Parodying Disney films is nothing new. Three Little Pigs (1933) was so popular that it was often the subject of parody in a number of animated shorts from other studios especially Warner Brothers.
Fantasia was also the target of the Warner Brothers cartoon A Corny Concerto (1943) (“from Corny-gie Hall”). Director Bob Clampett replaced noted musicologist Deems Taylor from the original film with an unshaven Elmer Fudd wearing an ill fitting tuxedo, who introduced two segments.
The first sequence featured Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig in a woodland setting set to the music of “Tales of the Vienna Woods.” It was the classic story of hunter Porky and his dog tracking down the rabbit and the hi-jinks that ensue including a squirrel supposedly shooting all three of them.
The second segment set to the music of “Blue Danube” features a very young Daffy Duck playing an ugly black duckling joining a flock of white swans. He is rejected by the mother swan until Daffy rescues her babies from a vulture.
Clampett was also responsible for the very much still-controversial cartoon short, Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs (1943). It is a modern parody retelling of the Disney version of the timeless classic of Snow White but with black caricatures.
So White and the Prince Chawming see their reflection together in the water the same as the Prince and Snow White in the original. The wicked queen observes them through pulled curtains just like in the original. The heroine wanders through a dark-bluish forest where even the trees appear to have eyes.
The wicked queen who is hoarding vital war rations sends out a Murder Inc. gang to ‘blackout’ “So White” (aka “Coal Black”), but the gang are ‘charmed’ by the young girl. They drop her off safely in the woods – where she soon encounters the newly-enlisted “sebben dwarfs”, who are ‘in the Army now‘. The Queen then tricks So White into swallowing a poisonous apple – and the princess passes out. When Prince Chawmin’s kiss can’t awaken her, it is Dopey’s all-American pucker that makes her pigtails stand up, unfurling into small American flags.
The real origins of this classic cartoon parody came from Clampett’s studying the caricatures in the book, Harlem As Seen by Hirschfeld by artist Al Hirschfeld. In addition, Clampett attended Duke Ellington’s 1941 live musical revue being performed in in the Los Angeles area, “Jump for Joy.”
After the show, Ellington and the cast suggested Clampett make a musical cartoon that focused on “black” music. To prepare for this project, Clampett had his animation unit take a couple of field trips to Club Alabam, a Los Angeles area nightclub that catered to black Americans.
At the time, people were talking about Carmen Jones, a black version of the famous Carmen opera and that might also have inspired Clampett.
“I worked on Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs and I think it was one of the best things I ever worked on. I worked mostly on the Prince,” recalled animator Virgil Ross in an interview with John Province in 1990. “Bob (Clampett) took us into downtown Los Angeles, into the nightclub section, to watch the latest dances and pick up some atmosphere. Some of it was pretty funny stuff that we actually used in the picture: real tall guys dancing with real short little women, and they’d swing their legs right over the tops of their heads!”
To give Coal Black some additional authenticity, Clampett originally wanted an all-Black band to provide music for the short. But producer Leon Schlesinger refused for monetary reasons since he had a band he was paying at the studio. The film was eventually scored by Carl Stalling who tried to create an authentic sounding Blues/Jazz score and had black musicians give their input. The rehearsals to try to capture the same spirit as the black musicians probably cost more than actually hiring them.That didn’t stop Bob from trying to give this short an authentic “black” sound. Clampett eventually hired an all-black band — Eddie Beals and His Orchestra — to record the trumpet solos for the “Waking up So White” final kiss sequence in the cartoon. Herb Jeffries, one of the prominent black musicians in that band, always spoke proudly of the cartoon and his work on it.
With the hope that having just the right voices for his characters might give Coal Black some additional authenticity, Bob even hired African American actors to perform the lead roles in his film.
Clampett hired Vivian Dandridge, the singer and sister of black American actress/singer Dorothy Dandridge, to voice “So White” and then hired Ruby Dandridge, Dorothy and Vivian’s mother, to voice the wicked Queen.
Bob recruited Lou “Zoot” Watson to do the voice of “Prince Chawmin” while Mel Blanc provided all of the other voices in the picture. Band leader Louis Armstrong wanted to do the voice of Prince Chawmin’ but was booked on tour.
Many animation fans have wondered why this Bob Clampett cartoon is called Coal Black and the Sebben Dwarfs if the main character in the picture is referred to as “So White”? Well, producer Schlesinger feared that calling the cartoon “So White” would be just too close to the title of the Disney original and could cause problems which is why a change was eventually made in the cartoon’s title but not in the cartoon itself where the heroine is called by her original name.
Most animation scholars and historians consider Coal Black an undisputed masterpiece but it has been the target of controversy because of the caricatures.
Animation is an exaggerated reality, especially in the world of Bob Clampett. And so the characters in the film were just as exaggerated and stereotyped as any other Clampett cartoon character. However, especially in today’s society those stereotypes that were so common in live action films and on the stage are no longer considered appropriately funny but demeaning, something that was never Clampett’s intent.
There is intelligence to the characters in the cartoon that some say helps offset the strong racial images that were a common cartoon “shorthand” at the time. The cartoon even includes black men in uniform serving their country, something you rarely if ever saw in other films of that time.Audiences, especially black audiences, loved the cartoon when it was first screened and in years afterwards. If Walt Disney saw it, he never commented on it.
In 1968, this cartoon was consigned to the Warner’s “Censored 11” which meant that it was one of eleven animated shorts prohibited from being seen on television or in theaters because of potentially offensive material. So over the years, much like Disney’s Song of the South, since the cartoon short was so little seen, it was assumed to be more racist than it actually was.
In 1979 it was scheduled to be shown at a Los Angeles film festival and the Black Panthers, a militant black nationalist group, objected so strongly that it was removed from the screening schedule.
Later that same day, the group met with Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley (who was black). When they said they had spent the day at a screening of Bob Clampett cartoons, Bradley responded that Clampett was responsible for his very favorite cartoon of all time, but he had only seen in once while in France during World War II: Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs.