Sunday, October 18, 2015

Look in the SARATOGA TRUNK

White actors playing black people, Whoopi Goldberg, a film professor in Kansas, me, this year's Confederate flag controversy and a 1940s Oscar-nominated love story from Warner Brothers starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman.  All that I will tie together in this blog post.  First of all, the 1945 Warner Bros. movie starring Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper is SARATOGA TRUNK.  It airs at 2pm Eastern/11am Pacific on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) Monday, Oct. 19th.  Bergman plays a clever Creole beauty who returns home to New Orleans.  She plans to marry a rich man, gain respectability and get revenge for the way her mother was humiliated by in-laws.  She falls for a handsome gambler played by Cooper.
The Creole beauty has a maid.  The rather stern yet devoted black maid is played by white British actress, Flora Robson.
If you're a classic film fan, you've seen Flora Robson before.  She acts as the housekeeper and narrator in William Wyler's 1939 classic, WUTHERING HEIGHTS.
She played one of the British nuns in 1947's BLACK NARCISSUS.
She got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for playing that black maid in Saratoga Trunk.  Hers was the only Oscar nomination the film got.
Here's what I want to know and I ask this with all due respect to the fine acting talents and distinguished career of Flora Robson:  If the part of that maid was so well-written that it was able to bring an actress an Oscar nomination, why didn't the studio put a real black woman in the role?  If the studio didn't want to offer it to groundbreaking Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel of 1939's Gone With The Wind, then what about lovely and talented Theresa Harris?  Harris played the best friend to Barbara Stanwyck's character in the pre-code drama, BABY FACE (1933).

Harris played the maid to Bette Davis' southern belle character in William Wyler's JEZEBEL (1938).
Jezebel also airs Monday, Oct. 19th on TCM.  It airs at 6pm Eastern/3pm Pacific.

Theresa Harris played a maid opposite Marlene Dietrich in 1941's THE FLAME OF NEW ORLEANS.
But the black maid in New Orleans in Saratoga Trunk is played by white Flora Robson in dark make-up.

One night, I watched IFC and saw the scorchingly brilliant 2004 satire, C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA.  This wickedly funny look at race in America was directed and written by Kevin Willmott, a film professor at the University of Kansas.  It's a mock-documentary, the kind of mockumentary that critics would describe as "Ken Burns-meets-Spike Lee."  C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America is a British documentary about the history of our country and it's a documentary that airs on a San Francisco station.  But, our country is place in which the South won the Civil War.  Everything is a satire in this feature -- the local TV station promos, the commercials, the sound bites, the old movie clips...everything.  And all that extraordinary originality in this 90-minute alternate history program is from Kevin Willmott.

If Quentin Tarantino had made this feature, he'd have been hailed as "genius" and, I'm sure, he'd have racked up another Oscar nomination or two.  C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America is far more original than Django Unchained, his film based on a character in a 1966 foreign western called Django.  Italian actor Franco Nero played Django in the 1960s and Tarantino gave him a cameo appearance in 2012's Django Unchained.  I still don't understand how a movie based on another movie could get the director/writer an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  But that's just me.  I'll keep writing my screenplay -- Cool Hand Luke Unchained -- and pray for the same Oscar luck Tarantino had.

Willmott's attention to detail will thrill classic film devotees.  His version of a D.W.Griffith silent film to 1940s films in which white British actors play black characters in America's Deep South to TV shows like Cops are so accurate in look, style and tone that you'll be awestruck.  Willmott's writing can be extremely funny, shocking, poignant and, above all, make a solid point.  As this was the year of national controversy over the Confederate flag, C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America is a DVD that should be watched and re-appreciated.  Willmott's feature is a Spike Lee presentation that garnered great reviews.  It is a relevant piece of work -- especially today.
I worked with Whoopi Goldberg as a regular on her syndicated weekday morning radio show from 2006 to 2008.  I urged her to watch the DVD because I pitched that we call Kevin Willmott and have him do a phone interview.  I reviewed movies and did other entertainment reports on her Premiere Radio show. Unfortunately, Whoopi wasn't enthusiastic about Willmott's feature and had no interest in a phone call.                                                                                                                                                          

I'd still like to talk to him.  There is brilliance in his mockumentary.  I think you'll agree with me.  Another reason I was eager to interview him on Whoopi's national radio show -- in the history of network and syndicated television here in America, you rarely see black film critics.  Network morning news programs have not given the country the idea that either film critics who are black or film professors who are black exist in America.  Kevin Willmott has "university film professor" on his resumé.

By the way, Flora Robson did not win the Academy Award for Saratoga Trunk.  When she was nominated, the Oscar went to Anne Baxter for The Razor's Edge.
  






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