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.
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.
- 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. ↩