Monday, 4 January 2016

392. Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943)

"Well, hallelujah!"

Warner cartoon no. 391.
Release date: January 16, 1943.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Bob Clampett.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Dwarfs, Worm), Leo "Zoot" Watson (Prince Chawmin'), Vivian Dandridge (So White), Danny Webb (Queen), Lillian Randolph (Mammy, Honeychil').
Story: Warren Foster.
Animation: Rod Scribner.
Musical Score: Carl W. Stalling. (Additional scoring by Eddie Beal Trio - uncredited).
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Charming parody on the Grimm brothers fairy-tale; where So White flees from the
Wicked Queen and enlists in the U.S. army as a squad
cook.

One of the most controversial shorts ever made to the point where Bob Clampett refused to screen the film in recent years, at the cost of his own life - as witnessed by Milt Gray. Despite the current age where "political correctness" had taken its toll; it still remains one of Clampett's true masterpieces.

In no way does Clampett intend to discredit or ridicule the African-American race. By all means, he intends to celebrate their culture after being inspired by Duke Ellington's musical revue, Jump for Joy.

He celebrates their jazz culture and camaraderie spirit to the extent of hiring black performers to contribute to the cartoon to play an integral part. Schlesinger brought them to the studio to consult on story and character development, and not forgetting Eddie Beale and his orchestra to provide additional music for the cartoon's significant climax.

The only trace of the stereotypes that might be considered unsettling are the character designs themselves and some of the dialect; which was itself an animation cliche of the time. It's intelligible as to why it might offend some viewers - distinctly seen on another principal character: the zoot-suited Prince Chawmin', who wears "pair o'dice" on his frontal teeth, and the remainder of his teeth adorned in gold.


Michael Barrier writes it best the 100 Greatest Looney Tunes book, "Clampett uses those stereotypes so inventively, though, that the cartoon almost transcends them." A case of Clampett and Warren Foster inventively portraying the stereotypes is evident in the poisoned apple scene.

In an iconic part of the tale, the Queen pumps the apple with poison; morphing in a fetid effect. A group of stereotyped worms escape from the rotten worm, complaining it "smelt like Limburger cheese." As they escape, one carries a sign reading "refoogies", written in dialect. For a gag behind a creative drive like Clampett or Foster; the stereotypes are surpassed by Clampett's genius timing on the apple effect and Mel Blanc's hysterical delivery on the worms.

What makes Coal Black a delightful cartoon is not just the excitement and celebration of the African-American culture; but the wonderful parody of the Grimm brothers fairy tale; which itself hilariously executed - all in a seven-minute cartoon.

Solid character personalities also play an integral part, including the heroine herself, So White. It's an incredible feat for any professional animator to handle a character with realistic human proportions; and animate her with monument energy and edginess all under one roof.

So White is stereotyped not because of her race, but because of her sexuality; which plays a plot device throughout the short - including how she cheated death, won the heart of the seven dwarfs and how she was revived from her state of unconsciousness. 

It's a hilarious parody directed that fairy tale heroine, Snow White. In the original fairy tale, Snow White was admired for her apparent beauty; including a hired assassin who couldn't find it in his heart to kill her. Clampett takes this sequence by pushing the boundaries. In the sequence where the hired "Murder, Inc." capture So White - her freedom is earned by sexual overtones. The establishing shot features the company van parking discreetly in an isolated woodland. Mike Sasanoff nails the layout to a tee - stipulating that So White has been murdered as they prepare to "set the body down easy." Only Clampett's abrupt pacing could make such a gag work.


Fittingly, some shots in the cartoon are a direct ode to the popular Walt Disney feature. In it's original run, Snow White was a smash hit and remarkably influential amongst moviegoers and especially the animation industry. Clampett, who strongly admired the feature, without doubt pays homage to some iconic scenes; but sets the tone and atmosphere very differently.

A striking example occurs in the wishing-well reflection shot, which in both versions symbolise the heroine's dreams of a handsome prince. Like the Disney film, the prince arrives unexpectedly albeit vigilantly. In the Clampett short, the tone and pacing is much more wilder: making Prince Chawmin's presence more boisterous.

Snow White's escape through the spooky forest was remembered for its sharp and scary atmosphere; which reportedly frightened young children in its initial run.

A sequence which indicated Snow White's vulnerable moments; the atmosphere in Coal Black is once again toned down and somewhat rushed. The most revealing reference in the scene are the luminous eyes appearing in the bleak eyes - which momentarily scares So White. The delivery of the owl noises themselves has a hammy effect, that the scene itself succeeds in  keeping with the right tone for an animated short.

Without any intent to accuse Clampett for borrowing visuals - his crew create some really innovative arrangements of mise-en-scene and tackling pieces of staging which is seldom explored. So White and the prince's wild jitterbug is lush with its strong silhouette and innovative art direction which sets the chemistry beautifully.

Bob McKimson's animation on the sequence reads beautifully. His posing features a beautiful line of action and read clearly in silhouette. McKimson keeps the arms away from the character's bodies as much as possible to avoid confusion on the posing - showing he has a strong sense of graphic clarity.

Other small shots which are difficult to pull off as far as accents and mechanics goes is the extreme-close up of Prince uttering "Rosebud". A direct reference to the infamous "Rosebud" quote from Orson Welles' then highly controversial Citizen Kane - it's a feat to pull off the lip-syncing accurately as in that camera angle; it's accurate lip sync that is the prime goal to achieve successful animation.

The opening and closing shot of the film of a Aunt Jemina-like woman narrating the story to her child by a nicely lit fireplace is lovely abstract visual. It is a beautiful perception of cinematography which is uncanny for a Warner Bros. cartoon to tackle, let alone Clampett's. To keep within the studio's budget constraints, the animation has a graceful use of follow-through action on the "mammy".

In creating hilarious personalities out of the iconic fairy tale villains; Warren Foster succeeds in making a hilarious and sometimes dangerous personality on the Wicked Queen. Instead of the vanity side of the queen in the Grimm story - Foster adapts a different motive for her. She wished to her magic mirror for a "prince abou' six feet tall!", only to discover the Prince has the hots for So White instead.

As indicated by the narrator; "she was just as rich as she was mean: she had everything!" which is ironically evil from a different point of view. The pan shot of her treasure collection quickly panned on delivery to reveal she literally had everything - like hoarding car tyres, sugar, coffee, which was heavily rationed during the war. Sweets too, were heavily rationed in the war as she Indulges herself with "Chattanooga Chew-Chews", which itself is direct pun on the popular song: Chattanooga Choo Choo.

Upon her discovery of seeing the Prince and So White dancing outside the castle; she reacts angrily: "The gal, and the Prince! What a sickenin' sight!". Immediately she dials the phone to hire an organised crime group Murder Inc. to "Blackout So White!" where the words visually rise out on delivery - creating a comical and potent effect on the Queen's wrath. If the racial stereotypes are considered offensive - take a gander at the advertisement of the company van.

If there was a man who could adapt the spirit and excitement of the African-American jazz culture into Clampett's cartoon believably - it's no surprise that Carl Stalling was fit to the task. Although more comfortable with adapting popular music into animated cartoons - Stalling's versatile talent of giving We're in the Army Now a jazz vibe towards it.

The dwarfs have little personality in the short (excluding the "Dopey" persona dwarf), they recruit her in the army as their squad cook as So White is turned on by their uniform in her swing-style voice ("I'm wacky over khaki now!").

The morning bootcamp sequence perfectly captures the enthusiastic jazz spirit; thanks to Stalling and Clampett's collaborations who really have a ball celebrating and worshipping the jazz culture. The sun rise jiving shot adds a real hip vibe to it. So White's cooking scene while singing Five O'Clock Whistle is altogether fitting - and spoilt in animation riches in an elaborate piece of effects of a bacon strip cooking in rhythm to the song's melody.

Clampett's innovative imagination and inventive timing all appear at the right moments. One early scene in particular is a Clampett mini masterpiece alone. At the arrival of Prince Chawmin's car - the wheel breaks to a halt - with the wheel rapidly circulating and morphing into five different sneakers, tapping the car to a rhythmic beat.


The imagination and rhythmic beat alone is a perfect warmup for what lies in store for the cartoon. As far-out and outlandish Clampett's directorial work is on it; some areas feel somewhat clumsy.

Building up to the short's suspense; So White has eaten the poisoned apple by the barely disguised 'Durante' Queen. The scenes of So White's collapse has a rather abrupt and strange edit which suggests a continuity clip. I'd nominate the "buck-buck-bucket" hen-cackle scene as the funniest piece of dialogue in this short.

The action scenes of the dwarfs pursuing the Queen follows some of the wildest, frantic pieces of animation in any cartoon. Gags within the sequence are superfluous in a remarkable way where everything moves, indicating panic and order. So many gags are fired altogether like the "Jeep, Beep, Peep" gag and the likes of a "rear end" gag just as the cannon is loaded - which results in the "Dopey" dwarf knocking the Queen out-cold with a mallet.

The dwarves walk over to So White's dead body - remarking that only Prince Chawmin's "dynamite kiss" can revive her. At that moment, the prince arrives at the spot and boasts: "I'll give 'er a kiss and it don't be a dud, I'll bring 'er to life with ma special: rosebud!".

The Prince attempts to revive So White with his kiss, but to no avail. He tries with all his drive and force to the point where he rapidly ages. Praise must go to Eddie Beale, who provided the music for the sequence. Beale's trumpet solo provides the right motivation for the character; and yet maintaining it's jazzy, catchy rhythm. [Correction: It was Leo Watson who played the trumpet solo, while Beale leaded the jazz trio, playing piano and contributing to the score with Milt Frankyln. Thanks to Keith Scott for the information.]

For the remainder of the cartoon, Rod Scribner takes control on a real tour-de-force of character animation that has yet to be matched. As exaggerated and over-animated it is, the scene is still believable, breathtaking and astounding. The Prince's determination to bring So White to life has incredible monument weight to it - comparable to the great talents like Bill Tytla.

Once the prince has failed, the "Dopey" dwarf takes his chance and lays a kiss on So White where she wakes up so dynamically and broadly she bursts wildly in mid-air. As wild as Scribner could animate on So White's awakening; it's remarkable at how solid his drawing maintained - by drawing the dwarf's head in a difficult angle so believably.

Perplexed, the aged prince asks the dwarf: "Man, what you got that makes So White think you're so hot!". The dwarf responds in another hinted sexual overtone: "Well, dat is a military secret!" and lays another kiss on So White - causing her pigtails to sail and turn into American flags.

Coal Black has all the elements what every animated cartoon should have: top-notch direction, excellent story, outlandish animation and gags - not forgetting: believable characterisation. This is perhaps the short where Clampett was the most visionary, with an excellent combination of rap lyrics and tropical parody. Now considered taboo for public showing - the short does everything to honour and dedicate the African-American jazz culture. It even strifes for its recognition by hiring African-American performers like Watson and Beale to put their talents to excellent use - making it the masterpiece it always was. As subtle and cheeky Clampett's humour is, his parody on the fairy tale is still in fine taste. Suppressed as it may be, the short remains a beacon for animation scholars and enthusiasts, including Bob Clampett who would move on to many greater shorts.

Rating: 5/5.

4 comments:

  1. But the Prince does actually say "Rosebud." It sounds pretty clear to me, plus it rhymes with the preceding line and even the lip movements look right. Puckered lips are often compared to a rosebud anyway.

    In case it's not clear, the "buck-buck-bucket" bit is supposed to be a twist on what a hen's cackle sounds like.

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    1. I quickly listened to the scene again and you're right! All this time I misheard it.

      I knew the "buck-buck-bucket" was hen's cackle gag, but I wanted to avoid getting more obvious.

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    2. Minor correction: I'd rather transcribe Prince Chawmin's line before kissing So White like this: "I'll give 'er a kiss an' it won't be a dud, I'll bring 'er to life with mah special rosebud!". There's a pause before "rosebud" because of the close-up (and the Citizen Kane reference), but it's still meant to be one phrase: "mah special rosebud", i.e. "my special lips". Alternatively, you can use an ellipsis to mark the pause: "mah special...rosebud!"

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  2. The "buck-buck-bucket" reference was from Ol' Man Mose, a popular song (covered at least 3 times, including Louis Armstrong and Betty Hutton) in the late 1930's/early 1940's. This version was perhaps the most popular, since the word bucket was misheard as something else: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GbDKNHMDrEU

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