There’s nothing intrinsically significant about racism in a Merrie Melodies cartoon. “Uncle Tom’s Bungalow” (1937) is actually one of the “Censored Eleven”—a group of cartoons so racist, they were banned 1968 by United Artists, who owned the Looney Tunes film library at the time. What makes “Uncle Tom’s Bungalow” exceptional is its parody of much-beloved piece of abolitionist literature. Uncle Tom’s Cabin wasn’t really particularly radical—rather than a dignified depiction of black humanity, it attempted to appeal to white benevolent paternalism by portraying black people as child-like—but still it was pretty damn revered to become the butt of a Tex Avery lampoon.
Regardless of racism, the cartoon is kind of weak, and I say that as a Looney Tunes fan. In 1947 Avery would create “Uncle Tom’s Cabaña, which wasn’t actually a parody of the book so much as an attempt at a retelling. It’s not any less racist than its predecessor—it makes similar (though way less relentless) use of racist caricature, and the punchline is that Uncle Tom is a liar—but it’s a far superior cartoon, both in animation and writing.
In"Uncle Tom’s Bungalow,” the gags are a little rote (even for Merrie Melodies), and the jokes aren’t particularly clever. For example, there’s an anachronistic “bad guy gets electrocuted” sequence that was clearly just an excuse to use a cool animation effect. At one point the escaped slave Eliza is described as “the dark horse in this race”—geddit?!? In its stronger moments, the cartoon appears to be taking aim at the schmaltz of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The saccharin “white angel” character of Little Eva is depicted as cloying cute, and if you’ve ever read the book, you might remember rolling your eyes at her saintliness.
Perhaps aiming for a big finish, “Uncle Tom’s Bungalow” reaches its nadir at the finale, where we see Uncle Tom pull up in a Rolls Royce—he bought his freedom playing craps. Watch if you don’t mind cringing—this cartoon serves up some vintage racism, folks!