Sweets for the Sweet


Nostalgia, Our Daily Correspondent

cookie carnival

A still from “The Cookie Carnival”

I devoutly hope there is an academic somewhere writing a serious essay about the role of anthropomorphic comestibles in Depression-era cartoons. I am no authority, but it seems pretty clear to me that, besides the obvious economic implications, all this humanized food has a great deal to do with gender norms, and attitudes toward food, and probably class, too. Disney’s 1935 Silly Symphony “The Cookie Carnival” would have to be the centerpiece of any such argument.

“The Cookie Carnival” is a Cinderella story that focuses on a sort of proto–Miss America boardwalk parade in which various confections compete for the title of “Cookie Queen.” In describing the plot, I can do no better than Wikipedia, which undertakes the task with commendable thoroughness:

Various sweets and goodies of Cookietown are preparing to crown their new Cookie Queen. A parade of potential candidates passes by, all based on various cakes and sweets. Far from the parade route, on what would appear to be the wrong side of the peppermint stick railroad tracks, a gingerbread drifter overhears an impoverished sugar cookie girl crying. Upon hearing that she cannot enter the parade because she hasn’t any pretty clothes, he hurries to remedy this, concocting a dress of colored frosting and candy hearts. He covers her brown hair with golden taffy ringlets and adds a large violet bow to her dress as a finishing touch. Thus attired, she is entered as the final contestant in the parade: Miss Bonbon.

The judges, who have thus far been disappointed in the candidates, all promptly declare Miss Bonbon the Cookie Queen on sight. The gingerbread man is practically trampled in the sudden surge of the crowd as they carry Miss Bonbon to her throne, where they place a golden crown on her head. She is then presented with a large layer cake, which appears to be a carousel of different vaudeville acts. A queen must have a king, and so the newly crowned Cookie Queen must choose a husband from those featured.

After being presented with a duo of tap dancing candy cane men, a pair of Barbershop singing Old Fashioned Cookies, a pair of effeminate angel food cakes, two scat-singing devil’s food cakes, some acrobatic upside-down cakes, and three tipsy rum cookies, she refuses each and every one with a giggle and a shake of her head. The judges, with no other suitors to present, make their own proposals.

At that moment, the gingerbread man, who has been attempting to gain a closer vantage point, sneaks up onto the dais. He is accosted by the guards who split his cupcake paper hat and tear off a piece of the jelly roll red carpet so that he looks as if he’s wearing a crown and an ermine-lined cloak. The Cookie Queen calls to the guards, “Stop! I say! Don’t crown the king that way!” The gingerbread man is immediately released and takes his place beside his beloved sugar cookie. Their closing kiss melts the lollipop intended to screen them from view.

The cartoon presents many troublesome portraits—there’s the obvious homophobia of the “Angel Cake” segment and the racism of the “Devils Food cake,” to say nothing of the trivialization of alcoholism. (While we’re on the subject, what, exactly, is a “rum cookie”? It looks vaguely cupcake-esque, but my vintage cookbooks have shed no light on the subject.)

Another Silly Symphony, 1933’s “Candy Town,” is similarly bizarre, though it’s more of a romp, all things considered: A feline couple arrives on the moon and discovers it is made of cake. They gorge themselves sick and then get chased home by a bottle of castor oil.

1936’s “Somewhere in Dreamland” is a more direct response to the Depression. Two urchins enter a magical land filled not merely with edible flora and fauna, but with clothes and toys, too. When they awake, they find that a bunch of kind neighbors have provided them with a real-life feast. (I suppose the political implications are fairly obvious, too.)

That all of these fall into the “Big Rock Candy Mountain” realm of fantasy isn’t hard to see; what is weird is just how often the anthropomorphic treats cheerfully offer themselves up for cannibalism and annihilation. Why are the donuts voluntarily dunking themselves in hot coffee? Why does the peppermint-stick king encourage the cats to lick him? I feel like a postcolonialist reading might have a few things to say on the subject.

I pondered these questions for far too long—and discovered several exceedingly interesting articles on the effects of the Great Depression on children and the intersection of escapism and social consciousness in media. My thoughts were alive, my intellect engaged. And then, of course, I had to look at the YouTube comments for “The Cookie Carnival.”

One more thing I just notice, The Cinderella Cookie was made up beautifully with a new dress and makeup, while the Cookie king just looks … incredibility plain in comparison … I kinda wish he gotten his own makeover. Lol.

Well, that too.