Whatever Happened to Little Sunflower?by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
What do Howdy Doody, the monster from the ID in Forbidden Planet (1956), and Chip and Dale have to do with racial insensitivity in the Disney animated feature Fantasia (1940)? Well, it turns out the artists primarily responsible for those characters were also the animators who brought life to a stereotypical African American character by the name of Sunflower.
By the way, in this article I will also reveal for the first time since 1940, the names of some of the other centaurettes in Fantasia and that Sunflower may have had a twin sister that no one ever mentions. It is just another Disney history exclusive for readers of MousePlanet!
These names are all clearly listed in the official Disney production draft of the film from Sept. 11, 1940. It lists Ham Luske and Ford Beebe as directors (although I believe that Jim Handley also did some directing on this segment) with Erwin Verity as assistant director for the centaurette segments.
Story development for the sequence was credited to Otto Englander, Webb Smith, Erdman Penner, Joseph Sabo, Bill Peet and George Stallings.
Disney fans abhor any form of retroactive censorship to Disney films, whether it is the removal of the cigarette from the mouth of Pecos Bill in Melody Time, the refusal to re-release Song of the South, or the changing of the lyrics to the peddler's song in Aladdin.
Some fans are adamant in their disapproval of the removal of a fawning little female African American centaurette from Fantasia (1940) named Sunflower. Since 1969, she has been officially missing from the film’s theatrical re-releases and at one time, representatives of the Disney Studio even attempted to insist that the character never existed and that audiences were “misremembering” ever seeing her in the first place.
Sunflower appeared in the Pastoral Symphony segment of Fantasia. The Pastoral Symphony takes place in its serene shadow of Mount Olympus and presents a story accompanied by the music of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s "Sixth Symphony." In the Disney version, famous Grecian beings, like pegasi, satyrs, centaurs and cupids, leapt from the dusty pages of mythology books to flirt with the opposite sex, indulge in freshly made wine and to dance and play in the candy box colored Elysian Fields until prankish Zeus puts an end to the party.
The Disney artists were challenged with the task of creating these mythological creatures and having them move in a realistic fashion. Male centaurs, creatures who were half-man and half-horse, had been illustrated for centuries for stories where they usually appeared as muscular stallions with chiseled Mediterranean faces.
To properly tell the tale, the Disney artists also needed to create a never-before-portrayed delicate female version that they dubbed “centaurettes”, the very first time that term was ever used. Disney legend and supervising animator Fred Moore, famed for his drawings of appealing women, was assigned the task of bringing femininity to characters who might have appeared grotesque in less skillful hands since they were, after all, half horse.
Who was the little centaurette known as Sunflower?
She is called Sunflower because in the scene where she is braiding flowers into a centaurette’s tail, Sunflower wears a huge sunflower on the side of her head that does not appear in the other scenes. It is apparent that Sunflower is a subservient character—like the cupids, whose primary purpose in life is to care for the other centaurettes. In her design, she is not part-human and stately mare, but part-human and part-donkey and is significantly smaller and younger than all the other centaurettes.
She does not frolic with the rest of the herd during the courtship rituals, but happily spends her time with the little satyrs who also seem to be in a subordinate role, as well, assigned to the preparing of the wine. Unlike all the other centaurettes, Sunflower never pairs up with a partner, since there is no appropriate match among the centaurs—who are all big, attractive and virile and long for a similar match among the centaurettes.
Sunflower is a stereotypical caricature of an African-American female child of the time, as evidenced by her distinctive hairstyle in which parts of her hair are separated by hair-bands of cloth into multiple stubby, spike-like bunches equivalent in size. For many, this hairstyle calls to mind the one the character of Topsy wore in the controversial novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin and was often used as a stereotypical visual in live-action and animated films to define a female African-American child.
It was never the intent of Walt Disney to defame African Americans or any other culture. (It was while Walt Disney was in charge in the 1950s that multitalented African American Floyd Norman was brought on as an animator and made a storyman, something that didn’t happen at other animation studios.) At the time, these stereotypes were not considered racist, but merely a part of the tradition of ethnic humor and cartoon exaggeration that was common in everything from films and theater to books and cartoons.
That didn’t make the use of them harmless and correct, but it was an acceptable and widely used practice at the time to quickly identify someone, especially for the purposes of humor. In retrospect, it is clear that Walt used this type of humorous exaggeration in his films much less than his contemporaries did.
“Walt's artistic purpose,” said animation historian John Culhane who wrote a book about Fantasia, “was to take Beethoven's piece, put a visualization to it, and have people feel happy when that harmony was completed. If someone feels demeaned or insulted, that's going against what Disney wanted when he did it.”
In 1969, with the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the United States, the segments with Sunflower were cut, causing short blips in the soundtrack that was also eliminated with those scenes.
For its 60th Anniversary DVD release in 2000, Disney's manager of film restoration, Scott MacQueen, supervised a restoration of the original 125-minute roadshow version of Fantasia, so that Disney could officially announce this was the original and “uncut” version of the film. How could Disney make that claim if Sunflower was still missing?
This feat of trickery was accomplished by clever panning and digitally zooming in on certain frames to avoid showing Sunflower. For instance, the camera focused on the preening centaurette and not Sunflower at her feet polishing the hooves. So, almost every frame of the original version existed in the release, but not everything from the original frame was seen. At the time, John Carnochan, who was responsible for the editing, stated, “It’s sort of appalling to me that these stereotypes were ever put in.”
Carnochan reframed four shots and replaced others that were beyond redemption by repeating some frames trying to make “the unavoidable music edits as unobtrusive as possible.”
Sunflower is a pantomime character, like all the other characters in the "Pastoral Symphony," but has a highly expressive face that reveals her feelings clearly. She spends mere seconds on the screen and appears in only four quick sequences. The elimination of these sequences does not effect the tone nor the narrative of the story. They are little “character bits” that, like condiments, add to the overall flavor but are not absolutely necessary for the enjoyment of the meal.
First, at the beginning, as the centaurettes languidly primp with the help of the flying cupids, one has her hair combed while another has her tail braided. The very next shot introduces Sunflower on the left-hand side of the screen holding the hoof of a pretty white-haired beauty. Sunflower blows on the hoof and polishes it with a white cattail plant (often found growing near bodies of water) in an action reminiscent of the African American shoeshine boys of the time. At the same time, the centaurette buffs her fingernails with a similar cattail.
Officially, this is listed as scene No. 19 and the description of the action on the draft as “Medium Close Up—Negro Centaurette is manicuring her hoofs. She is polishing her nails.” The animators for this scene were Bill Justice and Milt Neil.
Justice is perhaps best known for his animation on the characters of Chip and Dale, but he has had a rich history with the Disney Company, from animating feature films to programming Audio-Animatronics at the theme parks to designing the first true Disney costume characters for Disneyland. That brief description is just the tip of the iceberg of his many accomplishments.
Neil joined Disney around 1935 and left around 1945. He not only worked on Fantasia, but also Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Pinocchio, The Reluctant Dragon, Dumbo, Bambi and Saludos Amigos. He also did animation on Der Fueher’s Face. After leaving Disney, he moved to the East Coast and had his own commercial animation and advertising business. Neil designed practically all the products that came out under the Howdy Doody name, including all the toys, games, clothing, as well as the newspaper comic strip featuring the character. He is also responsible for designing the characters on the Pea Soup Andersen's billboards.
Second, after the centaurettes, with the help of the cupids, find appropriate head gear, the scene with the centaurette using doves in her hair then cuts to Sunflower diligently putting a dozen or more pinkish-purple flowers into the yellow tail of a centaurette. Sunflower is visibly disconcerted when the centaurette can not hold still and swishes her finely combed tail as she rushes to catch a glimpse of the approaching centaurs. All the flowers fly into the air as Sunflower places her hands on her hips and looks disapprovingly as they float to the ground.
Officially, this is scene No. 37 and the description of the action on the draft is “Sunflower (Black Centaurette) pins flowers in the tail of ‘Judy’—Judy swishes her tail scattering the flowers. Sunflower annoyed.” The animators for this sequence were Milt Neil and Josh Meador.
Meador worked at Disney from 1936 through 1965. He was especially known for his work in special effects, including the water effects in Cinderella and Bambi and the fire and bubbling mud scenes in "The Rite of Spring" segment. He was loaned out to do the animation of the monster from the ID in the classic sci-fi film Forbidden Planet. His real passion was painting and he was known for his striking landscapes.
Wait a minute! The centaurette in that scene had a name? It was “Judy”? That doesn’t exist on any of the model sheets! To help the animators distinguish between the centaurettes, the official draft of the scenes gives each of those characters a name. (In the official draft for The Lion King, Simba’s child at the end of the film is listed as “Fluffy.”) The centaurettes gazing out through the vines are identified (in order) as Sandra, Hilda, Melinda, Judy and Cabina. (However, even though Melinda is listed, she does not seem to appear in the final scene.)
Melinda is the centaurette with the pale blue body and yellow hair in pigtails—the only centaurette who doesn’t “hook up” until the cupids help her do so with the buff centaur Brudus. (He is called Brudus because he “broods” that he doesn’t have a girlfriend like the rest of his fellow centaurs.)
By the way, the supervising animator on the centaurettes was the legendary Fred Moore and one of Moore’s daughters was named Melinda. I can only speculate about the selection of some of the other female names.
Undeterred, Sunflower then follows the centaurette Judy to the grove where the other centaurettes are peering through the vines and, once again, on the left hand size of the scene, attempts to add decorative flowers to the tail. The scene calls to mind similar movie scenes, like in Gone With the Wind, of African-American female servants assisting headstrong young Southern belles to prepare for a dance or picnic in order to attract the attention of young men.
Officially this is still considered part of scene No. 37. Description of action is “Medium shot—Three Centaurettes looking through foliage on screen right. Judy is still being decorated by Sunflower.” Animation by Bill Justice and Paul B. Kossoff.
Kossoff was perhaps best known for some of his effects animation at Disney in the early 1940s. It was Kossoff who did the silhouetted animation of the Casey Jr. circus train in the opening of Dumbo. Besides Fantasia, he also did some animation in Bambi.
Third, after the centaurettes parade down the stair-like grassy levels to display their attributes for the eager young centaurs, the scene cuts to a pink-haired centaurette with a garland of flowers around her waist walking back and forth. Little Sunflower prances proudly along behind her, holding the other end of the garland high in the air as if it were the train of a wedding gown.
That’s what I always thought until I read the draft of this scene. In the official draft it states that “Atika (colored centaurette) holds Hilda’s train.” “Colored” was a term at the time that referred to African Americans. So now we know which centaurette was Hilda and also that there was possibly another young female African-American centaurette who looked exactly like Sunflower. A twin sister? Another name for Sunflower? If they are two separate characters, they never interact during the rest of the segment.
Close examination of the deleted scenes shows that the little black centaurette has what has traditionally been referred to as the offensively labeled “pickaninny hair style” in the scene where she buffs the hooves and rolls out the red carpet. But, in the scene where she braids flowers into the tail and holds the garland of flowers like a train, her hair is in two pigtails. So did she, like the other centaurettes, change her hair for the forthcoming parade of centaurs or are there really two separate characters?
Finally, it is Sunflower who unrolls the red carpet up the steps to the makeshift barrel throne of Bacchus, with the playful satyrs and Jacchus following behind her desperately trying to guide the unsteady boisterous fellow up to his seat. Sunflower stands behind the seat to steady it and tries unsuccessfully to help as Bacchus loses his balance and tumbles forward, causing an upset Sunflower to run around in fearful despair with her hands on the sides of her head. Once again, it is Neil and Kossoff doing the animation of the character.
In the available DVD version, the red carpet magically rolls itself up to the barrel throne and all evidence of Sunflower has been erased from the scene with Disney cine-magic.
Sunflower then disappears from the rest of the story. There is no shot of her running around in the fields enjoying the party or hiding from the mighty storm or cautiously peering out once things have calmed down. Sunflower is one-of-a-kind in this blissful world—unless she really does have a mysterious twin sister who looks exactly like her, except for hair style, named Atika. They are never seen together, so it is also possible that, at one time, Sunflower may have been named Atika. Unfortunately, time has taken away the people who might be able to answer that question and the Disney Company would prefer to forget that Sunflower even existed.
An episode of the weekly Disney television series titled Magic and Music (first shown March 1958) showed the "Pastoral Symphony" segment intact, including scenes with Sunflower. A repeat broadcast in 1963 was edited to remove Sunflower, and that is the version that has been usually rerun on television. This editing was done while Walt was alive and knew what was happening.
Although the Disney Company has been aggressive in removing any video of Sunflower from the Internet and various Websites, a persistent fan will be able to find at least three locations on the Internet where these scenes can be viewed complete and uncensored. Knowing the stubbornness and inventiveness of Disney fans, no matter how many times the scenes are removed, they will somehow find a way to reappear.
As a historian, I certainly feel that Sunflower should not be forgotten, which is one of the reasons I wrote this column. If you watch her from the perspective that she was just a product of her time and there was no direct intent to demean anyone, she is charming and amusing if inconsequential. However, I completely understand how, without the historical context, she could easily be misinterpreted as completely out of place for the segment and might even be found truly offensive by some people.
Some of the research for this article, including identifying particular animators in the specific scenes, came from my long-time good friend, Disney historian Paul Anderson who runs an interesting Website you should visit (link).
I hope that poor little Sunflower has found some happiness in that cartoon limbo—where so many other animated characters, who provided enjoyment for audiences over the years but who became inappropriate by current standards, inhabit. I hope she is galloping through the Elysian Fields and that someone is polishing her hooves and braiding her tail with flowers and that she has found a mate who matches her spirit. I also hope she knows she is not forgotten and that future researchers can find some information on her here.