Christopher P. Lehman
October 7, 2017 posted by Christopher Lehman

The Censored 11: “Clean Pastures” (1937)

The third article of the “Censored Eleven” series is about the “Merrie Melodies” episode Clean Pastures (1937). It is a Technicolor release from Warner Brothers and the second of director Friz Freleng’s films among the eleven. In this parody of the Warner Brothers movie The Green Pastures (1935), African American depictions of angels are dismayed by all the sinful nightlife in the African American community of Harlem, New York. The angels decide that “rhythm” will draw the heathens back to more godly ways, and angelic caricatures of jazz musicians provide that rhythm to serenade the Harlemites to God.

The backgrounds are attractive, the animation is full, and the character-designs are detailed. The vocal artists perform good approximations of Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, the Mills Brothers, and Fats Waller. The caricatures of those musicians are recognizable. The harmony of the singers sounds great. What in the film would have been objectionable to United Artists, the cartoon’s television syndicator, in 1968?

Several references to blackface minstrelsy appear in the film. The caricature of entertainer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson hums the minstrel tune “Old Folks at Home” while tap-dancing. A caricature of blackface actor Al Jolson shows up in Harlem as one of the African Americans. Minstrel-type speech appears as “Pair-O-Dice” for “Paradise.” Concerning behavioral stereotypes, the “sinners” are shooting craps, and a sign advertising watermelon is in the cartoon. A caricature of actor Stepin Fetchit performs the stereotypes of the dialect, the shuffling, and the sleepiness all at once. Moreover, the caricature of Fetchit looks more cartoony and much less detailed and realistic than the jazz musicians, especially with the oversized lips.

And then there’s the ending. The jazz angels successfully attract the Harlemites with music, but the musicians lead the mortal African Americans straight into Pair-O-Dice. Does the film suggest that Harlem’s sinfulness can be resolved with the deaths of its African American residents en masse? Is Clean Pastures advocating genocide? Adding insult to injury, there is a “cheater” scene of reused animation of a dancing couple from the cartoon Sunday Go to Meetin’ Time; instead of strutting to church, the couple dance to Heaven.

Clean Pastures came in the wake of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Oscar-nominated cartoon The Old Mill Pond, which caricatures the same African Americans but as frogs instead of angels. MGM’s cartoon showed that a market for such films existed in the mid-1930s, and Freleng’s film takes advantage of the moment. It was never reissued as a “Blue Ribbon,” but it was part of the syndicated rerun package for television until 1968. By then, Robinson and Waller were dead, and the cartoon’s use of the ethnic humor of the 1930s was no longer fashionable.

15 Comments

  • “Clean Pastures” may be the only cartoon to be banned twice — the first time a pre-release censoring by the Hays Office, apparently over religious objections. The specifics of what Freleng did to get the cartoon approved aren’t clear, but it may have involved the final scene with the Mel Blanc-voiced Devil (though I suppose in hindsight, a Mel Blanc-voiced Tasmanian Devil would have made for a funnier ending, if Bob McKimson had though of him 18 years earlier….)

  • I wasn’t thinking it promoted genocide, although I can see how modern viewers can easily interpret it this way. For me, this was just your standard putting-on-a-show to draw customers to the Pearly Gates since they were having too much fun preparing for that other place. It resembles a later Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney musical in some ways with Stepin Fetchit learning he needs a different tactic as a salesman. You need a little “hot” jazz (cue reference to Freleng’s 1956 THREE LITTLE BOPS) in order to get real cool. The opening scenes, in fact, show heaven doing poor business in their grid sheets due to competition with Satan… and he himself, as the rival “night club owner” curious of all the crowds no longer entering his place, pops in as a guest once the Pearly Gates are “sold out”.

    OK. This film is guilty of a couple stereotypes: the dice bit was already getting old, but THE GREEN PASTURES was just as guilty there too and this is the film being referenced after all. The one crime is that Al Jolson is the only Caucasian (in black-face, of course) to be included here and, thus, it doesn’t promote racial integration as well as Disney’s MOTHER GOOSE GOES HOLLYWOOD and THE AUTOGRAPH HOUND which gave us celebrities in multi-shades in the same cartoons. It is also hard to hate a film that manages to include the Mills Brothers, who appeared as themselves for the Fleischer studio earlier but rarely got animated like Cab Calloway and Fats Waller.

  • The Green Pastures was a Pulitzer Prize-winning play before it was a movie, and was adapted by playwright/screenwriter Mark Connelly from a book, Ol’ Man Adam and his Chullun, by Roark Bradford. The feature film version was banned in three countries because of its portrayal of Biblical figures.

  • The bottom line is that at best “Clean Pastures” was just another one of the many animated films of that era that may not have been intentionally racist but was in fact culturally insensitive. At worse, it was a film like the rest of the the CENSORED ELEVEN, that was made by White men to exploit my fellow Black Americans for the monetary gain of the studio, and to entertain its intended White audience. #VaudevillianBuffoonery

    • The pre-Mad Men of its time I’m sure!

  • Clean Pastures has an interesting premise, with Heaven and Hell having a business approach in ‘recruiting’ new people. Whilst we can view the caricatures of the entertainers from the era (Cab Calloway to Fats Waller) as caricatures of their presence as performers, there are racial stereotypes that do make it offensive to modern viewing, especially the first angel that is assigned to recruit new people. It’s interesting you make a comparison to MGM’s Old Mill Pond, which features caricatures of the likes of Bill Robinson et al as an en masse band, but I think Freleng’s Clean Pastures has better musicality than that short, but that’s something to discuss just from that angle alone.

    As a Censored Eleven short, it justifies being ‘censored’ for all the above reasons, but for those curious, and accepting that it was made in a very different era when this was tolerated, will find it an interesting relic as a unique homage to this period of jazz entertainers and its Harlem club scenes.

    I look forward to the next article about this controversial subject, with such academic sensitivity, soon.

  • If I were to run this on television I’d probably remove the shot of one person gambling, the “Pair-O-Dice” signs, and all of Stepin Fetchit’s scenes, and maybe the ending shots of the people dancing to heaven (for the reasons Christopher Lehman cited), and maybe that ending gag with the devil, mainly for not making a lick of sense.

    The biggest issue I have, aside from the above mentioned, is the big lips. I have trouble getting past that bit of caricature whenever I see older cartoons depicting African-Americans. I think the cartoon could have been A LOT less problematic if Freleng had told his animators to not do that.

    Holy crap A LOT of animation from this cartoon got reused in later shorts: Have You Got Any Castles, Isle of Pingo Pongo, September in the Rain, Tin Pan Alley Cats….

    I wonder if that was Dave Weber doing the voice of Fetchit. He kinda sounds like a drunk Egghead.

  • Pretty nasty stuff here. Even the Afterlife is apparently segregated.

    I never saw this, or the previous two Censored Eleven cartoons featured before, on Boston TV in the sixties, though plenty of what did get shown had bits of racial and ethnic distortions here and there. I wonder now if the overlords at Channel 7 held these back because they didn’t want to offend anyone, or because they were nervous that (white) kids wouldn’t want to watch a cartoon with stem-to-stern Negro content (because here in the North, we like to pretend that not acknowledging racial tension means it doesn’t exist).

    In what US markets were this and similar titles seen?

    • Similar titles were on tv in New Orleans in the 1950s.

    • It wouldn’t surprise me if small market stations played this without question.

  • Are the Mills Brothers in this short? I thought they didn’t come into notoriety until around 1940.

    • They are caricatured here, and they date in cartoons all the way back to the early 1930s with Max Fleischer’s films.

    • Well, that throws me for a loop. This is the rare short where the main African-American characters are actually distinct from one another (if one is familiar with the Stepin Fetchit characterization), but I can’t spot them.

      As for the short itself, it’s perhaps even more polarizing than ‘Sunday Go to Meetin’ Time’. Stalling’s orchestrations are miles ahead of the 1936 short (especially when Calloway’s band starts up), so it’s got a great all-around musical soundtrack. With the exception of the Fetchit angel, the celebrities being caricatured are not made grotesque, and in some ways aren’t too far removed from other shorts of the period like “Speaking of the Weather.”

      But it’s still set against the toxic cultural context of African-Americans as being child-like and needing a strong guiding hand. The feature film this short is referencing is even worse on that score. And what does it say that at this time Jolson was considered more recognizable in blackface than out?

    • The Mills Brothers caricature in Universal’s The Terrible Troubadour (Directed by Walter Lantz in 1933) look surprisingly realistic for their time. Aside fom the big lips there’s none of the usual offending material found in ministrel and blackface caricatures.

  • Cringe worthy. A pity because the music is really good. The imitation of Cab Calloway and (I think) The Mills Bros. were very good.

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