Saturday, February 25, 2006

Thank Goodness For YouTube

Thanks to, it's now possible for me to link to a video of the complete, uncut Bob Clampett cartoon masterpiece from 1943:

It's not the greatest-looking print of the cartoon, but it's all there and it's a must-see if you haven't already seen it already. "Coal Black" is of course the most famous and by far the best of the "Censored 11" cartoons, Warner Brothers cartoons that were de facto banned from TV and home video due to racial stereotyping. The stereotypes in "Coal Black" are actually fairly mild by comparison with the really offensive stereotypes in, say, Chuck Jones's "Angel Puss" -- in fact, the most truly offensive joke in "Coal Black" is a wartime joke about the Japanese.

"Coal Black" was also one of the few cartoons of its time that actually used African-American performers to voice some of the characters; the wicked queen is voiced by Ruby Dandridge (mother of Dorothy Dandridge) and So White is voiced by Vivian Dandridge (older sister of Dorothy Dandridge). However, all the dwarfs are voiced by Mel Blanc.

A commenter on IMDb pointed out that one of the reasons the film is still controversial today is that cartoons, unlike live-action movies, don't really date: whereas the stereotypes in a live-action movie belong to their time, the stereotypes in "Coal Black" feel current, and therefore still have the power to shock. But the film is so good-natured, and so much of a piece with the exaggerated way Clampett treats all characters in all his cartoons, that the audiences I've seen it with usually get over the shock after the first minute or so, and start to lose themselves in the film.

The important thing about "Coal Black" is that it's one of the best and most imaginative cartoons ever made, with a crazy gimmick or wild experiment in almost every shot, and all kinds of visual ideas that no one had ever tried before (though Clampett's trick of changing the colour of the background to signal a change in mood was probably inspired by Chuck Jones's "The Case of the Missing Hare" from the previous year). Ideas like the words "Blackout So White!" appearing in print above the Queen as she speaks those words (and then bites off the phone she's speaking into); keeping the dwarfs offscreen in one shot and animating their shadows instead; starting a dance sequence with Disney-style rotoscoping and suddenly shifting to a cartoonily-animated jazz dance; having the dwarfs pop up one by one to the rhythm of "Blues in the Night": there's something spectacular or hilarious every second. And Rod Scribner's animation of Prince Chawmin' unsuccessfully trying to revive So White may be the best piece of animation Scribner -- or maybe anyone -- ever did.

The film is also a brilliant slam on Disney, with many mocking references to shots from Snow White and an implied antidote to Disney's lack of interest in dealing with sex and sexuality. And there's even a reference to the then-recent movie Citizen Kane. On a side note, you might notice that the design of So White is oddly similar to that of Tweety, whom Clampett had introduced the year before.

So check it out, and hope and pray that WB will get the guts to release it on DVD. They can have a dozen Whoopi Goldberg introductions for all I care -- I wasn't bothered by her "historical-context" introduction to the last Looney Tunes set, though I'll admit I always hit the menu button to skip it -- they can have a trillion disclaimers and historical explanations, but they need to make it available in a good print.

Update: More thoughts on this cartoon at Sterfish's Place.


Anonymous said...

Boo! Removed ude to copyright infringement...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing; I've been curious about this one for a while. It did not disappoint. :)