their stamp of approval and the use of real jazz on the soundtrack, and some voice actors. The heroine is as beautiful as any Disney creation(better? Certainly on a par with Tex Avery’s pinup Red but with a captivating innocence Tex didn’t always achieve) and the Dwarfs being the real heroes-why is this still a problem?
      As statues and memorials about the Confederacy are being rethought,why can’t artifacts such as this cartoon be brought out from hiding and be evaluated under their own merits? If there is a fixation about this ‘toon,it is because it makes me laugh in all the right places and reinforce my love of jazz. Obsessed? I save that for Avery’s I Love To Singa

    • I think this cartoon still comes up because of its controversial nature. As I posted earlier, it was never without protest from African Americans, even in 1943. But as stories of Clampett really liking jazz and wanting to pay tribute to it emerged, fans of the cartoon have tried for over a generation now to say, “See? It can’t be racist if he wanted to honor African American musicians.” That may be true, but couldn’t he have honored the music WITHOUT the dice-for-teeth? Couldn’t Prince Chawmin have had a different, less minstrel-sounding last name than “Chawmin”? Also, the country was at war, and Clampett depicted African American soldiers as big-lipped dwarves; couldn’t he have honored jazz and the black war effort at the same time? These were the critiques seven decades ago, and they still make it hard for people (myself included) to say, “Clampett did a great job of honoring jazz, stereotypes aside.”

      Also, what of the African American musicians who approved the film? Artists like Ellington and Armstrong were the few who appeared in movies at the time. If they criticized a filmmaker working at a major studio, you can bet they’d be blacklisted from all the studios. I doubt that Ellington and Armstrong would have wanted to risk that just to say they disliked a Warner Brothers cartoon.
      People don’t seem to understand that African Americans have a long history of not complaining about stuff, or of saying they liked something a white person did when asked point-blank by a white person, just for sheer survival. So you have to look at Ellington’s and Armstrong’s approval of COAL BLACK in the context of what it meant to be African American during the era of Jim Crow.

    • Christopher Lehman—thanks for saying what needed to be said.

  • This is a classic example of “no good deed goes unpunished.” Clampett wanted to give work to some talented black musicians, and he gets slimed for making a “racist” cartoon.

    BTW, didn’t “Tin Pan Alley Cats” also emerge from his trip to see “Jump For Joy?”

  • Next year will mark the 75th anniversary of the release of Coal Black and the Sebben Dwarfs what’s so interesting is the majority of the cast (with the exception of Mel Blanc and Danny Webb) was African American With Ruby Dandridge (who’s the mother of Dorothy Dandridge as the “sweet voice & cackle of the Queen
    Vivian Dandridge (who’s the older sister of Dorothy Dandridge) as So White
    Leo Watson as Prince Chawmin’
    &
    Lillian Randolph (whose most famous role as Mammy Two Shoes in the MGM Tom & Jerry cartoons) as Mammy

    Bob Clampett redid a newer version of the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 19 years later for the Beans. And Cecil Show as So What and the Seven Whatnots where Cecil venture into Lost Wages (Las Vegas) to see So What and the Seven Whatnots preform and to stop Ol Dishonest John from ruining the act.

    What interesting is that the Seven Whatnots were based on caricatures on real life famous people like…

    Screw-Loose Latrec (French artist Toulouse Lautrec) [Sousaphone]
    Fred McFlurry (Actor Fred McMurry) [Bagpipes]
    Dizzy R. Nez (Desi Arnaz) [Conga]
    Harpsy McChord (Harpo Marx) [Harp]
    Elfiz (Elvis Presley) [Guitar]
    Loverachi (Liberace) [Grand Piano]
    Stash-Do (A light skinned Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong) Trumpet
    &
    So What doing a impersonation of Squeely Smith (Singer Keely Smith) who the six mentioned did preformed in Las Vegas in Real life in the 1950’s and 60’s.

  • I thought it was fun and interesting.
    Maybe the characters are too stereotyped, but you have to look at things in the context of the time. Not only do we see the satire of the Disney classic, but clear references to hits of this time,such as Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess. This short film reminded me of the “Harlem Shuffle” msic video, performed by the Rolling Stones, in turn a re-recording of a 1960s Bob & Earl smash hit. This video was directed by John Kricfalusi. Here’s the Link:
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?list=PLKXbkXtGUP2Up8WpbJIuALzgnBAARGXj2&v=nAkMTu6q2pY

    • Also “Citizen Kane,” spoofing the extreme closeup of Kane’s lips as he whispers “Rosebud” as he breathes his last.

  • I always thought it was instructive to compare Coal Black to Lantz’s “Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat”, a cartoon which is significantly more problematic.

  • It’s interesting to note that all of the animations withdrawn contained stereotypes of African Americans and Japanese, but cartoons with horrifically racist stereotypes of Native Americsns continued to be shown on TV through the 1990s.

  • I really don’t understand why the information Chris Lehman has so graciously added in the comments (especially the stuff about the NAACP protests) wasn’t included in this post in the first place…. this cartoon is extremely racist and tasteless. I don’t buy Clampett’s “but we went to black nightclubs” spiel….. he had a history of racism in his work going back to his high school yearbook cartoons.

    I think it would be good to go back and correct this post with the info on the NAACP boycott…. the statement that “audiences, especially black audiences, loved the cartoon when it was first screened and in years afterwards” is just plain misleading, and a slap in the face to anyone who took the time back then to boycott this film and others like it.

    • The comments section is part of the post – and information and opinion submitted by readers, and the debate over the film’s intentions and racism, is open for all to discuss here as addendum.

      I’m also happy to report that starting in August, Chris Lehman has agreed to write an 11-part series of posts (one a month) addressing each of the “Censored 11” films.

    • Can’t wait to read that!

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