The Oscar-nominated The Old Mill Pond (1936) opens on a very beautifully drawn mill & pond scene, with a soft instrumentation of "Down by the Old Mill Stream" on the soundtrack.
Slowly the camera pans right to reveal a musical event about to begin among the frogs. A Mills Brothers type of four-part harmony group is singing.
As dusk falls, Cab Frogoway & His Orchestra rise out of the water on lily pads. Cab does some very nice dancing then begins singing a fair to good rendition of "Kicking the Gong Around," his orchestra answering some of the calls:
"Skippy boppy beepy hi-di-ho/ Where is Minnie (Where is Minnie)/ My poor Minnie (Your poor Minnie)/ Has she been here kicking the gong around?" Some of the scatting is better than the delivery of the lyrics. Kicking the gong is an opium reference but apparently white America never knew that or surely this would've been censored.
Minnie shows up, played by a pretty Ethel Waters frog in a red dress, singing with surprising sweet intonations:
"Oh nyeh nyeh nyeh nyeh/ Now I ain't doin' old style wooin', I know better now/ A king kong man from jungle land has taught me how/ So I just give him jungle rhythm, right in style & how."
Behind the Ethel Waters frog who is playing Minnie the Moocher, a chorus line of girl frogs emulate the top-hatted Cotton Club dancing girls. Cab then does a little instrumental introduction for Fats Waller, who is shown playing a grand piano as Froggy Bojangles Robinson dances down some steps, tapping out a repy to Fats' keyboared work.
Frog Waller & Frogjangles exchange a couple of "who dats!" then Fats, noting how well Bojangles is dressed, begins singing: "I declair, whozat there/ Looks to me like a millionaire/ See dat hat, see dose shoes/ Man like that oughta be good news." Pretty cool for a frog.
Frogjangles begins singing in a deep voice that his name is Mister Sippy. He does a vocal impersonation of a muted trumpet then sings a "Mister Sippy" lyric while tapping around the piano. This is good stuff throughout.
Fats asks "Did you hear dat?" & the four part harmony frogs begin to sing Don Redman's "I Heard," a classic jazz number of the time, & a hit for the Mills Brothers. One frog oomp-oomps a base line, another does a trumpet impersonation, & they're singing quite nicely in a Mills Brothers style without sounding at all like them.
The jazz frogs appear in five cartoons inclusive of a semi-remake, & these harmony frogs are in three episodes plus the remake. They always sound like a different group, but this is their first appearance, & the Mills Brothers the obvious influence.
Cab's band picks up the pace & Louis Frogstrong tears out a version of "Hold that Tiger" vocally & on his horn. The Harlem babes dance through; Cab scats a Tiger Rag riff; Thomas "Frog" Waller beats out "Tiger Rag" on his baby grand, & a small tiger jumps in & out of the lid inducing Waller to exclaim, "Yeow! What's the matter with him!" The one lame moment is when a Stepin Fetchit frog lazies through in slow motion until he sees the tiger.
This is an animated masterpiece, despite what the terminally ill politically correct might say. Some cartoons are clearly offensive but this one ain't, the moment with Stepin Fetchit notwithstanding, & even that just captures rather than exaggerates an actual black commedian's character.
You don't create something as fabulous as the swamp full of jazz-loving frogs then forget about them.
So that pilot effort was followed up by a trilogy of jazz frog cartoons, adding as point of view character the hugely revamped Bosko, who was quite a different figure when he started out in 1929/1930.
The original Bosko in black & white cartoons was of indeterminate age, but kind of an adult with adult occupations & adult attitudes toward his girlfriend Honey. His design was so simple that when I was a tiny kid watching Cartoon Carnival in the afternoon, I thought Bosko & Cubby Bear were the same character, & so was the Bosco Bear who pitched chocolate milk in advertisements.
But to a more mature viewer the original Bosko was a young black man in bowler hat. The technicolor Bosco & his girlfriend Honey were definitely just children, & Bosko's trademark bowler was also removed. (Start here for reviews of the original b/w Bosko cartoons.)
Bosko is a little black boy with an enormous imagination. In Bosko & the Pirates (1937) he is sent to grandma's house with cookies. Along the way, he hears a woodpecker & tapdances with the bird's pecking.
He climbs into a wooden tub to take a shortcut across a pond, & spies a derilect rowboat. The sight of the rowboat & the sound of the frogs causes him to imagine frog pirates on board a pirate ship.
Captured by his own fantasy, he's taken on board the ship, where a big fat frog with raspy voice says, "You got diss, you got dat, you got cookies," & Bosko's in a terrible predicament as the pirates want those cookies.
Four frogs do a harmony-group number. They almost evoke Delta Rhythm Boys, but actually sound most like the Cats & the Fiddle, who'd just been in the film The Duke is Tops while the Delta Rhythm Boys were on Broadway.
But neither harmony group would've been famous enough in 1938 to caricature. Yet these frogs are far from sounding like the Mills Brothers, which isn't to say they aren't awfully talented frogs.
After the fat captain-frog, who is supposed to sound like Louis Armstrong, raps in rhyme about the cookies, the harmony frogs sing: "We can't have no grandma's cookies today/ No grandma's cookies for us spies today/ Even though I love them so/ Even though I want them mo'/ We can't have no grandma's cookies today." It's a wonderful piece which will have variations sung & played by sundry frogs as the tale progresses.
The Bill Bojangles Robinson frog dances down a staircase & raps about the cookies. Bosko taps with him. He still won't give up the cookies, so the captain makes him walk the plank, resulting in another tap routine along the plank.
Captain Satchmo ends up playing his trumpet & Frog Calloway comes out to do a jive-jazz version of the "no cookies today" number while dancing & flinging his hair.
All jazz breaks out as the storm rises. A Fats Waller frog yells "What's the matter with you?" as he starts pounding on his piano & declaring his love of cookies & Bosko taps his heart out. The ship is sinking in the storm & in the end, Bosko's fantasy comes to a close & he continues on to grandma's.
Bosko & the Pirates is a wonderful cartoon, & avoids the worst of the race stereotyping of the era, unless you take exception to tapdancing, which would be silly.
Bosko is a rural kid, & his relationship to his "mammy" is stereotypical, but considering the easy pitfalls that Ub Iwerks' Sambo cartoons & the George Pal's Jasper cartoons tripped on, Iwerks' final version of Bosko is simply great.
Even when using a stereotypical idea, Bosko transcends. Bosko & the Cannibals (1937) shows only a little of the expected & cliche cannibal stuff, being too full of actual wit. Once again Bosko interacts with those jazz-makin' frogs who want those cookies.
On the trail to grandma's house he passes through a swamp. He begins to imagine the swamp is the Atlantic Ocean, & he's on a cannibal island. The frogs he's been listening to become the frog-people of an African tribe.
The fat frog-king, again doing a so-so Louis Armstrong gravelly voice, tries to wheedle cookies out of the boy by singing another cookie song.
It's a call & response number with Bosko replying: "I want cookies! (These here cookies?) Yes those cookies! (Not these cookies) Must have cookies! Grandma's cookies!" It's charming as all get out.
The harmonizing frogs, sounding more than ever like the Delta Rhythm Boys though intended to evoke the Mills Brothers, sing: "I like kale on whole wheat toast/ Black-eyed peas & chicken roast / Everything from coast to coast/ We love grandma's cookies most."
The Fats Waller frog does a little ragtime piano & sings another verse of "I Want Cookies."
Bojangles Robinson dances up a bamboo staircase with Bosko just like he did with Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel (1935).
Frog Calloway does his part of the number, with Bosko adding the "Hi de ho!" Throughout, Bosko is brave as can be, & why not, it's just his imagination.
The frogs are mostly sweet, but they do get pretty mean toward the end really wanting those cookies, & Bosko even duplicates the "walking the plank" tapdance routine from the Pirates episode, this time over a cookpot. Bosko fights bravely to the end, & makes his way back to the path to grandma's house.
The third & last Bosko & the Jazz frogs cartoon is Bosko in Bagdad (1938), sic for the mispelled Baghdad.
Our wee lad of a hero is sent on his way to delivering those fresh-from-the-oven "presumptious cookies" to grandma, his momma warning him. "Don't let yo' imagination go percolatin' off on any wild goose chase."
It's evening & he sets out with a keroseen lantern in one hand, bag of cookies in the other. Every sound in the night gets him full of imaginings, saying "Who dat!" to a frog & an owl.
All of a sudden, the Louis Armstrong frog rises up in the lamplight holding his horn. He conjures up a flying carpet & using his trumpet music for power, off they fly to Baghdad, a beautiful place of onion-dome architecture.
They knock on the door of the old sultan. The frog-version of ever-offensive Stepin Fetchit takes his time opening the door. The sultan is the Fats Waller frog.
He whispers to the Satchmo frog, "Get those cookies!' & they're off on a jazz & exotica music journey to convince Bosko to part with the cookies.
Frog Bojangles turns up to dance in a turban, but this is the only one of the Jazz Frogs films lacking Cab Frogoway.
The electric sidewalks take Bosko down into the dark gloomy horrors of the castles' dungeon where a giant spoon of castor oil tries to medicate him. But he tap dances along the electric stairs & back to safety as he sings "You can't have no grandma's cookies today/ No! Hiddy-biddy-boy, oh hi-de-hay."
The Fats & Satch frogs wrestle then get stuck on the electric sidewalk singing like crazy, while Bosko functions as orchestra conductor to the big jazz-band close.
It's the least appealing of the three films about Bosko & the Jazz Frogs, but you gotta love that obsession for the cookies. Since it all happens in Bosko's imagination, it's gotta be himself he's battling against, as it's an awful temptation to personally eat grandma's portion of his mammy's cookie production.
The "Happy Harmonies" cartoon Swing Wedding (1937) is about Minnie the Moocher's wedding, Minnie being a caricature of Ethel Waters, & Smoky Joe is replaced by Stepin Fetchit.
Caricatures of Fats Waller, Bill Bojangles Robinson, the Mills Brothers, & even a white harmony group (the Boswell Sisters) are included. The preacher is a caricature of Rex Ingram.
Cab Calloway & His Orchestra are a frog band which performs a version of an actual Calloway recording, "Minnie the Moocher's Wedding Day." A lot of this one closely parallels the original Oscar-nominated "jazz frogs" cartoon The Old Mill Pond from the year before, entire sequences duplicated but with different animation of the frogs & different songs. Both versions were by Hugh Harman & distributed by MGM so it's kind of odd they did such a close imitation that it amounts to a remake within the year, merely given a new context of a wedding.
The Old Mill Pond has a musical act upfront which consists of a four-party harmony group of frogs. Swing Wedding starts out similarly, but the four frogs are of a completely different design, standing rather than in squatting frog posture, & singing a totally different very hep tune, "Mississippi Mud."
A fifth frog busts into a delightful tap routine. The dancing frog shouts out about the four-party harmony frogs, "They don't need no band!" & the group begins an instrumental break with just their voices & hands.
An Ethel Waters frog has a momentary solo before the harmony frogs finish off the "Mississippi Mud" number.
The story parallels a Mill Pond sequence but without a wedding in the plotline. In Swing Wedding, Ethel-like Minnie sings "Let Me Take You Down to Chinatown (It's Minnie the Moocher's Wedding Day)" quite well, backed up by the Boswell Sisters sound-alike gal frogs, who wear flimsy long gowns that reveals their very chorus-girl legs right up to their crotches. In Mill Pond following a big number by Frog Calloway, Ethel as Minnie sings "Jungle Rhythm" without back-up singers, although she is attended by a chorus line of dancing gals. Cab's appearance is delayed in Swing Wedding until cued by his intention to steal Minnie away from Smoky Joe.
There's a momentary horn solo by Louis "Satchmo" Frogstrong, who then croons a beautiful rough-voiced ballad to Minnie, just before Smoky Joe arrives in slow motion (Smoky is Stepin Fetchit).
This revoltingly stereotyped guy is obviously unworthy of Minnie, so Cab Frogaway & his orchestra rise up out of the swamp (a scene that occurs much earlier in Mill Pond) & he begins to sing to Minnie with increasingly seductive demeaner, & completely wins her over.
Cab & Minnie do the cake-walk together, as Frog Waller plays barrelhouse on his upright piano, begins singing a song about Minnie's wedding as Bill "Frogjangles" Robinson dances into the scene (for once lacking his trademark staircase).
Frogjangles makes kazoo music with his lips, & Fats shouts out wonderingly, "What's da matter with him?" When Frogjangles sings, "Many times the bridegroom, but never the bride!" Fats exlcaims, "Get away from here!" & Frogjangles dances away, to be the best man for Cab & Minnie.
Minnie & Cab Frogaway are taking their vows before a frog preacher (who had a bigger role in Mill Pond). When it gets to the line "If there is anyone present" who disapproves, slow-poke Smoky Joe/Stepin Fetchit is shuffling nearby, shocked to see his bride won away from him. As he objects, Fats at his piano calls out "Who Dat!" & Satchmo Frogstrong who came in with Smokey Joe calls back "Who dat!" Fats asks, "Who dat say who dat when I say who dat?"
This same exchange occurs in Old Mill Pond but between Frogjangles & Fats. The who-dat routines allude to a minstrel show & also a jazz-club tradition few will recognize today, though no less a singer than Aaron Neville recorded the "Who Dat" song for modern music lovers. The impressionist doing Frog Calloway (or Cab Frogaway) did a great vocal.
The wonderfully leg-articulated frenzied dancing of Smoky Joe (the joke being slow Stepin Fetchit figure gains speed) & one of the wildly dancing musicians have got to be the inspiration for Chuck Jones' fantastic character of Michigan J. Frog in One Froggy Evening (1955). Cab's band takes off at full tilt performing, all tlhe guests are shouting, Fats & Satchmo are going full tilt.
When the censors decided to stop or limit distribution of racist films, those which caricatured well known figures as animals that didn't really look like black people were frequently spared. But this one did not slip by, because the cartoon also posits that jazz frogs are drug abusers.
During the last furious hot jazz number, the forest seems to come ablaze, & one of members of Cab's orchestra bends over with a needle to inject a pal. It only takes a half-second at about the seven minute twenty-six second spot, but it was enough. This got the cartoon censored for showing the trumpet player mainlining while the band goes nuts. Obvious this would indeed offend many, but the fact is, Cab did sing about drug use.
But of course, the link that did exist between jazzmen & drugs was not restricted to the black orchestras, & no cartoon would ever caricature a white orchestra injecting drugs. So the fact that this cartoon jokes about some truth doesn't necessarily defend it from racism. But neither is racism a justification for this work of art still being censored.
An added curiosity about this film is had a condensed version (three minutes instead of eight) re-released as Hot Frogs (1942) in a "soundies" format to be shown on Mills Panoram visual jukeboxes.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl