Christopher P. Lehman
September 16, 2017 posted by

The Censored 11: “Sunday Go to Meetin’ Time” (1936)

The second article of the “Censored Eleven” series is about the Warner Brothers “Merrie Melodies” cartoon Sunday Go to Meetin’ Time (1936) – a film based around a tune by songwriters Tot Seymour and Vee Lawnhurst (who would go on to pen numerous Fleischer tunes including Hold It, Sally Swing and Christmas Comes But Once A Year – not to mention Abu Ben Boogie from Lantz). In the film Nicodemus, an African American truant from church, has a nightmare about the Devil capturing him and sending him to Hades.

That plot, however, takes up barely half of the film’s length, and the other half consists of songs and sight-gags performed by incidental characters. As an early “Merrie Melodies” episode, this film followed the series formula of exploiting music owned by Warner Brothers; the episode’s four songs (including “You Gotta Give The Devil His Due”, “Save Me Sister” and “I Got Shoes”) heavily pad the cartoon’s length to supplement the very thin story. The setting of a rural, religious African American community on Sunday morning unites both parts of the cartoon, but the parts differ in their depictions of African Americans.

The first half starts with the church’s minister greeting his arrivals in song. Then, a well-dressed couple tap-dances to church while singing the film’s title-song. Despite the exaggerated sizes of the characters’ lips, the singers do not engage in grossly stereotypical behavior. In addition, the songs have good harmonizing, and the tap dance is animated well.

However, that first half also contains ethnic gags, and they likely raised red flags for United Artists when the company chose cartoons to withdraw from television syndication in 1968. The stereotype of African American lethargy appears in multiple scenes here. In between the first two songs, a sleepy African American’s bald head serves as a clapper for the church bell, but his laziness and sleepiness keep him from waking up inside the bell. Then, a cutaway from the tap-dancing shows a shuffling man with shut eyelids. Although he appears to be sleepwalking (or sleep-shuffling),he tips his hat on cue when a woman passes by him. One gag centering on skin color, in which adults rub soot on children and polish them to “clean” them for church, was stolen from Ub Iwerks’s cartoon Little Black Sambo from the previous year.

The second half starts with gags based on more stereotyped behavior. Nicodemus is shooting craps when his wife grabs him by the ear and drags him to church. They are both speaking in minstrel dialect, and Nicodemus sounds like the African American character-actor Stepin Fetchit, who made a career out of the sleepy persona. After a few seconds of the song “All God’s Chillun Got Shoes,” Nicodemus sneaks out and tries to steal chickens. The gambling with dice and the chicken-stealing were hoary ethnic generalizations by 1968.

Then, after a blow to the head, Nicodemus hallucinates about small devils capturing him and taking him to Hell to see the Devil in person. After mentioning “shooting craps” and “stealing chickens” among his captive’s sins, the captor condemns the sinner in song to eternal damnation. But it was only a dream, and Nicodemus races off to the church on his own volition. The congregants are still singing, “All God’s Children,” and this time he joins them.

This cartoon was the first of only three among the Censored Eleven to be reissued as a “Blue Ribbon” release (in 1944). Henry Sampson’s book That’s Enough Folks mentions that one person wrote to an African American newspaper to complain about the film’s re-release during World War II. That person’s complaints fell on deaf ears, and the film stayed in circulation and then moved on to television broadcasts in the 1950s and ’60s. Nevertheless, the cartoon’s handsome animation and harmonious musical numbers could not rescue it from removal in 1968; the ethnic content was too much.

22 Comments

  • Original titles was found a while back (rejoice!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dh9jKKMAnFE

  • Shuffling half-asleep guy only tips a brim – he has no hat.

  • This is a difficult cartoon to reconcile. The stereotypes repulse, but the title song is so catchy I can’t help but enjoy it. It deserved to be in a better film.

    • The song, that is, not the imagery that surrounds it.

    • I’m sure some songs deserved at least historic merit despite the visuals they might be associated with. No doubt a number of cartoons like that of the Censored 11 did no favors when it came to the longevity of these works..

  • his is interesting, and thanks to that poster who allowed us to look at the original title sequence. I wonder if this is in Warner Brothers’ vaults. And, as usual, I’m always interested in the voices for this cartoon. Who sings the title song? Perhaps my main reason for seeking these rareties out is to hear the music scores.

  • And, yet, viewing these films, on tv….in the 50s/ 60s….we thought nothing of it. “Just another WB cartoon!”

    • Indeed, if it weren’t for the stereotypes, this is practically the same “character doesn’t do as they’re told + traumatic experience = lesson learned” plotline that was prevalent in cartoons of the period, including other Warner shorts like ‘Pigs is Pigs’ or ‘Streamlined Greta Green’.

    • I’m sure plenty of children did. It’s not a case of blind igonrance as much as it was a redundant view of things.

  • This one’s pretty uncomfortable to watch, and that’s putting it lightly.

    It perplexes me that thievery, gambling, liking chickens and watermelon were all commonplace stereotypes of African-Americans. I wonder, ‘What, no white people were into those things back then?’

    Was the footage of the demons dancing used in another cartoon? It looks familiar to me, and I’m fairly certain i’ve never actually seen this short before.

    An additional comment, is this the first time Freleng depicted Hell in a cartoon?

    • I don’t know about the animation of the demons, but the sequence of Nicodemus in the pinball machine was lifted for the climax of the chase sequence for Tashlin’s “Speaking of the Weather”.

    • I suppose the cartoon could’ve worked had it been a mixed or white community and it’s a regular farm boy who tried ditching church in much the same reason. I suppose that’s why a cartoon like 1938’s “Wholly Smoke” worked more effectively in getting a animal figure like Porky Pig to see the error of his way in ditching church to smoke a cigar. Chuck Jones once put it in one of his autobiographies how working with humans in cartoons often leads to stereotyping. Putting an animal in the same role often neutralizes that response, though I suppose not entirely given the subtext of those characterizations.

    • There is a similar “dancing demons” sequence in the earlier “Goddess of Spring” Silly Symphony. Freleng’s version holds up pretty well to it, considering WB’s/Schlesinger’s 1936 animation product was still a bit rough, though definitely improving!

  • Had Warner bros. cartoons been made in New York (instead of in Burbank), I’d suggest Babe Wallace as the singing voice of Nicodemus. Wallace can be seen and heard (singing “Without A Word Of Warning”) in “The Black Network”, an entertaining two-reel musical short released by Warners as a “Vitaphone Variety”.

    There was a wealth of Afro-American talent on the West Coast–just check out the cast list for “The Green Pastures”. There was also a thriving entertainment scene along Central Avenue, between downtown Los Angeles and Watts.
    It is highly conceivable that this cartoon, others of the “Censored Eleven”, and similar cartoons from Lantz or from M-G-M could have drawn from the same pool of talent.

    • I suppose that’s one consolation for some of the entries in The Censored Eleven in having involved or were inspired by the entertainment scene of the day and wanting to acknolwedge the talent of those artists in the business. As small as it might’ve seen, it was certainly a force to be reckoned with than completely shunned.

  • What seems interesting today is the fact that many European Americans who viewed these cartoons do not realize that these cartoons helped to condition them to see African Americans as inferior, but talented but biased figures.

    • I suppose in some cases a thought could be made, based on shorts like this, of suggesting what good are Afro-Americans for besides music? Obviously that biased was hard to erase for many Euro-Americans back then, being presented with the same biased view all the time without questioning the reason why. I’m sure quite a few did but weren’t being heard fully yet.

  • The recording logs for Warner cartoons of the 1930s have not surfaced at USC, despite diligent digging by me in my decades of research on unbilled cartoon voices, so I don’t have official talent information for this film. But I do know that the beautiful basso voice is Clifford Holland, and that the title song is sung by Ben Carter, who had a lilting almost female tenor range. He can be seen with Mantan Moreland in Universal 40s B musicals, doing their funny double-talk routine. Is Moreland in this cartoon too? Ben Carter was a comedian/singer and musical contractor who had a vocal group he would supply – he could offer everything from trios and quartets to full choral groups – to feature films, including the Marx Brothers A DAY AT THE RACES and AT THE CIRCUS. He is also seen in a comic relief role with Ernest Whitman in the Fox feature MARYLAND which has a wonderful gospel church scene filled with many fine actors from the Central Avenue pool. James Parten is correct, all the cartoons from Lantz, MGM and Schlesinger of this period drew their voices from this contingent, and there was a booking office the studios dealt with for African-American performers. There’s a chance some of the voices in this cartoon are known by me, but I don’t want to list best guesses, because I know of a few fanboy types who will immediately begin blabbing the names as if they’re confirmed, and they’re not.

  • This is actually one of the handsomer cartoons from Warner Brothers in 1936. Great lively song to base the story on, featuring excellent musical timing with the gags, just unfortunate that the ribbing of stereotypes was so over the top. The original titles version was made available on 16mm, and the technicolor color scheme is first rate, ( my print is on Eastman LPP filmstock, likely a HQ reduction)

  • Unfortunately, since the late sixties, blacks have been portrayed mainly as pimps, drug pushers, and street dudes in the media. Also rap lyrics are a far cry from Nat King Cole. Things haven’t gone uphill.

  • So how did Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule stay out of the Censored 11? It has a very similar plot to Meetin’ Time and features most of the same unfortunate stereotypes. I doubt it was shown on tv all that often, and it also means that there were at least 12 cartoons with black lead characters. Is it just because it was so obscure to begin with that nobody bothered to reject it?

    • From what I understand, this cartoon was part of a different television syndication package with a different company (Sunset) instead of AAP.

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