A laugh is an elegy for the death of an emotion

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From UNCLE TOM’S BUNGALOW, directed by Fred “Tex” Avery.

A cartoon apparently so beyond the pale it’s available only on low-quality bootleg, nth-gen VHS imparting a seedy porno look to the capering.

There are two problems with this film. Some other Tex films have a lot more problems than that.

First problem: use of stereotypes and caricaturing of black characters. This isn’t actually too severe a problem here. HALF-PINT PYGMY is much more extreme, and portrays its black characters as a form of animal life, suitable for exhibiting in a zoo. In a cartoon where all the characters are stylised grotesques, the African-American ones don’t come off any worse, and true to the source, they are sympathetic. I don’t want to tell anyone else they aren’t entitled to be offended by this, I just wasn’t overly offended myself.

Second problem: making fun of a serious issue. But really, Avery is making fun of a serious book. His target is sanctimony, and he can’t help but be delighted by how easily the bubble of high seriousness bursts. Like so ~

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Facing the lash, Tom declares, “My body may belong to you, but my soul belongs to Warner Brothers!”

A gobsmacking and hilarious line, and one wonders how Avery got away with it, not because it’s offensive to black people but because it’s offensive to his employers. My hat just has to come off. This isn’t a very good cartoon overall — too much narration, with gags simply showing action that contradicts or puns on the VO, a common Avery technique and not one of his most inspired — but the bits that are funny are the bits that go too far. When the two little children are menaced by Simon Simon Legree (so named because he says everything twice) the black girl turns white with fear and the white girl turns black. They stand frozen, alternating shades for long seconds. It’s an unacceptable joke, elaborated upon nonsensically until the “un” falls off the “unacceptable” and “unfunny” through sheer metal fatigue.

Even the VO comes into its own at the climax, when Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous chase across the ice is commented on in the breathless manner of a horse race. “Hounds and Legree coming up fast on the outside!” Again, sanctimony is the target, and poor Stowe is almost too easy for Tex to deflate. At the end, Uncle Tom rides to the rescue in a typically distended Avery limousine — all that money he won shooting craps. “And there you have the story of Uncle Tom’s Bungalow — or have you?”

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2 Responses to “A laugh is an elegy for the death of an emotion”

  1. DBenson Says:

    A layer of context that doesn’t quite mitigate the racial typing, but should be noted:

    “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was a phenomenal stage hit, constantly revived and toured for decades. In time it became a parody of itself, and a lot of adults in the 30s knew it as a hokey melodrama performed by threadbare stock companies rather than an important American novel.

    The Our Gang short “Uncle Tom’s Uncle” and Disney’s “Mickey’s Mellerdrammer” both played on the familiarity of the characters; the obligatory “spectacle” of Eliza on the ice with Real Bloodhounds’ and on the assumption that white performers (including Mickey Mouse) would “black up” to play Uncle Tom and others.

    Random references cropped up in other cartoons, including “Book Revue”.

    Tex Avery later did “Uncle Tom’s Cabana”, which abandoned any references to book, play, or slavery. It’s a “Red” cartoon with Simon as the wolf and Uncle Tom as a bragging narrator.

    “The King and I” had “Little House of Uncle Thomas”, which slathered on an extra layer of stereotyping for good measure.

    Don Marquis’s archy and mehitabel tales featured a theater cat who bragged of going on for a drunk bloodhound in an Uncle Tom show.

  2. Yes, parodies of the book and especially play were common, and Stowe’s well-intentioned original went from respected to ridiculed, “Uncle Tom” not being seen as a positive stereotype” by any stretch — what gets Avery in some trouble is his medium, which requires visible caricaturing, a difficult thing to do without seeming racist. Especially for a Texan, dare I say.

    Pile together the parody, the caricaturing, the social climate, who’s making the film, and it would be surprising indeed if Avery could wholly get away with what he’s taken on, to modern eyes. What’s impressive is how much of it he DOES pull off without offense.

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