Christopher P. Lehman
January 14, 2017 posted by Christopher P. Lehman

Those MGM Jazz Frog Cartoons


oldmillpondThe year 2017 marks the eightieth anniversary of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s ending of its distribution arrangement with animation producers Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising – a deed done in 1937. One immediate effect of the termination was the closing of the “Happy Harmonies” cartoon series, which laid to rest several regularly-appearing African American characters in one fell swoop. At the time Harman and Ising produced cartoons starring human figure versions of Bosko and Honey, but the studio also made films starring caricatures of jazz musicians as frogs. In addition, Harman and Ising made three films with both the people and the frogs starring together just before MGM’s fateful decision.

The end of “Happy Harmonies” also stopped an interesting marketing experiment in the era of segregation. Besa Short had already made a reputation as a champion of marketing short films, especially cartoons, for theaters across Texas by 1936, when MGM released the first “frog” cartoon The Old Mill Pond. Short had so much power in Hollywood that she arranged for Walt Disney to have the world premiere of the first Technicolor “Mickey Mouse” episode–The Band Concert–at the “whites only” Palace Theatre in Dallas in 1935. She decided to book The Old Mill Pond at Dallas’s Majestic Theater–the city’s only theater that allowed African American patrons, and MGM made the most of that decision.

According to John Rosenfeld, Jr.’s “The Passing Show” column for the May 30, 1936 edition of the Dallas Morning News, Short pulled out an unusually high amount of stops for The Old Mill Pond. She arranged for the Majestic’s management to hold a luncheon with representatives from each of Dallas’s newspapers before screening the cartoon for them. The press was also shown original drawings of the characters from the studio. In addition, Harman himself had requested that cels and drawings from the episode be exhibited by the theater. The Majestic obliged, and the art appeared on display in the lobby there until the film’s run ended.

bosko_piratesThe cartoon was a hit and received an Academy Award nomination. The studio capitalized on the success by making follow-ups Swing Wedding, starring just the frogs, and the three aforementioned pairings of the frogs with Bosko. The first of the team-ups was Bosko and the Pirates, and the press and managers of theaters gave favorable reviews. The latter two–Bosko and the Cannibals and Bosko in Bagdad–repeated significantly from the first, and reviewers offered negative critiques. Nevertheless, the Majestic faithfully played most of these episodes, thus giving African Americans in Dallas an opportunity to see first-run animation of caricatures of popular African American entertainers. The Majestic played the cartoons that featured jazz-singing, presumably because African Americans liked the music; however, the city’s other, “whites only” theaters played all the other cartoons featuring African American images–including Bosko’s Easter Eggs (without the frogs) at the Palace.

Because so few African Americans reviewed films for the trade journals like Motion Picture Herald, it is difficult to gauge how much African Americans liked the “Happy Harmonies” films in their own theaters or in the balconies of Jim Crow venues. However, one brief letter about a cartoon made later in the “Happy Harmonies” style reveals how much the episodes meant to at least one community. John W. Warner of the Plaza Theatre in Greenville, North Carolina told Motion Picture Herald that MGM’s post-“Harmonies” jazz cartoon, Swing Social, with African Americans as jazzy fish was a “Very good cartoon,” according to the October 5, 1940 issue. But he then added, “I hope Harman-Ising will get back into the stride of two years ago and imitate more colored characters as they are entertaining and help the colored houses.” But, alas, Swing Social was a fluke, for its directors William Hanna and Joseph Barbera hit paydirt that year with “Tom and Jerry” and focused almost exclusively on that for the next seventeen years. No other similar jazz cartoons with African American characters appeared regularly after the frogs’ swansong Bosko in Bagdad, and the experiment of Harman-Ising, the Majestic, and African American marketing came to an end.


15 Comments

  • Well, that was the most unusual Harman-Ising cartoon I can recall. Did I actually just see a frog shoot junk into his arm near the end?

    Also has a very attractive color scheme – shades of green, brown, purple with bits of orange here and there give it an overall swampy mood. As far using the frogs as stand-ins for black stereotypes, well I’ve seen worse and the musical context keeps things upbeat throughout. Good one.

    • I like to think of it as the big middle finger to MGM, given the closure of said studio.

  • Aside from Cab Calloway, I’m sad to say I can’t ID any of the other caricatures. Can anyone assist?

    • I probably should have mentioned a couple of them in the article, now that I think of it. Anyhow, there are Fats Waller (at the piano), Bojangles Robinson (tap-dancing), Ethel Waters, the Mills Brothers, Stepin Fetchit (the slow shuffler), and Louis Armstrong (with the trumpet), to name a few.

    • “You must be one of the newer fellows!”
      –Bing Crosby “Well Did You Evah?” from “High Society”

      Other entertainers caricatured in these cartoons included the Mills Brothrers, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, Stepin’ Fetchit, Fats Waller and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

      Evan the Boswell Sisters (a white trio that sounded blacker than any other sister act of the time) got the treatment in “Swing Wedding”, even though they had disbanded by the time the cartoon was released.

      And yes,the artists on “Swing Wedding” put one over on the Hays Office, with the shot of a fellow turning a valve from his horn into a needle, and sticking it into his arm–clearly Under the Influence of swing music.

    • Bojangles Bill Robinson, Fats Waller, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, Stepin Fetchit… you need to catch up on your 20th century jazz culture, amigo!

    • I also have to admit that it is difficult to identify some of the other African American caricatures, unless you know the music that well, and this whole period of American swing and music in general is becoming more and more scarce. I know that Louis Armstrong is in there somewhere, but so is Fats Waller; I would imagine that Fats Waller is seen playing the piano, but the voice is too close to the Louis Armstrong imitation. Compare this with the Fleischers’ cartoon that features the real deal, the BETTY BOOP cartoon called “I’LL BE GLAD WHEN YOU’RE DEAD, YOU RASCAL YOU!”

      Also, it is interesting to note that a similar voice is given to the menacing tiger chasing a little squirrel with “a cold in her nose” in a much earlier HAPPY HARMONIES entry, “POOR LITTLE ME”, about a sad little skunk who cannot find a friend until he is befriended by this little female squirrel and saves the little critters from this afore-mentioned tiger. At one point, the tiger advances on the two little animals, singing the Armstrong tune. I wonder what Armstrong, himself, felt about the use of his song or the voice being used in this cartoon. I also wonder where Hugh Harman would have taken the BOSKO series. Bosko had become, by that time, such a caricature, losing the fun of the LOONEY TUNES incarnation as an all-round entertainer. What makes the MGM incarnation special is the surreal staging, from “THE OLD HOUSE” to “CIRCUS DAZE” to “BOSKO’S EASTER EGGS” to the three cartoons making up what has been called “the BOSKO trilogy”, the animation became more and more surreal.

      I don’t think that anything about the MGM Bosko series was rotoscoped, but I could be wrong. If there is no rotoscoping, well, my memory of these cartoons leaves me in awe of the animation throughout with dizzying scene changes. “THE OLD HOUSE” and “CIRCUS DAZE” are perhaps the speediest HAPPY HARMONIES ever made, and the jazz frogs cartoons come in a close second. In fact, the “Tiger Rag” sequence in “THE OLD MILL POND” may have inspired Tex Avery to open his first three cartoons with that lion roaring in time to the music.

      I also wonder where they would have taken Bosko if the series continued, because Harman finally employed an actual child to play the Bosko character. If the child was employed to play Bosko from the beginning, perhaps the series would have had more of an OUR GANG charm to it…or what if Harman harkened back to a cartoon like the LOONEY TUNES title, “BOSKO IN PERSON”, bringing Honey back so that the two were entertainers putting on an elaborate show–wow, just imagine the visuals, mirroring Busby Berkeley. You see slight shades of that throughout the “trilogy” as dancers shimmy around while the protagonists try and entice the cookie bag out of little Bosko’s hands within Bosko’s various “‘magination perc-o-lations”, but I suppose that even back then, some folks could be offended, including the entertainers who were being caricatured and that’s a shame.

      “THE OLD MILL POND” and “SWING WEDDING” are the closest thing to mirroring African American stage musicals that MGM produced, and Hugh Harman was responsible for both of these, along with the “trilogy”. These cartoons still remain spectacles in my dimming memory of them, and, sadly, I never got to see them in full Technicolor on the big or small screen, but I remember “BOSKO AND THE PIRATES” (or, as it is known, “LI’L OL’ BOSKO AND THE PIRATES”) having an almost multi-plane look to it at times, with the backdrops weaving up and down while the frogs chase Bosko around the ship, and you can almost see Bosko as multiple images of himself as he tap-dances so fast that he burns a hole in the deck, falling into the hole where the Pirate King confronts him amid a room full of high explosives that blow up the entire ship from an ember created by Bosko’s speedy dancing. Ah, but these are all drawing on images that were not always equally enjoyed. I, too, would love to know how much these cartoons were appreciated by theater-goers of color or whether such cartoons were showned in theaters alongside early pioneers of African American cinema. The stuff is so beautiful to look at, though, and oh, the possibilities that could have been!

    • Fats Waller playing the piano

    • Usually if a caricature of Fats Waller is in a cartoon, at some point he says “What’s the matter with him?”.

  • It’s pretty unusual to see what the frog trumpet player in Swing Wedding does at 7:27.

    • The first time I saw that cartoon was at an animation festival and I sat through the whole show again just to make sure I saw what I thought I saw.

  • Thank you, Chris Lehman, for clearing up some of the caricatures. I did leave out Bill Robinson, and my discussion of caricatures was mostly centered around the “trilogy”.

  • Thanks for your post and research, Chris. I recall Hugh Harman (IIRC, in a 1980 Cinecon appearance with Bob Clampett) crediting a dancer and choreographer named Jack Caldwell as a collaborator on the frogs series. Contributors to this page who knew Hugh could elaborate further.

  • Harman met dance instructor Jonathan “Mo” Caldwell at the Hollywood Boulevard building he worked from during the Warner period. For his Merrie Melodies, Caldwell proved very useful by demonstrating many dance moves and steps for the animators. He became a staff member of Harman-Ising and made the move to the MGM releases. He conceived the jazz and swing cartoons as done by frogs and Harman always praised Caldwell. The singing group voices were done by two groups, the Four Blackbirds in Mill Pond and the Basin Street Boys. The Armstrong and Waller imitator was a freelance musical comic employed by the vocal groups (H.C. Evans). Harman said that Louis Armstrong saw Swing Wedding and praised the short and his own caricature.

  • I wonder if there’s any connection between the end of these ‘Swing’ cartoons and the ramping up of the use of cruder, stock ‘blackface’ gags in the MGM shorts (as the Harman/Ising employment with MGM wound down) in the early-to-mid 1940s.

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