Suspended Animation #323
Last week, I started talking about the Disney parodies that Bob Clampett made while at Warner Brothers.
Clampett was 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 just like in the original.
The wicked queen who is hoarding vital war rations sends the seven dwarfs who are a Murder Inc. gang to murder “So White” (aka “Coal Black”), but the dwarfs are charmed by the young girl and join the U.S. Army instead. When Prince Chawmin’s kiss can’t awake her after she eats a poisonous caramel apple on a stick, 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.
Animator Virgil Ross in an interview with John Province in 1990 recalled, “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!”
Clampett hired Vivian Dandridge,the sister of black American actress and 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.
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.
Clampett felt restricted by animation and the studio system so he explored his other childhood interest: puppetry.
He created a very popular children’s puppet show entitled Time for Beany in 1949. Comedian Groucho Marx was a huge fan as was scientist Albert Einstein.
“I was good friends with Walt’s niece, Margie Davis. She invited Uncle Walt and me to one of his grandnephews’ birthday parties. I brought a basketful of Beany and Cecil toys and merchandise. And Walt walked in with an armful of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck toys.
“It so happened that Walt’s own grandnephews were such great fans of my Beany and Cecil TV show that they ran around all day wearing Beany caps, playing with Beany balloons and games, with Cecil and Dishonest John puppets on their arms, giving the D.J. laugh, ‘Nya ha ha!’
“Well, Walt’s eyebrow went sky high. But, of course, it was no time at all until he went on the air with his Mickey Mouse Club and wonderful Disneyland TV program. And I’m sure that his grandnephews thereafter wore nothing but Mousekeeteer caps.”
On the 1962 animated version of Beany and Cecil, Clampett decided to parody the popular “Disneyland” television program in an episode entitled Beanyland.
Clampett’s original pun-filled story was later adapted for the April-June 1963 DELL Beany & Cecil comic book, which was illustrated by Willie Ito, an artist who worked for Disney Feature Animation back in the 1950s.
In the comic book version of this episode, there is a much more detailed map of “Beanyland.” And it features a “Rock and Roller Coaster” and a “Go-Man Chinese Theater” decades before Disney actually built those attractions in Florida.
The story premise for the animated cartoon was that Beany and Cecil were going to the moon to create a perfect theme park with a “20,000 Leaks Under the Sea” ride, a Matterhorn, a train ride and much more.
Their constant nemesis, Dishonest John was already on the moon in hopes of making a fortune shipping the moon’s cheese back to Earth. Of course, wherever there is cheese, there will be mice, who are the residents of the moon.
When I interviewed him, Bob remembered:
“ABC got very upset about ‘Beanyland’ because of course, they had been running the ‘Disneyland’ television program and other Disney programs and they didn’t want to make Walt mad because there were some legal things going on where Disney was leaving ABC. ‘Oh, you can’t have a caricature of Walt Disney in there saying, ‘I’ll make this my Dismal Land’!’
“I’d answer, ‘Where’s Walt Disney in there? The character with the hook nose and mustache is my long time villain Dishonest John. Everybody knows who he is.’ My original version of “Beanyland” was very, very funny because it was such a tongue-in-cheek satire on Disneyland even as to the way they worded their advertising.
“Beany would say stuff like ‘Look, what he’s doing to my creamy, dreamy Beanyland!’ and that made fun of those peanut butter commercials that sponsored Walt’s show.
“I had Dishonest John packaging the moon as cheese and bringing it back to Earth to sell it. On the package, I had the word ‘Krafty’ and ABC was afraid the Kraft Cheese Company would sue them.
“It was those kinds of things they censored and so much more for seemingly no reason. As Captain Huffenpuff said about Beanyland: ‘This place wasn’t built by a mouse; it was built for mice!'”