Thursday, October 27, 2011

"The Great Orphanage Robbery"

Okay, time for some Gottfredson. Specifically, "The Great Orphanage Robbery." This, of course, is one of those stories that previously could not be reprinted in modern times, so it's certainly ripe for examination.
It has its problems, of various sorts. For one, it feels a bit disjointed, consisting of three distinct parts that are only sort of connected to one another: the initial, raising-money section; the play; and the Klondike bit. In his introduction, Thomas Andrae notes that two different cartoons--"Mickey's Mellerdrammer" and "The Klondike Kid"--were used as fodder for this storyline, which is a cool idea, but it leads to a certain bumpiness.

For two...well, let's just dive in, shall we?

The initial idea is that we've gotta raise money for the orphanage, which is full. And needs fifteen hundred dollars, though how that precise figure was arrived at is never specified, nor what exactly it's going to be used for. Note the (entirely typical, of course) lack of systemic thinking here: the question of what steps could be taken to ameliorate the problem of homeless orphans is entirely focused, here, on raising this small-ish sum of money. This isn't a criticism on my part; indeed, you can see some implicit social commentary here if you so desire. But it is one of those unspoken assumptions that the reader can easily glide right over without even noticing.

So, um, yes. Whole lotta racial confusion here. What can you say about a thought process that goes "ha ha! You look hilarious, just as if you were in blackface! Hey, that reminds me--Uncle Tom's Cabin!?" You're really reduced to just shaking your head and laughing incredulously. Note also that Minnie's comment seems to indicate that she's never actually met any black people, so she can only think of them in terms of a famous novel. And the fact that she sees said novel as being all theater, to the extent that the African American characters therein can be equated to white people covered with exhaust...well, we'll get to that in a minute.

First, though, we will, in all fairness, note that this difficulty with conceiving of racial issues may be connected to a more general naiveté, if Mickey's embarrassment at "bein' kissed by a woman" is anything to go on (side notes: has he really never kissed Minnie? And isn't there something somewhat Oedipal about him having that reaction to what is clearly a motherly sort of kiss?).

So is Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin racist? Well, obviously, yes. It would be impossible to convincingly argue that it doesn't suffer from the prejudices of its time. Some criticism may be a bit misguided: people object to the title character's passivity, but given that he's meant to be a Christ-figure, this seems to be missing the point, especially given that there are other sympathetic black characters who are much more active. Still, it's true that the smarter, more heroic black characters are the lighter-skinned ones; and it's true that the book can't quite escape from occasional Minstrel-Show-ish moments.

However, it does come down firmly on the side of the angels in very forcefully condemning the most evil institution in American history. So, you know, it has that going for it. For a lot of people, calling something "racist" is an automatic conversation-ender, but that shouldn't always be the case. Depending on context, racist content or subtext need not wholly invalidate a work of art. And other problems notwithstanding, I would argue that it's more effective from a literary standpoint than many people give it credit for.

What does all this have to do with this story, though? Well...the relationship between Uncle Tom's Cabin and the many, many adaptations thereof is a fraught one. Obviously racism continued to be an issue into the twentieth century (as it does to this day), but by 1932, when this serial was published, it wouldn't have been especially controversial to assert that slavery was a bad thing. So what you get--and note that I'm far from being some sorta Stowe scholar, so all this is subject to correction--is adaptations that retain the melodrama (Eliza crossing the river, Simon Legree twirling his mustache), but that sort of sandpaper down the specific anti-slavery sentiments and at the same time play up the Minstrel-Showy bits. I don't think Gottfredson was writing this with any sort of malicious intent; in fact, I'd wager he would've considered himself a progressive on racial issues.* But this part of the story is nonetheless pretty dissonant.

*That might seem like an insurmountable contradiction, given his treatment of "cannibals" in other stories, including the one directly after this. Not so odd, though--Vachel Lindsay (of "Congo" fame or infamy) was the same way. It was entirely possible to be opposed to American racism while still doing cringe-inducing depictions of foreign "savages."

It basically proceeds in this fashion. From watching the cartoon, you can get the basic idea. This is the jokey part of the story, so there's a fair bit of this (though all told, the play section only takes up something like twenty percent of the whole).

Here's a good example of the way adaptations remove the original novel's nuance. According to David in his introduction, it was common to make Topsy into "a simple comic foil" in adaptations of the story. But this was not remotely the case in the original book, in which the idea was that she had so so deeply internalized the idea that she was fundamentally "bad" that she couldn't help but behave to match this self-image. It's an astute bit of psychology, and one that has continued sociological relevance to this day. But here it's just heh! heh! heh!.

Anyway, I think that's about all that needs to be said about the play. Obviously, it has its problems, but I've read plenty of way more questionable Disney comics than this one. I think its reputation eclipses the thing itself.

The point is, they make the needed money for the orphanage--but oh no! It disappears! And so does Horace! What does this mean?

It means we have to put dozens of cops and bloodhounds on the trail to bring Horace back, possibly killing him in the process. Tell you what, people: I'm pretty sure it wasn't this depiction of Mouseton's idea of "justice" that prevented the story from being reprinted, but I find this all way more horrifying than the play bit--even if here it's intentional. Though actually, that's something I grapple with a bit. I mean, it definitely is, but the question is, how much so? And is this really justified within the world of the comic? You'll see what I'm talking about as things go from bad to worse.

Well, it turns out--HOLY SHIT!--that Pete and Shyster are responsible for the robbery, and they knock out Mickey, causing the police chief to leap to a truly insane assumption (innocent until proven what? huh? I don't get it). We're a long way off from the comparatively warm and fuzzy Chief O'Hara days to come. Possibly this is some sort of commentary. Or possibly it's just a really forced reason for Mickey to become a fugitive. You could argue that the one doesn't preclude the other, but regardless, I think "forced" is definitely a word I would have to use.

This section of the story takes place when Mickey gets taken north on a train--though it must be said, there's little sense of any real movement here; the setting (based only VERY loosely on "The Klondike Kid") is pretty thin. Note that they're also okay with Mickey--the guy who spearheaded the project in the first place, ferfuckssake--being brought back dead. You might assume that Pete and Shyster put up that poster to make sure he gets got, but that does not seem to be the case. Also, unless I missed something, it's never explained why their footprints just stop. Maybe they were walking on air.

Here's this. Now, you might assume that the joke here is that Pete doesn't know what "stimulating intoxicants" mean. But I prefer to believe that what he thinks when he hears the term is "cocaine," and he just wants to get drunk first as an aperitif.

But you'll hopefully forgive me if I don't spend a lot of time on these arctic adventures--because frankly, they're pretty boring. It seems as though Gottfredson wanted to do recapture the magic of "Death Valley"--there hadn't really been any far-flung adventures since then--but it's all very going-through-the-motions-y.

I'm way more interested in Horace's tribulations back home. Note the way this jailbird laughs at the idea that dumb things like lack of evidence and mere factual innocence would hold any sway in Mouseton's kangaroo courts.

Yes, of course, the death penalty. As a side note, you might imagine that the complete disappearance of the money would at least raise some questions. Not so much.

Oh, and also, if there's any danger of you getting off, the prosecutor will just accuse you of random unrelated crimes until you're convicted.

Oh yeah, and if THAT somehow doesn't work, you will be dragged out and lynched by a vengeful mob. I mean...I dunno. I just can't help thinking that this is laying it on a bit thick. There's "a dark view of human nature" and then there's "you will be murdered by crazed vigilantes if you are even charged, let alone convicted, of even a comparatively minor crime."

The story doesn't let you forget about this, either, culminating in them getting all ready to actually do it. You cannot tell me, based on this story, that there is not strange fruit hanging from Mouseton trees. I just--I mean--man, I'm at a loss for words. Nothing wrong with harsh social commentary and all, but it sort of feels like the world of the strip is not one that really supports this kind of thing.

Horace is appropriately cynical about his fellow-citizens' sudden change of heart. Yeah, Gottfredson was clearly doing what he wanted to do; I don't think he was oblivious. I'm just not convinced that, in this instance "what he wanted to do" was the right thing to do. Here's this: you'll note that Pete and Shyster do not suffer the fate that the mob had in store for Horace. Obviously not. A humorous comic strip can't depict something that grim. Buuuuuut…in that case, you might wonder if it should bring it up at all.

But I dunno; maybe I shouldn't criticize. If this storyline would even incrementally cause a few people here and there to question the ethics of lynching--which was, of course, a real thing as this was published--then maybe it was worth it. Shrug. Tell me what you think in comments.

Cute ending thing, though. I'm just sorry that that marriage never went through--and, more generally, that Horace gradually lost his prominence in the strip. Nothing against Dippy/Goofy, really, but I feel like Horace brought something to the strip that the later character just couldn't replace.



Blogger Christopher said...

I vaguely remember reading one story where Horace and Clarabelle do eventually get married, but it's for oddly mercenary reasons– Clarabelle's in dire financial straits and Mickey argues that Clarabelle must marry Horace to stay solvent.

October 27, 2011 at 5:24 PM  
Blogger Thomas said...

>> Note also that Minnie's comment seems to indicate that she's never actually met any black people, so she can only think of them in terms of a famous novel. <<

Faulty logic, here. Minnie comments that Mickey looks like an actor in blackface. Which surely is less problematic than having Minnie exclaim that soot-covered Mickey resembles an actual black person.

October 27, 2011 at 7:09 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Fair enough as far as it goes, but she doesn't actually say that, does she? She just says "You look so funny--just like Uncle Tom's Cabin!" You can't tell exactly what she's referring to.

Maybe the problem has more to do with the conflation of the novel with the many problematic adaptations thereof.

October 27, 2011 at 7:41 PM  
Blogger Thomas said...

I take Minnie's comment as a reference to the play, not the book. Theatrical adaptations of the book were widespread and hugely popular. For many people, the play may have been their first thought upon hearing the name.

October 28, 2011 at 11:49 AM  
Blogger Chris Barat said...


The "stimulating intoxicants" gag may have referred to Prohibition, which was still in force at the time. It makes sense that Shyster would use a euphemism for getting booze, while Pete would not recognize the phrase and cut straight to the (I guess) Anglo Saxon.

Like the word "racist," the phrase "Uncle Tom" has been mutated beyond recognition to often mean exactly the OPPOSITE of what was originally intended. In much the same manner, the "Tom shows" (or, at least, the less faithful adaptations) probably played up the minstrel humor so much that the original point of the novel was often obscured.


October 30, 2011 at 8:42 PM  
Blogger Joe Torcivia said...

Shifting gears, somewhat… The Law sure turned on Mickey quite regularly in those early days! “Death Valley”, “Mr. Slicker”, and now this.

We know it was a popular film trend to be on the “wrong side” (by design or circumstance): “Little Caesar”, “The Public Enemy”, “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”, etc. But Mickey was ahead of the curve, even on some of those! He was almost Robinson, Cagney, and Muni all rolled into one! And, back then, the poor guy couldn’t even use Chief O’Hara as a character witness!

October 31, 2011 at 3:43 AM  
Blogger ramapith said...

"You look so funny--just like Uncle Tom's Cabin!" The reference is to the combination of Mickey's inadvertent blackface *and* the manner in which he's now wearing Minnie's hat. In its now-disheveled state, it's supposed to look specifically like an old-fashioned straw sharecropper's hat, as worn by Uncle Tom in some stage versions of the story.

@Christopher, the story you're remembering is Gottfredson's "Fireman Mickey," but while Mickey's argument (actually given when he's talking to himself) is just as you remember, no actual marriage ever takes place.

@Chris, I kinda think Geoff was kidding about cocaine. Your interpretation is IMHO accurate (whether or not a Prohibition reference was intended).

November 1, 2011 at 3:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a little late to this discussion, but I have to comment on something. In the one panel, with the jailbird laughing at Clarabelle's comment, you can see a normal-sized mouse. Something about that existing in the world of Mickey and Minnie just doesn't seem right.

April 25, 2022 at 11:45 AM  

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