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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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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~photography: MGM 1937©
~Harry Belafonte and Petula Clark sing "On the Path of Glory" on the TV special, "Petula"
~photography: NBC 1968©
~photography: MGM 1936©
~Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland perform "Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo" in "Babes in Arms"
~photography: MGM 1939©
~photography: Warner Bros. 1947©
~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©
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1970©