Christopher P. Lehman
June 3, 2019 posted by Christopher Lehman

The Voice Above The Apron: Lillian Randolph

In the book Of Mice and Magic, author Leonard Maltin laments that Famous Studios toned down Jack Mercer’s under-breath mumblings for the character Popeye from the 1940s onward. At the same time, another charming vocal staple was discontinued. Ever since the 1930s African American vocal artist Lillian Randolph sang when performing for animated cartoons as a domestic servant. She often sang in dialect, keeping in line with stereotyped conventions that Hollywood promoted for how domestic-servant characters spoke. However, the singing set her maids apart from those played by other vocal artists, who were usually European American men like Mel Blanc.

Randolph first sang as a maid in Walt Disney’s Three Orphan Kittens in 1935, and she sang as fictional domestic workers for the studio until Figaro and Cleo in 1943. By then she had started work for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as the maid in the “Tom and Jerry” series. She sang in the 1943 episode The Lonesome Mouse, which demanded much from her voice. She started her performance by singing “How About You” but, to reflect that Jerry Mouse hurt her by snapping her garter, screams in pain mid-performance. The maid sings Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad, and That Ain’t Good” in the 1945 episode The Mouse Comes to Dinner. However, she sounds different, and Randolph may not be the singer in that instance. The African American newspaper Kansas City Plaindealer reported in December 1944 that MGM had recently hired a singer named Anita Brown as a cartoon vocalist, and imdb.com lists her among the cast of The Mouse Comes to Dinner.

The maid did not return to “Tom and Jerry” until 1947, and MGM gave Randolph more lines to speak in episodes upon her return. On the other hand, she no longer sang when playing the character. In a sense, the “Tom and Jerry” maid was modeled more after radio sitcom characters like the title-character of Beulah, and she essentially became just another fictional domestic servant. Randolph’s now-songless character was the last of the animated maids to be retired—in 1953.

From Dell’s OUR GANG Comics #3 (Jan-Feb. 1943)

21 Comments

  • She also played Madame Queen on the Amos N Andy show.

  • Wow…and Incredible post! Thank You!! I find it amazing (& odd) that the comic strip SHOWS “her face!” (I always loved the “mystique” of NOT “seeing her face!!!”

  • Also one of voices in WB’s COAL BLACK.

  • Right or wrong, and dialect aside, Lillian breathed life into Mammy. Even if a poor-spoken impression lingered, she countered it with wit and wordplay that revealed a sharp mind. Tom Cat never had a chance.

    • Agreed. Mammy was a much more entertaining character than Tom’s other guardians. She had personality, something I can’t really say for Joan, Tom’s later owner from the mid 50’s entries.

  • “In a sense, the “Tom and Jerry” maid was modeled more after radio sitcom characters like the title-character of Beulah, and she essentially became just another fictional domestic servant.”

    …but she also became a truly hilarious character. I LOVE Mammy Two Shoes’ interactions with Tom; they make for some of the funniest scenes in the series. The opening of 1947’s “A Mouse in the House” (to take just one example) never fails to make me laugh: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x61qyi2 Wonderfully written and performed.

  • What was interesting about Mammy Two Shoes in the cartoons is that although she was thought of as a maid, there was never any sign of other humans in the house. Every episode seemed to suggest she owned the place. She certainly seemed in charge of everything.

    • The films give that impression, but documents related to each episode’s production definitely identified her as a “maid” or “mammy.” Also, no script or dialogue contiunity sheet ever gave her a name. My book THE COLORED CARTOON covers this.

    • I can’t help feeling that if she were just a servant, the real owners would not allow her to abuse their pet cat.

    • Maybe the real owners died and left everything to their maid in the will.

  • In Puss Gets the Boot the cat’s name is Jasper.

  • I have to agree that it is a nice touch that we never get to see the human’s face when it comes to the TOM AND JERRY cartoons; that puts us more firmly into the positions of the cat and mouse throughout the cartoon. Lillian Randolph is perhaps the most memorable of these characters because she appeared so often. I think her last appearance was in the cartoon, “PUSH BUTTON KITTY”, about the maid ordering a mechanical feline mouse-catcher to take the place of an increasingly lazy Tom…and this is perhaps another reason why some of us felt that Lillian Randolph’s character was indeed the owner of the house–she was making decisions here, no matter how small, on how the house is run, and the decision here was replacing the cat with this Mechano.

    The strangest of these entries was “NIT-WITTY KITTY” in which just a bump on the head turns the cat into a mouse and Jerry has to share his hole with an over-sized friend, marking some of the strangest animation on Tom I remember ever seeing, but one always remembers the creative ways that Lillian Randolph’s character twisted the language, perhaps even inspiring folks like Mel Blanc(?). When her character was “reanimated” for TV, the viewer lost that edge of the film, no matter how dated. I wonder why the change of voice for just one TOM AND JERRY cartoon. Was Lillian Randolph also regularly involved in some other project or radio program?

    • Lillian Randolph played the maid Birdie on The Great Gildersleeve radio show, as well as in the four Gilders!eeve movies and the TV show. According to the book The Great Gildersleeve by Charles Stumpf and Ben Ohmart, she was in the entire run of the radio show from 1941 to 1957. She also had a role in the film It’s a Wonderful Life.

  • In the comic books she was known as “Dinah”! In the Disney cartoons, such as Three Orphan Kittens and More Kittens, she was identified in the story boards as “Mammy Two-Shoes”. In the MGM cartoons she was either the Maid, or Dinah.

  • And yet, MGM cartoons are still banned, particularly with the scenes of the “Maid” in Tom and Jerry cartoons.

    Can you tell me – how many years should cartoon fans have to wait until the studios issue the Tom and Jerry cartoons without the cutting/editing and censoring? I’m just interested in seeing them – and collecting them.

    • Most of them are NOT banned. It’s just one featuring her that is not on DVD (“Mouse Cleaning” due to the ending) and yet that one got a Hallmark ornament last year.

    • I mean none of the existed DVD issues dont have fully shorts with non edited/uncensored/cutted moments and also many of them dont have original opening title cards. Also wiki tells about that:
      “Mammy’s appearances have often been edited out, dubbed, or re-animated as a slim white woman in later television showings, since her character is a mammy archetype now often regarded as racist.[7] She was mostly restored in the DVD releases of the cartoons, with an introduction by Whoopi Goldberg explaining the importance of African-American representation in the cartoon series, however stereotyped.”

  • I didn’t know that Nibbles/ Tuffy debut in the comics first. I thought he debut in the 1946 short, “The Milky Waif” (where Randolph voiced a disguised Jerry in a now censored scene).

  • Since we never see her answering to any white people, and I think only once actually see her in a maid’s uniform (usually she’s either in her bathrobe, or a coat if she’s about to go out), why wouldn’t people watching the cartoons now simply assume it’s her house? And who’s to say it isn’t? In fact, in one cartoon her bedroom is at the top of the stairs, which, trust me, would not be where the maid’s room was.

  • Randolph guest starred once or twice on one of my all time favorite TV shows, “Sanford and Son.” In one appearance she played Fred’s sister-in-law Aunt Hazel. “Aunt Hazel? You mean WITCH Hazel!”

  • Lillian also played Annie the maid at the Bailey Boarding House in “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

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