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

Nicholas Sammond, Author

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Animation's Golden Age

Some historians of animation suggest that the American cartoon's "Golden Age" began with the coming of sound in the late 1920s. Even if a golden age didn't begin then, major changes happened in commercial animation in the United States. At the same time that the film industry converted to sound, blackface minstrelsy became much rarer as a stage performance and somewhat more popular as a radio act by performers such as Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll (Amos 'n' Andy) or Moran and Mack (Two Black Crows). 

When minstrels left the vaudeville stage (which was itself dying), the visual referent to popular cartoon minstrels such as Bimbo, Mickey, or Bugs and the live minstrels that inspired their creation faded. With the coming of sound, for example, the film industry made short films touting the new technology that featured popular vaudeville and jazz entertainers. These short films, and radio, became a new home for vaudeville performers.  Cartoons could also compete with live vaudeville, and could do it without costly performers. 

At the same time as the minstrel faded from view, jazz music, which was often created and performed by African Americans and considered a primarily black art form, became incredibly popular.  When animation studios made cartoons based on popular jazz songs—sort of the music videos of their day—they often did so using very racist caricatures. These caricatures became the common racial theme in commercial animation in the United States, and helped to blur  the link between continuing cartoon characters and the blackface minstrels with whom they had once shared the stage.

In order to showcase (and solicit financial support for) early sound technologies, many of the early sound pioneers utilized popular vaudeville talent in their films. Here, for example, is an early sound film from 1923 showcasing Eddie Cantor in Lee deForest's new Photofilm sound-on-film system. Many of these vaudeville stars successfully transferred their signature acts to the silver screen. Al Jolson, for example, starred in several early sound features, The Jazz Singer (1927), The Singing Fool (1928) and Mammy (1930), performing in blackface. He also showcases his vaudeville performances in 1934's Wonder Bar, which features an elaborate minstrel version of heaven. By the 1930s and 1940s, blackface minstrelsy had become a marker of nostalgia. This is evident in Babes in Arms (1939), starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, two of the most popular stars of the day and in Holiday Inn (1942), starring Bing Crosby.

American animation responded to jazz with an assortment of racist caricatures of famous musicians like Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller which made literal the earlier implicit associations that blackface minstrelsy had made to the plantation, to Africa, and to nature that had become less explicit in Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker. The association of jazz with 'jungle' music allowed cartoons such as Clean Pastures (1937), Swing Wedding (1937), Uncle Tom's Bungalow (1937), Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943), and Mississippi Swing (1941) to imagine a fantastic geography that linked Harlem, the Deep South and Africa contiguously. The 'hotness' of jazz was also linked to the humidity of the swamp and the torpidity of the plantation negro in cartoons such as Scrub me Mama with a Boogie Beat (1941) and Swing Wedding (1937). 
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