Christopher P. Lehman
January 7, 2019 posted by Christopher Lehman

The George Pal Puppetoons and Jasper – Part 4

In the spring of 1946, George Pal hosted the Panamanian delegate to the United Nations and presented him with a model of Jasper, according to Showmen’s Trade Review. In the fall Film Daily noted that Pal was producing both swing-music cartoons and fairy-tale cartoons. Several educational associations requested that Pal produce more fairy tales, and he responded by announcing an upcoming adaptation of The Clock of St. Sierre. Concerning swing, he had completed production on cartoons starring Duke Ellington and Woody Herman, and Pal promised an upcoming cartoon showcasing musician Artie Shaw.

Meanwhile, Pal’s marquee star Jasper reached a critical peak. For the first time, the African American character received an Academy Award nomination for one of his episodes: Jasper and the Beanstalk. He lost to the “Tom and Jerry” cartoon Quiet, Please. Afterwards, Pal promoted his non-Jasper work even more. He hoped that Paramount would release Date with Duke in time for the following year’s Academy Award nominations.

However, Jasper’s popularity made him a target for critics. Back in October 1944 Pal’s good friend Walter Lantz headed the Hollywood Screen Cartoon Producers Association, which promised the powerful African American newspaper Pittsburgh Courier that the group would discuss the African American stereotypes in its members’ films. Pal likely would have been privy to this vow as Lantz’s friend and as a probable member of the association. Much if not all of Pal’s cartoons for the 1945 season would have been completed by then, and the changes in the “Jasper” series for the 1946 season reflected that he produced them after the meeting.

Before 1946 the only major change in Jasper had been in voicing the main character. An African American boy named Glenn Leedy provided the original voice for Jasper, but Sara Berner replaced Leedy after puberty changed his voice, according to a Hollywood gossip column by Erskine Johnson from March 1944. Otherwise, the story formula and ethnic stereotypes were the same, and actor Roy Glenn remained on hand to voice the Scarecrow. However, the Scarecrow and the Crow appeared in only the first of the three “Jasper” episodes of 1946: Olio for Jasper. For Jasper Derby and Jasper in a Jam, Jasper starred without them.

The first film is a farewell to the familiar formula, because the Scarecrow tells his origin story of woe in order to try to swindle a yo-yo from Jasper. Pal had to tinker with his usual plots in the episodes without the Scarecrow, and he decided to make musicals. In Jasper Derby Jasper’s fiddling helps a racehorse he befriends to win the Kentucky Derby. Jasper in a Jam finds our hero inside a pawn shop, watching toys come to life and perform songs. He grabs a clarinet and joins them. Stereotypes remain with dialect and even with musical selection; one song in Jasper Derby’s score is the minstrel tune “My Old Kentucky Home.”

One of the two non-Jasper films of 1946 was John Henry and the Inky Poo–an animated adaptation of the old folktale. Pal faithfully told the story of the African American steel-driver who outperformed a machine but at great physical cost. The producer’s telling of the legend cast Henry as a man who was born as an oversized adult and who lived only with his mother. African American press outlets promoted and praised the film, and they welcomed how much the cartoon was not like Jasper. Henry’s mother says in dialect, “I’s your ma,” and the protagonist has neither a father nor a romantic interest. Nevertheless, to the critics Pal’s good-faith effort overrode the few references to stereotypes. Technically speaking, the choral singing and the camera angles of the hammering are superb.

“John Henry and The Inky Poo” (1946)

With Pal having reconfigured his ethnic images for 1946, he sought further changes in 1947 not just for Jasper but in filmmaking as a whole. These changes would ultimately spell the end for “Puppetoons.”

NEXT MONTH: The final Jasper Puppetoons

5 Comments

  • Great series, Christopher. Thanx!

  • Great piece! I am wondering if part of the shift in design for African American characters came about from the change in staff at Pal’s Puppetoons shop? At some point the Asian American Wah Ming Chang became head of Pal’s model department and the character designs became less 2-dimensional.

  • I’ve always liked OLIO FOR JASPER. Can’t explain why. Yes, modern viewers can find some details to nitpick here and there, since it isn’t entirely free of some racial stereotyping. Yet it features an ambitious storyline full of laughs and imagination.

    I have noticed that Paramount’s OTHER cartoons, the cell-animated kind from Famous Studios, sometimes gave the Pal Puppetoons a run for their money when it came to racial stereotyping. Little Lulu pretending to be a chicken thief in EGGS DON’T BOUNCE may, in fact, be worse than Scarecrow’s antics in JASPER GOES HUNTING.

    This week, I was watching the Warner Archive’s excellent DVD of “Popeye The Sailor, 1940s Vol. 1”, featuring gorgeous, restored Technicolor prints from the 1943-45 period. When I got to POPEYE A LA MODE, two thoughts came to me…
    1.) If Warner is brave enough to include this one, then there is no reason to delay a “Tom & Jerry, The Golden Collection Vol. 2” with MOUSE CLEANING and HIS MOUSE FRIDAY any longer.
    2.) George Pal’s much earlier HOOLA BOOLA almost looks like a Stanley Kramer production by comparison.

  • Regardless of the subject matter, I’ve always found George Pal’s PUPPETOONS to be so interesting that I couldn’t look away when I could see them. For me, the joys of my cartoon-watching childhood came from MGM studios and that of George Pal for Paramount.

    Like the Bosko cartoons at MGM, there is much in the way of skill and gag timing to be rediscovered and re-examined on so many levels, and that is a shame because the stereotypes would not be welcome by a wide audience, but I tend to most like the characterization of these figures when African-American actors are hired to “bring them to life”. Yet, on the other hand, I’d always been amused and amazed by Sara Berner’s diverse interpretations of characters she has been given in so many cartoons of the golden age.

    While there is no doubt that June Foray, Janet Waldo, Bea Benederet and other more well-known voices of the TV age will be better known for such talents in so many comedies, both animated and live action voice dubs, Sara Berner deserves honorable mention as a lady who could lose herself in her characters to the point where I wonder if she, herself, has ever been caricatured in cartoons. I know she was featured in a brief clip from “REAR WINDOW”, but I did not know this before losing my sight, so there is no way for me to find a photo of her to know whether this is so.

    As hard as it is for some to approach these cartoons analytically, I had always hoped that so many cartoons with such stereotypes would get their own compilation with commentaries by African American scholars who might discuss the careers of the voices used in so many of these films. George Pal, to me, is among those who often used jazz performers in shorts involving music and that is to be commended. I would say the same for Max Fleischer. Thank you for this series, and I look forward to further talk about the final JASPER shorts.

  • Another excellent and informative posting by Mr. Lehman. Thanx!!!

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