Courtesy of Hans Koert’s “Keep Swinging” blog, here is a 1943 Merrie Melodies cartoon, “TIN PAN ALLEY CATS.” It offers a buffet of demeaning racial stereotypes and is thus not available on American DVD collections. It is shocking that such caricatures could be shown in public in America so late in our history, although not terribly surprising.
But after I got through being offended, I was amused — subversively tickled. And I don’t know: does it denigrate or slyly celebrate Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Slam Stewart, Leo Watson, African-American night life and religious fervor, two sides of the same coin? Add in sideswipes at Al Jolson, blackface, the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, and Fats’s own 1942 “By the Light of the Si;very Moon” for good measure. Then there’s the idea that jazz leads straight to Hell.
This cartoon was surely Caucasian Middle America’s idea of Blackness — exuberant, uncontrolled, foolish, Godless. But joyous, too. And we note that so much of the cartoon’s seven-plus minutes are given over to a tut-tut and tsk-tsk depiction of Hot and Naughty . . . . with much less attention paid to old-time-religion. I doubt that James Baldwin had ever seen this, but doesn’t it noisily depict the conflict between Sacred and Profane that emerges again in his story “Sonny’s Blues”?
As Kevin Dorn once pointed out to me, the Bad Night Life portrayed in the Fallen World segment of “It’s A Wonderful Life” still seems reasonably appealing, even when you consider the charms of Goodness, friends, family, and Donna Reed.
One never knows, DO ONE?