Monday, May 08, 2006


So, when is a blackface routine not a blackface routine? If the blackface routine is merely an impersonation of someone who is famous for doing a blackface routine, does that make it less painful or awkward to those not so inclined to favor such an act? Does that make it not so much a direct hit on an entire race, but more of a sideswipe? If the character doing the impersonation were to do the same impersonation sans the dark makeup, does that render it dead as a blackface routine, even though the impersonator is still imitating the voice of the blackface entertainer, who uses a broad vocal style aping that of a stereotyped Black southerner? If not, when is it safe to sing "Mammy" like Al Jolson?

I ask all this, because in the famed World War II propaganda short/commercial ad, Any Bonds Today? (so named for the song contained within it, though the film proper hasn't an actual title, and many people refer to it variously through any combination of "Bugs", "Bonds", "War" and "Bunny" -- well, not any combination; War Bunny Bonds Bugs hasn't been used... yet), Bugs Bunny not only tries to drum up support for our boys fighting abroad, but he also feels the need to do so by insulting a large portion of Americans who might otherwise feel inclined to help out the country that enslaved them for the nation's first 90 years, and held their collective face in the mud for the next 100. Well, I shouldn't say Bugs does this, but rather the Warner Bros. animation department does this, under the direction of Bob Clampett.

Now, I love Clampett, and I'm fairly certain that he was not the racist that certain films in his resume might suggest he would be (the masterpiece Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs being the oft-quoted example); the genius creator of Beany and Cecil and Tweety Bird was merely towing the company line, and by company, I mean Hollywood. It was common for the studios to subject audiences to a blanket form of unthinking racism, in which a great many Hollywood stars would don blackface for some cheap gaggery, usually in comedies and musicals. Real black roles in Hollywood features were usually of the maid, shoeshiner, or valet variety, unless it was in a specialty film like Cabin in the Sky, and even then, blacks generally behaved according to accepted stereotypical behavior: drinking, gambling, laziness, etc. Not a lot of college-bred professorial roles for blacks in Hollywood.

Back to the blackface, Al Jolson built his career around the gimmick, and many comedians, including Bugs Bunny, kept a broad version of Jolson's bread-n-butter in their back pockets, to be pulled out for a quick laugh at an opportune moment. In Any Bonds Today?, Bugs employs the device when he is mid-song into his pitch to audiences to purchase U.S. War Bonds and Stamps. The short opens, as mentioned, without an actual title, just the words "Leon Schlesinger presents: Bugs Bunny", and some small type at the bottom tells us that Warner Bros. produced the film in cooperation with the U.S. Treasury Dept. Defense Savings Staff. So, there you go, folks... our own government, not just a private movie studio, put their stamp of approval on this picture before it went out to audiences nationwide, and presumably, some of that audience would have been black.

Once the curtain behind the titles opens up, Bugs limps on to a stage pretending to play his carrot like a fife, as the popular revolutionary war song Free America plays behind him. (The song is actually a rewrite of the English song The British Grenadiers, its lyrics Americanized in a sort of musical counterattack.) Bugs starts to talk-sing another song, one that Irving Berlin had written for this specific purpose:

"The tall man with the high hat
And the whiskers on his chin
Will soon be knocking at your door
And you ought to be in!"

Bugs slides offscreen, and he returns with a red-white-and-blue top hat, which he dons as he high-steps through the next verse and sings:

"The tall man with the high hat
Will be coming down your way
Get your savings out
When you hear him shout,
"Any bonds today?""

He starts to throw a huge stack of bonds into the audience, yelling, "C'mon and get 'em, folks! Step right up and get 'em!" As the slips of green paper float slowly away, Bugs kicks the song into full gear, spinning, shuffling and jitterbugging his way through the patriotic lyrics:

"Any Bonds Today?
Bond of freedom,
That's what I'm sellin'!
Any Bonds today?
Scrape up the most you can,
'Cause here come the freedom man,
Asking you to buy a share of freedom today!"

Bugs stops, and then dives into a frenetic spin. When he comes out, he is covered in blackface makeup, and he launches into his Jolson, referring to Uncle Sam as "Sammy" (instead of Jolson's "Mammy"). His gestures are broad, as he clutches his heart with gravitas, gets down on one knee and spreads his arms out, pleading his cause:

"Mmm... any stamps today?
Give, kiddies!
We'll be blessed,
If we all invest
In the U.S.A.!
Sammy! Oh, my little Sammy!"

Suddenly, Bugs is flanked on stage left by the earlier, fatter version of Elmer Fudd, and on stage right by Porky Pig, as a backdrop of American military might is displayed behind them. As Bugs rubs his makeup off, Elmer begins the finale, making the lyrics his own with his distinctive lisp:

"Here comes the fweedom man!"

Porky, too, endows his solo line with his trademarked stutter:

"Ca-can't make tomorrow's plan!"

The three of them jitterbug as they close the show with the last pair of lines, ending their act with their arms outstretched and heads tilted back in unison:

"Not unless you buy your share of freedom
Any stamps?
Any bonds

From the back of the stage, a title card flies up to take over the entire screen. The card reads: "FOR DEFENSE, BUY UNITED STATES SAVING BONDS AND STAMPS".

The cartoon is over, a mere minute-and-a-half later, as any advertisement should be, short and sweet. Except for the worrisome sequence, the film is well-done, and it is fun to see Bugs out of his normal gig as a star of normal cartoons, and instead taking on the persona of an actual real-life celebrity. It's the interesting twist to cartoon characters: some of them become so well-known and popular, that they start to feel like real people to you. Name a kid that doesn't think Mickey Mouse is an actual person. Bugs Bunny is one of those characters, but here he is a nascent celebrity: barely around for only a handful of years, and he is already considered important enough by the U.S. Government that they tag him to be their spokesman in the war effort.

But back to the subject at hand: if you laugh at Jolson, are you laughing at the fact that Bugs is doing an Al Jolson impersonation, or are you laughing because Bugs is doing a scene in blackface? There is a distinction that must be made here: there is a world of difference between "Ah, look! He's doin' Jolson!" to guffawing over a bad imitation of an African-American. Myself, I am all for complete freedom of expression, and believe that everyone is ripe for parody and satire, but there are ways to do it and ways not to do so. And the intent here was not parody or satire. It was just the way it was.

I have had two previous copies to this short film, and both of them had a jarring cut in mid-song, as the embarrassed studio sliced the Jolson scene clear out of the picture. I had not seen the actual sequence until a couple years ago, when I acquired a VHS tape of wartime cartoons (most likely a complete bootleg) from a comic book shop. And not even a week ago, with the release of the Cartoons for Victory DVD from Mackinac Media's The Golden Age of Cartoons series of discs, I was finally able to see a fairly decent copy of the film for the first time, with the notorious scene intact. I am always stunned by my reactions to such a situation, for I hate being told that I cannot see or do something. If Warners' tells me I can't see one of the Censored 11, then I go to great lengths to track it down. The same applies here: I knew this short would be on the disc, and I jumped at my chance to view it.

Do I feel happy now? Not necessarily... but its nice to be given the chance to feel crappy about it...

Any Bonds Today? (Warner Bros. & US Dept. of the Treasury, 1943) Director: Bob Clampett
Cel Bloc Rating: 7


bambizzoozled said...

No, it's still blackface.

Stephen Worth said...

Louis Armstrong was a pall bearer at Al Jolson's funeral. He said that Jolson did more for the black man than any other white entertainer. He explained that Jolson took the basic elements of minstrelry and added humanity and compassion. Jolson's portrayal of the black man in cork wasn't a stereotype, it was a living, breathing soul with real-life passions and problems. His portrayal completely eclipsed and replaced the minstrel show stereotype, co-opting it and making it a thing of the past.

There was no racism on Bob Clampett's fault. On the contrary, he loved to go to the black nightclubs in Los Angeles to see the performers of the day, like Slim Gailard and Nat King Cole. His films like Coal Black and Tin Pan Alley Cats aren't simple exercises in trotting out the same old tired stereotype gags... it was a celebration of the way black culture was at the time. Black college professors were the exception, not the rule at that time. Depicting that in a cartoon would have been an insult, much like the "Senators" in Birth of a Nation.

Clampett was depicting the images of black people that most people were familiar with from black entertainers of the day. There is absolutely nothing racist about that.

See ya

Margaret said...

The problem is that attitudes and cultural norms change, but these films don't. They're frozen in time, reflecting what was acceptable way back when. I can understand, intellectually, that in 1943 Clampett et al intended no concious racism in Bugs' blackface turn in "Any Bonds Today," but that doesn't make it any less repellant to me in 2006.