Car-charo-toons: Plane Dumb (1932)



Plane Dumb (1932, Van Beuren Studios) 
Dir.: John Foster and George Rufle
TC4P Rating: 4/9

So, I spent some time years back on this site heaping light praise upon a much-neglected series like Van Beuren's Tom and Jerry shorts, and then I ran into the film Plane Dumb. The title Plane Dumb could very nearly describe the actions of the filmmakers as they contrived to create this wannabe Amos N' Andy homage. Apparently, donning blackface not only helped disguise the very white Tom and Jerry as they roamed about Africa in 1932, but it also lowered their IQs to the negative, changed your speech patterns automatically, and somehow also mad their disarrayed and lighter-colored hair instantly become short, dark and curly. Ah, the magical properties of a common makeup kit!

I read a couple of reviews for this cartoon short years ago where each of the writers complained that Tom and Jerry were traveling to Africa "for no good reason". Let me state this from the outset: Tom's plan is to fly non-stop across the ocean to Africa so as to bring fame and fortune to the pair. As simple and understandable as that. Non-stop flight... cross the ocean... fame and fortune. If this seems like "no good reason" to the reviewers, well, then they are probably not clued into the fact that when this film was made, the world was only five years removed from Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight to Europe. And although Lindbergh had done it already, there were plenty of daring aviators in those days. The feat was, given the limits of technology at the time, still quite a challenge to accomplish, and many more people besides Lindbergh continued to attempt it well after he achieved the goal. Just because you are first up the mountain doesn't mean that the next 10,000 mountaineers are just going to give up trying. It's the impulse of exploration that exists to this day, and it seems like enough of a "good reason" to me. (Not that I am going to try it myself... I have cartoons to watch.)

Now that I am done with the philosophical portion of this review, let's jump back to the film, which still has "no good reason" behind its creative impulses. How else to accept the continued harassment and degradation of other races by the mass media controlled by the white establishment of the day? As said, Tom wants to fly across the ocean to Africa so that they can become heroes, but Jerry couldn't care less. He sits bored and listless in the passenger seat, but expresses worry that they might not be safe in Africa. Then Tom hits Jerry with his 'brilliant" idea to put on blackface makeup to disguise themselves on the "Dark Continent," which they do. Soon, the pair are transformed completely (as described in the first paragraph). They shake hands at the completion of their task, and as their voices switch to Amos 'n' Andy mode, they both shake hands and say at the same time, "Well, I'm sho' glad to see you again!"

Apparently, though, the disguise also whisks away Tom's abilities to fly the plane, and he loses control and dives the craft down into the ocean. The biplane's wings rise to the surface, and the now-darkened (the makeup does not wash off) pair climb onto the wings of the plan and dangle their feet in the water. "Well," starts Jerry, "I wonder how far it is to there!" Tom's answer: "'bout twenty knots!" Jerry scratches his head at this, and asks, "How come they got knots in the ocean?" Tom shrugs his shoulders, and answers, "Tropical wave gets heavy, it gets tangled, it makes knots!" To prove his remark, he points out several waves which meet with other wave crests and knot up three times in succession, following comedy's Universal Rule of Threes.

An octopus suddenly climbs up and with a huge smile, happily puts an arm over each of the lad's shoulders. Both men shriek, but Jerry is even more alarmed, and cries, "I tol' you I didn't wanna go to Africa!" "Wait a minute!" interrupts Tom, "Is we in Africa?" "No we ain't in Africa!" is Jerry's reply. Tom asks, "Does it look like we is gonna get to Africa?" "It shoooooooo' don't...," fears Jerry. "Then what has you gotta kick about?" The octopus, probably alone in his opinion, finds this hilarious, and laughs uproariously. It kisses Tom full on the cheek, but Tom takes this as an attack and punches it in the nose. (Yeah, I know that octopuses don't have recognizable noses, but this one does... a big, black button nose.) The punch from Tom ires the octopod, who briefly spanks the gangly man on the bottom, and then the huge mollusc spins his arms and wallops the pair (Tom on the rear and Jerry in the head) over and over again in bicycle fashion. The octopod then dives back into the water.

Just after that attack, a crowd of sharks are shown swirling about the pair's feet. Tom and Jerry take turns both accusing each other good-naturedly of tickling the other one's feet, but then their mood changes when shark after shark starts breaches from the water and leap over their heads. "Dinner station's in the front," jokes Tom as he ducks his noggin down against the wing. "Look here, man! These is shawks!"Jerry continues, "Will they eat ya?" to which Tom, still ducking his head, replies, "If they don't, they'll sho' mess you up plenty!" 



From below, a large sawfish skewers the plane's wings right through their center and starts to saw through, so the lads are forced to springboard off the end of the wings and then run along the top of an long rainbow of breaching sharks. "We running, ain't we?" asks Jerry, and Tom finishes with, "But we ain't gettin' anyplace!" The last shark goes past, and the pair drop into the briny drink. They struggle to stay afloat, but because we don't see Tom and Jerry swim before this in the cartoon, it is hard to tell if their inability to swim is because they are now black (which would play off the once commonly held stereotype that blacks are bad at swimming) or if they just can't swim period. (I am banking on the stereotype, given when it was made.)

A large ominous-seeming black whale zooms through the waves and then the film cuts back to the boys struggling in the water. Suddenly, they are standing upright with their feet still just below the water, and Jerry proclaims, "Hey, sista! We been saved by a submarine!" The whale pops up with the pair on his back well above the water, and Tom says, "No! This is a whale!"Jerry wonders where it is going, and Tom says, "Ask him. I don't speak whale-ish!" The whale continues to cut through the water at a high rate of speed towards the shore. They decide to try to stop the whale by sitting "on his nose to smother him". When they do, the whale spouts them high up into the air, and eventually aims them towards the shore by adjusting its spout. The boys are deposited with a rough tumble or two onto a patch of ground, where just moments before, a crowd of assorted jungle animals were watching their approach. (The lion, for future reference, ran into a nearby cave...)

After they are charged by a pair of strange-looking imaginary animals, Tom and Jerry run into the cave, which is cloaked entirely in complete darkness, so that only their eyes, enormous lips, and single-toothed mouths can be seen. Their heads swell up to fill the screen as they carry on with their "What was dat?" "Where iz we?"-style routine. At one point, Tom's eyes get all weird and googly for the briefest of moments, merely for sake of adding more weirdness to the scene. Soon enough, when the lights come back on, they get assaulted by a huge bat and then the lights go out again, leaving us once more with their lips and eyes only. A deep growl is heard in the darkness, and we assume it is the lion we saw walking into the cave earlier. "Jerry," says Tom, "turn loose my leg!" "I ain't holdin' yo' leg!" When Tom reaches the point of begging his diminutive friend with "Jerry! Jerry! Please say 'Yes, you iz holdin' me!'," then the lights come back on and the boys face off with a quartet of black skeletons. The skeletons sing in gospel fashion, naturally in four-part harmony...

"Good lord, I'm ready
Indeed, I'm ready
Oh, good lord, I'll be ready when the great day comes!"

Sitting all the way to left, the fourth skeleton takes a brief, bass solo...

"Good glory hallelujah!"

They repeat the refrain, and at the end, the bass skeleton finishes solo with "the great day comes" again. The four black skeletons then burst into pieces and lie all about the floor in front of the boys. Tom and Jerry shriek and run out of the cave in fear and end up being surrounded, from behind every object imaginable, by an entire tribe of headhunters. The lads run for their lives as spear after spear is thrown past them. For some reason, with the spears flying all about the pair, Tom and Jerry both wipe the blackface from their faces, but it helps them not at all in escaping from their predicament. They end the film in a cliffhanger, in danger for their lives with no chance of escape dangling before them. The film irises out, and not a moment too soon.

Like most of the film, the ending seems to not matter, for the only purpose seems to have been to get Tom and Jerry into blackface so they could carry off what must have been some already pretty standard and tired vaudeville routines involving the supposed behavior of blacks in the 1930s. (There are probably even more subtle digs piled in here that meant more in the time period, but I am unaware of them.) That a cartoon series that could actually be so fun would resort to gags like this for a joke here and there would be more bearable, but to need the use of such a gimmick for an entire film is unforgivable. On top of this, never once is a real laugh approached within its far too long seven-minute running time. (They don't even reach the shores of Africa until 5 minutes into the thing.)

If anything saves this film from being a total waste of time, it is a few, brief scenes, most of them involving the ocean creatures Tom and Jerry encounter. There are those marvelous shots of the mass of sharks swirling about beneath the floating wings and the tickled feet of the boys. I also like the scene with Tom and Jerry running along the backs of the voracious, leaping sharks, and the scene where the whale is seen cutting through the water, where he rather humorously filters a bunch of fish out through his gapped teeth. I also like the scene where the plane is flying above Africa, and the Dark Continent is shown with what must be about a half-mile of jungle spread out across its obviously not-in-scale relief map. It's the one part of the film that actually strikes me as being wittily designed.

I'll admit it openly. I do have a certain fascination with Hollywood films that use blackface, not just as a gimmick, but sometimes as the impetus for the plot. I'm embarrassed when I see Eddie Cantor, Judy Garland, or Fred Astaire (all of whom I adore otherwise) or Al Jolson (whom I don't) don the makeup, and with it the stereotyped garb, mannerisms and characteristics that come with the disguise. But I can't turn away. It's a fascination like that with a trainwreck. You want to think better of the people involved, especially when they are entertainers you appreciate normally, but then you realize they were just as complicit in even the casual racism of the day as everyone else, including their audiences.

If you make it deep into Al Jolson's Wonder Bar, which is a horrid exercise in how not to make a musical comedy for the first 3/4 of the film (though there are several tidbits of pre-Code verbal naughtiness worth hearing), you end up viewing Busby Berkeley's production of Goin' to Heaven on a Mule, with its "Here you is in Hebbenly Land!" lyrics and its giant dancing watermelons... and your jaw just drops. I will admit that I found some of this pretty funny when I was a teenager and young adult, but then I made a solid attempt to raise my game and tried to put all the lazy stereotyping that I learned growing up in the '70s in Alaska behind me. Along the same lines, you watch some scenes like this in older films, and wonder how some of these white stars could perform like this, especially given that they were often surrounded by real blacks with real talent, and one wonders how they were able to shut off that part of their brain that said, "This is the wrong thing to do." Or were they just too trapped in the studio system and the overreaching norms of the time to be able to do anything about it at the time?

Now, the Van Beuren Studios were not Hollywood: they were New York-based, and right across the street from the Fleischers Studio. (According to Maltin, Fleischer artists would sometimes moonlight at Van Beuren due to their proximity, which is not a surprise.) Many of the early Fleischer films, too, dealt with such stereotypes, though often (but not always) in a much subtler fashion, sometimes incorporating characteristics into their plots and drawings, but not always in the then-commonly accepted "blackface" mode.

I was thinking at first that perhaps the voices used by Tom and Jerry while in blackface were white performers such as on Amos 'n' Andy, but according to IMDb, the parts here are played by seminal African-American songwriters and performers of the day, Aubrey Lyles and F.E. Miller. This surprised me, though I have yet to find another source to back this information up. Despite this, no matter who provides the voice or fills the role, outrageous and incorrect racial stereotypes are just thatVan Beuren stoops pretty low with Plane Dumb, bringing us that common mode and sending it straight into the commode. The film has a few cute moments, but stinks otherwise, and a definite step down from other films in the Tom and Jerry series (but not that many steps down). They did the wrong thing in this picture, especially given that it is not only a slap in the face of another race of humans, but it is a badly done slap in the face.

But you can't look away... especially to Dixieland.

RTJ

And in case you haven't seen it:


[This review was originally written and published on May 2, 2006. It has been updated with a rewrite, a video link, and new photos and republished on September 21, 2017.]

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