Sunday, October 29, 2017

Classic Film Double Feature, Race & Journalism

Occasionally, I like to recommend a classic film double with two films that have something in common.  That's exactly what I'm about to do in this short post.  I just watched the 1940 classic, HIS GIRL FRIDAY directed by Howard Hawks.  For as old as it is, it's still fresh and funny.  Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell play journalists working for the same newspaper.  He's the editor.  She's his ace reporter.  They were married.  They divorced.  She's on the brink of marrying some sweet dorky guy and becoming a housewife.  A major news story breaks.  Her ace reporter skills kick in again while she and her ex are meeting and soon they're both on the story at a breakneck pace.  A man is about to be hanged for murder.  They know that the man is not a cold-blooded murderer but a top politician wants the execution to happen to assure him re-election.  If you haven't seen this classic, you should.
In one scene, the fast-talking editor, his former ace reporter/former wife, and her fianc√© go out to lunch.  They start talking about this big news story.  The two newspaper journalists mention that a black cop was shot and the black vote is very important to the white politician.  That shady politician wants the hanging to happen so he'll have a job.
Rarely, if ever, in Hollywood films of that time were African American voters ever acknowledged.  Rarely, if ever, did we hear that their votes were important to a white politician.

I would put HIS GIRL FRIDAY on a double bill with Fox's 1935 newspaper drama, ONE MILE FROM MIDNIGHT.  This good movie, I'm sure, would get more attention than it does if the little girl in the film had been played by Fox's big star, Shirley Temple.
Claire Trevor (William Wyler's DEAD END, John Ford's STAGECOACH and Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner for KEY LARGO) takes a cab to Harlem, gets out, walks down the street by herself, unafraid, relaxed with all the black folks on the sidewalk, and focused on doing her job.  She's an ace newspaper reporter.  She heard of a good story and heads to Harlem to investigate.

A sweet, light-skinned black woman works as a seamstress and has a cute little girl.  The little girl, it turns out, is not light-skinned like the seamstress.  She's really a white girl who's been somewhat adopted and is having a happy life.  She's really the daughter of a convict who was killed trying to escape.  The reporter will get the scoop on all that and the whereabouts of the birth mother.

The seamstress has a boyfriend.  He's a cop who's beloved in the Harlem community.  The cop is played by Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, famous for movies in which he danced with little Shirley Temple that same decade.
The seamstress is played by the fabulous Fredi Washington.  The actress, a light-skinned black woman herself, scored a triumph as the maid's daughter in the original IMITATION OF LIFE, a 1934 race drama starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers. Just like IMITATION OF LIFE, this Fox film showed Fredi Washington not as a domestic and as a well-dressed, smart woman.  ONE MILE FROM MIDNIGHT has black actors in non-stereotypical roles.  One more thing -- the story does not end with Fredi Washington's character as a "tragic mulatto."  I won't reveals how it ends, but the final scene is a happy one.

Fredi Washington and Claire Trevor are very good together in this short, fast-paced film. Reportedly, Washington refused to pass for white so Hollywood studio execs could give her upscale roles, so her solid acting skills were not utilized.  Roles for black actors and actresses were limited then.
Washington returned to stage work in New York City.  Also, it was great to see Bill Robinson not have to play a house servant.

The little girl in ONE MILE FROM MIDNIGHT was played by Joan Carroll.  At MGM in the mid 1940s, she'd appear a big box office hit.  She'd play one of the little sisters to Judy Garland's character in Vincente Minnelli's MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS.

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