20 June 2008 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Bill Frawley as Lord Haw Haw Haw.
WARNING: RACIAL EPITHETS AHEAD.
Here's a musical short that was probably very popular in wartime 1942 (notice its title), but which would now evoke a few protests from various quarters due to the comments against Japanese and Italians. Interestingly enough, the lead performer shown on-camera -- he's accompanied by two girls in majorette costumes, and backed by an offstage chorus -- is none other than character actor William Frawley, not usually considered a musical performer.
Back in the days of American vaudeville, a very popular musical routine was "Ist Das Nicht Ein Schnitzelbank?", in which a schoolmaster with a comic German or "Dutch" accent would point to illustrations of various objects, with the other performers (portraying the students) replying in unison. Dozens of vaudeville acts did variations on this turn; even the Marx Brothers (with Groucho as the schoolmaster) tried it in their early days.
Frawley had been a vaudeville performer himself, and here he does a version of that routine with updated lyrics for World War Two. Wearing an academic gown and mortarboard, and with a long pointer in one hand, he points to a caricatured drawing of a Japanese man, and sings: "Isn't this a sneaky Jap?" When the offstage chorus reply "Yeah, man, sneaky Jap!", Frawley sings the next line: "Will we kick him off the map?" The chorus reply: "Yeah, man, off the map!".
And so forth. Some of the lyrics are less imaginative than others. Pointing to a drawing of Mussolini, Frawley continues the call and response: "Isn't this Benito's jaw?" (Yeah, man, Benito's jaw!) "Haw haw haw haw haw haw haw!" (Yeah, man, haw haw haw!) Did someone get paid for writing this?
'The Yankee Doodler' is one of those songs in which each verse gets progressively longer, tacking on the responses of all the previous verses. But at least there's a snappy refrain: "Now we're gonna win! Gonna win, gonna win!" The entire routine is performed by Frawley on a bare stage, pointing at various drawings that illustrate his couplets.
Well, 'The Yankee Doodler' is clearly wartime propaganda, and the Japanese and Germans were saying worse things about us than we said about them. Fair enough. Frawley performs a snappy song-and-dance routine here, and 'The Yankee Doodler' is interesting as an example of Frawley's musical abilities, as well as a (modified) example of the old-time Schnitzelbank routine. Still, I winced at those lyrics ... not because they're so jingoistic and racist, but because they're just so ruddy AWFUL! "Jaw" and "haw haw haw"? Oh, blimey! Kindly leave the stage! My rating for 'The Yankee Doodler' is just 6 out of 10.