BOOTLEG FILES 413: “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs” (1943 Warner Bros. animated short).
LAST SEEN: The film is available on several online video sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: This film has been kept out commercial release since 1968.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.
Most people look upon the racially insensitive films of Hollywood’s golden age with embarrassment – what might have been considered harmless fun back in the day is seen through very different eyes by today’s viewers.
The 1943 Warner Bros. cartoon “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs” is part of the studio’s infamous “Censored Eleven” selection of cartoons that were pulled from commercial release in 1968 due to complaints of crude and often vicious stereotypical humor. Yet the film has generated something of a cult following, with its fans insisting that the production represents a masterwork of progressive surreal humor. While there are parts of the film that show flashes of ingenious humor, most of the film can be fairly depressing for a contemporary viewer.
For starters, I need to point out that the title of the cartoon is misleading: the central heroine is not named Coal Black. She is referred to as “So White” in the film – but Warner Bros. wanted to avoid angering Uncle Walt, thus requiring the switcheroo title.
“Coal Black” opens in a visually striking image – a large woman wearing a bandana is in rocking chair in silhouette before a brightly burning fireplace. A small girl with pigtails can be seen – she is sitting on the woman’s lap. But once the soundtrack starts, things go awry: the woman refers to herself as “Ol’ Mammy” and the child asks to hear the story of “So White and de Sebben Dwarfs.”
The story then kicks with the mean Queenie in her palace. We know she is rich because she has a large suite full of gold and jewels – and automobile tires plus large bags of sugar and coffee. (The latter is a reference to the merchandise shortages that prevailed in World War II-era America.) Queenie is eating candies from a box marked “Chattanooga Chew-Chews” while a bottle of “Eli Whitney Cotton Gin” sits next to her.
Queenie gets up and goes to her magic mirror. Her voice is deep and gravelly and she has a prominent gap between her front teeth. She asks the magic mirror to send her “a prince ’bout six feet tall.” Within seconds, a limousine arrives (one of its tires is a wheel made up of worn-out shoes) and out pops Prince Chawmin’ – complete with zoot suit, ridiculously large feet and a wide mouth full of gold-capped teeth plus two front teeth that resemble dice.
But Prince Chawmin’ is not interested in Queenie. He prefers So White, who is shown doing laundry – albeit with her back to the camera while her curvaceous backside (which is poured into the tightest shorts imaginable) shakes for the camera. When So White finally faces the camera, she is shown as a very pretty young woman with pigtails and a huge bosom that is barely contained in a low-cut blouse.
So White and Prince Chawmin’ begin to jitterbug, but the angry Queenie becomes jealous and calls Murder Inc. to “black out So White.” Murder Inc.’s automobile comes speeding to the scene, and the vehicle advertises its rates: “We rub out anybody for $1.00.Midgets: 1/2 price. Japs: free.” So White is abducted and the cowardly prince develops a yellow streak down his back.
The Murder Inc. automobile heads to the woods and slows down. So White leaves the automobile in one piece. The would-be murderers stick out their heads to yell goodbye, and they are shown to have faces all covered in kisses.
So White finds the seven dwarfs…or, in this case, “de sebben dwarfs” in their U.S. Army uniforms. “I’m wacky for khaki!” declares So White, who kisses all seven and causes them to faint. So White then becomes the army camp cook, and her sultry presence is so powerful that even the meal she is preparing (a frying pan with sunny side-up eggs and bacon) smiles for her.
Queenie discovers So White is alive and disguises herself in a Jimmy Durante nose to give So White a poison apple. So White dies upon one apple bite, and the dwarfs get their revenge on Queenie by filing a war shell at her. (The shell contains one of the dwarfs, who emerges to clunk Queenie with a mallet.)
Prince Chawmin’ comes back to wake his sleeping beauty with a kiss. But his repeated efforts fail, causing him to age prematurely from exhaustion. One of the dwarfs (who is fashioned after Disney’s Dopey) wakes So White with his kiss. When asked how he did he, the dwarf says, “Well, dat’s a military secret.” And a second dwarf-planted kiss causes So White’s pigtails to stand erect and two small U.S. flags to fly up. The film ends with the “Merrie Melodies” title superimposed over the fireplace silhouette image of Ol’ Mammy and the child.
“Coal Black” was directed by Bob Clampett, who always insisted that the cartoon was never intended to be racist. In an interview published in the 1970s, Clampett claimed the production was inspired by the performers in an all-black musical revue who asked why there were no black cartoon characters in the Warner Bros. canon. Clampett said, “All the controversy about these…cartoons has developed in later years, merely because of changing attitudes toward black civil rights that have happened since then.”
In fairness, Clampett did hire African American talent to provide most of the voice performances: radio actress Ruby Dandridge was the voice of Mammy and her daughter Vivian Dandridge voiced So White. (Some sources say Ruby Dandridge was also the voice of Queenie, while others give credit to Danny Webb.) Vocalist Leo Watson was the prince, while Warner Bros.’ resident voice artist Mel Blanc filled in on the dwarfs and Murder Inc.’s car.
“Coal Black” deserves credit for being fast paced (even by Warner Bros. standards) and blessed with a swinging jazz score. There are also some unexpected sight gags, including an out-of-left-field reference to “Citizen Kane.” And So White is so blatantly sexually provocative that it is amazing the Breen Office didn’t demand the film’s destruction.
But, ultimately, the minstrel show humor ruins the whole film. While So White is lovely to look at, the stereotypical physical depiction of the other African American characters is appalling. Clampett would claim, “Everybody, including blacks, had a good time when these cartoons first came out.” Somehow, I imagine that many African Americans were not amused at seeing themselves portrayed as physically unattractive buffoons with atrocious grammar.
“Coal Black” created a minor controversy when Jerry Beck listed it as Number 21 in his 1994 book “The 50 Greatest Cartoons.” Its placement was the result of votes by 1,000 members of the animation industry, so the film clearly had professional fans. Other books and a number of online publications have championed the film, too.
While I don’t support the censorship of “Coal Black” or any film, I am not convinced that one can overlook its significant racial problems. If anything, “Coal Black” and the other “Censored Eleven” titles need to be seen in order for today’s movie lovers to understand the negative reinforcement power that cinema had during the Jim Crow era. (And here is an unauthorized YouTube posting of the film.) This film may not represent great animation, but it provides sad history lesson that needs to be shared.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!