“Gentlemen, Please Be Seated”: Racial Masquerade and Sadomasochism in 1930s Animation
By Nicholas Sammond
From the Introduction: Nicholas Sammond’s writing on the use of blackface minstrelsy in early sound animation has brought a new appreciation to a body of creative work long dismissed for its demeaning reinforcement of racial stereotypes and its grotesque comic violence. In “‘Gentlemen, Please Be Seated’: Racial Masquerade and Sadomasochism in 1930s Animation,” Sammond pays careful attention to the chaotic semiotics of one very strange, surrealist film in which Mickey Mouse—a “vestigial minstrel” who had not quite yet been sanitized as part of Walt Disney’s changing vision of his legacy—meets, is nearly eaten by, plays jazz with, and battles into submission an animated tribe of “Africans.” Sammond peels away the onion skin of possible meanings, only to find more layers, most particularly when the film is placed in the historical tradition of minstrelsy. He notes that as blackface waned in vaudeville and seemed merely archaic in film, it continued unabated, and to some degree unnoticed, in animation. In this example, a very American minstrel character (Jim Crow again?) is set in opposition to the savage and uncivilized African character. Mickey/Crow shows ingenuity, an appealing energy, and an aggressive diminution of the other “other” in the film. There is no question to whom our loyalties and identification should be directed, and this illustrates the distinction that can be drawn between the minstrel character and the racist caricature. On the one hand, in this respect the essay points back to those of Lhamon and Cockrell, suggesting that early minstrelsy passed along to us both the trickster character and the passive-aggressive, primitive character that equated the “Old South” and Africa. On the other hand—in this regard resonating with Chude-Sokei’s essay tying together minstrelsy and the machine—Sammond invokes the roots of the minstrel tradition in the industrial working class, who looked upon Jim Crow as a fellow “slave” (literalizing the “wage slaves” they considered themselves). That relationship was personal: the trade of animation at the time had quickly become industrialized, with animators assigned piecework that gave them no personal creative control or sense of accomplishment. The explosion of minstrelsy, the musical playing of everything and everyone (including the dead: note that the “jaw bone” was an instrument in minstrelsy), the rebellion of jazz over all, the general loss of control in a chaos of imagery—all this Sammond sees as a creative outlet for the animators, as much as it was for performers and audiences at the beginnings of blackface minstrelsy.
To view Mickey’s Mellerdrammer, a 1933 animated short that combines blackfase minstrelsy and abolitionist drama, visit: http://www.criticalcommons.org/Members/sammondn/clips/mickeys-mellerdrammer/embed_view
Nicholas Sammond is an Associate Professor in Cinema Studies and English at the University of Toronto. His most recent published work, Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960 (Duke University Press, 2005), received the 2006 Katherine Singer Kovacs award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. His current work examines the relationship of blackface minstrelsy to the industrialization of animation in the United States, and he has also written on various topics, from professional wrestling to the relationship between Walt Disney, cryogenics, inflatable furniture, and Mies van der Rohe.