In the spring of 1946, George Pal hosted the Panamanian delegate to the United Nations and presented him with a model of Jasper, according to Showmen’s Trade Review. In the fall Film Daily noted that Pal was producing both swing-music cartoons and fairy-tale cartoons. Several educational associations requested that Pal produce more fairy tales, and he responded by announcing an upcoming adaptation of The Clock of St. Sierre. Concerning swing, he had completed production on cartoons starring Duke Ellington and Woody Herman, and Pal promised an upcoming cartoon showcasing musician Artie Shaw.
Meanwhile, Pal’s marquee star Jasper reached a critical peak. For the first time, the African American character received an Academy Award nomination for one of his episodes: Jasper and the Beanstalk. He lost to the “Tom and Jerry” cartoon Quiet, Please. Afterwards, Pal promoted his non-Jasper work even more. He hoped that Paramount would release Date with Duke in time for the following year’s Academy Award nominations.
However, Jasper’s popularity made him a target for critics. Back in October 1944 Pal’s good friend Walter Lantz headed the Hollywood Screen Cartoon Producers Association, which promised the powerful African American newspaper Pittsburgh Courier that the group would discuss the African American stereotypes in its members’ films. Pal likely would have been privy to this vow as Lantz’s friend and as a probable member of the association. Much if not all of Pal’s cartoons for the 1945 season would have been completed by then, and the changes in the “Jasper” series for the 1946 season reflected that he produced them after the meeting.
Before 1946 the only major change in Jasper had been in voicing the main character. An African American boy named Glenn Leedy provided the original voice for Jasper, but Sara Berner replaced Leedy after puberty changed his voice, according to a Hollywood gossip column by Erskine Johnson from March 1944. Otherwise, the story formula and ethnic stereotypes were the same, and actor Roy Glenn remained on hand to voice the Scarecrow. However, the Scarecrow and the Crow appeared in only the first of the three “Jasper” episodes of 1946: Olio for Jasper. For Jasper Derby and Jasper in a Jam, Jasper starred without them.
The first film is a farewell to the familiar formula, because the Scarecrow tells his origin story of woe in order to try to swindle a yo-yo from Jasper. Pal had to tinker with his usual plots in the episodes without the Scarecrow, and he decided to make musicals. In Jasper Derby Jasper’s fiddling helps a racehorse he befriends to win the Kentucky Derby. Jasper in a Jam finds our hero inside a pawn shop, watching toys come to life and perform songs. He grabs a clarinet and joins them. Stereotypes remain with dialect and even with musical selection; one song in Jasper Derby’s score is the minstrel tune “My Old Kentucky Home.”
One of the two non-Jasper films of 1946 was John Henry and the Inky Poo–an animated adaptation of the old folktale. Pal faithfully told the story of the African American steel-driver who outperformed a machine but at great physical cost. The producer’s telling of the legend cast Henry as a man who was born as an oversized adult and who lived only with his mother. African American press outlets promoted and praised the film, and they welcomed how much the cartoon was not like Jasper. Henry’s mother says in dialect, “I’s your ma,” and the protagonist has neither a father nor a romantic interest. Nevertheless, to the critics Pal’s good-faith effort overrode the few references to stereotypes. Technically speaking, the choral singing and the camera angles of the hammering are superb.
With Pal having reconfigured his ethnic images for 1946, he sought further changes in 1947 not just for Jasper but in filmmaking as a whole. These changes would ultimately spell the end for “Puppetoons.”
NEXT MONTH: The final Jasper Puppetoons