INTRODUCTION
BITING THE INVISIBLE HAND
A tattered, makeshift curtain rises on a ragtag troupe of blackface min-
strels preparing to offer their interpretation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s
Uncle Tom’s Cabin to a rural audience in a converted barn. So begins
Mickey’s Mellerdrammer (Disney, 1933), a telling artifact from early
twentieth- century American popular culture.1 In this cartoon short, Walt
Disney Productions’ wildly popular new star joins his “girlfriend,” Min-
nie Mouse, and friends Goofy, Clarabelle Cow, and Horace Horsecollar
in an amateur production of the classic abolitionist tale. As with many
other versions of Stowe’s melodrama staged in the late nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries, the cartoon’s racial organization seems a bit
confused.2 The short begins with the cast backstage, preparing. Minnie as
Little Eva takes great pleasure in powdering her face and donning a blonde
wig. Clarabelle blacks up with the aid of chimney soot from an oil lamp.
Mickey—who will play both Topsy and Uncle Tom—inserts a firecracker
into his mouth and lights the fuse: he literally blasts himself into black-
ness.3 Once in costume, Mickey and Minnie take the stage, while in the
wings Goofy, in a nod to nineteenth- century stage mechanics, manipu-
lates a primitive pasteboard chorus of plantation darkies whose jaws flap
while a phonograph plays Dan Emmett’s “Dixie” . . . to which Mickey and
Minnie tap dance.4
This mixture of abolitionist melodrama and blackface minstrel show
may seem odd and contradictory, but it accurately captures one of the uses
to which Stowe’s tale was put in its long heyday. Yet what makes this scene
truly strange and contradictory is that Mickey and Clarabelle were already
minstrels before they blacked up (as was Minnie). With their white gloves,
wide mouths and eyes, and tricksterish behaviors, Mickey and his friends
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