In its March 9th, 1942 issue, Time magazine did something it had rarely done before—reporting about an animated short subject. The periodical called the film Jasper and the Watermelons “a new departure in the field of U.S. animated cartooning” because of producer/director George Pal’s use of puppets instead of drawings. However, the episode was not the first of Pal’s “Puppetoons,” which Paramount Pictures had been distributing to theaters since January 1941.
Jasper and the Watermelons was merely the first “Puppetoon” starring Jasper—a fictional African American boy. Jasper was part of a tradition in US animation of casting African American boys as stars of series—from “Sammy Johnsin” in the Silent Era to Bosko of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “Happy Harmonies” and L’il EIghtball from producer Walter Lantz.
These boys were examples of the “Sambo” characterization. This figure was juvenile in behavior if not in age, gullible, and harmless. The “Sambo” was ascribed by supporters of segregation to African American men as a means of discouraging the extension of equal rights to them. They were portrayed as too immature to exercise citizenship. At this time, the children’s book The Story of Little Black Sambo was a staple in elementary schools and public libraries. Pal had numerous sources in American culture from which to draw in order to adapt “Sambo” to puppetry.
What separates the “Jasper” series of its debut year (1942) from most of the animated films with African American caricatures is the effort put forth by Pal to include African Americans in the aural part of the film. Child actor Glenn Leedy provided Jasper’s voice, and actor Roy Glenn played the role of Scarecrow. Both Jasper’s debut Jasper and the Watermelons and his other 1942 cartoon Jasper and the Haunted House (see below) feature music by an African American choral group from Los Angeles known as the Carlyle Scott Chorus. Moreover, the music strongly features the singers’ vocals as part of the film’s background; in other words, the singers do not always voice specific on-screen characters but rather serve to reinforce the settings and the plots.
Pal relies heavily on longtime tropes of African American caricature. Both films are set in a rural environment—likely the South because of songs like “Short’nin’ Bread” in the music score. Jasper and his mother live in a run-down wooden house resembling African American plantation quarters. Jasper calls his mother “mammy.” All the characters—Jasper, Mammy, Scarecrow, and Crow—speak in minstrel dialect. The debut film refers to the stereotype of African American fondness for watermelon, and the second film is merely a puppet-version of the many preceding live-action and animated films featuring African Americans bugging their big eyes at the sight of ghosts. I’ve already written on two such films for this website—Hittin’ the Trail to Hallelujahland and A Haunting We Will Go.
The films are predictable in terms of plot. Scarecrow and Blackbird convince Jasper to go along with one of their schemes, and either Jasper or all three suffer as a result. Then Jasper beats up Scarecrow and Blackbird for getting him into each mess. The formula is similar to that of the African American characters in the series Amos ‘n’ Andy on radio at the time, in which Andy falls for the Kingfish’s schemes. In Jasper’s debut he is convinced to disobey his mother and eat from the watermelon patch. In the second film, Jasper is misdirected by Scarecrow to a haunted house when delivering a gooseberry pie.
The settings are impressive and imaginative, as is the animation—especially of the watermelon-juice rain in the debut. The pacing of gags is often slow, and Pal’s heavy reliance on dialogue minimizes the animation in the cartoons. The verbal interplay between Scarecrow and Crow is occasionally humorous. The singing of the Carlyle Scott Chorus is first-rate.
I argued in The Colored Cartoon that technical achievements in animation went hand-in-hand with African American tropes. There’s the minstrel soundtrack in Walt Disney’s pioneering sound cartoon Steamboat Willie, the rotoscoping of Cab Calloway in Max Fleischer’s cartoons, the beautiful technicolor and fluid animation of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “Happy Harmonies,” and later the live-action/animated combination in Disney’s Song of the South and minstrel caricatures in the first CinemaScope cartoon—Disney’s Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom. What Time magazine did in 1942 was herald the marriage of the tropes to puppetry.