In 1943 Paramount Pictures realized that it had a popular hit character in producer/director George Pal’s animated African American Sambo-figure “Jasper”. The studio wasted no time capitalizing on its success. That fall, for the 1943-44 movie season, Paramount promoted Jasper as not only the headliner of the “Madcap Models” series but also as the distributor’s major animated star overall. In a full-page, full-color print advertisement for trade magazines, Paramount boasted, “In Jasper, the Scarecrow, and the little black Crow, [Pal] has developed three stars who are becoming as famous as the greatest cartoon characters of the past.”
The notice also praised Pal: “Paramount believes his work is unequalled in its field for beauty, novelty and color. It now has no superior for laughs and action.” That particular passage must have rankled the staff of Paramount’s own animation facility Famous Studios, which was producing “Popeye,” Superman,” “Noveltoons,” and “Little Lulu” at the time. After all, if the Puppetoons were “unrivalled” for “novelty,” what did that mean for “Noveltoons,” which promised animated novelty to audiences? Nevertheless, Paramount placed its bet on Jasper as the studio’s new animated icon.
Pal’s three “Jasper” cartoons of 1943 stuck to the winning formula from the previous year. In this formula, Scarecrow and Blackbird would lead Jasper to mischief, and the audience is treated to a surreal dream or nightmare associated with the scheme. Jasper and the Choo Choo finds the protagonist unwittingly gambling with Scarecrow; the “Choo Choo” refers to a train whose cars consist of multiple dice. In the dream sequence, the surroundings are all made of dice–including the ground. In Jasper’s Music Lesson, the Scarecrow tries to convince Jasper to practice playing boogie-woogie instead of classical music; Jasper’s “Mammy” appears on screen for the first time to put a stop to the antics. Finally, Jasper Goes Fishing is a lesson against truancy from church, because Jasper goes fishing with Scarecrow instead of attending Sunday School and suffers an underwater nightmare when doing so.
The 1943 cartoons repeat the faults of Jasper’s debut year. Ethnic stereotypes abound in the plantation imagery, the costuming of the “Mammy,” and the dialect. Lines like “You don’t get nothin’ from nothin’,” “the sourest plain’ I done ever hear’d,” and “I’s practicin’ my song for Sunday School” are in these films. Also, the episodes barely build stories from the most familiar of African American tropes during World War II: a crapshoot, boogie-woogie music, and call-and-response choral singing. The crapshoot is an ethnic stereotype, but the two other tropes saw frequent exposure to mainstream wartime audiences. By this time producer Walter Lantz produced a series of cartoons devoted exclusively to boogie-woogie (“Swing Symphonies”). Meanwhile, the African American choral group the Hall Johnson Singers performed call-and-response in live-action movies such as Cabin in the Sky.
Pal’s 1943 “Jasper” films have some strengths. The interplay between the Scarecrow and his blackbird sidekick is humorous, thanks in large part to Roy Glenn’s vocal and comedic talents. The visuals are creative, as when each “five” face on the dice turns into a nose, mouth and pair of eyes. Unlike the previous year, the soundtracks do not use choral singing as a narrative crutch. In fact, only Jasper Goes Fishing relies on choral singers, because church singing is part of the story itself.
Just three of the ten “Puppetoons” of 1943 starred Jasper, but the African American boy dominated Pal’s output after that year. Due to the intricacies of puppet-animation, each episode took longer to produce than hand-drawn animation. Therefore, despite Paramount’s praise of Jasper, the distributor offered far fewer of his episodes than of “Popeye” or even the last season of “Superman,” which consisted of four releases in 1943. For the time being, Jasper would have to be a rare treat for audiences.