Thursday, July 9, 2020

Black Hoosiers in Animation

Ours is a cancel culture in which art is permitted to serve a political purpose or none at all. In other words, any art that is not propaganda is to be censored, bowdlerized, suppressed, cancelled, eliminated, or destroyed. Right now it is statuary that is bearing the brunt of the anti-art, anti-history, and anti-culture movement in the West. Once the destroyers are done with sculpture, they are certain to move on to other forms. Museums and libraries are likely targets. The nation's cultural and educational institutions should probably start thinking about how they're going to protect their collections. After all, it's a lot easier for a single destroyer to slip into the stacks and burn everything there is about Andrew Jackson or Christopher Columbus than it is to topple a statue. The act might not be as public or ostentatious, but it would be effective nonetheless. If the goal is to destroy the past and all knowledge of the past, then words and images must go into the memory hole in the same way that statues are decapitated, burned, dumped into lakes, or dragged through city streets like an American serviceman in Mogadishu.

Movies, too, are being cancelled. Gone with the Wind (1939) has joined Song of the South (1946) on the list of forbidden works. Never mind that it includes a performance by Hattie McDaniel, the first by a black actor to win an Academy Award. We cannot be permitted to see it. Other movies and television shows can't be far behind.

Animated film hasn't escaped the wrath of the cancelers and destroyers. Hank Azaria, an American of Sephardic Jewish extraction, can now no longer provide the voice for the South-Asian character Apu on The Simpsons. Instead, Apu and other characters in animated series will have "race"-appropriate actors speak in their voices. It is one of the absurdities of our age that actors, who are in the business of pretending to be something they are not, will not be permitted to pretend to be something they are not.

One of the cancelled film performances is by James Baskett, a chemist, chiropodist, mortician, and newspaper columnist who was of course best known as an actor. He won a special Oscar for his performance in Song of the South, making him only the second black actor and the first black man to win the the award. In Song of the South, he played opposite the first black woman to win an Oscar. By my estimate, Song of the South was the first movie to feature two black Oscar winners. (Mr. Baskett's winning the award was of course still in the future when the movie was being filmed.) Nevertheless, we cannot see his or her performance.

In addition to appearing in the live-action sequences of Song of the South, Mr. Baskett provided the voice of Brer Fox in the animated parts. He had previously been the voice of Fats Crow in Dumbo, released in 1941. As far as I know, he was the first black Hoosier to appear in animation or to provide the voice for an animated character. I don't know of any black Hoosier artist to have worked behind the scenes as a storyboard artist or animator. 

James Franklin Baskett was born on February 16, 1904, in Indianapolis, Indiana, the son of John S. Baskett (1869-1921) and Elizabeth Baskett (1879-1961). The death of his older sister in her infancy (before he was born) left him an only child. His parents, both native Kentuckians, lived close to downtown Indianapolis, including on Douglass Street, the same street on which members of my dad's family once lived. Douglass Street is no longer in existence. It was cleared to make way for the Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis campus, possibly also for the Lockefield Gardens Apartments. Mr. Baskett grew up in Indianapolis, but he left his native city in the 1920s to work on the Broadway stage, then in Hollywood. He appeared in fewer than a dozen movies, with Song of the South being his last. James Baskett, also known as Jimmie Baskett, died on today's date in 1948 and was buried at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis with his father. His mother was also buried at Crown Hill. May he and they rest in peace. The image above is from Uncle Remus Brer Rabbit Stories, published by Golden Press of New York in 1977.

In 1968, the Hong Kong flu ravaged the world. A couple of years later, a kung fu craze swept across America like a contagion. Combine the two and you might have the beginnings of Hong Kong Phooey, an animated TV series produced by Hanna-Barbera and broadcast from 1974 to 1976. The title character, as any culturally literate person knows, is a dog who knows kung fu and sings scat for his title song. That's convenient because the voice of Hong Kong Phooey was done by none other than Scatman Crothers.

Born on May 23, 1910, in Terre Haute, Indiana, Benjamin Sherman Crothers was a singer and actor who appeared in movies and TV shows from 1950 until his death in 1986. His parents were Benjamin Crothers (1873-1938) and Fredonia (Lewis) Crothers (1871-1937), both of whose families had come from the South. Scatman Crother's paternal grandfather at least, named Abe Carothers or Caruthers (ca. 1844-1907), was born a slave.

Scatman Crothers performed on the radio in Ohio during the 1930s. In 1937, he married and moved to California. He continued to sing and play guitar in front of live audiences, on radio, and on records. As a member of the group The Ramparts, he recorded "The Death of Emmett Till" in 1955. By then he had made his movie debut. Two years later, in 1957, he made his first appearance in a television series, in an episode of The Adventures of Jim Bowie entitled, strangely enough, "Quarantine." The Adventures of Jim Bowie, by the way, was based on a  book by a fellow Hoosier, Monte Barrett (1897-1949) of Mitchell, Indiana. Barrett also created and wrote the script for the long-running newspaper comic strip Jane Arden.

Although there were only sixteen episodes of Hong Kong Phooey, the character proved very popular. There were Hong Kong Phooey children's books, comic books (above), lunch boxes, and other merchandise. A few years back there was talk of a Hong Kong Phooey movie. I'm not sure how good it--or anything else--could be without the participation of Scatman Crothers. He died on November 22, 1986, in Van Nuys, California.

Scatman Crothers also did the voice of Meadowlark Lemon on The Harlem Globetrotters cartoon series produced by Hanna-Barbera and shown on Saturday morning television from 1970 to 1973. Like Hong Kong PhooeyThe Harlem Globetrotters was a very popular  show and spawned its own line of merchandise, including the stickers shown above, which, if you were lucky, you would have found in boxes of General Mills cereal in 1970.

The Jackson 5 were also from Indiana. They were Jackie (b. 1951), Tito (b. 1953), Jermaine (b. 1954),  Marlon (b. 1957), and Michael (1958-2009). All are natives of the city of Gary, the largest American city founded in the twentieth century. Like The Beatles before them, they were immensely popular. Like The Beatles, too, they had their own Saturday morning cartoon series, The Jackson 5ive, produced by Rankin-Bass and Motown Productions and broadcast in 1971-1972. The brothers didn't do their own voices except in the songs on the soundtrack. Voice actors took their place, including Edmund Sylvers, later of the group The Sylvers.

If you don't have to be born in, work in, or live in Indiana to be considered a Hoosier, then maybe we can still call people imprisoned within the state Hoosiers. Cartoonist Clyde Lamb (1913-1966), for example, a native Montanan, served time in Michigan City. Upon his release, he became a magazine gag cartoonist, then had his work syndicated in American newspapers. It seems pretty likely to me that Mike Tyson would rather just forget about his Indiana years. My including him here might be in pretty bad taste. But I would like to consider him a Hoosier, too. Since being released from an Indiana prison in 1995, Mr. Tyson has had his ups and downs. I would like to think that he considers the animated television series Mike Tyson Mysteries, in which he plays himself, one of the ups. Produced by Warner Bros. Animation, it has been on the Cartoon Network Adult Swim since 2014. Because of it, Mr. Tyson's form and image have been turned into an action figure (above), which is really just a miniature statue. I dare anyone to knock this one down.

Vivica Fox (b. 1964) of South Bend has done voice acting in Unstable Fables: Tortoise vs. Hare (2008), Scooby-Doo! Stage Fright (2013), and The Sky Princess (2018). The still above is from Sofia the First: Carol of the Arrow, from 2015.

Born in Evansville, Indiana, Ron Glass (1945-2016) did voice work on Superman: The Animated Series and All Grown Up! His most prominent voice-acting role was as Randy Carmichael on the Nickelodeon series Rugrats.

Finally, Kenneth Brian Edmonds (b. 1959), a native of Indianapolis and better known as Babyface, was a producer on the music soundtrack of The Prince of Egypt, released in 1998. Ironically, The Prince of Egypt was banned in several countries, including of all places Egypt. As always, the non-artists of the world, the intolerant and the iconoclastic, the haters and destroyers, the oppressors and censors, seek to deny us a look at any art they deem inappropriate. When will it ever end? How will it end? Not as the destroyers expect, I think, because the true artist possesses an irrepressible and indomitable spirit.

Text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

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