From "John Henry and the Inky-Poo" (1946)
From “John Henry and the Inky-Poo” (1946)

“John Henry and the Inky-Poo” is a 1946 short film that was selected as 1 of 25 motion pictures to be named to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress a year ago. These films, which epitomize the diversity and richness of the nation’s cinematic heritage, have been identified as motion pictures that deserve to be preserved because of their cultural, historic or aesthetic importance.

Spanning the period 1894-1997, the films named to the registry once every year include Hollywood blockbusters, documentaries, silent movies, animation, shorts, independent and experimental motion pictures. There are now about 700 films in the registry in total, which is a small fraction of the Library’s vast moving-image collection of 1.3 million items.

“John Henry and the Inky-Poo” centers on the African American folk hero John Henry, who was probably based on an actual person who worked on the railroads around the 1870s. The legend began to appear in print in the early 20th century, but emerged early on as a popular folk song. Akin to other such rugged folk heroes as Paul Bunyan, John Henry is said to have worked as a “steel-driving man,” hammering a steel drill into rock and earth to build tunnels and lay track.

According to legend, his prowess was measured in a competition against a steam-powered hammer. John Henry won the race against “Inky-Poo,” only to collapse and die, hammer in hand.

Stop-motion animation pioneer George Pal created the 1946 short film after the NAACP and Ebony magazine criticized his offensively stereotyped Jasper series of cartoons. The magazine later praised “John Henry” as the first Hollywood film to feature African American folklore in a positive light and to treat its characters with “dignity, imagination, poetry, and love.”

Highly popular during its time, the film was nominated for an Academy Award. It has also been preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

I just learned that an uncut version of the 1946 George Pal stop-motion animated short is in the public domain, and is available online, thanks to YouTube. It’s embedded below for you to watch in full: