Mar 10, 2010

"Ethnic cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s remain a problem for animators, critics and audiences." Charles Solomon, 1994

Have we talked about George Pal? Because we should. Born in Hungary in 1908, Pal moved to Germany in 1931 to head UFA's cartoon division - until Nazi investigation provoked him to leave, finding home in a number of countries before moving to the United States in 1939. At a time when cel animation dominated Hollywood, Pal was working in stop animation with deep, elaborate sets of glass and wood. Amazingly, the solid-wood characters living in these sets were designed to function much like Lotte Reiniger's paper cutouts. For instance, it was not unusual for one character to have twelve heads with different expressions.

The following are excerpts from Trouble in Watermelon Land: George Pal and the Little Jasper Cartoons, from which I paraphrased my information:

Time magazine wrote, "Jasper and the Watermelons is a new departure in the field of U.S. animated cartooning. . . . The method is similar to Disney's-with a carving knife substituted for a crayon."

Yet contemporary reviews of the Jasper series often reveal a jarring tension between the celebration of the visual style and the acceptance of the racist elements of a series about a little black boy who gets into all sorts of interviews during the 1940s, George Pal appears to hide behind naivete, claiming that as an immigrant, he was simply bringing to life a truly American black folk character, and harbored no racial prejudices himself. Gail Hickman's 1977 biography, The Films of George Pal, buys into this weak line of reasoning by claiming, "Pal, who had been raised in Europe and knew nothing of racism, could not understand what the problem was. To his way of thinking, little Jasper was 'the Huckleberry Finn' of American folklore." Obviously, this sort of defense sounds pretty hollow since Pal, who had seen the rise of Nazism firsthand, could hardly pretend to know nothing of racism and ethnic superiority.

*There are some parts of this article I must contend; the author eagerly accepts white appreciation of one aspect (black jazz and folk music) of a hugely diverse culture (black American) as a depiction of "authentic, contemporary black culture through its sounds." You can read it here:

Further complicating our historical impression of Puppetoons involving black characters is the fact, ac- knowledged by Ebony, that Pal always employed black actors for the voices: "Pal does not use, as other car- toonists do, white actors that talk 'like Negroes.' He employs the finest Negro talent available." Among Pal's actors were the African-American Shakespearean actor Roy Glenn, who provided Scarecrow's voice in the Jasper films, while black choirs like the Luvenia Nash Chorus provided the traditional songs, and a well- known array of black musicians was hired for the jazzy musical numbers. Dixie Wheeler's Georgia Minstrels, mentioned in Jasper's Minstrels, was even a real touring black musical group around the turn of the century that is recreated here with Pal's puppetoons. Pal in real life was quite a jazz and folk music fan, and while his images and plot devices remained too firmly rooted in racist stereotypes of the day, their blunt effects were partially undercut by the vital authenticity of the soundtracks, including dialogue, singing voices, and musical accompaniment. Unlike contemporary cartoons such as the famously insulting All This and Rabbit Stew (Warner Bros., 1941), in which Mel Blanc creates the voice of the rural black hick who gets outsmarted by his intended quarry, Bugs Bunny, Pal's cartoons featured authentic, contemporary black culture through its sounds.

Here, the author peculiarly accepts fascination with the other as an acceptable alternative to 'codes of respect':

How then should we historicize Pal's often embarrassing stories and begin better to understand the cultural functions of his Little Jasper series? Clearly, we need to investigate his negative representations more thoroughly, complicating rather than simply condemning their narrative functions. This reconsideration must allow for ambivalence, ambiguity, and multiple connotations as we realize that the more blatantly racist codification of Jasper's stereotypical world is routinely undercut by contradictory codes of respect for, or at least fascination with, contemporary aspects of African-American life and culture.

To conclude, I would like to state that Pal's cartoons, and too many like them, hold no respect for black American culture. They are white supremacist patriarchal capitalist fantasies. 'It is not uncommon for members of groups who are unaccustomed to being racialized in American terms - which includes both white Americans and newly arrived middle-class immigrants of all backgrounds - to equate freedom of expression with freedom from racial consciousness as a tactic of self-defense.' (Coco Fusco)

Art using stereotypes to explore the discourse of decolonization is no longer relevant. I urge everyone the move beyond that, while remaining race (class) conscious.

Post by Eli

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