Black & White

In which I continue to violate your childhoods.

The safety curtain labeled “assbestos” isn’t the half of it — this is one of those cartoons it’s probably best to dismiss as a bad dream.

This is the Mickey Mouse cartoon Uncle Walt probably doesn’t want you to see. It doesn’t seem to be included on the DVDs collecting the rodent’s b&w adventures. Along with SONG OF THE SOUTH, which is positively unproblematic by comparison, this has been, er, whitewashed from history.

SONG OF THE SOUTH, the Disney feature with the most worrisome rep, is certainly a quaint and disingenuous view of the south, and again features a certain amount of racial stereotyping. But I’ve always felt a certain fondness for it — despite the unwelcome revelation that Gregg Toland’s genius kind of evaporated when he shot in Technicolor — as a kid, I’d see Uncle Remus singing Zippedy-do-dah in all those TV specials, and I liked him. And I realized much later that I hadn’t even perceived him as ethnically different from myself. He was just an old man. So I can kind of feel the innocence in the film’s depiction of race.

My friend and Film Festival colleague Niall Greig Fulton got in touch after Sunday the 22nd’s post to mention TRADER MICKEY, “Which ends with Mickey Mouse eating cannibals.” It doesn’t quite, I’m afraid, but it still contains plenty of outrageous imagery and attitudes –

Should I attempt a Leonard Maltin-style defense of the above?I could say, “OK, *you* do a caricature of a cannibal that isn’t racist!” but I don’t think that would wash. While Buster Keaton’s cannibals in THE NAVIGATOR aren’t grotesque distortions of humanity like Disney’s, they still partake of a rather limited view of African civilisation — cannibalism has always been very much a niche activity in reality, so part of the racism is in depicting it so frequently. I don’t demand it be portrayed sympathetically… and I can’t stay mad at Buster.

At least Mickey befriends the natives, rather than defeating them in a warlike manner. Maybe, after the chief tragically suffers 90% scalding in the final shot, Mickey joins them in their life of anthropophagy, perhaps even taking over the tribe like Martin Sheen at the end of APOCALYPSE NOW. With Pluto as a kind of canine Dennis Hopper.

But really, all possible allowances aside, I do think this is (you should pardon the expression) rather beyond the pale.

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24 Responses to “Black & White”

  1. Jenny Eardley Says:

    Yikes. To be fair to the cannibals, though, they really seem to have turned a corner. Eating dog and mouse is unconventional by western standards but is considered just about acceptable if you’re REALLY hungry and there’s nothing else. It’s just good old healthy carnivorousness.

  2. Paul Duane Says:

    Your penultimate paragraph makes me wonder – can it be you haven’t seen Apocalypse Pooh? If not, go there now.

  3. The cartoon segments of Song of the South</A. a re delightful. But the live-action portions are problematic in the extreme. The cartoons are visual recreations of the stories Uncle Remus (James Baskett) is telling the children — whcih the adults beieve to be deliterious but are as we knw quite moral and correct. Jonathan Roisenbaum has been the only critic I know of to have pointedout the absurdity of the film's dramatic climax in which the parents send Uncle Remus away because of the effect thwey think he's having on the kids.

    HOW CAN YOU FIRE A SLAVE?

    Of course this brigs up the entire question of the era in whcih the film is set. If it's the pre-war South than Remus is a slave pure andsimple. If it's afterwads then he's just a 'tramp" feebing off of the "tenant farmers" that the slaves became (just like slaves but nominally "free')

    Van Dyke Parks' song cycle "Jump!" is very important in this regard as Van Dyke researched Joe Chandler Harris' research. The "Uncle Remus" stores were renditions of folk tales of African origin. As American racism is premised on the notion that all Africans are "savages" with no history whatsoever these fables are quite important to countering that racist notion. Unfortunately Disney is no help in this regard.

    Bobby Driscoll was pur unadulterated "child star" roadkill. He ended up a drug addict. His last film apearance was in Piero Heliczer's Dirt. He was buried in Potter’s Field until someone from the family investigated his whereabouts and re-interred him in a proper grave.

  4. As for blackface, I much prefer —

  5. David Boxwell Says:

    Disney Corp re-released SoftheS as late as 1971, when I saw it in a theatre in Pennsylvania. It would be interesting to learn exactly when and why it got “buried” in the US.

    Ford was employing Stepin Fetchit as late as 1953, the year before Brown V. Board of Education. Yet none of Ford’s even more cringe-inducing representation of African-Americans have rendered his oeuvre beyond the pale.

    And Disney had nothing on Busby Berkeley’s “Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule” (WONDER BAR, 34), which really is astounding. And not in a good way.

  6. La Faustin Says:

    I wonder if the fact that Mickey’s Mellerdrama isn’t in circulation has something to do with its assuming an audience familiar enough with the traditions of barnstorming productions of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN to understand jokes based on them. There’s a bit involving Mickey blacked up as Topsy doing a Jolsen “Mammy” — please do introduce me to the 21st century child who would laugh at the anachronism. Really, please.

  7. La Faustin Says:

    Incidentally, have you ever read Stowe’s UNCLE TOM’S CABIN? It’s mind-blowing! I have a parallel-world fantasy in which D.W. Griffith directs THAT, rather than THE CLANSMAN.

  8. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was insanely popular on the vaudeville circuit. Groups that travelled about performing it were known as “Tommer.” The Girl in The Show, a marvelous Bessie Love vehicle is all about this particualr theatrical world.

  9. La Faustin Says:

    SONG OF THE SOUTH: if I remember correctly, there was controversy from the very beginning on this film, with critics pointing out that it gave a fantastically rosy view of The Old South and defenders prissily retorting that it didn’t take place during the Antebellum era. To me, it seemed like the kind of piling-on that happened with the US television series FRIENDS, which became the go-to illustration of “TV series with no black characters” — genuine issue overall, but why pick on THAT extremely mitigated instance as an examplar? By the time a child is old enough to realise that the movie involves a representation of “The Old South”, rather than simply people, he’s old enough to understand or have explained to him how and why movies represent … educational with a vengeance.

    And who wants to lose the divine Miss McDaniel?

  10. La Faustin Says:

    MORE MCDANIEL!

  11. Whew!

    Hattie McDaniel and Steppin Fetchit are both very funny actors, and capable of more than just stereotyping. It’s possible to enjoy their performances even while cringing at the underlying assumptions.

    A conflicted response is the only kind worth having! (My new motto.)

    On that subject, Goin’ To Heaven on a Mule is such a burlesque on stereotypes that I find it perversely painless, even while remaining deeply glad nobody would dream of condoning it today. It does make clear the absurdity of the ideas it’s lampooning…

    Apocalypse Pooh Redux! Never sen it looking so good. Disney and/or Coppola should certainly feature it as a DVD extra. Try explaining THAT one to the kids.

    I love Bessie Love so I certainly must see The Girl in the Show.

    Haven’t read UTC so I don’t have a clear picture of how it deals with the issues.

    This letter from a former slave to his old master is likely to be the greatest thing you read all year: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/01/to-my-old-master.html

  12. La Faustin Says:

    If I tell you that UTC involves black women escaping from slavery by putting on white sheets to frighten superstitious white men — are you intrigued?

  13. The “Ice-Cold Katie” number is from Thank Your Lucky Stars, starring Eddie Cantor whose birthday is today.

  14. La Faustin Says:

    That’s some serendipity there … Thank you, Davids C. and E.

  15. DEFINITELY intrigued!

  16. Oh, this reminds me how the trades were commenting on Fetchit after he got a nice contract from Fox around 1929. You can easily see both the Uppity and Shiftless Negro slurs between the lines. One article even used the term “lazy”. I didn’t really expect better, though. I’ve read enough ’20s-’30s material to know this approach was common.

  17. Steppin’ Fetchit was a personal advisor to Muhhamed Ali. You can see him confabbing with Ali in William Klein’s Cassius le Grand

  18. According to one of those trade articles, Fetchit got a (gasp!) limousine, with a (double gasp!!) chauffeur! I got the impression they were expecting him to get to the studio in a comic Model T that shook pieces off it as he drove.

  19. I imagine so. And they’d have been shocked if he gave any sign of not being the character he usually played.

  20. FYI, both “Mickey’s Mellerdrammer” and “Trader Mickey” appear on Volume 2 of the Mickey Mouse in Black and White DVD set, at least here in the US. So, unlike the case of Song of the South (or the alterations to Fantasia), Disney has not attempted to whitewash these cartoons from history.

  21. Thanks! I didn’t realize there was a Vol 2. Of course, this means Disney are much more likely to yank the vids off YouTube for copyright violation. Enjoy them while you can, folks, or do the honest thing and buy the box set.

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