Fearful Symmetries

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04 November, 2006

"Banned" Looney Toons 6: "Uncle Tom's Bungalow"

"Uncle Tom's Bungalow" was released on 5 June 1937. It is a parody of the famous novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Like many of the other so-called "Censored 11", this cartoon traffics in stereotypes of blacks and has thusly been pulled from circulation.

It begins by establishing the setting which is a plantation. We see a steamboat docked on the shore and the camera pans to reveal fields dotted with shacks. Finally we arrive at the plantation home and are introduced to the first character, Little Eva, by a kindly narrator. This is followed by intros to all of the characters: Topsy, Tom, Eliza, and Simon Simon Legree

Note that these are all characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Here they are introduced as being unassociated with one another and the narrator asks them to get ready to act in the story.

It begins at the Simon Simon Legree Used Slave Company where Simon threatens poor old Tom.

Tom utters the phrase, "My body may belong to you, but my soul belongs to Warner Brothers" which is a parody of a line from the book which replaces Warner Bros. with "God". Eva and Topsy come to the rescue and buy Tom from Simon.

While able to make the first couple month's payments, the girls fall behind and Simon goes to the plantation home to repossess Tom. Tom hides himself in a portrait on the wall just before Simon enters. He looks around for Tom and reaches underneath the couch only to put his fingers into an electrical socket. This angers him and the girls look to suffer at his hands.

But it's Eliza to the rescue and she bursts out of the closet and grabs the children. She run across the snow-covered fields until she comes to the river. Unfortunately for her, it hasn't frozen over. However, there just happens to be an ice machine on the shore so she puts in a nickel and pulls the lever. The ice machine-cum-slot machine comes up jackpot and Eliza throws the ice onto the river so she can get across.

Simon and his hounds are in pursuit, however. The narrator describes the chase as if it were a horse race with Eliza so many lengths ahead with the villain gaining. Simon finally corners them next to a tree on the opposite side of the river. He menacingly hovers over Eliza and raises his whip. Things are looking bad until they see Tom driving towards them, his hands clutching a lot of cash.

He pays off Simon who greedily walks off. Topsy does a little dance and Eva asks, "Uncle Tom, where did you get all that money?" Tom reaches into his pocket and pulls out a pair of dice.

The stereotypes here are common and I've seen them before in the some of the other "censored" Looney Toons that I've watched. (See below for links.) Black characters are portrayed as if in black face; black men are prone to gambling, specifically shooting craps. I didn't mention it above but, when we are introduced to Eliza, she does a raucous little dance. I think this buys into the stereotype of blacks as having no self-control and in need of restraint.

The one scene that I found amusing was when Legree puts his hand into the electrical outlet. I could see it coming a mile away but I still laughed. It must have appealed to the same part of my brain that loves The Three Stooges. Plus, Uncle Tom's Cabin engenders the antebellum South and to see an electrical outlet play against that just humors me.

One thing I wondered about after having watched the cartoon was just how many people today would get the parody element here. While it seems unlikely anyone would make a parody of Uncle Tom's Cabin today because of the racial stereotypes, what would happen if South Park did it? How many of the viewers would recognize the parody? The Wikipedia entry for the novel notes that there were several cinematic adaptations of it between 1903 and 1927 and then moviemakers virtually abandoned the book. Disney did a parody of it in 1933 called "Mickey's Mellerdrammer" and then the cartoon at hand in 1937. But it would be until 1987 that the story was revisited cinematically with live actors in the form of a TV movie. Did it become verboten for its content? Or had it been given the film treatment too many times? The author of the Wikipedia entry says: "The subject matter of the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel was judged too sensitive for further film interpretation for several years." I'm not quite sure which subject matter (s)he is talking about. The portrayals of blacks certainly couldn't have been the issue as the negative stereotypes were to be found elsewhere in abundance between 1927-87. Was it slavery? Christian faith and the Christ-like portrayal of Tom? The "feminist" views?

The cultural currency of Uncle Tom's Cabin has changed a lot over the years. When it came out, it was considered a potent tool for the anti-slavery movement. Today, it seems to be viewed more as a historical curiosity that purveys harmful stereotypes, albeit one that had good intentions. This is perhaps misguided. Here's a quote from Dr. Sarah Meer, Lecturer and Director of Studies in English at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge:

In some ways, our seeing her (Stowe's) pictures of black people as caricatures comes from the fact that lots of people borrowed from her. They became stereotypes because other people did it many times.

It is odd that there was a 60-year period in which Hollywood avoided the novel excepting a Mickey Mouse cartoon and the one at hand and I have to wonder what happened during this time. That these 2 shorts were made leads me to believe that dealing with the novel cinematically was not beyond the pale in the 1930s. I think that it also indicates that Disney and Warner Brothers expected general audiences at the time to be familiar with the novel. So, what to make of "Uncle Tom's Bungalow" today? On the one hand, it's a parody of a novel with which viewers at the time were familiar. On the other, though, it clearly traffics in negative stereotypes. So, while the cartoon itself is not all that amusing, it does bring to light a topic of interest to me: how our society's perceptions of Uncle Tom's Cabin have changed over the years.

You can watch "Uncle Tom's Bungalow" here at Google Video.

Screencaps found here. Thanks to Duck Dodgers.

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|| Palmer, 9:45 AM


Uncle Tom's Bungalow (1937):
Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:42 PM  

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