Sunday, 13 May 2012

164. Clean Pastures (1937)

Warner cartoon no. 163.
Release date: May 22, 1937.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Friz Freleng.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: The Four Blackbirds (Vocal Groups), Danny Webb (Various).
Animation: Paul Smith and Phil Monroe.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: African-American caricatured angels recruit souls to join Pair-O-Dice Heaven.


The 3rd censored cartoon in the 'Censored 11' scheme for black stereotypes. This cartoon has been very controversial even at it's time when Schlesinger and Warner Bros. were facing problems with the Production Code because of it's burlesqued religion. This is also the first cartoon where Phil Monroe receives screen credit. He was only about 20 years old by the time of the cartoon's release as he would later become an animator for Chuck Jones in his golden era (1948-1952). The cartoon is a parody to the 1936 film The Green Pastures.

During the title cards the song is being sung; Save Me Sister, From Temptation. The cartoon then begins with city lights full of nightclubs in Harlem, New York City. Back then in the 1930's; Harlem was well-known for black culture in certain neighbourhoods as Central Avenue in Los Angeles is the same. Inside one of the nightclubs are a group of dancers almost exposing their bodies which would probably be another part of offense.

There are montage shots of a black person gambling rolling the dice ending up with a "lucky 7". A black bartender is blending the drinks by smoothing it before pouring it. There are a couple that are dancing to the jazz music being played; which is sort of displaying of what a normal Harlem night out would look like. This was a African American residence back then as I've already explained which is why this cartoon may be dated today but it's still very populous over there today.

The words "Harlem" then show up but the camera tracks back as the town is placed on a part of the Earth as we are tracking back to outer space. The effects animation of outer space isn't very good. We are then carried upwards to a heaven which appears to be the residence of black people called "Pair-O-Dice". The name is another racial stereotype since supposedly African American love shooting craps. The backgrounds of the heaven is rather bright and lovely from the version I'm seeing. The name "Pair-O-Dice" is a direct pun on "paradise" which is racially stereotypical since it's showing blacks like to gamble and that it would be paradise in that heaven.

Meanwhile inside Pair-O-Dice heaven; there is a black Lord in there who appears to be reading a heavenly newspaper headline suggesting that souls coming up to their heaven is reaching rock bottom as the headline reads: Pair-O-Dice Preferred Hits Low as Hades Inc. Soars. The black Saint Peter of being shown here appears to be interfering with religion as it could offend Christians but I'm not sure since I'm not religious at all.

God then turns around to good at the Pair-O-Dice population and the results are that it's off the charts. The angel then reads the measurements in the bin of the measuring tape and measures 84 inches. I'm not sure what that part is meant to be mean but the African-American Lord doesn't seem to be pleased. The black Lord then walks down to his chair to try and contact an angel for help placing in the headphones of an early telephone.

As the Lord is giving a phone call to an angel who is caricatured as Stephen Fetchit caricature with very large lower lips. The Stephen Fetchit angel is playing the trumpet but the end part of the trumpet vibrates playing a very out-of-tone note. I think that this is meant to be a racial stereotype because of the huge lips. The angel then turns around to check the end part of the trumpet and doesn't see any damage. While playing rough notes; the telephone rings and he looks around but doesn't respond.

The African-American Lord is still waiting very impatiently and continues to ring. One of the angel's wings then picks up the phone with the other wing tapping the Stephen Fetchit angel on the head to get his attention on the phone. He is speaking on the telephone which I imagine is about the Lord ordering him to try and recruit some new members to join 'Pair-O-Dice' heaven. There is hardly any lip-syncing at all for the angel at all which is just stereotyping on black people's speech impairment as well as hardly any lip movement which is pretty racist.

The Stephen Fetchit angel appears to be described here as a "coon" as he sits back down being lazy playing his trumpet but the phone rings again for warning as he stands back up but hits a palm tree by mistaking stereotyping the angel as clumsy. The angel then starts to run off in a fast mode but slows down with the angel wings doing the flying.

The angel then reaches the end of the clouds where there is a diving board. The Stephen Fetchit angel jumps from the diving board numerous times before making a dive-bomb to Harlem, New York City to try and recruit members to Pair-O-Dice Heaven. The Lord angel then grabs out a pin in his globe on where he hopes he would grab out some recruits for souls to join his heaven. The pin is therefore placed onto the globe of Harlem. What makes it awful is that why is Harlem shown on the globe as a really huge place and not on an American map - it looks rather lazy by the looks of it unless the globe is only meant to feature cities that would have African-American neighborhoods.

We view to the city lights of Harlem again with swinging music. The Stephen Fetchit angel is already down there trying to eager people to recruit their souls to 'Pair-O-Dice' Heaven. The voice stereotypes is so racist that I can't even get a grasp of what he's saying except with the finger movements of him trying to get souls.

The sign on the notice reads Pair-O-Dice Needs You. The opportunities listed are Travel, Good Food, Watermelon, Clean Living, Music and Talkies. I imagine that the "talkie" reference could have something to do with 'The Jazz Singer'. Watermelon? Oh brother. Watching that angel really embarrasses me as it's just complete stereotype of a coon and his speech and that's what probably offended people from the beginning. The African-American citizens of Harlem are just walking down minding their own business. Meanwhile a guy then walks down enjoying his time just tap-dancing before walking down getting on with their urban life.

The Stephen Fetchit angel turns around to find a caricatured Al Jolson from The Jazz Singer singing happily to the song I Love to Singa. There is a little puppet that pops down as Jolson shouts "Sonny, my sonny boy". But the puppet replies with "Hello, stranger" which is a reference to one of Jack Benny's characters. The "Sonny, my sonny boy" part is a reference to his popular tune Sonny Boy.

The Al Jolson caricatured African-American then walks down the street again singing gayly to 'I Love to Singa' before entering a drinking pub called Dine-Dance-Drink - Kotton Klub. The Stephen Fetchit angel then tries to stop people from entering the nightclubs and bars; and I can hear a bit of what the dialogue is, "Hey you can't go in there...I'm supposed to take you out of these places". As racist as this cartoon could be. You've got to give credit to the layout and background artists who've created stunning backgrounds making them really fancy and unique than most of the other Warner cartoons style.

Meanwhile still high up into Pair-O-Dice Heaven; there are a group of popular singers of the time that are angels recruited up there - the celebrities feature: Louie Armstrong, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway and Jimmie Lunceford. The Fats Waller angel then points down shouting; "Wat's da matta wi' him?" These are definite stereotypes that is being displayed here with the voices he's using although I guess it's just caricature since Walker did talk in a gruff voice as well as their appearance.

The group of jazz-singing angels then sing to the Lord about what appears to be what he is doing wrong and how his business could become popular - rhythm. They all sing on to recruit members by "rhythm in your soul, rhythm in your feet, etc." The close-up shots of the celebrity angels shouting "rhythm" is pretty nicely timed and the Lord ends up going along with the idea.

The jazz performing angels then pop up down at Harlem to recruit some souls to join Pair-O-Dice Heaven. They've already got their instruments with them where they play as a part of their propaganda to demonstrate the paradise that would be displayed up there.

The Cab Calloway angel then pauses as he has his moments of singing while conducting the music - something that he liked to do in concerts. They all then start to go into song - I'm not too sure on the name of the song but I think it's called 'Swing for Sale'. The music being played in the backgrounds is causing attention from the windows as they rush out to join the 'Pair-O-Dice' notice section.

Meanwhile there a group of angels that are singing the song with a microphone. Note how all the other gags involve tall angels and the other guy is small and needs a stall to use the microphone to sing. That is probably the only gag that doesn't involve racist stereotypes except for their designs of course.

I'm not what the song is being song but they appear to be singing with these "Boop-boop-boop" sounds that was used in the early Warner Bros.days when Harman-Ising were making the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. Fats Waller is seated on a piano playing some jazzy tunes to keep his recruiters in spirit to join Pair-O-Dice Heaven. The vocal singers with the microphone are using their hands to make the sounds of what sounds like whistles or pipes. The Fats Waller angel is still playing the piano and even uses the angel's wings to play another piano that is placed behind him. The Fats Waller angel would later be caricatured in Tin Pan Alley Cats - another Censored 11 directed by Bob Clampett.

The Cab Calloway angel is still singing wildly while conducting the music before we head back to the Fats Waller angel who is still playing the piano trying to get attention. Notice how that in much of the scenes; the black caricatures that are angels and have halos on top of their head; well the Fats Waller angel playing the piano doesn't have a halo here but only the wings which looks like the animator has forgot to add it.

After the shot of the finger playing movement; the halo pops back up again on the Fats Waller angel. A smear can be seen of when the Cab Calloway angel is conducting but turns to point at Louie Armstrong. Louie Armstrong then does a singing part singing 'Swing for Sale' and the voice impression is pretty good I have to admit. The voice actor for that did a fine performance of Armstrong but it's probably one of the members of the Four Blackbirds.

The Louie Armstrong angel then starts to go into a trumpet rhythm playing spiritedly. The Fats Waller angel then turns around commenting on the playing but I can't get a word with what he's saying. The Louie Armstrong angel continues to play with so much energy that it learns slightly cartoonie and exaggerated with his face turning all purple and the eyes widening. Cab Calloway then finishes off the playing until the fade out.

In the next scene we find the gates to Pair-O-Dice heaven and the gates open. Cab Calloway is still conducting the music giving the spirit to the public to come up and join in in the heaven which sort of suggests that they are following the rhythm and trap them up in heaven so the population doesn't decrease again. Notice the animation of the people dancing is just the same animation from Sunday Go to Meetin' Time. Except of the clothing being in different colors and just made multiples of the couple dancing by placing them into one scene and shrinking some of them - pretty clever technique I'd say.


In the next scene we take a view of Pair-O-Dice heaven as it's already paradise for the citizens up there after the angels raided them from Harlem. Up there they can gamble and go to nightclubs which is suggesting that this must be heaven to them which I believe must've been taken to offense. The citizens entering the dressing room and arriving at heaven are given halos as they are now angels. The Lord is pleased that it's very populous that he closes the door with a "No Vacancies" sign.

After the Lord closes the door there is a knock again with an off-screen voice asking "May I come in?" The Lord replies, "Sure there's always the devil". In comes the devil. Now that part with the devil entering is just showing some racism since it's suggesting that he shoots craps, gambles as supposedly the African Americans do - this is interfering with religion!

Overall comments: This cartoon has pretty drawings as well as well-designed backgrounds but I find this a racist cartoon made by Warner Bros. It's mainly focusing on African-American urban life as supposedly they like shooting craps or drinking; and yet up in heaven this is just what they will have. There doesn't appear to be an explanation at all to why Pair-O-Dice heaven is better than living in Harlem but I guess that heaven represents peace and Harlem has had a record of crimes which could probably explain why. The Stephen Fetchit angel was insulting in my opinion as it was caricatured racist; and it was embarrassing to watch. I find that this cartoon has the idea to celebrate urban culture to African-Americans that suggests that heaven will be even better up there - a propaganda, perhaps to recognize their culture - although I think I'm way off the mark. This cartoon also interferes with religion and probably suggesting that heavens are separated by race which is why there is a 'Pair-O-Dice' heaven in this cartoon. I thought that it was very controversial.

It kind of makes me think this cartoon would be the reason why the Warner Archives are afraid to distribute this cartoon regarding offense as it even offended audiences of it's time back then. Carl Stalling here has supposedly chosen the right music for the cartoon which gave the cartoon bit of spirit. It feels like another remake to me of Goin' to Heaven on a Mule which doesn't seem to be a part of the Censored 11 scheme that was owned by United Artists and endorsed by Ted Turner. In my opinion this cartoon deserves to be ignored for racial stereotypes and also for burlesque religion. These cartoons are hard for me to review since I try to watch out what I say but I hope you understand my views.

4 comments:

  1. That's actually Fats WALLER, not Walker.

    Also, St. Peter is holding a stock ticker and he goes through ticker tape. The numbers are descending as he keeps going through the tape, indicating that Pair-O-Dice isn't doing so good, since all the people want to do what are considered decadent acts, like gambling, drinking, etc.

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  2. "Schlesinger and Warner Bros. were facing problems with the Production Code because of it's burlesqued religion." According to whom?
    Religion is not portrayed in a negative light whatsoever. This cartoon would have easily passed muster with the Hayes Office because religion wins out in the end. Even the Devil converts to Judeo-Christian beliefs.
    I suspect the tap-dancing guy is Bill Robinson, considering the cartoon is one of a number at this period of black star caricatures.

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  3. While the video is censored, most of the soundtrack from this cartoon was released a decade ago by Warner Bros. and Rhino Records as part of the two-disc That's All Folks! CD of music from the Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoons.

    Leonard Maltin's book does indicate the short was held up briefly due to some concerns by the Hays Office over some religious aspect of the cartoon, but AFAIK, no one has ever noted exactly what the concern was. If the production delay is true, Mel Blanc's brief vocal work here could actually have been his first job for Friz Freleng, ahead of voicing the younger miser mouse in "The Fella With the Fiddle".

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