In 1950 Warner Brothers released Chuck Jones’s “Merrie Melodie” episode Dog Gone South. The film stars Charlie Dog as a wandering dog seeking a new owner. He sees potential when he stumbles upon a stereotypical southern colonel’s plantation, but he angers the colonel with references to the North. Also, the colonel already has a bulldog for a pet. For the remainder of the cartoon, Charlie tries to get rid of the bulldog and endear himself to the colonel with such references to the South as “Chitlins forever, y’all!”
An especially unique aspect of the cartoon is its complete absence of African American characters. Animated films set in the South, especially the Antebellum and Civil War South, contain at least one scene with African Americans, and those characters usually appear as laborers of some sort. Released just one year before Dog Gone South, Jones’s “Bugs Bunny” episode Mississippi Hare opens with faceless African Americans picking cotton (including Bugs’s tail) and loading a steamboat. By 1949 Hollywood’s cartoon divisions had already publicly committed to making fewer films with African American stereotypes, and except for blackface gags in cartoons from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, big-lipped and bug-eyed figures had largely disappeared from new animated releases to theatres.
The appearances of African Americans in South-set films underscore how central African Americans were to the South itself. Nevertheless, the growing strength of the Civil Rights Movement required filmmakers to revise their tropes. If a cartoon could not portray the South humorously without caricaturing African Americans themselves, how would they portray the South?
Dog Gone South addresses the issue by treating ownership of a pet as a proxy of sorts for enslavement of an African American. Two southern colonels discuss trading ownership of Charlie. The dog begs the colonel to be his “massa,” which he says in that exact manner. The studio even chose a brown-colored dog to be the protagonist seeking a master.
Still, Dog Gone South manages to avoid African American images, and it introduces a new way of imaging the South without African Americans. The film serves as a template of sorts for later cartoons that reduce the Civil War to northern figures versus southern ones, such as the studio’s own Rebel Without Claws–just in time for the Civil War Centennial in 1961.