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Birth of An Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation

Nicholas Sammond, Author

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A Case Study: the Early Bird and the Worm

Just as the conventions of minstrelsy were shared by animators at different studios, so sometimes were minstrel traditions shared across media. This case study charts the movement of a routine by the white blackface minstrels Moran and Mack, whose bit "The Early Bird and the Worm" plays on the stereotype of African Americans as inherently lazy.

Moran and Mack performed this routine as a stage show, but they also presented it on radio and recorded it on shellac (a precursor to vinyl). Here is a recording of the Moran and Mack routine "The Early Bird and the Worm" from 1927 (transferred from 78rpm record).

This routine was lifted almost verbatim for use in the  1936 MGM cartoon The Early Bird and the Worm, which assigns the routine to two black crows—which was also the nickname for Moran and Mack. (Move the cursor to 4:40, at about the middle, to see the routine.)

Compare these versions with this article paraphrasing the routine from Photoplay magazine (1929). Minstrelsy was as popular as it was pervasive. Even as it faded as a live performance, it found new homes in different media.

In this instance, blackface minstrelsy is a direct (if nostalgic) reference to earlier times rather than a vestige attached to a continuing character such as Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck. Whether on record, in the press, or in a cartoon, the crows perform the stereotype of African Americans as lazy and unwilling to work, which flows directly from the minstrel fantasy of the recalcitrant slave.
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