When writing my dissertation and then The Colored Cartoon, I decided not to look at any American animated short films released after 1954. I thought that the year was a good stopping point for African American images because of the decline in appearances of African American caricature after that year and because of the symbolism of 1954 as the year of Brown v. Board. However, that chronological cutoff meant the missed opportunity to discuss Warner Brothers’ “Merrie Melodie” episode The Mouse That Jack Built (1959) in the context of the other films I studied. With 2019 as the 60th anniversary of the release of that film, I thought I’d discuss it now.The Mouse That Jack Built is a landmark of animated African American caricature, because it shows the promise of African American imaging in mainstream American animation. The cartoon was essentially an animated episode of The Jack Benny Show and featured not only the caricatures but the actual voices of the cast of the venerable radio and television series. The film depicts the cast as mice, and Jack Benny-as-mouse runs afoul of a cat while on a date with the mouse Mary Livingstone.
Benny’s driver Rochester also appears as a mouse. But he also appears without pronounced lips, and he does not speak in blackface-inspired dialect. Those distinctions set his appearance in this film apart from his caricatures in any film preceding this one. Ever since Eddie “Rochester” Anderson first appeared on Benny’s program in the 1930s, cartoons applied approximations of his raspy voice to blackface characters, African American servants, a cannibal, and a black crow. Although the crow (Famous Studios’ Buzzy) is the protagonist of his films, he still speaks in the dialect. In contrast, Rochester’s lines of dialogue in The Mouse That Jack Built are grammatically correct sentences.
Here is an excerpt from the cartoon:
Unfortunately, by 1959, the cartoon short industry was very risk-averse and did not pursue further African American characters devoid of crude ethnic imaging. Instead studios avoided African American caricature in order to avoid losing money if distributors had to withdraw ethnic films that drew too much protest. The next time commercial US animation caricatured famous African Americans was in the television series The Harlem Globetrotters in 1970, and, ironically, Rochester voiced one of the players.