Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Jazzy Cartoons

Jazz was an integral element in the sound and appearance of animated cartoons produced in Hollywood from the late 1920s through the late 1950s.1 Everything from big band to free jazz has been featured in cartoons, either as the soundtrack to a story or the basis for one. The studio run by the Fleischer brothers took an unusual approach to jazz in the late 1920s and the 1930s, treating it not as background but as a musical genre deserving of recognition.

Instead of using jazz idioms merely to color the musical score, their cartoons featured popular songs by prominent recording artists. Fleischer was a well-known studio in the 1920s, perhaps most famous for pioneering the sing-along cartoon with the bouncing ball in Song Car-Tunes. An added attraction to Fleischer cartoons was that Paramount Pictures, their distributor and parent company, allowed the Fleischers to use its newsreel recording facilities, where they were permitted to film famous performers scheduled to appear in Paramount shorts and films.

Thus, a wide variety of musicians, including Ethel Merman, Rudy Vallee, the Mills Brothers, Gus Edwards, the Boswell Sisters, Cab Calloway, and Louis Armstrong, began appearing in Fleischer cartoons. This arrangement benefited both the studios and the stars. Once the Fleischers chose a song from the featured artist to use in a cartoon, the writers constructed a story that made the song’s performance the centerpiece of the short. That the song’s title usually was borrowed for the cartoon’s title was just one way in which such cartoons helped publicize a performer’s work.

Minnie the Moocher

The Fleischers also responded to local influences of the Manhattan music scene in their choice of performers: they combined themes from their own lives as middle-class, secular Jews in New York with their own cultural and musical notions of African Americans, funneling all these raw materials into a popular representational form—cartoons. Their earlier success with the Song Car-Tunes was owed to their use of Tin Pan Alley tunes and nineteenth-century popular songs, styles familiar in the city on vaudeville and other stages. The proximity of the Fleischer studio to premier music venues, particularly the uptown clubs in Harlem that featured artists such as Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, and Cab Calloway, clearly shaped their creation of cartoons in the nascent jazz era. The aura of danger and excitement that surrounded jazz, especially during the Harlem Renaissance, likely added to the attraction. As Nathan Irvin Huggins describes it: “How convenient! It was merely a taxi trip to the exotic for most white New Yorkers.

In cabarets decorated with tropical and jungle motifs—some of them replicas of southern plantations—they heard jazz, that almost forbidden music. It was not merely that jazz was exotic, but that it was instinctive and abandoned, yet laughingly light and immediate—melody skipping atop inexorable driving rhythm. . . . In the darkness and closeness, the music, infectious and unrelenting, drove on.”3 Lou Fleischer, the brother in charge of music for the studio, remembered going to the Cotton Club to listen to Calloway so that he could choose the songs that might work well in a cartoon. The performances themselves no doubt gave the writers at the studio ideas for future cartoons. They could easily take the numbers they had seen onstage and, choosing to view them from the contrived primitivist perspective then dominant, create stories that blended the performers’ music and the visual trappings of the clubs with the animators’ ideas.

Cab Calloway St. James Infirmary by Fleischer

Amiri Baraka points out that whites eagerly engaged with the new black music that offered such a novel image of America,5 desiring to experience the sensual overtones ascribed to “primitive” music. By visiting clubs in Harlem and even by viewing cartoons, whites could gain access to something they felt implicitly lacking in their lives: the freedom and hedonism believed to be characteristic of a simpler, more instinctual society.

By couching the featured songs within the stereotyped narratives that shaped the musicians’ live acts, the Fleischer cartoons enabled moviegoing audiences around the country to experience an even more fantastical version of those narratives that previously had been enjoyed by only a small group of nightclub patrons in New York City. Just as they had done while attending live stage shows with blackface performers, white audiences could watch blacks in these newer mediated spaces and hope for what Huggins calls “the possibility of being transported into black innocence.”6 The cartoons that simultaneously presented the idea of jazz and primitivism also emphasized, in a tone mixing envy and condemnation, the stereotyped notion that blacks live their lives with careless freedom.

Betty Boop-1938-Sally Swing

Louis Armstrong and his band made their sole appearance in a Fleischer cartoon in I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You (Fleischer, 1932). Like most of the cartoons in this series,7 the film opens with a sequence of live footage following the title cards. Armstrong and his band are featured performing before moving on to the animated story, thereby both giving the audience the opportunity to see the actual musicians and providing Armstrong with valuable publicity. But rather than performing the title song right away, Armstrong and his men play another piece, “Shine,” that segues neatly into the background music for the animated sequence. The audience must watch what amounts to half the cartoon before Armstrong begins the title song. This clever strategy on the part of the studio kept viewers’ attention on the characters and reflects a technique commonly used in the musical cartoons created by Warner Bros.

Betty Boop "Just A Gigolo" 1932

The story centers on Betty Boop and her companions, Bimbo the dog and Ko-Ko the clown, as they explore the depths of the African jungle. They inevitably become involved in a chase with some natives, which culminates in the performance of the title song. As Bimbo and Ko-Ko try to give the slip to their pursuer, a repetitive “ONE-two-three-four” drum beat—a musical stereotype often associated with Native American drumming patterns—starts playing in the background. This short rhythmic cue transitions almost immediately into the title song, for which the drums have set up the tempo.

As the beat ostensibly comes from “native” drums and is heard as if being played off-screen, the music establishes, before any lyrics are heard, the supposedly native origin of the song, which then springs full-formed from the primordial rhythm. During the chase, the native pursuing Bimbo and Ko-Ko literally loses his head, which, detached from his body, flies after them in the sky. As the introduction to the song ends and its opening verse begins, the head dissolves into Armstrong’s own live-action head in profile, singing the title song. This transformation focuses on another facet of the primitivist caricature, implying that Armstrong is still a denizen of the jungle himself. The skies even darken forebodingly as the native/Armstrong initially runs up behind Ko-Ko and Bimbo, who clearly fear Armstrong, his jazzy song, and the black community that created it.

A number of features of these cartoons made them attractive for white viewers. Not only were audiences transported to faraway lands, but the humorous and fantastical sight gags that characterized the Fleischer style also removed the aura of danger from Africa by offering comical and dehumanizing images of African natives. Such portrayals could naturally be extended to the urban American black, who could become less (or more) fearsome to white audiences through such caricatures. Their experience of the forbidden music of Armstrong or Calloway as a soundtrack to the journey created an additional level of excitement.

Betty Boop Cartoon with Louis Armstrong

Armstrong, of all the jazz personalities featured in Fleischer cartoons, probably received the most extremely stereotyped treatment in his single appearance. The dissolve between Armstrong’s live-action head and that of his animated savage counterpart made the animators’ visual statement about theconstitution of his “inner” nature absolutely clear. Even Armstrong’s voice lent itself to the stereotype of the savage persona. In vaudeville, as Huggins points out, the dialect associated with minstrelsy characters “was coarse, ignorant, and stood at the opposite pole from the soft tones and grace of what was considered cultivated speech.”10 Of course, Armstrong’s raspy and ebullient singing was a signature element of his act, yet in the context of this cartoon, his style of making music suddenly takes on primitive characteristics—especially given his frequent exclamations that often bordered on the unintelligible. Later cartoons that caricatured Armstrong fetishize the same idiosyncratic elements of his performing style; his voice is usually the most obvious, most easily imitated (albeit poorly), and therefore most often satirized aspect of his public image.

Many of these features highlighting Armstrong’s “savage” qualities first appeared in A Rhapsody in Black and Blue (1932), a one-reel Paramount musical short that was directed by Aubrey Scotto. The film opens in a rundown home where a black man sits listening to his Louis Armstrong records and playing a makeshift drum kit while his wife admonishes him to clean the house. When she knocks him out cold with a mop, the bubbles in the soap bucket, combined with the jazz music in background, lead to his wild fantasy in which he is the king of Jazzmania. The scene is apparently set in a throne room where, dressed in a military outfit, the “king” is entertained by Armstrong and his band, all dressed in leopard skins and similar costumes, while unseen machines churn away and fill the foreground with bubbles. Armstrong sings “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You,” followed by “Shine” before the man awakens from his reverie.

A Rhapsody in Black and Blue clearly had a powerful influence on the Fleischer animators. In I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, they used the same songs and primitive ambience featured in Rhapsody. Though the live-action short never leaves the soundstage, the Fleischers took advantage of the immense freedom of their medium by setting the story in the jungle itself. They even retain some of the camera work from Rhapsody. Only two musicians get close-ups in Rhapsody, Armstrong and his drummer, Tubby Hall. Likewise, both Armstrong and Hall receive special emphasis in the Fleischer cartoon, as both have their visages transposed with those of jungle natives.

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