Friday, February 08, 2019

movie racism for the fun of it

Among the more telling episodes in America's on-going history of racism - aptly referred to as our "original sin" - was when Petula Clark, hosting an eponymous TV special for NBC, casually touched the forearm of her guest, Harry Belafonte. White woman + black man = Immediate controversy.

Present at the taping was the advertising manager for the Plymouth division of Chrysler, the show's sponsor. He protested and demanded that the number that ended with the objectionable moment - “On the Path of Glory,” an anti-war ballad co-written by Clark - be re-shot.

Steve Binder, the show's producer-director refused, NBC stood behind him, Chrysler distanced itself from its representative and the show went on as taped. "Petula" aired on April 2, 1968. That was 50 years ago.  Fifty years.

Not that long ago really.

Exacerbating matters: Belafonte was - and remains - a vocal civil-rights activist. And, oh yes, the song in question was aimed at an unpopular war.

The press at the time pounced on the story, stressing the unnecessary racism of the situation and stoking fear and outrage.

It's difficult to grasp that this moment actually took place in 1968 and not 1928 - or that certain American viewers react as heatedly as that ad rep when they see an interracial couple (specifically a white woman with a black man) in something as trivial as a contemporary TV commercial.

Even more unfathomable is this week's revelation of the utter cluelessness of those Virginia politicians. Ostensibly educated and sophisticated (but clearly not evolved or very sensitive), they thought that they were having harmless fun when they played around with blackface as young men.

But, frankly, it's a tad hypocritical to judge or fault them when we routinely kick back and watch old movies produced by powerful studios that coaxed A-list stars - artistes who should have known better - to don blackface.

Case in point: Fred Astaire wasn't ostensibly sophisticated. He was the real deal - elegant and regal, particularly when teamed with Ginger Rogers. They made 10 films as a team, all but one for RKO Radio Pictures, all (but one) in glorious black-&-white. One of them was George Stevens' "Swing Time," a terrific 1936 musical blemished by one unfortunate moment - when Astaire performs in blackface. Most of Fred's  numbers in the film are with Ginger, but one - titled "Bojangles of Harlem" (written by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields) - is performed with chorus girls and in blackface.

Whenever it's on TCM, it's uncomfortable to think, "This is Fred Astaire."

To reiterate, he should have known better, especially since he had some amount of clout at RKO and was also actively invovled in his film's musical numbers. I know, I know! It was a different (read: less enlightened) time.

But I say, no excuses.

Astaire fits the TCM brand and it is unlikely that it would declare a moratorium on "Swing Time." And I certainly wouldn't expect that.

But it might be worth a pre-screening discussion/warning.

Another example: Judy Garland. Yes, Judy Garland who appeared in not one but three films (as far as I know) in blackface. In 1938, the year before she became everyone's darling in "The Wizard of Oz," Judy did the blackface bit, singing Wallis Willis' "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's "Everybody Sing" (for Edwin L. Moran) and, a year later, joined her frequent co-star Mickey Rooney for something called "Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo," performed in MGM's desecration of the Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart Broadway hit, "Babes in Arms," directed by Busby Berkeley. In 1941, ditto - in "Babes on Broadway," again with Rooney and Berkeley.

Rodgers and Hart didn't write "Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo." The number wasn't in the stage version of their show. No, it was composed especially for Metro - and Mickey and Judy - by Roger Edens. I think it's safe to assume that Mickey and Judy had no say in the matter. They were MGM stars but, unlike Fred Astaire at RKO, they had no clout or autonomy.

They did what they were told. Rooney, of course, offended decades later as Mr. Yunioshi, replete with buck teeth, in Blake Edwards irrationally overrated "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961), but that's another column.

Meanwhile, over at Warner Bros. in 1947, Dennis Morgan and his co-stars went blackface for a minstrel number in the otherwise forgettable "My Wild Irish Rose." There are other examples, of course - too many. So many, in fact, that Wikipedia compiled a lengthy alphabetical list that's a veritable who's who of name stars who performed in blackface, everyone from Joan Crawford in "Torch Song" (1953) to Mario Lanza in "Serenade" (1956) to Keenan Wynn in "Finian's Rainbow" (1968), although Wynn's bit was staged in the spirit of the socially-conscious material that contained it.

It had a point to make.

Along the same lines, but much more serious, is James Whitmore's brave turn in "Black Like Me," Carl Lerner's 1964 indie based on the true story of a reporter who darkens his skin in an attempt to empathize with the people at the center of his story on the realities of the segregated south. This was not quite the same as Crawford's entertaining but dubious turn as a narcissistic musical comedy star who dances in blackface in the aforementioned "Torch Song," a bit of guilty-pleasure camp directed in 1953 by Charles Walters.

Then there were those films in which white performers were hired to play blacks. The most compelling was the casting of Ava Gardner as Julie Laverne, a woman who passes as white, in George Sidney's 1951 MGM film of the Oscar Hammerstein-Jerome Kern musical, "Show Boat." Lena Horne would have been the more obvious choice and, in fact, Horne played Julie in an extended sequence about the Broadway opening of "Show Boat" in MGM's 1946 Jerome Kern biopic, "Til the Clouds Roll By." The sequence plays almost like a dry run for Metro's eventual filming of "Show Boat," with Tony Martin as Gaylord Ravenal and Kathryn Grayson as Magnolia Hawks. Grayson, of course, repeated her role in Sideny's "Show Boat"; Howard Keel was cast as Gaylord.

"Show Boat" isn't an isolated case. There's Susan Kohner passing in Douglas Sirk's "Imitation of Life" (1959), but again, that's another column.

There's less material for a piece on those rare black performers who donned whiteface and, when they did, it was always as a form of commentary, not mockery. Perhaps the most striking example is Melvin Van Peebles' playful "Watermelon Man," a 1970 comedy in which Godfrey Cambridge starts out as an entitled suburban racist who routinely harasses black people and whose self-satisfied life is turned upside-down when he inexplicably turns black overnight and learns about bigotry first-hand.

Columbia shrewdly sold it with the in-your-face ad line, "the uppity movie."

We need it more than ever now.

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(from top) 

~Judy Garland sings "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" in "Everybody Sing"
~photography: MGM 1937©

~Harry Belafonte and Petula Clark sing "On the Path of Glory" on the TV special, "Petula" 
~photography: NBC 1968©

~Fred Astaire in a publicity shot for the "Bojangles of Harlem" number in "Swing Time"
~photography: MGM 1936©

 ~Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland perform "Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo" in "Babes in Arms"
~photography: MGM 1939©

~Dennis Morgan (right) with Ben Blue and Charles Irwin in "My Wild Irish Rose" 
~photography: Warner Bros. 1947© 

~James Whitmore in "Black Like Me"
~photography: Continental/Walter Reade-Sterling 1964©

 ~Joan Crawford in "Torch Song"
~photography: MGM 1953©

 ~Lena Horne singing "Can't Help Loving That Man of Mine" in the "Show Boat" sequence from "Til the Clouds Roll By"
~photography: MGM 1946©

~Godfrey Cambridge in whiteface with Estelle Parsons in "Watermelon Man" 
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1970© 


Marueen said...

For what it's worth, Judy looks positively miserable in that photo from "Everybody Sing." I think you're probably right when you write that she had no say in the matter - and didn't like doing it!

Kiki said...

I loved Fred Astaire singing "Bojangles of Harlem"!

joe baltake said...

Kiki- I love his singing of that song, too (and in general). And, of course, the dancing. What's regrettable is that it is performed in blackface. -J

Alex said...

Astaire was paying tribute to the great African-American dancer Bill Robinson and I guess that his celebration of Robinson should be inclusive. He wanted to look like him and thought that there was nothing wrong with that. I doubt if it occurred to him that he went too far or that his tribute was racist in any way. I wonder if Astaire ever considered the number in any of his interviews with the press. I'd like to know what he thought of it years later.

joe baltake said...

Alex- Astaire not only donned blackface for his tribute but also dressed in the Bill Robinson style for the number. Bojangles was Robinson's aka and you can see him in action in “The Big Broadcast of 1936” and then compare Astaire's take on him, which knowledgeable dance aficionados have said is uncanny. Yes, it would be interesting to see if Astaire ever commented on the number in interviews. There are two major books which examine Astaire's art - “The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book” by Arlene Croce and “Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films” by John Mueller, but I don't believe that Astaire contributed any commentary to either. -J

Charlotte said...

If you watch "Everybody Sing" or the clip of Judy singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" on YouTube, you'll notice that it's more than just blackface. She does a stereotype of a southern black person with exaggerated mannerisms and vocal inflections. Not good.

Terri G said...

fascinating and scary. Sadly, it's everywhere.

mike schlesinger said...

The problem here is that everyone conflates "racial" with "racist." Context and intent are important. Minstrel shows and blackface had been part of the entertainment scene since the 1830s, and it was just something people did, like smoking. I'm sure Astaire, Garland, Jolson, et al did not think they were doing anything "racist"--they were just continuing a popular show biz tradition. Is it wrong now? Sure, unless there's a specific satiric point being made (TROPIC THUNDER). But we cannot go back and rewrite history and call all these people bigots when that was clearly not their intention.

joe baltake said...

Mike! What you're saying is that it's a matter of semantics, vis-à-vis "racial" and "racist." But I disagree. I'm sure you're correct about the (innocent) intentions of Garland, Astaire and Jolson, but I doubt if any one of them even applied the word "racial" to what they were doing, let alone "racist." It was just another form of entertainment for them - another terrific number to perform. Historically, it's not uncommon for people to say or do something racist without even realizing it. That's what makes it so insidious. -J

Billy from Philly said...

Joe. You forgot Al Jolson and "The Jazz Singer."

mike schlesinger said...

Joe, so we're essentially in agreement. But the terminology is not incorrect. As late as 1970, even "Variety" was still referring to black-oriented pictures as "race films." Again, always important to consider intent. We're both old enough to remember how NBC's switchboard lit up when Shatner kissed Nichelle Nichols on "Star Trek." What they did was "racial." What the callers were was "racist."

joe baltake said...

Mike- You nailed it. Yes, that episode is burned in my brain and what "Star Trek" did was simply racial, inciting racists who didn't understand - and would never understand - the importance of that moment. -J

Paul Gottlieb said...

Thanks for this interesting post. In the case of "My Wild Irish Rose," it was my impression that the black face number in the film was intended to be an accurate recreation of a genuine turn-of-the-century stage act. It's pretty unpleasant to watch today, but I think it was historically accurate. Would it be better to have ignored the realities of the theater back then?

joe baltake said...

Paul- Excellent point. Obviously, this is a complicated issue, not easily concluded. -J

thomas whittaker said...

Judy Garland was just 16 when she did "Everybody Sing." She was just a kid. Give her a break!

W. said...

yup,yup, yup, yo' sho is right, boss man......