Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Swing Wedding (1937)

Swing Wedding (MGM, 1937)
Dir: Hugh Harman

TC4P Rating: 6/9

The craziest, jivin'-est swamp wedding that ever happened, suffused with a jazzy swing style far removed from the usual gentle antics and cutesy animals associated with most of the MGM Harman-Ising pictures (even Peace on Earth, with its still creepy and shocking war imagery, is built around a church full of huggable, cute-talking animals). No "Froggy Went A-Courtin'," this frog wedding is attended by a combination of what could be considered racist black stereotypes and caricatures of popular black stars of the 1930's: Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Stepin Fetchit, Fats Waller, Ethel Waters, and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. (There are no actual credits for the performers, so I assume impressionists do the voices, though Cab's character sounds remarkably like the real Calloway.)

The music varies from minstrel show antics to big band swing, there is energy to spare in 
the animation, and on the top of it, the film is enjoyable as a musical triviality. On the bottom of it is the questionable racism inherent in any film from this period when dealing with black characters. It might be somewhat easier to take if one of the main characters wasn't the groom, who is portrayed as a Fetchit figure, and inhabits the screen for a good portion of the film, all slack-jawed and sleepy-eyed. It seems for much of the film that, except for the intrusion of an occasional out-and-out stereotype, it is no more patently offensive than, say, Cabin in the Sky.

But then one of the frog musicians, in a band that destroys itself in what can only be assumed is a drugged frenzy, takes a trumpet valve that looks remarkably like a syringe and injects himself with it. To say that my bottom jaw soon found room and board on the carpet is to put it mildly. It's not just the assumption that any black jazz musician would have to be on drugs. Cab Calloway sang often of marijuana and cocaine, and Louis Jordan once sang "I'm a goofball user and a chick abuser." White musicians, let alone actors and others in the entertainment world, were equally adept at narcotic addiction, though you would never see a studio-released cartoon showing someone in Glenn Miller's very Caucasian band jabbing himself with an instrument-derived hypodermic like one of the frogs does in this film.

I am against censorship in any form, and I believe that films of this type should not be repressed, whether they are filled with supposedly "harmful" and derogatory images. Instead, when they are exposed to audiences, they should be put in their proper context of history and circumstance. I ran into Swing Wedding this morning (and on three separate occasions in the last year) on TCM as mere filler between movies, sadly without Ben Mankiewicz or Robert Osborne providing any sort of counterpoint to the cartoon. They should be more careful. Showing a cartoon like this without such explanation is just asking for trouble. Plus, as the film does have some redeeming historical value in it, however filled with questionable images, we don't need another piece of animation history to disappear.

[Editor's note: The text and photos for this article were updated on 10/28/2015.]

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