Monday, October 29, 2018

Maurice DuBois Feature on CBS SUNDAY

One day I was online reading news articles in The Los Angeles Times.  I like to keep up with what's happening in my hometown. While I was reading, I had the TV on and a 1930s musical was playing in the background on TCM (Turner Classic Movies). A blackface number came on in the movie and I thought to myself, "I'm so glad Old Hollywood got out of that phase."  At the same time, Megyn Kelly was live on NBC being absolutely clueless about white people doing blackface for Halloween fun. She's a journalist who had her own live weekday network TV show.  A reported $69 million contract came with that job. And she, in her late 40s, pretty much said that she didn't understand why people were offended by blackface because it was ok when she was a kid.  As you can well imagine, this caused an uproar so fierce that, despite her teary apology the next day, her show got cancelled by the end of the week.

Maurice DuBois of CBS did a piece on blackface that aired on CBS SUNDAY. It's a very good, very informative feature that I recommend viewing if you go to the website.  I'll give you that link at the end of the post.

I've read newspaper articles about Old Hollywood blackface. Most of them had photos of two great performers who appeared in blackface in 1930s musicals. They are young Judy Garland and Fred Astaire.  Maurice's piece has clips of Garland and Astaire and he pointed them out in his voiceover. Also mentioned was Bing Crosby as he did the "Abraham" number in the 1942 musical, HOLIDAY INN.  As much as I liked Bing, he really needed to get the memo about blackface.

If I was producing Maurice's piece on blackface, I would not have used the footage of Garland and Astaire because, for one thing, they've been used a few times already.

There are several other Hollywood stars who appeared in blackface during Hollywood studio years. You'd be surprised at a few. In old movies, I've seen blackface done by:

Eddie Cantor in ROMAN SCANDALS (1933)
Shirley Temple in THE LITTLEST REBEL (1935)
Irene Dunne in SHOW BOAT (1936)
The Marx Brothers in A DAY AT THE RACES (1937)
Eleanor Powell in HONOLULU (1939)
James Stewart in IT'S A WONDERFUL WORLD (1939)
Bing Crosby in HOLIDAY INN (1942)
Bing Crosby in DIXIE (1943)
Bing Crosby in HERE COME THE WAVES (1944)
Betty Grable in THE DOLLY SISTERS (1945)
Betty Hutton in THE PERILS OF PAULINE (1947)
William Holden in FATHER IS A BACHELOR (1950)
Doris Day in I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS (1951)
Donald O'Connor and Janet Leigh in WALKING MY BABY BACK HOME (1953).

With Fred Astaire in the classic 1936 musical, SWING TIME, he plays a dancer doing a salute to Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. As noted in Astaire's 1950s autobiography, dancer Bill Robinson was an idol of his when he was a teen and working on Broadway with his sister, Adele. Fred Astaire became friends and Bill Robinson. Robinson taught young Astaire how to shoot pool. In that SWING TIME dance number, "Bojangles of Harlem," Astaire's dark make-up is not the charcoal black make-up you saw on Al Jolson. It's lighter. And no nappy wig and exaggerated white lips. We see Astaire's own hair and lips. Astaire meant the 1936 song and dance as a tribute. However, in later years, he fully understood the sensitivity and never did "blackface" again.

As for Garland, she was a minor. A child actress under the age of 17 and under contract to a powerful Hollywood studio. She did what the middle-aged male executives at MGM told her to do, she wore why they told her to wear and she even ate what they told her to eat because they felt she was talented but too chubby. Her blackface numbers were done for director/choreographer Busby Berkeley, a director who was not one of her favorites.  There was friction between them. Instead of focusing on Garland in blackface in her juvenile years, I'd look at the frequency of blackface numbers and demeaning black images in Busby Berkeley movies. Eddie Cantor did blackface for Berkeley in 1933's ROMAN SCANDALS. In 1939's BABES IN ARMS, Berkeley had bunch of teen performers blacked up and doing a minstrel number. Not just young Judy Garland. It's Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and a dozen or so other young players. Busby Berkeley put Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in an even bigger minstrel number in 1941's BABES ON BROADWAY. Judy wasn't the problem. Busby Berkeley was, along with the way Hollywood studios at the time portrayed black people.

In the 1960s, Judy Garland was one of the many celebrities who supported Dr. Martin Luther King's 1963 March on Washington. Not long after the March on Washington, American was rocked by the racial hate crime that killed four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama. A church was bombed and four little black girls were killed. The day after that crime, Judy Garland held a press conference to raise money for victims of the church bombing. With her were friends Carolyn Jones (seated far left) and June Allyson (in the middle). Notice the crime headline on the newspaper in front of Judy.  This was around the time when the singing star had THE JUDY GARLAND SHOW, a Sunday night music variety show on CBS.
In the Maurice DuBois feature, he's visibly irritated when he's shown a clip of Al Jolson in the historic THE JAZZ SINGER. The film started a revolution in technology. Hollywood went from the silent era to the sound era with THE JAZZ SINGER and much of that sound was Jolson singing in blackface.  If Maurice was noticeably agitated seeing the clip from 1927's THE JAZZ SINGER, he would have tried to set that entire screening room on fire if he'd been shown Al Jolson in the "Goin' To Heaven on a Mule" number from the 1934 Warner Bros. musical, WONDER BAR.  The number was created by...Busby Berkeley. Jolson and dozens of chorus singers are all in blackface. This is a 10-minute production number in a glossy, art deco Warner Bros. musical.  The opening line of the verse before Jolson slides into the chorus of the song is "Ever since I was a little pickaninny..." When the poor black man gets to the Pearly Gates, he's thrilled to see that Heaven has Pork Chop Orchard and a Possum Pie Grove. You can pick pork chops right off the trees. And there are dice games, a framed portrait of Abraham Lincoln and Heaven's own version of Harlem with a nightclub. In the nightclub floor show, the chorus girls have props. Each holds a 6-foot tall replica of a watermelon wedge.  Every single man, woman and child in "Goin' To Heaven on a Mule" is in charcoal black make-up with exaggerated white lips.

Busby Berkeley created a stunningly racist production number for Al Jolson. 1934's WONDER BAR, in its entirety, is available on DVD.  When white classic film enthusiasts discuss and praise the truly revolutionary way Busby Berkeley directed, staged and shot musical numbers for movies such as 1933's 42nd STREET, FOOTLIGHT PARADE and GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, the numerous offensive visual images of black people in his early musicals are never mentioned.  However, they are too obvious to miss.  I happened to see the "Goin' To Heaven on a Mule" number in WONDER BAR when I was in middle school.  I was already a classic film fan by then and, when I saw that this old musical was airing on a local independent station in L.A one afternoon, I watched. It was fun until that number.  Even at that young age, my jaw dropped at the monumental bad taste of it.  Did you ever see the Mel Brooks movie, THE PRODUCERS? I looked exactly like a Broadway audience member watching the "Springtime for Hitler" number. And I was only about 12.

1993.  Whoopi Goldberg was romantically involved with Ted Danson. They appeared at a Friar's Club celebrity roast, which they assumed was private and off the record, and Ted did a monologue in blackface. The old-fashioned kind. Charcoal black make-up and exaggerated white lips. A photo leaked. It became an embarrassing and hot national entertainment news story. Blackface was not ok.

Megyn Kelly would have been about 25 at that time. How could she have been so clueless about blackface last week? Maybe that ignorance was her white privilege. To see the Maurice DuBois feature, "Unmasking the Racist History of Blackface," from CBS Sunday, go here:

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