Monday, April 03, 2006

THE OLD PIONEER (1934)

How does one handle the racism, whether cruelly overt or socially casual, in old films and books? No matter how brilliantly animated and designed a film like Bob Clampett's Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, it is hard to see the film without thinking about how much it can still hurt or disturb a large portion of America. I don't want to be denied access to it, but should it be made commercially available, or should its access be kept to small select audiences fully informed of its creation and the historical circumstances surrounding it? That it is a brilliant film artistically needs to be balanced against the sensitivity of its outrageously caricatured portrayal of African-Americans in the World War II era, and then measured for its worth in accordance to the heightened racial awareness of today's world.

I also find it extremely interesting that we censor heavily films that portray one specific race negatively, but we almost completely ignore the equally large racism towards another one. On Warner Brothers' Censored 11 List, the near-dozen films that the company said would never be released commercially for the reasons discussed, all eleven films are films with content about African-Americans. And yet, how about the Native Americans? There are a multitude of shorts that are chockful of stereotypes about "Indian" behavior and characteristics, including several from Warner Brothers, but many of those WB films are still relatively easy to find. They make you jump through hoops to get a glimpse at a near masterpiece like Coal Black, but even though none of the "Indian" films are in the same artistic category, you can run into them quite easily. Don't they hurt just as much? It seems that no matter how much the world changes in its attitudes towards race, our society still has an incredible blind spot regarding the fate of Native Americans and our government's long-standing near-genocidal abuse of an entire race.

When a cartoon portrays such a blind spot, it is usually due to its creators mere acceptance of certain handed-down stereotypes as being simply the way things are, not from any overt hatred to the race. The Old Pioneer from 1934, MGM's first official Happy Harmonies short (and their second cartoon overall), is an example of such casually accepted behavior. The film itself is only recounting a simple pioneers-vs.-Indians storyline, just like in a thousand formulaic Westerns from a hundred years of cinema (themselves examples of this same type of coy stereotyping), but it would not be shocking to learn that even the smallest transgressions of taste towards a race can be hurtful.

The Old Pioneer's title refers to a geezer wandering the streets of a big city with suitcase and rifle in hand, and who meets up with a newsboy hawking his wares in front of a storefront. Eyeing the traditional Wooden Indian holding three cigars in its petrified grip as it keeps its vigil on the sidewalk, the geezer says, "By cracky! If it ain't a redskin!" After spitting a couple times, he begins to recount a tale of his younger days, though in the tale, he looks almost exactly as old as he does in the modern setting. "I remember way back in '45...", he begins, and the tale jumps to a bygone era of wagon trains rolling across the Old West. A profusion of wagon-related gags follow: one wagon has a sign proclaiming its "Free Wheeling" status, and it has wheels that swivel every which way to suit the claim; another wagon with a sleek cover and the words "Air Plow" adds a futuristic/modern touch to the trail; and another wagon proclaims its "patented knee-action", and sure enough, its axle not only has knees, but is wearing short pants that look remarkably like those of Mickey Mouse. As a hitchhiker thumbs endlessly at the wagons to little effect, the geezer recounts how they "must have made 5 miles that day!"

The evening has the geezer fiddling away at a square dance (with reused footage that Harman-Ising took with them from Warner Bros.), and everyone gets in on the action: the pioneers; the geezer's dog plucks a guitar with his tail; and two mules dance and then join tails to allow a little girl to jump rope to the music. Meanwhile, an Indian scout has discovered their prescence, and rides off to inform his tribe. On entering the village, we see a squaw with a bawling baby riding on her back in a papoose; the horse she is leading has a similar neighing foal tied to her rear, too. The Indians beat their drums and begin to dance themselves into a frenzy, with one of the warriors breaking into a strutting highstep at odds with the music that began the dance. He then hops aboard his horse, and the horse picks up the dance steps of the warriors. Two warriors pull warpaint from clay pots and rub it on their faces; in the foreground, two others daintily apply their makeup with more modern methods such as compacts and lipstick. The chief readies a stack of arrows with a pencil sharpener.

In the midst of all this war-readiness, the Chief's young son sneaks off from his father's tepee, more than determined to get in on the fight. He heads to a bluff overlooking the pioneers' camp, but as he looks over the top of a boulder, he drops his bow onto a branch hanging from the bluff. He reaches for it, but becomes dislodged from the rock and lands in the branch. It breaks and he then bounces down the mountainside to the ground below, with the boulder following after him swiftly. The geezer hears his cries for help, and rushes to rescue the Indian lad at the last second.

Suddenly, the Indians attack, and the geezer takes the lad under his wing, pulling him into the wagon circle. He fires his double-barrelled shotgun, and each barrel acts like an elephant's trunk with each shot. Another rifleman has to push his bullet out of the barrel by running his fingers along its outside. Gunshots cause one whooping Indian to spin around on his horse like a target in a shooting gallery. Another pioneer uses his mule's tail to tamp the powder into his flintlock gun; on the third time, he accidentally pours pepper into the barrel, and the gun sneezes when it shoots! One Indian arrow flies behind a pioneer, turns direction, uses its feathers to dust off the pioneer's backside, and then jabs him there painfully. He jumps over a trunk, and a passel of arrows fly into its sides. The trunk pops open, and all of the empty clothes run from the trunk in fear! The geezer has a series of chalk marks on a rock for each Indian he has taken down; when his hat is shot off with an arrow, the Indian child gleefully erases one of the marks, infuriating the geezer.

Finally, the chief sneaks up behind him to scalp the old fella, but the chief's son stops him, explaining that the old man saved his life from the boulder. The chief stops the battle, and has the geezer smoke the peacepipe with him. The geezer then gives the chief a handful of cigars in trade. The film jumps back to the modern world, and the Old Pioneer, pointing at the drugstore Wooden Indian, tells the newsboy, "And that, m'boy, is how that Injun got those three cigars!"

A shaggy dog story, it turns out, and one that hinges on the stereotype of the Wooden Indian. At its best, it points out the ridiculousness of that image; at its worst, it perpetuates it further. A common excuse given in defense of cartoons with racial stereotypes is that, and I am paraphrasing a multitude of defenses here, "all of the characters in the film were made fun of equally", not just the race characters. True enough in this case: the pioneers and the Indians are all given ample opportunities to be foolish, but the people who make this argument are missing a crucial point: it is one thing to make fun of an occupation or a type of people, like say, lawyers or policemen or, here, pioneers. It is something completely different to make fun of someone's racial makeup. It becomes personal in ways that people outside of that race can rarely comprehend.

This film is generally innocuous with only slight humor to the proceedings; its inherent harm is not especially apparent, but I suppose there are some who would automatically take offense. There are, however, certainly far more egregious examples of cartoons which touch on Native American stereotypes. And with a thousand similar, and sometimes, worse versions of the same stereotypes at large in westerns in print, television and screen alike, where does one begin to chip away at the mountain of such material? Is it all to be placed on a bonfire, and consequences be damned? Do we lose genuine classics like The Searchers and Gone With the Wind because some members of our society find the imagery offensive, or do we try to inform the audience as a whole on how these things should be properly thought of and viewed? But, if we do that, aren't we negating an important and vital component of art: the ability to determine for one's own self an object's meaning and worth?

Again, the other problem with a film like Coal Black is its history as a suppressed classic. Even the most minorly informed or nascent cartoon buff feels a pull towards that film simply because of all the praise that has been heaped upon it (even being in the Top Ten of All Time Cartoons on various polls) despite its racial content. That it was created by one of the Gods of the Cartoon Pantheon certainly makes it even more appealing. So, despite the fact that it has never been given an official commercial release, the film will kick around and find an audience regardless of the negative aspects of its reputation, and sometimes, it may not be an audience that is prepared to deal with it.

Luckily, The Old Pioneer, while holding some interest from the viewpoint of animation history, is boring enough and obscure enough where it will never gain much momentum or an audience. This alone might be the best solution to the situation: since the vast majority of films are average and uninteresting, they can be left to slowly molder away in obscurity. It is only where the art exceeds the offense that we have a true dilemma.

The Old Pioneer (MGM Happy Harmonies, 1934) Dir: Rudolf Ising
Cel Bloc Rating: 5

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