Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (working title: So White and de Sebben Dwarfs) is a Merrie Melodies animated cartoon that was directed by Bob Clampett, produced by Leon Schlesinger Productions, and released to theatres on January 16, 1943 by Warner Bros. Pictures in partnership with The Vitaphone Corporation. The film is notable for being an all-black parody of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Snow White, known to its audience from the popular 1937 Walt Disney animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The stylistic portrayal of the characters, however, is an example of darky iconography (see blackface), which was widely accepted in American society at the time. As such, it is one of the most controversial cartoons in the classic Warner Bros. library, has been rarely seen on television, and (because it is one of the Censored Eleven; see below) has never been officially released on DVD or any other form of media. However, it is often named as one of the best cartoons ever made, in part for its African-American-inspired jazz and swing music, and is considered one of Clampett's masterpieces.
The character designs for "So White" and her seven friends are examples of the racist darky iconography typical of Hollywood animation during the first half of the 20th century. As a result, Coal Black and similar cartoons have been removed from circulation and are little known today among mainstream audiences.
In this version of the story, all of the characters are African American, and speak all of their dialogue in rhyme. The story is set during WW2 in the United States, and the original tale's fairy tale wholesomeness is replaced in this film by a hot jazz mentality and sexual overtones. Several scenes unique to Disney's film version of Snow White, such as the wishing-well sequence, the forest full of staring eyes, and the awakening kiss, are directly parodied in this film. The film was intended to have been named So White and de Sebben Dwarfs, which producer Leon Schlesinger thought was too close to the original film's actual title, and had changed to Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs.
Clampett intended Coal Black as both a parody of Snow White and a dedication to the all-black jazz musical films popular in the early 1940s (i.e. Cabin in the Sky, Stormy Weather, etc.). In fact, the idea to produce Coal Black came to Clampett after he saw Duke Ellington's 1941 musical revue Jump for Joy, and Ellington and the cast suggested Clampett make a black musical cartoon. The Clampett unit made a couple of field trips to Club Alabam, a Los Angeles area black club, to get a feel for the music and the dancing, and Clampett cast popular radio actors as the voices of his main three characters. The main character, So White, is voiced by Vivian Dandridge, sister of Dorothy. Their mother, Ruby Dandridge, voices the Wicked Queen. Leo Watson is the voice of "Prince Chawmin'". The other characters, including the Sebben Dwarfs, are voiced by standard Warner voice artist Mel Blanc.
Originally, Clampett wanted an all-black band to score the cartoon, the same way Max and Dave Fleischer had Cab Calloway and His Orchestra score the Betty Boop cartoons Minnie the Moocher, The Old Man of the Mountain, and their own version of Snow White. However, Schlesinger refused, and the black band Clampett had hired, Eddie Beals and His Orchestra, only recorded the music for the final kiss sequence. The rest of the film was scored, as was standard for Warner cartoons, by Carl W. Stalling.
Coal Black opens in front of a fireplace with a red-tinted silhouette of a large woman holding a young child in her lap. The little black girl asks her "mammy" to tell her the story of "So White an' de Sebben Dwarfs". "Mammy" begins:
"Well, once there was a mean ol' queen. And she lived in a gorgeous castle. And was that ole' gal rich! She was just as rich as she was mean! She had everythang!"
The rich, Wicked Queen then appears, depicted as a "food hoarder", with a large repository of items that were on ration during World War II: rubber, sugar, gin ("Eli Whitney's Cotton Gin" brand) and more. After stuffing her face with candies (from a box marked "Chattanooga Chew-Chews"), she asks her magic mirror to "send her a prince 'bout six feet tall", but when Prince Chawmin' arrives in his flashy car, he declares "that mean ol' queen sho' is a fright / but her gal So White is dyn-a-mite!" Finding So White hard at work doing the laundry, the prince takes her hand and the two swing out into a wild jitterbug. The queen sees this and hires "Murder, Incorporated" to "black-out So White." The assassins arrive in a panel truck that advertises, "We rub out anybody for $1.00; Midgets: 1/2-price; Japs: free". (That $1 would be equal to $12.7 today)
The assassins kidnap the girl, but after several unseen "favors" which make the would-be assassins very happy, set her free in the woods unharmed. Just before they drive off, the assassins are seen covered with So White's lipstick, an innuendo as to exactly how she earned her freedom. Wandering through the woods by herself, So White runs into the Sebben Dwarfs, seven diminutive army men in uniform who sing "We're in the Army Now," with two dwarfs singing "it takes us cats ... to catch those rats" at the end, and So White declares in a 1940s swing-style singing voice, "I'm wacky over khaki now!" They immediately recruit her as their squad cook, and she spends her days "fryin' up eggs an' pork chops too" (to the tune of "Five O'Clock Whistle") for the hungry soldiers, as a sign which hangs from her outdoor antique stove reads, "Keep 'em frying," as a sendup of the World War II slogan, "Keep 'Em Flying."
Meanwhile, the queen has learned that So White is still alive, and pumps an apple full of poison which she wants to give to the girl and kill her. Several worms escape the apple as the queen injects it with poison, one carrying a sign that says "Refoogees." The queen disguises herself as an old peddler woman, and arrives at the Sebben Dwarfs' camp and gives So White the poisoned apple. One of the seven dwarfs (modeled on the "Dopey" dwarf in Disney's film) alerts the others that the queen has caused So White to "kick the bucket," and the entire squad hops into its vehicles (a Jeep, a "Beep," and, for "Dopey," a "Peep"). As the queen makes her escape over the hills, the dwarfs load a cannon with both a war shell and "Dopey." The shell sails over to the queen, stops in front of her in mid-air, opens, and "Dopey" appears, knocking the crone out with a mallet.
Even though the queen has been defeated, So White is still dead to the world. The dwarfs note, in spoken rhyme:
"She's outta this world! She's stiff as wood!
She's got it bad, and that ain't good!
There's only one thing that'll remedy this
and dat's Prince Chawmin' and his Dynamite Kiss!'"'
Upon the dwarfs' invoking of his name, the prince jumps into the scene in a spotlight and promises to "give her a kiss / and it won't be a dud / I'll bring her to life with my special 'Rosebud'!". Wiping his lip and leaning over the girl in preparation, Prince Chawmin' proceeds to give So White a succession of highly aerobic kisses, practically swallowing the girl's face whole in trying to awaken her, but without any luck. Prince Chawmin' keeps frantically kissing So White (his efforts underscored by a solo from Eddie Beale's trumpet player), and the efforts literally take the life out of him as he turns into a withered old man, shrugging his shoulders in defeat (although there seems to be an alternate version of this scene, where he just ages and his face turns into a lighter hue). The "Dopey" dwarf then saunters over to So White, and, to the tune of "You're in the Army Now," lays a kiss on the girl so dynamic that not only does So White wake up, but her eyes become large as saucers and her pigtails fly straight up into the air (depicted in Rod Scribner's typically extreme animation style) as she jumps into the air.
The worn-out and aged Prince asks "Dopey," "Man, what you got that makes So White think you so hot?!" "Dopey" replies, "well, dat is a military secret," and lays another kiss on So White, which sends her pigtails sailing into the air again and causes the red ribbons on them to turn into twin American flags, to several notes of "The Stars and Stripes Forever", and immediately after the kiss, So White shows an obvious "afterglow" in her eyes and her smile. The film then fades to the standard Merrie Melodies "That's all, Folks!" end title text, superimposed over a shot of the little girl and her "mammy" from the opening scene.
Controversy over racist content
Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs is notorious for being one of the "Censored Eleven": eleven Schlesinger/Warner Bros. cartoons produced at the height of the Golden Age of Hollywood animation based on arguably racist humor and its unflattering and stereotypical use of darky iconography. Because it was produced in America during World War II, there is also anti-Japanese sentiment: the firm "Murder Inc." advertises that it does not charge to kill "Japs".
The same basic stereotypical elements present in the earlier Censored Eleven films are also present in Coal Black, depicted with more detail and made to conform to Clampett's "wacky" directorial style. The Prince, a vague Cab Calloway lookalike, is depicted as a slender, zoot suited Black man with straightened hair, a monocle, and gold teeth (with dice in place of the front two incisors). Both he and the dwarfs are drawn with large eyes, small noses, and unnaturally large pink lips, derived from the appearance of a white man in blackface rather than that of an actual black man. The middle-aged wicked Queen is depicted as an overweight, asexual crone, with large lips that are only partially covered with lipstick (the Queen's lipstick only extends as far as it would if her lips were proportionate to her face).
Only So White escapes the extreme caricature given the other characters, although she is stereotyped in a different manner. She is designed as an attractive young woman with a voluptuous figure revealed by a short skirt and a low-cut, cleavage-revealing blouse. The sexualization of So White recalls Walter Lantz's 1941 cartoon Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat, where a young light-skinned Black woman is depicted as attractive while the other Black characters are drawn as extreme caricatures. In both that film and Coal Black, the sexually attractive features of the young women are significant plot devices. In Coal Black, So White is the object of sexual desire for every male character in the picture. This draws upon the stereotype of the young attractive black woman as an "exotic" sexual being, a stereotype present in roles that African-American actresses such as Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne played in American cinema.
Clampett would revisit black jazz culture again in another 1943 Merrie Melodies cartoon, Tin Pan Alley Cats, which features a feline caricature of Fats Waller in a repurposing of the wacky fantasy world from Porky in Wackyland (during the opening sequence, the "Fats" cat is distracted by what appears to be a sexy, feline version of So White). Clampett's colleague Friz Freleng directed a cartoon titled Goldilocks and the Jivin' Bears in 1944, essentially Coal Black remade with a different fairy tale, and Warner's director Chuck Jones directed a series of shorts starring a prepubescent African hunter named Inki from 1939 to 1950. Like Coal Black, Tin Pan Alley Cats and Goldilocks and the Jivin' Bears would also end up in the Censored 11.
Coal Black in later years
The racially stereotyped portrayals of African-Americans in Coal Black and the other "Censored Eleven" cartoons led to their being suppressed from television broadcast. In 1968, United Artists, which then owned the rights to the pre-August 1948 Warner cartoon library, officially banned the cartoons from circulation, and they have not been officially broadcast or released on home video since - even as the rights returned to Warners.
Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs is often praised and defended by film scholars and animation historians, and has often been included on lists of the greatest animated films ever made. One such list, the subject of Jerry Beck's 1994 book The 50 Greatest Cartoons, placed Coal Black at number twenty-one, based upon votes from over 1000 members of the American animation industry. Scholarly animation texts including Michael Barrier's Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, name Coal Black as Clampett's undisputed masterpiece. Despite its being banned, Coal Black is a popular draw at film festivals and small-audience screenings, and is often bootlegged for release on home video.
It was seen briefly in the 1989 Turner Entertainment VHS release Cartoons For Big Kids, hosted by Leonard Maltin, and in the Behind the Tunes featurette, "Once Upon a Looney Tune" in the Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 5 DVD box set.
On April 24, 2010, Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs, along with 7 other titles from the Censored Eleven was screened at the first annual TCM Film Festival as part of a special presentation hosted by film historian Donald Bogle; the eight shorts shown were restored for that release.