The Strange Career of King Louie

Millions of kids grew up watching Disney’s 1967 version of The Jungle Book. The most memorable scene probably comes when Louie, the King of the Apes, tries to convince Mowgli to tell him the secret of fire. There are a number of secrets in the scene, it turns out.

Here’s the clip:

I saw it as a kid at the movies, and barely remembered it. Then I saw it again as an adult, maybe a fifteen years ago, and was appalled.

King Louie is an ape, and he’s singing about wanting to be a man, and he’s clearly imitating Louis Armstrong. Louis Armstrong played the trumpet, as King Louie the Ape does, and he was famous for his gravelly voice, his use of jive talk, hipster slang, and his style of “scat” singing, all of which King Louie, the Ape, makes liberal use of.

Louis Armstrong was a radical, modernist figure in the 1920s, a charismatic pioneer. He had a famously relaxed and loose, irreverent and clever way of remaking songs and phrases that was powerful and fresh. Armstrong went from being an avante-garde figure, in the, 20s, to being a mainstream entertainer in the 40s and 50s, to being something of an embarrassment in the 1960s. His mugging, comical and entertaining style came to be seen as “minstrelish” and demeaning.

Louis Armstrong as "king" of the Zulu Krewe, 1949

Armstrong added to this when he proudly accepted being named “King of the Zulus” in the Mardis Gras parade in his home town of New Orleans, something Armstrong regarded as a signal honor but which looked, since it involved blackface makeup and grotesque African caricatures, pretty bad by 1960. So there’s Louis Armstrong, or someone who sounds a lot like him and plays the trumpet, as a cartoon ape singing about wanting to be human in the Disney Jungle Book. It looks like the worst form of (at best) unconscious racial stereotyping. 1

It turns out to be much more complicated. The voice of the ape is Louis Prima, who was in many ways a Louis Armstrong imitator. Prima was also born in New Orleans; nine years after Armstrong. The child of Italian immigrants, he grew up in the working class of that famously mixed city.  He idolized Armstrong as did many musicians and virtually all jazz trumpeters.  Between being from new Orleans, being from the working class, being Italian American and being a jazz musician, Prima picked up what might be called a “black”  affect. According to Gary Boulard in his biography of Prima, when Prima arrived for his first gig in New York, the owner refused to let him play, assuming he was black. Reportedly, he had to call back down to a friend in New Orleans who assured him that no, Prima was white.

So this gives a very different resonance to Prima singing “I want to be like you:” it makes the “you” he wants to be like Louis Armstrong, and the song appears to be less a black man aspiring to be human and more a white man aspiring to be black. When the Disney team brought Prima and his band in to record the tunes, they filmed the band as they went into their Las Vegas act, which involved walking through the audience in a line. You can see film of that here. The animators, they claim, patterned the cartoon ape’s movement on Prima. The casting of Prima is an interesting choice. Prima was a good musician and initially a good jazz player in the “dixieland” style, which was growing dated even in the 1930s. He remade himself as a swing band leader, then as the leader of a celebrated Las Vegas lounge act, and finally as a singer of ethnic Italian novelty songs. He’s frequently seen as a precursor to rock and roll music, because of his exuberance his raucous semi-R&B style and his excellent band, “the Witnesses.” Modern audiences know Prima mostly through the movie Big Night and through the David Lee Roth song Just a Gigolo and the Brian Setzer song Jump Jive and Wail, both of which are almost exact copies of Prima’s originals.

Mowgli himself, in  the cartoon, is, like Prima, “ambiguously white.” Kipling, in the original books, has him as  a high caste indian from Rajahstan, possibly the son of “the richest man in the village.” In american culture in the 60s and even today Indians were racially ambiguous–officially Indians were caucasians, because they were descendants of the original Aryans. In the case of US v. Thind, the Supreme Court ruled explicitly that yes, “hindus” were caucasian, but they weren’t white.

Disney’s Mowgli is light brown, but speaks American accented English. That Prima, an olive-skinned Italian American once taken for black, wants to be like both Louis Armstrong and brown-skinned aryan boy adds to the complexity of the racial subtext. That the background music for the whole process is “white negro” hipster jive talk, something Baloo and King Louie have in common, adds even more: African American popular culture, ventriloquized, is the field on which whiteness is being defined.

Disney’s history has deep roots in the minstrel show. Christopher Lehman’s excellent The Colored Cartoon describes in detail the way Disney borrowed features and plots and music from the minstrel show. The first Mickey Mouse cartoon puts the mouse on a steamboat, long a part of minstrel iconography, and added a soundtrack of minstrel tunes. Disney’s early collaborator, the fantastically named Ub Iwerks, made a series of minstrel show cartoons after he left Disney studios. I don’t mean to simply call Disney a racist; rather I want to point out the complicated way racialized themes, and the minstrel show tradition, worked in American culture.

The ventriloquism of the King Louie scene is extremely complicated.  There are no actual African Americans in the cast of The Jungle Book,  but African American culture, or at least ventriloquized versions of it, is everywhere in the film, from Prima’s song to the cartoon vultures who are clearly imitations of the Beatles, themselves partly “imitations” of African American R&B and blues. The most responsible “person” in the film, Bagheera the Panther, speaks in plummy british english and stands for seriousness and bourgeoise normalcy: the jive talking jungle hipsters pose an alternative form of whiteness, americanized and inflected by African American culture. Actual African Americans, though, appear only in cartoon versions of themselves.

  1. My colleague Benedict Carton is writing a book, Shaka’s Progeny, with Robert Vinson. The book treats Armstrong and the Zulu Krewe as part of a larger study of the image and trajectory of the Zulus in a global context. They points out, rightly, that the Zulu Krewe and its blackface was simultaneously and expression of pride in the fierce autonomy of the African Zulu nation, and an expression of the Mardis Gras culture of New Orleans, which always involved face paint and elaborate costumes. For Armstrong, a New Orleans native, being named “king of the Zulus” was a sign of honor and respectability and pride.

10 Comments

  • charlie mcgovern wrote:

    mike – great post – we’ve talked about prima for years, it seems, right? Ive dug up some stuff that indicates that he played black blubs and theaters a lot, and for a time so much that he might have had few other gigs – in the 1940s during the swing years he gigged a lot in black theaters. Yet Prima from almost the get go was also hamming it up doing the italian (should i say Prosciutto?) along with the blackface. So where does his blackface end? are there limits to the imitation?

    I always found it fascinating in the context of the movie, once i saw it as an adult, that louie was playing off Baloo’s Phil Harris, who made his living doing the white southern con man/shiftless/blowhard routine – he was even less dignified and classy than Louie double minstrel take. Add in Sebastian Cabot as the voice of the bourgeois black panther, with his heritage of conquest, imperialism and british ventriloquism (he was descended from that Sebastian Cabot, so it was said all throughout his brief life) Add this to the primate/evolution connection and the scientific racism that placed blacks down on the evolutionary ladder and you have a text that explodes with over determined racialism. Nic Sammond at U toronto is working on some of the racialism labor and bodies in film and cartoons – its going to be a great book.

  • Yes, I FINALLY got around to writing something on this. Prima is a really interesting guy in so many ways.

    You’re dead right, there’s so much more you could say about this film. It was the last movie Disney himself supervised, and it kind of takes him back full circle. There was that long anglophilia period–101 dalmations, peter pan, Mary Poppins etc–and in this film he went back to the minstrel derived, gleeful transgressive of his early work.

    I wanted to add that Jaco Pastorius called his publishing company “Mowgli Music:” makes perfect sense in every way.

  • Meredith wrote:

    Glad you included the footnote about the Zulu Krewe/parade, because I think the interpretation of it in the text was way too simplistic. I’ve never studied it formally, but I attended the parade in 2007 and was so struck by what I saw that I did a little research on its origins. I found it to be a spectacle of incredible defiance, especially when you situate it in the context of the first parade. The Zulus marched without permission for the first time in the 1910s. The parade essentially mocked the conventions of the white krewes, and has included since the beginning several characters designed to mock both racial stereotypes and the seemingly benevolent largesse of white New Orleans. The audacity of that, in a period of such racial violence, is impressive. It suggests a Bakhtinian interpretation of carnival–comic crownings and uncrownings and a temporary inversion of the power structure. Today, people pay tens of thousands of dollars to ride a float in the Zulu parade, and many of the float riders are white people in black face. Again–on its surface an offensive act. But there are black people in black face too, and it’s impossible to tell who is who. So the parade also embraces the racial ambiguity of political theater like that of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which did a full on minstrel show in the 1960s, complete with a chick/stud sequence, with white and black actors concealed behind blackface. Those performances were so uncomfortable that they were routinely shouted at by their audiences and were also cited by police for disturbing the peace. Anyway, it’s complicated–way more complicated than just black people accepting white stereotypes without question.

  • Meredith wrote:

    I didn’t mean for the first sentence of this to sound so rude. I’m sorry!

  • Christopher P. Lehman wrote:

    I enjoyed reading your article. Thank you for the kind words you wrote about my book THE COLORED CARTOON. I hope you found it helpful.

  • Nicholas Sowels wrote:

    Thank you for this very interesting article. I saw the film as a middle-class white Brit when if came out: and just remember being terrified by Kaa.

    I then watched it a lot again, with my family in France when my daughter was a kid in the 1990s. I thought the voice of Louie was Louis Armstrong, and did find the implied racism repulsive. Only later did I find out it was Louis Prima. A lot is also lost in translation.

    It is hard to get away from imperialism of Kipling and the stain of racism in the film. But I cannot help myself feeling that the film is great and the animation and music of King Louie’s swingdance are a masterpiece of animated film.

  • Belinda Gomez wrote:

    Have you read Love and Theft by Lott? Blackface is considerably more complicated than simple racism.
    And Kipling = colonialism is an unsophisticated reading of his work and beliefs.

  • Yes I’ve and theft multiple times and taught it multiple times. What exactly is unshod fixated Kipling = colonialism? He wrote extensively about colonialism, almost entirely favorably, including the famous white mans burden. Have you read the jungle book stories?

  • […] him to sleep on the floor. It also bears a remarkable resemblance to King Louie, who would be talking jive and aping Louis Armstrong as the beloved “King of the Swingers” in Disney’s 1967 The Jungle Book, fully 42 […]

  • […] The Aporetic, The Strange Career of King Louie, 27 March 2012.  […]

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