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.