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.”