The eighth installment of my Censored Eleven series of columns looks at the 1943 Technicolor “Merrie Melodies” episode Tin Pan Alley Cats from Warner Brothers. Some of this cartoon’s content draws from previous cartoons. Animation is reused from earlier films. African Americans are depicted as either jazz musicians or devout Christians, as in Clean Pastures, and borrows from the earlier film’s conflict of religion vs. jazz. Also, the jazz musician Thomas “Fats” Waller is caricatured, just like in Clean Pastures and The Isle of Pingo Pongo.
On the other hand, much of Tin Pan Alley Cats is original. Waller is the only jazz celebrity in the film, and his solo appearance breaks from the ensembles of celebrities in Clean Pastures, Have You Got Any Castles, and the frog cartoons from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Also, the jazz musician is the cartoon’s protagonist–not the star of a random musical number or the antagonist, as in Max Fleischer’s cartoons pitting Betty Boop against a jazz singer. Finally, Tin Pan Alley Cats depicts African Americans as cats. Previous cartoons associated African Americans with creatures having big mouths; MGM’s frogs and the studio’s fish in Swing Social are examples of those designs.
Bob Clampett directed Tin Pan Alley Cats, and he arranged for African American musicians to sing and play instruments in the film. The plot concerns Waller-as-cat shunning religious missionaries to enjoy jazz at a nightclub. A trumpeter plays notes that send the cat into another world, but that world proves to be too chaotic for him. After the trumpeter blows notes to send the cat back to Earth, he flees the club and joins the missionaries–to their astonishment. The animation is frenetic and rubbery, which fits the chaos of the jazzworld Waller-cat enters.
The musicians provide a lively soundtrack for the cartoon. The film was released after civil rights groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had started targeting cartoons with ethnic stereotypes during World War II, but Tin Pan Alley Cats escaped the scrutiny of civil rights activists. The cartoon was never reissued as a “Blue Ribbon” in theaters, but it was part of the original television syndication package from United Artists.
So, how did Tin Pan Alley Cats land on the Censored Eleven in 1968? Anything featuring African Americans prominently was a sure target, and this film’s all-black cast was conspicuous. Working against the cartoon were the designs and the dialect. The lips took up the bottom-third of the characters’ heads. The artists took care to depict the lips less like a pair of large ovals and with more “human” features like clefts on the upper lips.
Nevertheless, big lips are still big lips, and the oversized humanistic lips remind me of when segregationists would say “nigra”–the hybrid of the polite “Negro” and the crude “n-word.” As for the dialect, there’s Waller’s catchphrase “Who dat,” his question, “Where is I at?”, and the answer, “You is out of this world.”
Tin Pan Alley Cats was the last cartoon with a Waller caricature. The musician died in the same year as the film’s release. Perhaps he was given a solo venture, because he was the most cartoony of the jazz celebrities at that time. Warner Brothers had settled into a pattern by then of pitting a short, streetwise protagonist against a taller antagonist. Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong would have been too tall to be protagonists in this mold, but Waller was just right for the wartime cartoon. After he passed away, the animation industry was left without its jazziest muse.