Saturday, January 22, 2011

SATIN DOLL: Disney's First African American Princess

Just in time for Disney’s Snow White's 73rd Anniversary. Just in time for Black History month.

I was wondering if I should rename this blog: The Redemption of Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs.

In December of 1937 Walt Disney defines concept of the animated feature with: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

In 1943, after encouragement from Duke Ellington to make an all black musical animated cartoon, animation legend, Bob Clampett directs the infamous African-American parody: “Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs". Despite grossly racially offensive gags it is considered an animation masterpiece. Either way, it's widely regarded today as a animated dictionary of racial stereotypes of African Americans.

Merrie Melodies "Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs" (1943)
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In Clampett’s defense I doubt there was malice in his intention. In 1943 all ethnic groups (blacks, Asians, Jews, Native Americans, Irish, take your pick) were savagely satirized and caricaturized. Also the fact Ruby and Vivian Dandridge (mother and sister to Dorothy Dandridge respectively) supplied voice talent to the cartoon, possibly implies the cartoon (though sophomoric) probably was not meant to wound.

In 1946 Duke Ellington’s all black musical idea resurfaces again as “Cole Black and the Seven Dwarfs”. This time as a Broadway parody produced in partnership with none other than Disney. The musical was never produced but development for the production went as far with a book and lyrics written by Disney storymen, T. (Thornton) Hee and William Cottrell AND concept designs (sets and costumes) by none other than Mary Blair.

In stark contrast, and still a parody Cole Black on the surface looks like something pointing in the direction of “good taste” and "class" with a Harlem Renaissance sensibility present.

Apparently the production started in development as early as 1946 and went as far as 1955 when a full script was developed. However by this time Cole Black and the Seven Dwarfs was renamed “Satin Doll and the Seven Little Men”.

Was the name change politically correct move? Probably not. Was it Duke's idea? Who knows. The Disney Broadway musical was never produced. Four of Duke Ellington’s songs have survived the development limbo: “I Could Get a Man”, “It’s Love I’m In” , “Once Upon A Dream” and the title song “Satin Doll” which was released in 1953.

“Satin Doll” went on to being a Jazz classic and the production once known as “Cole Black and the Seven Dwarfs” men faded into obscurity. Pity. It really sounded like it could have been something great. Arguably if Satin Doll and the Seven Little Men made it to Broadway it could have been a hit especially with the name Disney attached to it.

If the production was successful, Satin Doll arguably might have been re-imagined in an animated medium making her Disney’s first African American princess, and not Tiana from Princess and the Frog some sixty-odd years later.


  1. very interesting !!! nice post : )

  2. I have the orignal script as T.Hee's son in law.

  3. I'm pretty sure this was not a "Disney" project--just one on which three Disney artists work. At the time (1955) T. Hee wasn't employed at the Disney studio. Also--at least on the script I saw--the Disney name doesn't appear on it. I believe this was likely a side project these people did to make money.