Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 12, 2006

The Littlest Rebel

Filed under: Film,racism — louisproyect @ 5:03 pm

Last night while channel surfing, I took in about 10 minutes of "The Littlest Rebel" on the Turner Classic Movie network (TCM). It stars Shirley Temple as the daughter of a Confederate spy who is captured by the Yankees. In order to save her father from the firing squad, she goes to Washington to plead with Lincoln. It also features Bill Robinson, the "Bojangles" song-and-dance man.

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Shirley Temple

The film encapsulates the "happy darky" ethos of "Gone With the Wind," but is even more racist if such a thing is possible. It includes a Stepin Fetchit type character named James Henry, who is played by William Best, an actor who took roles in the 30's and 40s described by imdb.com as "shuffling, illiterate, superstitious porter, stableboy, chauffeur and the like served only to bolster Hollywood's then-unchallenged stereotype of the black male as somehow sub-human. Not surprisingly, Bob Hope referred to Best as one of the finest talents he had ever worked with. Up until the mid-1930s, if he was given screen credit, it would be as "Sleep 'n' Eat," his nickname.

The film was adapted from a 1913 play written by Edward Peple. You can actually download the novella he adapted from his play from Project Gutenberg.

This will give you some flavor of Peple's play. After James Henry tells Uncle Billy (played by Bill Robinson) that he intends to work for the Yankees because they will pay him a wage for the first time in his life and invites him to follow suit, he is remonstrated as follows:

At this combination of temptation and insult Uncle Billy's eyes narrowed with contempt and loathing. "Me?" he said, and a rigid arm pointed back at the house which had been for years his source of shelter and comfort. "Me leave Miss Hallie _now_? Right when she ain't got _nothin_'? Look heah, nigger; dog-gone yo' skin, I got a great min' for to mash yo' mouf. Yas, I _is_ a slave. I b'longs to Mars Cary–an' I b'longed to his pa befo' him. Dey feed me and gimme de bes' dey got. Dey take care of me when I'm sick–an' dey take care of me when I'm well–an' _I_ gwine to stay right here. But you? You jes' go on wid de Yankees, an' black der boots. Dey'll free you," and Uncle Billy's voice rose in prophetic tones–"an you'll _keep on_ blackin' boots! Go 'long now, you low-down, dollar-an'-a-quarter nigger!" as Jeems Henry backed away. "Go long wid yo' _Yankee_ marsters–and git yo' freedom an' a blackin' brush."

TCM screened this film as part of a month-long series on "Race and Hollywood," which includes both positive and negative images including "Birth of a Nation."

To introduce "The Littlest Rebel," they include an excerpt from Donald Bogle's "Blacks in American Films & Television: An Illustrated Encyclopedia":

This is a Shirley Temple vehicle, the story of a pint-sized Southern belle during the days of the Civil War. When Shirley's father (a Confederate officer) is captured and taken to a Yankee prison camp and her mother dies, little Miss Mop Top finds herself adrift on the family's big plantation. Of course, who comes to her rescue but the faithful servant, Uncle Bill, played by Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. He's around to comfort little Shirley, to play and dance with her. And during one sequence when Yankees show up at the Temple mansion, Uncle Bill and the corps of slaves help hide the girl, who goes in blackface, hoping to pass for one of the darkies. The scene has to be seen to be believed.

Now I imagine that TCM's motives were probably innocent, but I have a nagging suspicion in the back of my mind that Ted Turner influenced the selection because of his "South Will Rise Again" sensibilities. Turner produced "Gods and Generals" in 2003, a film tribute to Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. Rightwing actor Robert Duvall played Robert E. Lee (surprise, surprise) and Virginia Senator George Allen played a Confederate officer.

The choice of George Allen is not surprising considering the following:

But, while Allen may have genuflected in the direction of Gingrich, he also showed a touch of Strom Thurmond. Campaigning for governor in 1993, he admitted to prominently displaying a Confederate flag in his living room. He said it was part of a flag collection–and had been removed at the start of his gubernatorial bid. When it was learned that he kept a noose hanging on a ficus tree in his law office, he said it was part of a Western memorabilia collection. These explanations may be sincere. But, as a chief executive, he also compiled a controversial record on race. In 1994, he said he would accept an honorary membership at a Richmond social club with a well-known history of discrimination–an invitation that the three previous governors had refused. After an outcry, Allen rejected the offer. He replaced the only black member of the University of Virginia (UVA) Board of Visitors with a white one. He issued a proclamation drafted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans declaring April Confederate History and Heritage Month. The text celebrated Dixie's "four-year struggle for independence and sovereign rights." There was no mention of slavery. After some of the early flaps, a headline in The Washington Post read, "Governor seen leading VA. back in time."

Full: http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20060508&s=lizza050806


  1. I definitely don’t want to get in line as one defending Ted Turner(he has plenty of issues & maybe demons to go with his oversized ego) but he did pledge $1 billion to the UN Foundation, who’s president is former US Senator (D)from Colorado, Tim Wirth. He’s a strong environmentalist, although a Washington insider, his wife & Teresa Heinz Kerry are very good friends I’ve read.

    Comment by m.c. — May 12, 2006 @ 7:03 pm

  2. Don’t people on the right hate Ted Turner for going on speedboat rides with Fidel Castro? Maybe that’s more Castro’s problem…

    Comment by Poulod — May 13, 2006 @ 1:49 am

  3. Don’t get your undies knotted. Things have changed, and will continue to move forward as long as people keept trying. Self congratulatory wind bags such as you revisit ancient history in order to do one thing; walk backwards.

    Comment by Linda — June 15, 2008 @ 9:34 pm

  4. Shirley temple movie has been my favorite movie since i waz a little girl mi nana would by ever single 1, i have tha whole collection and i watch them almost everyday on mi free time

    Comment by haylee — October 7, 2009 @ 5:45 am

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