BOOTLEG FILES 554: “Jasper Goes Hunting” (1944 animated short directed by George Pal).
LAST SEEN: The film is on YouTube and a few other Internet video sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Racially insensitive content coupled with licensing issues surrounding the use of a Warner Bros. character.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It seems unlikely, at least for now.
In last week’s column, the focus was on a doomed effort by the Warner Bros. studio to introduce animated rabbit characters that were meant to take the place of Bugs Bunny. This week, Bugs himself is in the spotlight, but not for any of his Warner Bros. cartoons. Instead, we are looking at the only “Golden Age” animated short where Bugs was featured in another studio’s output. That studio was Paramount Pictures and the creative force behind the effort was George Pal. And if you never heard of the film in question, that’s because it is part of Hollywood’s shameful history of churning out racial insensitive subject matter.
Born György Pál Marczincsak in Hungary, George Pal made a name for himself as an expert in stop-motion animation in the pre-Nazi German cinema He created advertising films that were popular in European theaters, but Hitler’s rise forced him to leave Germany for the Netherlands. He immigrated to the United States in 1939, and he achieved a contract at Paramount thanks to the intervention of animator Walter Lantz.
Pal produced a series of shorts called “Puppetoons,” which involved hand-carved wooden puppets that were coordinated in a series of complex stop-motion configurations. In some shorts, there would be dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of variations of the same puppet for use in dialogue and specialized movements. The results were often impressive – Pal’s work received seven Oscar nominations and he received an honorary Academy Award in 1943 for his output – but his productions were also fairly expensive (costing upwards of $50,000 per one-reeler) and required a lot of time to create. As a result, his output was somewhat limited compared to the works of units that opted for hand-drawn animation.
There was another problem with Pal’s movies: in 1942, the Puppetoons series introduced a new line of shorts centered around an African-American boy named Jasper. Pal would later claim that he saw Jasper as a modern day Huckleberry Finn, but to contemporary viewers it would seem that Jasper was the heir to the minstrel show era: the child had large white lips that stood out on his dark-skinned face, and he shuffled about on oversized feet while speaking in broken English. Little Jasper’s adult guardian was Mammy (you can imagine what she looked and sounded like!), and he got mixed up in multiple misadventures with the team of Mr. Scarecrow (an anthropomorphic scarecrow that sounded like he took diction lessons from the old “Amos ‘n’ Andy” radio shows) and the jittery avian Blackbird (who sported a voice very similar to Eddie Anderson’s Rochester character from Jack Benny’s radio series).
Jasper and his posse inevitably found themselves in situations that overplayed hackneyed racial stereotypes. One short, titled “Jasper and the Watermelons,” left absolutely nothing to the imagination. By 1944, Pal decided to bring Jasper back to the Mother Continent with “Jasper Goes Hunting,” which may have been the dullest of the series had it not been for the unlikely inclusion of a somewhat more successful animated character in the plot.
“Jasper Goes Hunting” opens at Mammy’s chicken’s farm, and Mammy is upset at her inventory. “Every times I counts them chickens, there’s another one missin’!” she fumes. The culprits, judging by a stack of chicken bones on the ground, are none other than Mr. Scarecrow and Blackbird, who are eager for another one of Mammy’s poultry. Mammy hands a rifle to Jasper with the orders to guard the hen house while she is away. Mr. Scarecrow and Blackbird turn up and charm the naïve child into giving him their rifle.
At this point, Mr. Scarecrow begins to spin a wild yarn about hunting in Africa, and the shack where Jasper lives is magically transformed into a dense African jungle. Mr. Scarecrow claims that he once went “hunting big game,” to which Blackbird sarcastically chimes in, “He means crap games!”
Jasper, Mr. Scarecrow and Blackbird go in pursuit of an elephant, unaware that the massive beast is following them. Blackbird is the first to realize what is happening and he squawks, “That ain’t no hummingbird behind us!”
The trio arrives at clearing where there is a hole in the ground. Mr. Scarecrow points the rifle at the hole and demands that its occupant comes out. And who should pop out of the hole but Bugs Bunny! The celebrated rabbit gives a jaunty “What’s up, Doc?” greeting and smiles at his visitors while bombastic music that vaguely resembles the Warner Bros. cartoon theme plays. Bugs then does a double take, looks around his Puppetoons surroundings and exclaims, “Hey, what do you know? I’m in the wrong picture!” Bugs jumps back into the hole, leaving the other characters to fend for themselves from spear-chucking natives and a rampaging elephant. The short ends with Mammy returning home to find Mr. Scarecrow and Blackbird in her shack. She threatens to call the police and have them arrested for stealing chickens – and she makes good on her threat, as the chicken-picking pair wind up in prison.
Yeah, “Jasper Goes Hunting” is as dismal as it sounds – maybe worse. Now, how did Bugs Bunny wind up in this film? Well, it seems that Pal did a deal with Leon Schlesinger to “borrow” the character for a one-shot gag – indeed, the film’s opening credits said that Bugs Bunny appeared “courtesy of Leon Schlesinger Productions” rather than Warner Bros. Schlesinger brought in Robert McKimson to animate Bugs’ brief appearance and Mel Blanc was tapped to read Bugs’ dialogue (though neither man got screen credit). While it was not unusual for studios to borrow each other’s stars for single films, it was highly uncommon for animation units to do the same. Indeed, the only other case I can recall of something similar happening was when Walt Disney brought Mickey Mouse to MGM for the 1934 “Hollywood Party.” (Bugs, of course, would make his second non-Warner Bros. appearance opposite Mickey Mouse in 1988’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”)
In fairness to Pal, it appeared that the filmmaker did not intend the Jasper series to create ill will. Pal hired African-American actors to do the voices of the characters in the series – Ruby Dandridge played Jasper, Alvin Childress was Mr. Scarecrow and Lillian Randolph was Mammy – and his films were much less virulent in their stereotyping than similar output from Warner Bros. or Walter Lantz. Nonetheless, Pal absorbed harsh criticism of his work from the African-American media and tried to make amends with a serious 1946 production “John Henry and the Inky Poo,” based on the African-American folklore hero. But it was too little, too late, and after 1947 Pal abandoned animation to concentrate on feature film production.
“Jasper Goes Hunting” was part of a TV syndication package of Pal’s films that turned up in the 1950s under the UM&M banner. By the 1960s, though, the Jasper films were removed from television due to complaints by civil rights organizations. A few of the Jasper films turned up in “The Puppetoon Movie,” a feature-length tribute to Pal made in 1987 and updated in 2000 and 2013, but this title was not included in that work. Most likely, licensing the Bugs Bunny character for a home entertainment re-release was too costly, especially on such a shabby little film like “Jasper Goes Hunting.” (Likewise, Warner Bros. made no effort to include the title in their DVD collections featuring Bugs Bunny.)
Over the years, there has been an online equivalent of Whack-a-Mole involving this title. The film has popped up on the Internet, only to be yanked off following cease-and-desist efforts by the title’s copyright owners. It recently reappeared on YouTube and a few other sites, albeit in a badly faded UM&M re-release print, but at least it offers Bugs Bunny fans a rare opportunity to see this long-missing work. I suspect that this new unauthorized posting will soon be taken offline, so Bugs’ devotees need to shake their tails and catch “Jasper Goes Hunting” before it heads back to oblivion.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits 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!