Christopher P. Lehman
November 11, 2017 posted by Christopher Lehman

The Censored 11: “Uncle Tom’s Bungalow” (1937)

A few months ago the producers of the television series Game of Thrones announced their plans to start production on a television series that imagines a contemporary America in which the South won the Civil War and slavery never became illegal.

Theirs was not a new idea, for animation producer Leon Schlesinger and director Tex Avery had beaten the Games folks by eighty years with the same kind of film. They called it Uncle Tom’s Bungalow–the fourth cartoon of the “Censored Eleven” and the first by Avery on the list.

Uncle Tom’s Bungalow is a Technicolor episode from the “Merrie Melodies” series and was released in 1937. The film makes good use of color with lush scenery, gaudy but raggedy clothes, and a gag in which Legree’s body switches colors as he touches an electrical socket. The characters’ designs are detailed, and the animation is full.

The cartoon is a parody of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antebellum, antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but it features only the fictional slaves Uncle Tom, Eliza, and Topsy, the cruel master Simon Legree, and Topsy’s free, blonde friend Little Eva. They all interact with one another, despite the fact that Eliza, Topsy, Eva, and Legree never meet in the novel.

In Avery’s version, Uncle Tom is about to be sold by Simon-Simon Legree, but Topsy and Eva agree to mortgage the slave. When the girls fall behind on their payments, Legree pursues them. Eliza helps them run away, hopping on blocks of ice in a river in order to cross it. Just as Legree catches up to them, Uncle Tom drives up in a fancy car. The old slave then hands Legree the money owed to him, which he won from shooting craps.

The film modernizes slavery largely through anachronism. Eliza and Uncle Tom speak in contemporary slang: “Yeah, man,” and “I’ze truckin’.” Also, Uncle Tom borrows a catchphrase from the radio series Amos ’n’ Andy: “Oh, sho’ sho’ sho’.” Eliza’s blocks of ice come from a vending machine. Tom refers to a movie distributor when he says, “…my soul belongs to Warner Brothers.” And, again, an electrical socket and an automobile are in the cartoon.

This film’s inclusion in the Censored Eleven is almost certainly because of its depiction of slavery. Unlike Hittin’ the Trail to Hallelujahland, this film specifically looks at the peculiar institution–not to criticize it as Stowe did but to make fun of it. Although children did not purchase slaves, Avery’s film shows a slave girl co-owning another slave with a free, blonde toddler.

Also, Uncle Tom’s Bungalow modernizes the business side of slavery by depicting Legree with the language of a used car salesman; the sign on his office is “Smiling Simon Simon Legree Used Slave Co.” At the same time, that particular gag underscores that slaves were simultaneously people and property, because the joke equates selling a used car with selling a “used” person. Stalling incorporated minstrel songs such as “Dixie” in his score. In addition, the scenes with Legree approaching Tom with a whip and dogs chasing Eliza would have probably raised red flags in 1968, when the Censored Eleven cartoons were removed from television syndication.

Slavery imagery aside, some gags based on ethnicity and skin color also probably placed Uncle Tom’s Bungalow on the censored list. Topsy and Eva switch skin colors when frightened by Legree. The slave figures speak in stereotyped dialect; my book The Colored Cartoon quotes some of their lines as they were written in the script. Also, Tom shoots craps, just as Nicodemus was accused of doing in Sunday Go to Meetin’ Time.

This cartoon was never part of the “Blue Ribbon” reissues, and it took twenty years after its release for the film to have a resurrection on television. By then the African American actress Lillian Randolph, who voiced Eliza, had come and gone on Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “Tom and Jerry” series, and MGM was already starting to excise her “Mammy Two-Shoes” character from CinemaScope remakes of cartoons.

Thus, servile characters based on antebellum imagery were already on their way out for over a decade by the time
Uncle Tom’s Bungalow became part of the “Censored Eleven”. Still, the lure of filmmakers to modernizing slavery from Bungalow to Games reminds us, as southern novelist William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It is not even past.”

31 Comments

  • Well, that’s funny. We toon enthusiasts were brought up with this film (+ countless other U.T.Cabin toons). It did not make us racisit, nor did we THINK it racist.

    • “WE” toon enthusiasts? YOU should use the first-person singular pronoun “I” and speak for YOURSELF.

      Firstly, there is no doubt that during the Golden Age of Animation there were racist “toon enthusiasts” [animators, writers, directors, producers, voice actors, fans, etc.]. And secondly, I personally know dozens of “toon enthusiasts” like myself, who consider this short and many others highly offensive, degrading, and racist!!!

    • Hey “Rock West” – lighten up and thicken your skin – it’s a cartoon, Mr. Touchy-Feely.

  • I must admit, unless my memory is totally failing me at this time, I had *NEVER* seen actual depictions of slavery in classic cartoons, despite there being insensitive stereotypes, so it is true that “UNCLE TOM’S BUNGALOW” never did make it to American television. Yes, Avery’s MGM remake, “UNCLE TOM’S CABANA” was shown only once that I can remember, and I never saw the film again; so, while my memory may have been dulled with time, I don’t recall any direct depictions of slavery in that cartoon as there is in this earlier incarnation of the sendup of Stowe’s book. The uncomfortable fact is that, while there is humor in this cartoon around the book, it doesn’t even come close to striving to make a statement against this horrid institution and we’re talking about a film created years after slavery had been abolished. I had only become aware of this cartoon upon the discovery of it via animation festivals that delved deep into all kinds of films regardless of subject matter. Thanks, as always, for an interesting and informative post on these cartoons.

  • Poltical incorrectness aside, I think this is one of Avery’s weaker films. None of the gags really have that punch that he was known for, even as early as 1937.

    One subtle joke that I did find amusing, is I like how Simon Legree just buggers off as soon as he gets his payment. Like, he spends the entire cartoons harassing and chasing after the girls looking for Uncle Tom, but as soon as Tom gives him back his money, he’s just, “Oh, okay. Cool. BYE!”.

    • Agreed. This is probably Tex Avery’s weakest film. That said, I did like the rubbery animation on Legree.

    • The strength of the cartoon, as others have noted, is more in the idea of taking a well-known story and lampooing it, not so much in the execution of it by Avery here, where he felt obligated to spend a bunch of time on explaining the characters. He’d use the basic idea to much better results in the future, starting with “Little Red Walking Hood”, where Tex simply assumes everyone knows the story and can get the gags going after only 20 seconds of on-screen writing.

  • Narrator is an impression of radio host Fred Allen.

  • Interesting that the story is within the framework of characters being actors performing a melodrama for the narrator. I guess Avery thought it provided a subtext and excuse for a certain level of corniness, and long introductions were common for comedy drama segments on shows such as Allen’s and Jack Benny’s. The cartoon is almost half over by the time it’s done, though!

    The escape across the ice is probably a reference to the Griffith 1920 silent Way Down East.

    • Actually, the ice escape is in the novel. Eliza holds her son while hopping across ice, but she’s not escaping Simon Legree.

    • Ah, of course. Thanks, Christopher!

    • I think a Peabody’s Improbable History episode had a adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin being presented but it’s Little Eva being chased by dogs on the ice.

  • The “Pronounced Seemoan-Seemoan” note was a reference to Simone Simon, a French actress getting who was being promoted in Hollywood, and publicity included the guide to the pronunciation of her name.

  • Thanks for your post, Christopher! The scholarship on Lillian Randolph’s character in the Tom and Jerrys has recently concluded that the character was NOT “Mammy Two-Shoes”. Her name in the Tom and Jerry comics and publicity literature of the time was either “The Maid” or “Dinah”. The “Mammy Two-Shoes” character is used in the Disney Silly Symphonies, “Three Orphan Kittens” and “More Kittens”. All these names were used in publicity, comics or storyboards, never on-screen. “Three Orphan Kittens” and especially “The Country Cousin” were big influences on Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera when they were creating Tom and Jerry, or Jasper and Jinx, their original names.

    • Thanks for letting me know that. I appreciate it. What are the books/articles/websites that have discussed this?

    • I could certainly see how “Puss Gets The Boot” and other earlier T&J’s take their cues from those Silly Symphony shorts mentioned.

    • No articles or books that I’m aware of. Just the research of Mark and David Gerstein.

  • First off, this cartoon should not be compared to the alt-history genre of fiction at all.

    As concerns the War Between the States (there is no such thing as a “civil” war), the genre can be traced back at least to the centennial of the original War Between the Sates, when a long piece detailing what MIGHT have happened ha the South proven victorious was published in Look magazine, a popular weekly of the time. I do not remember who wrote it, except that I seem to remember that he had a name as a historian of the War Between the States.
    I remember that this opus posited that the South would free their slaves by 1885, and that the United States would never purchase Alaska from the Russian Empire–needing the money otherwise spent that way to build a new capital somewhere in Ohio.

    Then, there’s “C.S.A.: the Confederate States of America” an alt=history “mockuentary”, produced around 2004.
    This one can be seen on YouTube.
    It has the BBC style of documentary film-making down pat.
    It even includes “commercials”–including one animated spot for Gold Dust (washing powder) featuring a version of the Gold Dust Twins.

    This cartoon may have influenced the folks back East at Terrytoons as well.
    One of their 1937 or so releases was “Eliza Runs Again”, which has not been seen much since its original theatrical release.
    Apparently, it was not part of the package of Terrytoons shorts released to CBS for “The Barker Bill Cartoon Show”.
    The cartoon appears to have been remade in Technicolor as “Eliza on the Ice”–which managed to shoehorn Mighty Muse into the mix, as well.

    Lastly, troupes playing various theatrical adaptations of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” criss-crossed the country–and the world–starting from the years after the book was first published in 1852.
    I seem to remember a book about these various troupes, and the various tropes that became associated, in the minds of the general public, with “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”

  • The voice of Uncle Tom in this cartoon remains a mystery. I’m not sure if Keith Scott has found out as of yet.

    • IMDB says it’s Tex Avery himself

  • While there is plenty that is wrong with this (and we can start with the tired dice joke at the end that continued into the forties with COAL BLACK), there are also some things done right. Like Hal Roach’s “Our Gang” series, the juveniles are all shown as “color blind” friends viewing each other as equal. Most cartoons of the era didn’t show this much interracial relating.

    Going a bit off topic, a whole generation of Caucasian Americans growing up in the South between the 1910s through the ’60s, including many Baby Boomers who have plenty of political influence today in conservative politics, had a rather censored historical perspective of Civil War times as reflected in this Vox video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOkFXPblLpU

    • It’s interesting how history tries to be written by the ‘winners’ in that regard.

    • I referenced “Our Gang” and forgot to mention that SPANKY (1932), McFarland’s debut film, had the kids performing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. To be fair, every comedy series, both live action and animated, took a stab at this.

    • “Mickey’s Mellerdrammer” is one example!
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dw06K0dG1Zw

    • Yes, we can’t allow “Uncle” Walt to get off the hook with his beloved Mickey either. Ha ha!

  • Yo Tucker, allow me to real-quick-like address your flippant, tunnel-vision response. It is incredibly annoying [like a fly buzzing around one’s head] when smug people (like you) attempt to minimize something that may have deep and personal meaning to someone else; especially in regards to issues of race.

    As a Black man and avid fan of animation, who as a kid in the 1960s witnessed the mainstream jump of animation from the theater to the tube, I watched racist cartoons every Saturday morning that depicted images of my people that I did not recognize. Cartoons during the Golden Age that demeaned and mocked Black Americans were far more than just “a cartoon” (as you say). Whether naively or intentionally, they reminded Black folks of that era of their ‘place in society,’ and perpetuated offensive stereotypes while fulfilling their mission to entertain their targeted White audience at the expense of Black folk. So when Uncle Wayne posted his statement, I was not about to let him run with it unchallenged.

    As for you…perhaps you should consider staying in your lane as ignorance is not bliss!

    • I agree Rock West. I’m all too aware of this stuff and should not be flipped off as just “it’s a cartoon. Get over it”. I sometimes wonder if today’s viewers just don’t get that the depictions were wrong then and still wrong today.

    • *yawn*

  • Andre P. ~~ #Fistbump

  • The voices in this cartoon are a very mixed bag. Gag-man Ted Pierce narrates (I don’t agree it’s Fred Allen he’s imitating…actually more like Jack Benny’s inflections on occasion). Little Eva is Berneice Hansell (except when she yells “Little Eva, ya dope!!!,” which is dubbed by Billy Bletcher. Bletcher of course is playing the villain Seamoan Seamoan. Topsy and Eliza are not by Lillian Randolph, who wasn’t established in Hollywood in early 1937 when this cartoon was recorded. They were acted by white radio funny gal Elvia Allman, a favorite of Tex. The black actor-singer Roy Glenn was Uncle Tom, and a music session contracted two African-American vocal groups, the Plantation Choir and Steve Gibson’s Basin Street Boys (who do the swing section). Both vocal groups were appearing in Ms Allman’s radio show Comedy Kingdom on KFWB, the Warner radio station located on the same lot as the cartoon studio. Finally, Mel Blanc, the recent addition to Schlesinger’s vocal talent roll, was the voice of the dog.

    • Thanks for the corrections. I had no idea about Elvia Allman’s work in the film.

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