Whatever happened to Sunflower?

It was the intention of the 50th Anniversary re-release of Fantasia to restore the film to its full original form. However, a subtle form of censorship has been used to remove a potentially embarrassing character, reports David Williams.

Character sketch for Sunflower.

The new print of the Disney film Fantasia, which has been meticulously restored to bring back the Technicolor brilliance of the original presentation, has left out a rather embarrassing character. The black ‘maid’ centaurette who preens the tail of the green centaurette was nicknamed ‘Sunflower’ by the animation department. In the 1950’s, sections of the Pastoral Symphony, in which she appears, were cut from the release prints with a resulting discontinuity in the music. In the 1982, digital re-recording, the music was re-arranged so that the excised sections were less obvious.

But, it has been the intention of the 50th Anniversary re-release to restore the film to its full original form. In order that it might better fit into the wide-screen ratio of modern cinemas, the film image has been bordered with a black mask. At the places where ‘Sunflower’ makes her appearance, the image has been enlarged so that she is actually outside the masking. Thus, a disembodied hand is preening the centaurette’s tail, and the carpet for the jovial Bacchus is unrolled anonymously.

This kind of excision in animated cartoons has been common in recent years, and yet no such sensitivity seems to mar the showing of live action films. A recent television showing of Kid Millions still retained the sequence in which Eddie Cantor, a black-faced minstrel singer, remarks to his black valet that, “it is difficult to get this stuff on and even more difficult to get it off. You should think yourself lucky”. Current showings of ‘Tom and Jerry’ cartoons on British television still retain the Southern voice of the maid ‘Mammy’, though in the States they are shown in the Irish- voice version dubbed under the supervision of Chuck Jones. In a recent showing in America of the Disney Silly Symphony Mother Goose Goes Hollywood, the seven minute film was reduced to five minutes. Sections which showed caricatures of black entertainers such as Cab Calloway were completely removed.

This tampering with film history would be seen as some kind of ideological ‘new think’ if applied to real events and processes. It is true that in films prior to 1950 black performers were normally shown in the roles of servants. It is true that many of these roles were both demeaning and degrading as far as the black population of America was concerned. B lack actors had little choice in the parts they played even after the 1942 Hollywood declaration that studios would abandon ‘pejorative racial roles’ and place ‘Negroes in positions as extras that they could reasonably be expected to occupy in society’. Thus the very ‘realism’ of film failed to engender much change. Black film-makers were disappointed at the reaction of black audiences to their films; they knew that black millionaires and black sheriffs did not exist in real life.

Chuck Jones explained to me the arbitrary use of black stereotypes and black mockery within American Animation as ‘misplaced innocence’. It was certainly the norm of the time that animated black characters should look and act like the screen persona of Steppin’ Fetchit, one of the most successful Black character actors. But it was also generic that animation celebrated the musical talents of Black performers that were exploited by countless American Musicals.

Painting guide for Sunflower from Fantasia. Illustrations © Walt Disney. Reproduced from artwork in private hands.

Caricatures of Fats Wailer, Louis Armstrong, and Cab Cailoway were as common as those of Clark Gable, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Mae West, Katherine Hepburn and Bing Crosby. They were part of the parody stock-in-trade of the animation studios of Warner, Walter Lantz, and Disney, and provided mimicry more than mockery.

But, the BBC are sensitive to possible outcry and have only ever shown one of the MGM films starring the black cartoon character, Bosko. Bosko, like Red Riding Hood, is almost always on the way to deliver ‘cookies’ to Grandma’s House. On the way through the marshland, he is waylaid by villainous ‘frogs’, who like himself speak with a Southern ‘black’ drawl. He normally escapes their threats and his ‘bad dream’ by tapping out a jazz rhythm, and the cartoons end in a wild ‘jam session’. There had been protests by three viewers when one of the Bosko’s The Old Dark House was tentatively shown on a Rolf Harris Cartoon Time programme several years ago. The stereotype of black characters being afraid of ghosts had apparently been too much for them. Only a year later, the BBC showed Clean Pastures, the animated parody of the all black film Green Pastures to no protest at all.

As the centenary of cinematography approaches, it is becoming more acceptable to research and study the origins and processes of animated cartoons and to view them as social documents. Current release prints and availabilities have hampered this research at a time when cinema archaeology is attempting to restore live-action films to their former glory. The value of history is lessened when it is not possible to investigate our mistakes as well as our triumphs.

Printed in Animator Issue 28 (Autumn 1991)