That’s Enough, Folks: Black Images in Animated Cartoons, 1900-1960, by Henry T. Sampson. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8108-3250-X, Hardcover library binding (no dust jacket), 249pp, $60.00.
Scarecrow Press has long been one of the researcher and cinephile’s best friends. A scan of their Filmmakers Series, for example, includes such enticing obscurities as The Memoirs of Alice Guy Blache, studies of underrated directors like Robert Florey and Thorold Dickinson, even an oral autobiography of Mae Clarke. Henry Sampson’s book on black imagery in commercial cartoons is aimed at researchers but has some appeal to the average film fan willing to plough through the long plot renditions. This is a big book (about 8-1/2 x 11) that includes, besides the plots, limited technical information (company, genre, and characters), fascinating interpolated biographies and historical data, and, where available, contextualizing quotes from both contemporary and recent reviews.
Sampson begins with a historical overview that links animated cartoons to their newspaper origins and situates the black-themed cartoon in the context of the approximately 7,000 cartoons copyrighted in the U.S. between 1900 and 1960. He divides his information into four major themes: the rare black “stars” of the genre like Bosko, Li’l Eightball, Mandy, and Buzzy the Crow; animated safaris; plantation themes; and the animated minstrel show. The “stars” were actually mostly support — Mandy, for example, was Little Lulu’s maid and never had a cartoon of her own. Some of the reviews Sampson quotes are simple endorsements of the commercial potential of these ‘toons. Others carry the still disturbingly racist tone of their time. In a 1917 review of Pat Sullivan’s Sammy Johnsin in Mexico, the London Bioscopesays: “Sammy Johnsin, that delightful nigger mite … sets forth to capture a Mexican bandit…. a sadder and wiser nigger wanders into the unknown. Delightful.” Indeed. Things weren’t much better by 1943, when a trade magazine called Bob Clampett’s notorious Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarves “a jig jamboree of joyous quality.” Author Sampson provides some solid balancing opinion with more recent reviews and analysis.
The author wisely leavens the text with a substantial insert of visual material — ad slicks, frame enlargements, poster art, and provocative images like a photo of “George Pal with his cartoon creation Jasper, circa 1942.” This seemingly simple picture speaks volumes about the distortions of black identity perpetrated by smiling white men throughout cinema history.
Included are some rather amazing bar charts illustrating useful data like the number of cartoons with black characters as percentages of both total film production and total cartoon production, and the number of times famous black entertainers were caricatured in cartoons. The winner: Cab Calloway at an astonishing 26 times.
Typical of Scarecrow, this book is aimed at libraries and priced accordingly; at $60.00 it’s out of the reach of the average fan who might well purchase it at half the price. Scarecrow, are you listening?