The Stubborn Mule is the debut of Walter Lantz’s short-lived African American star Li’l Eightball. The producer made three films with the character before moving on to the well-received Andy Panda, whose series soon thereafter launched the superstar Woody Woodpecker. Collectively, Eightball’s three episodes capture Lantz’s studio in a state of transition. The producer had just retired his long-running “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” series, and he started Eightball before Andy. Also, Lantz had just hired Burt Gillett to direct cartoons, and vocal artist Mel Blanc was still early in his career in animated films and not yet exclusively contracted to Warner Brothers.
In a sense Stubborn Mule establishes the formula for all three cartoons starring Eightball. The protagonist–an African American boy wearing an oversized shirt–hears an argument with which he disagrees, chuckles and proposes to disprove the argument, and engages in slapstick humor while trying and failing to accomplish his goal. The debut finds Eightball offering to show an Italian American vendor how to make the salesman’s stubborn mule move on command. After a series of mishaps, Eightball succeeds.
The Stubborn Mule is a disjointed episode in that it flails around in trying to settle on a style of humor. At the beginning, the big-lipped Eightball speaks with multiple multisyllabic words and in grammatically correct sentences, as in “Patience and determination conquer all obstacles.” These sentences attempt humor as a collective oral juxtaposition to Eightball’s physical appearance as an African American, because audiences watching in 1939 would not have been socialized to seeing or hearing African American fictional characters speaking with grammatical correctness on film. Then he speaks in dialect: “I knows how to make friends and influence mules.” But after the salesman leaves Eightball with the mule, the star hardly speaks for the rest of the film, and the humor is more visual than verbal. Eightball’s ethnicity almost becomes incidental, except when he later says, “He evidently don’t recognize strategy when he sees it.”
In one part the film breaks from the slapstick for a couple of surreal gags. The shadow where the mule sits actually stays on the ground after the mule rises and gallops. Eightball then sits on the shadow, but the mule stands on his hind legs and uses his hands to pull the shadow, as if a rug, out from under Eightball. At the peak of realistic graphics in Hollywood cartoons in the late 1930s, the shadow gags were innovative.
An even more interesting part is a loose playing with ethnic socialization. Eightball addresses the vendor as “boss,” but a few seconds later, as the vendor leaves, he calls Eightball “boss.” In part the exchange exemplifies the studio’s lack of commitment to fully engaging in ethnic humor. Also, the conversation suggests that Italian Americans were depicted in media as not fully assimilated; the vendor’s accent is as thick as Eightball’s but with better grammar. Himself an Italian American, Lantz had the potential to use The Stubborn Mule as a sly commentary on Hollywood’s portrayals of ethnic minorities. With a more cohesive story and stronger characters, he may have succeeded. Neither of the two remaining episodes starring Eightball are nearly as ambitious.
NEXT MONTH: “Silly Superstition”