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August 29, 2009

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The Siren

Going to Heaven on a Mule is on Youtube in two parts, for those who want to see what we're talking about. Despite my obvious familiarity with films of the period I have to say it damn near gave me an aneurysm. I urge people to take a look, as nothing you read can fully prepare you for this one.

Part One:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OWwAN0FsU0Y&feature=related

Part Two:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zd2RwyMY7OY&feature=related

Other clips from the movie are available although I have yet to see it straight through. (Aside -- I love Kay Francis as you know but she hated making this movie and I swear it shows. She looks pissed off in every shot, even in the publicity stills.)

Any classic movie fan could compile a quick list of cringe-inducing moments like this; the blackface number from Holiday Inn is undoubtedly why that movie never got the kind of TV-rerun immortality afforded the later White Christmas (which I prefer anyway for numerous reasons). It is interesting to me that it's the MUSICAL numbers that seem to come in for special opprobrium. Somehow the singing/dancing/shuffling business makes you feel the bigotry that much more keenly. Perhaps because it's taking the towering accomplishments of black musicians and infantilizing them.

Overall I find there's an a la carte approach to which movies come in for heated criticism and which seem to get a pass. I am old enough to have seen Song of the South in one of its 1970s theatrical runs and I don't recall its being nearly as bad as, say, the bartender and porters in The Palm Beach Story or the cook in Sullivan's Travels. Certainly Song of the South is no worse than the crows in the immortal Dumbo.

But in any event, as a perpetual student of film history I have very strong feelings about erasing the racism from early movies, or burying it where it can't be seen. Eventually that has the perverse effect of enabling people to forget what Hollywood was really like for blacks for such a long, long time. Case in point: George Clooney and his Oscar speech about Hollywood's support for civil rights. WHAT was he talking about? He mentioned Hattie McDaniel, good heavens--yes, she is the heart of Gone with the Wind but it's a mammy/maid role, her job to take care of the white folks, no interior life of her own at all, let alone any questioning of slavery. I venture to say she would not have won in 1939 for a role that challenged stereotypes. Hollywood was so courageous they didn't even try to have her attend the premiere. Not to mention Sullivan's Travels, which provided the title and basis for one of Clooney's Coen outings...

I adore Clooney so I mean this nicely, but I would welcome the opportunity to screen Wonder Bar for him. And then we could have a nice quiet drink somewhere...but I digress.

The Siren

P.S. I vividly remember your earlier Jazz Singer post, which was flat-out brilliant, and I hope people follow that link too.

msic

Not too much to add to Glenn's or the Siren's astute comments, except to note that yes, the need to preserve and examine this aspect of film history will always clash with a present-day sense of decorum, and the undeniable talents of Jolson only complicate matters.

Indeed, certain movies get such a pass that the casual racism seems to be forgotten, over and over again, like a Freudian symptom, so that it endlessly shocks and wounds anew. I'm thinking of Groucho's line in Duck Soup about the Headstrongs marrying the Armstrongs, "and that's how the darkies were born." Riotous screenings fall into dead silence, every damn time.

By the way, Ken Jacobs has incorporated the entire "Going to Heaven on a Mule" sequence into his avant-garde epic Star Spangled to Death.

Paul

If you haven't read it, Where Dead Voices Gather - Nick Tosches' peculiar, obsessive history of blackface minstrelsy via the life story of country/jazz vocalist Emmett Miller - is the most absorbing meditation I've come across on the way that racial pantomime is threaded into the creative imagination of America.

On the other hand, if you haven't got the book, a listen to Miller's blackface recording of Lovesick Blues, and the realisation that it was this weird, keening sound that birthed Hank Williams' white soul vocalisations, will provide a remarkably similar experience.

Shawn Stone

A couple decades ago, they used to show HOLIDAY INN every Christmas on WNEW-TV NYC (Channel 5, before it was Rupertized) and I never knew there was a blackface scene--they cut the whole sequence, probably right out of their print. I still prefer it to WHITE CHRISTMAS, which, while it isn't quite as ugly to look at as other Paramount color musicals of the early 50s, is still pretty horrid-looking in spots.

I have to say I love WONDER BAR, except, of course, for "Mule." It's so sleazy, even for the period.

Tom Russell

I actually saw SONG OF THE SOUTH in the early nineties in 16mm (part of a double feature with APPLE DUMPLING GANG, at a weekend summer camp, if I recall correctly). And while I was a far less astute judge of racial stereotyping then than I am now-- I was, after all, no older than ten or eleven, if that-- I don't recall it being as offensive as its reputation would imply.

And though I certainly understand Disney's squeamishness, and I have no qualms about keeping (potentially) damaging stereotypes out of the reach of impressionable children, I do wish it was on DVD so that (1) I could see the damn thing again and see if it is as bad as they say, and (2), so that the "will it ever be released?" brouhaha comes, at last, to an end.

And, hey, the thing won two frickin' Oscars. Including one for James Baskett-- the first black man to win one. Even if it was packaged, like JAZZ SINGER, as "historically important but not meant to be actually enjoyed".

Glenn Kenny

@ mslc: I had forgotten about K. Jacobs' incorporation of "Heaven" into "Star-Spangled." I shall have to look into that again, although now that you bring it up it's coming back to me and it makes SO much sense...

@ Paul: Yes. "Where Dead Voices Gather" is a seminal work, essential, possibly Tosches' best book. Of course it extrapolates from ideas and anecdotes that were in his wonderful "Unsung Heroes of Rock and Roll," another fantastic exploration of the varied crossroads between black and white in American culture. Robert Christgau's essay on Emmett Miller, which has the unfortunate distinction of having first appeared in "The Believer," is also valuable, as are lager parts of John Strasbough's "Black Like Us."

D Cairns

Song of the South plays quite unapologetically on UK TV. I have a strange affection for it, because I saw it as a kid, when any political meaning was completely obscure to me. Said meaning is carried in a certain stereotyping, of course, which is simultaneously extreme and "gentle," almost positive. And I swear when I saw it as a little un I had no awareness that Uncle Remus was black, or in any way different from other old gentlemen.

The real offensiveness is in the ahistorical portrayal of the south as a heavenly place where black folks may be poor, but they are treated with reverence by rich white folks. Which passes by kids completely -- slavery and oppression of any kind other than economic are never mentioned, and poverty is made to look pretty nice, really. In a way it's a sin of ommission rather than commission that's the real problem.

Similarly, The Blue Bird has, if I recall, a scene in heaven featuring all the little children waiting to be born. And they're all white. For me, that's a lot more sinister than Goin' To Heaven on a Mule.

As gobsmackingly, shockingly crass as Wonder Bar's climactic moment is, I can't help wonder what it's actually intended to SAY, what the joke is. Is it, "Yeah, IF black people had a heaven, this is what it would be like?" Partially, but mainly I think it's "If blackface mistrels had a heaven..." a far more absurd concept and one that potentially makes a good surreal joke. (This makes sense of the Yiddish newspaper, too.) The problem being (1) the image of blackface is offensive in itself and (2) it's folded into all sorts of obnoxious, dumb-ass stereotypes which are about actual African-American people, not blackface entertainers.

When I made my film about clowns as an oppressed minority, we very nearly had a blackface clown in it (since that's a significant part of the clowning tradition) but it seemed to open up too many avenues we couldn't do justice to. Was this sensitivity on our side, or just chickenshit, I wonder.

D Cairns

Oh -- actually, one of the worst things about Song of the South is that they gave the guy who played Uncle Remus a "special Oscar" of the kind they gave the little kids in The Kidnappers, and the guy with no hands in The Best Years of Their Lives. The assumption that he wasn't fit to be nominated for a proper best actor or best supporting actor along with white performers is something George Clooney might have mentioned in his speech.

Tom Russell

"Oh -- actually, one of the worst things about Song of the South is that they gave the guy who played Uncle Remus a 'special Oscar' of the kind they gave the little kids in The Kidnappers, and the guy with no hands in The Best Years of Their Lives."

And the kind they gave Walt Disney for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Not that I'm arguing with your basic point, which is well-taken, and my example might even be used to support it (i.e., Snow White wasn't considered worthy of competing for a "real" Best Picture Oscar); at the same time, as fucked-up as it looks from today's perspective, and as meaningless as the Academy is in the first place, they *were* trying to honour Mr. Baskett's work in the film-- which, IIRC, was very fine stuff indeed-- and I wouldn't take that achievement or that recognition away from him simply because it was a special Oscar, anymore than I'd say Chaplin's special Oscar for CITY LIGHTS was any less meaningful than a "real" Oscar.

... And not to be a Nitpicking Nimrod, but that "guy with no hands", Harold Russell, also won Best Supporting Actor that year in addition to the special Oscar. It wasn't that he was considered unworthy of being in the running, but rather that the board thought he was a long shot at best; the special Oscar was awarded because they wanted to make sure his achievement did not go unrecognized.

lazarus

Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't Walt Disney personally campaign to the Board of Governors (or whoever the Powers That Be were at the time) to give Baskett that Oscar? It's a little different than some group of people collectively deciding to patronize him with some kind of second-class prize.

Tom Russell

For my money, by-the-by, Spike Lee's film BAMBOOZLED is a great and deft examination of racism and modern forms of minstrelry in contemporary culture, the appropriation of black culture by whites-- as well as the thorny problem of appreciating the great deal of technical and artistic skill of minstrel performers, both white and black, while still grappling with the noxious legacy of blackface and the attendent damaging stereotypes.

D Cairns

Those special Oscars were no doubt well-meant. But it's still a little wrong-headed and patronizing. It's nice that they wanted to honour these people, but the correct way, at least from a modern perspective, would be to allow them to compete with their peers -- even if they wouldn't have won. The fact that Russell was allowed to is great, but that makes the Special Oscar unnecessary and a little embarrassing, I think. And the fact that Baskett wasn't nominated is really telling.

Moviezzz

I've been going through a Busby Berkeley phase and always thought that WONDER BAR would be a film I never would be able to find. I've been meaning to get it from the Warner Archive since I saw it announced.

I was just watching another Warner Archive set, a collection of the MGM OUR GANG shorts. One, "Ye Olde Minstrels" had the OUR GANG cast in blackface, while Buckwheat was in whiteface!!

As for SONG OF THE SOUTH, having seen it on laserdisc, it really isn't anything all that terrible today. GONE WITH THE WIND is far more insensitive. If Disney is afraid of releasing it, they should just license it to Criterion to place it in the proper historical context.

Gareth

By coincidence, I was reading a book about Ghanaian popular culture last week and a considerable portion of the book was devoted to a discussion of how (black) Ghanaian performers used blackface in their stage work for decades; they drew directly on Al Jolson's work, and frequently dressed like Jolson and sang his songs. It was fascinating to see how something deeply offensive to many in a US context had become entirely unremarkable in the Ghanaian context; when the book's author questioned the (now retired) performers, they didn't always understand what she was trying to get at, namely the offensive aspects of the original performance. (The book is "Ghana's Concert Party Theatre," Catherine M. Cole).

Jonah

I'd recommend THE JOLSON STORY, the biopic starring Larry Parks, to anyone wondering what the orginal fuss about Jolson was all about. The film itself should be terrifically boring, and at times it is. It suffers from a standard biopic problem: an absence of a central conflict and the corresponding attempts to introduce none-too-convincing minor conflicts in every scene (JULIE AND JULIA is a recent film that suffers greatly from this). But -- and this is a BIG but -- probably half the film's length is dedicated to Parks miming to one Jolson classic after another, with Jolie himself doing the singing. It is completely hypnotic, and I dare anyone to remain indifferent to Jolson's amazing prowess as a vocal stylist.

The sequel, JOLSON SINGS AGAIN, which covers Jolie's 1940s "comeback," has a mind-boggling sequence where Parks-as-Jolson meets Parks-as-Parks-as-Jolson, in a scene that is supposed to depict Jolson visiting the set of THE JOLSON STORY. Otherwise the absence of real conflict is so profound that at times it achieves total, near-Warholian stasis -- itself sort of compelling, if you're a connoisseur of the bad and the boring.

gmoke

In Jack Finney's _From Time to Time_, Al Jolson appears in one of his previous incarnations, as a prizewinning dancer.

Pigmeat Markham reportedly felt that his comedy really lost something when he could no longer "cork up" to do it.

Larry Parks lost his career to the blacklist.

yojimboen

Over at Chez Sirene a few months back, Wonderbar and Jolson were taken to task for the outrageous climax - among other things. But for me the crowning atrocity of taste happened ten years later at the same studio (Warners, such is progress), where in the Dennis Morgan/Ann Sheridan vehicle "Shine On Harvest Moon", the Four Step Brothers - one of black America's best tap-dance teams, were forced to perform in... whiteface.

Yojimboen

Donnie

It's been great sharing your "weird Al Jolson thing". There are more of us than you would think. Thanks to Youtube, modern audiences can experience the Jolson magic, cringe-worthy moments and all. Kudos to Warmers for re-issuing the movies.

Karen

Sorry I didn't see this earlier--just got linked from Alan Sepinwall's Mad Men commenters--because I've been an enthusiastic (and horrified) contributor to the Siren's discussions on this film in the past.

And the part of the film that has always horrified me the most is just what you've emphasized: the moment that Jolson's grinning face rises over the edge of the Forvert, like the White Queen's face rising up nightmarishly over the edge of the soup tureen in the closing chapters of Alice Through the Looking Glass. Perhaps it's because I'm a Jew myself--or maybe just because I'm a human being--his expression of knowing exemption is about as heinous as it gets. As far as blackface goes, it's well-nigh impossible for a 21st-century viewer to have an adequate grasp of how objectionable it may or may not have been at the time, but that grin while reading the Yiddish news, putting paid to any sense of homage to the race he's aping, just seems like it could never have been anything but vile.

Lee

My father has a complete collection of this man! Personally, he may mot be the best from his generation but he definitely made a mark!

Pat

I love the "Going to Heaven on a Mule" sequence. I love that it was a parody on the Broadway, all black, success "Green Pastures" ... I love the fact that Jolson was a champion for the rights of black artists, composers and playrights. I love the fact that they were represented at Jolson's funeral and I love the fact that blacks (for reasons stated above) did not consider Jolson a racist during his lifetime.

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