The 1932 Paramount film ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You’ starts by showing the cartoon characters Betty Boop, Bimbo and Koko moving through the jungle (Fleisher 1932). This happy scene is disturbed when, all of a sudden, they are surrounded by a gigantic amount of identical looking black men. These men are scantily clad, with only some leaves around the pubic area, and decorated with bands around their ankles and wrists, and rings in their ears and noses. Furthermore, they are holding a knife and fork. There is no room for doubt: these men are depicted as cannibalistic savages. After kidnapping Betty Boop, they make sexual advances towards her, while dancing rhythmically around her, accompanied by drum music. Meanwhile, Bimbo and Koko narrowly escape death by cannibalism. The happy end consists of Bimbo and Koko managing to free Betty Boop, and their pursuing assailants getting killed by a volcanic eruption.
As if this showy racism isn’t enough already, the savages are also in a fairly direct sense equated with the musicians accompanying the animation, namely black icon Louis Armstrong and his orchestra. This is, for example, done by morphing the floating animated head of one of the savages chasing Bimbo and Koko smoothly into the filmed head of a singing Armstrong, which is changed back to the savage again before the chase ends. In this way, not only the stereotypical African savage, but by extension the entire American black community is portrayed as a homogeneous, primitive group; sexually dangerous to white women and physically dangerous to white men.
How can this painfully racist film be of value in contemporary times? One opportunity this combination of image and sound plausibly offers, is being useful as a means to rehabilitate the resistive sides of the painful history of black subjugation. The importance of this is stressed by Fred Moten (2003) in his book ‘In the Break’. Interestingly, Moten empasizes the role of sound as a medium of resistance. How can the music provided by Armstrong and his orchestra be deployed as a way to reconfigure this blatantly racist short as a testament that proves that black persons treated as objects ‘can and do resist’ (Moten 2003, 1)?
Armstrong and the orchestra most likely weren’t in a possition to influence the scandalous way they and black people in general were portrayed in the film. Still, they had some freedom of movement in the domain of sound. Indeed, the song they play, in which the suggestive title ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You’ is repeated over and over again, is ‘a formula for offering resistance to white authority, cloaking insult with flattery’ (Raeburn 2013-2014, 65). This became clear to Armstrong a year earlier in Memphis. After he and his band were detained by the police for being on a bus that was ‘too nice’ for them, he had to do a free performance in return for their release. During this performance, he dedicated this particular song to the police who had imprisoned him on racist grounds. Much to the band’s surprise, this dangerous move did not lead to white violence; instead, the police responded positively to the dedication. White Americans did not recognise the insult; however, many African-Americans who heard the performance over the radio did (Raeburn 2013-2014, 63-65). With Paramount, Armstrong repeated this subversive tactic, reaching an even larger audience.
This way, it’s possible to reconfigure the film as a testament of resistance. Nevertheless, the question could be raised to what extent this view would overly glorify Armstrong’s role. Eventhough he was able to express a subversive message, the question remains if his participation didn’t contribute to the legitimation of the racism of the film, and if this possible negative contribution doesn’t outway the positive subversive side. Wouldn’t it be better if he hadn’t participated at all? On the other hand, it could be said that he was forced to comply with the violent white culture in some way, since his career and life as an artist were at least partly dependent of a white dominated industry.
In conclusion, Paramount’s ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You’ can be reconfigured as a testament of black resistance, relying on the subversive music accompanying the racist pictures. This case is even more interesting as it simultaneously highlights the difficulties in constituting such testaments. It points to the nasty way a oppressive white world forces suppressed black people towards the difficult path of negotiation between, and combination of, compliance and subversion.
Fleischer, Dave. 1932. I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You. Fleischer Studios.
Moten, Fred. 2003. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Raeburn, Bruce Boyd. 2013-2014. ““I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead”: Louis Armstrong’s Smack Down with White Authority and his First Films, 1930-1932.” Southern Quarterly 51(1-2): 58-72.