THE BOOTLEG FILES: UNCLE TOM’S CABANA

BOOTLEG FILES 324: “Uncle Tom’s Cabana” (1947 animated short directed by Tex Avery).

LAST SEEN: Available online at several video web sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO:
It was included in a 1993 laserdisc collection of Tex Avery cartoons.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS:
A somewhat dated concept of politically incorrect humor.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE:
Ain’t likely, chillun!

During the golden age of Hollywood animation, racial and ethnic stereotypes were commonplace in the cartoons created by the major studios. Jews, Arabs, Mexicans, American Indians, Asians, Italians and even French-Canadians were the subject of intense comic ridicule, but no group received more mockery than African Americans.

Today, the racially offensive cartoons of yesteryear are kept off television and are not included in commercial DVD releases. However, many of these films are very easy to locate via bootleg channels. For the most part, there’s nothing worth seeking out – by exaggerating miserable stereotypes, these films attempt to create comedy in cruelty. But they are painfully unfunny and embarrassingly stupid.

Even the legendary Tex Avery got suckered into making a couple of these unfortunate titles. In 1937, while working at Warner Bros., he tapped into Harriet Beecher Stowe’s landmark “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to create something called “Uncle Tom’s Bungalow.” The film’s breezy disregard for the tragedy of slavery, coupled with its minstrel show antics, made it a low point for the animator and his studio. That film is among the so-called Censored Eleven of Warner Bros. shorts that cannot be shown on television.

In 1947, Avery was working at MGM. By this time, his style had evolved to an extraordinarily manic and surreal nature that stood apart from other cartoons coming out of Hollywood.  Avery decided to revisit “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” with a new film. While Avery didn’t entirely break free of racial stereotyping, he managed to plow new ground with some surprisingly subversive humor that would have been impossible in a live action film of that era.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabana” opens with a group of black children sitting around old Uncle Tom on the porch of his famed cabin. The visual depiction of this group is in keeping with the minstrel show notion of African American appearances, while Uncle Tom speaks in fractured ebonics (“children” comes out as “chillun”), using a voice that is very similar to the Kingfish character from the popular “Amos ‘n’ Andy” radio show.  (The cartoon has no credits for voice characterization – some sources claim “Amos ‘n’ Andy” star Charles Correll plays Uncle Tom, though the IMDb insists the voice came from Paul Frees.)

But this portly Uncle Tom doesn’t quite behave like a beloved uncle – he flicks cigar ash on a boy’s head and casually remarks how this is the “first one of them Hollywood cartoon companies ever got the straight dope on this Uncle Tom stuff.”

In this version, Uncle Tom has his meager cabin in the middle of big city that is owned by the evil businessman Simon Legree.  The entrance to Legree’s headquarters offers troubling promises: “Widows Evicted / Old Ladies Tripped / Dogs Kicked / Kittens Drowned.” Legree is described by Uncle Tom’s narration as being “sho’ enough a scoundrel” who is “rolling in dough” – which he does by tumbling across an office that is wall-to-wall carpeted with cash! Legree is given pointed ears and a hooked nose – yup, why limit a short to a single offensive stereotype?

It appears that Uncle Tom’s cabin exists on the one plot of land that Legree does not own. He sets out to seize the property, and he goes to an office belonging to his “bloodhounds.”  However, the bloodhounds are found lying in beds under a Red Cross sign with tubes in their arms – true to their name, they are giving blood donations!

Legree takes a helicopter to Uncle Tom and demands an immediate payment on his mortgage.  Legree threatens eviction by bopping the elderly man on his derby-covered head.  Broke and brokenhearted, Uncle Tom calls his one remaining friend, Little Eva, who lives in a Tara-style mansion incongruously positioned atop a skyscraper.

But this Little Eva isn’t all that little – she’s a shapely adult redhead in a tight-fitting antebellum gown. (The character was used in several Avery films, most notably “Red Hot Riding Hood.”)  While Uncle Tom absentmindedly plunks on his piano (which he pronounced “py-an-ah”), Little Eva begins to dance provocatively. The two decide to open a nightclub called Uncle Tom’s Cabana – and, in doing so, Avery wildly demolishes the unwritten Hollywood taboo that shows a black man and a white woman working together as equals.

The nightclub is a success, and even Uncle Sam shows up with a tax collector’s bag to shovel in some of the profits.  Legree turns up and kidnaps Uncle Tom, tying him to a large keg of TNT.  Legree then tries to steal Uncle Tom’s money, but he catches Little Eva’s provocative floorshow and begins to act like a wild man – he lights his nose instead of a cigar and devours his hands, mistaking them for a sandwich.

When Little Eva repels Legree’s advances, Uncle Tom shows up – his panicked sweat doused the TNT fuse – and launches into a history-making gesture of whacking Legree on the head with a giant mallet.  This is, I believe, the first time in a Hollywood film that a black character physically assaults a white character.  The cartoon then launches into a zany montage that has Legree tying Uncle Tom to railroad tracks, feeding him to an alligator, and chasing him with a PT boat.  But when Legree pushes Uncle Tom off the top of the “Umpire State Building,” the perennial victim has enough – he lifts the building off its foundation and throws it into the sky.

The scene shifts back to the cabin, where the incredulous “chillun” question Uncle Tom’s story.  Offended, Uncle Tom declares that he hopes to be struck dead by lightning if he told a lie.  Being a Tex Avery cartoon, you can guess what happens.

Unlike other cartoons that traffic in racial stereotypes, “Uncle Tom’s Cabana” actually presents its protagonist as a genuinely offbeat and likeable personality.  Yes, his appearance is not palatable by today’s standards. But this Uncle Tom, quite frankly, doesn’t act like an Uncle Tom – he’s funny, feisty, indefatigable, and outrageous in his struggle against Legree.

But whatever progressive elements can be found in “Uncle Tom’s Cabana” are not enough to sneak it past the gaze of today’s political correctness police.  The film is not available for television broadcast and has only been made officially available for home viewing in a 1993 laserdisc anthology called “The Compleat Tex Avery.” However, when that collection was put on DVD for a Region 2 release, “Uncle Tom’s Cabana” and another Avery cartoon with racial humor, “Half-Pint Pygmy,” were omitted.

But it is a major mistake to hide the excesses of the past. Despite its obvious flaws, “Uncle Tom’s Cabana” is an amusing romp. I am glad that the bootleggers are keeping this film available

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!




Posted on May 21, 2010 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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