Posted by David Kalat on March 5, 2011
Last week I posted an essay about 1930′s comedy star William Haines, and ignited some impassioned responses in the comments area from some Haines supporters who took umbrage at what I wrote. I like to provoke intense feelings—I can’t see much point to wasting my life writing about movies if I don’t generate some kind of response. I could be spending my time playing with my kids, or drinking. . . or drinking with my kids. So, I think angry comments are better than no comments at all—but this particular firestorm has encouraged me to write a sequel.
This week isn’t about Haines, though, but is about the issue that informed last week’s controversy: how changing cultural attitudes influences how we react to comedy. And the touchstone I’ll be using for this week’s discussion is blackface comedy of the 20s and 30s—I use the term “blackface” broadly, to cover not just white actors playing blacks but black actors playing crude black stereotypes. If you click on the “read more” button, you will be greeted with some images and film clips I fully expect to be offensive. Proceed advisedly.
On one level, the fact that times change, and the context of comedy changes with it, is almost too obvious to warrant any discussion. Duh! Consider the phrase “making love,” which used to mean verbal courtship, such that old movies sometimes provoke nervous giggles from uninformed viewers when characters seem to talk too casually and publicly about “making love.” To get the correct meaning of those scenes, you just need to know how the words have shifted meaning over time, and that’s all. Same for the word “gay.” When characters in old movies say they’re having a “gay time” at a “gay party” with friends who “look gay,” they’re just talking about being happy.
Speaking of calling people gay: in 20 years of writing about movies, I’ve had the interesting experience that every single time I’ve noted a filmmakers’ sexual orientation in any context, I’ve been accused of being a homophobe. Anyone who actually knows me thinks this is ridiculous. I could trot out some of my gay friends and family members as character witnesses, but they deserve better than being used as pawns in some silly online debate, so let me just say this: the only reason I brought up Haines’ sexuality at all was to specifically praise him for his integrity in not bowing to the demands of the studio to be closeted. He was true to himself, and paid a harsh price for it (I didn’t even tell the story about how he and his partner were half-lynched by an angry mob). I think that’s among Haines’ best qualities—I just don’t think that integrity of character makes up for the fact that his screen persona was obnoxious, and I was trying to delineate my respect for one from my revulsion at the other.
What I disliked about THE GIRL SAID NO was a comedy built around a character whose behavior was an extreme form of sexual harassment that bordered on rape. But the fact that I saw it that way had to do with the fact that I live in the 21st century, in a society that has invested a lot of time and effort in defining sexual harassment. The words I was using, and the concepts they described, did not exist in those forms in the world in which THE GIRL SAID NO was made. Some of the respondents last week took me to task for imposing my modern mores onto a 1930 film, as if what I’d done was tantamount to misunderstanding a 1930s reference to “gay” couples “making love.”
I disagree—I think there is a distinction to be made, but I’ll admit it gets very messy and complicated, and I chose blackface comedy as the easiest way to highlight that messiness and wallow in the complications.
The very image of a white actor wearing blackface makeup, just in and of itself, is currently a highly charged and intensely volatile image. That’s not to say it no longer appears—in fact, many comedians in recent years have dared play with blackface gags. Here’s a quick sampling:
SEINFELD’s Kramer meets his black girlfriend’s family for the first time, after having fallen asleep in a tanning bed by accident:
Jenna on 30 ROCK:
Robert Downey Jr. in TROPIC THUNDER:
And in THE INCREASINGLY POOR DECISIONS OF TODD MARGARET, David Cross spent one superbly crafted episode carefully leading the audience to expect that his character was going to put on blackface—the great thing about this joke was its anti-joke nature. At no point was any direct explicit mention made of the idea, it was just subliminally planted in the audience’s collective minds, and then defeated—he never did anything even remotely like that. The episode merely milked the suspense of us thinking that it might happen.
What these examples all have in common is that they exploit the audience’s discomfort with blackface. The squirm factor is part of the joke—indeed, it’s all of the joke. David Cross’ anti-joke in TODD MARGARET depends entirely on us thinking blackface is always wrong—if we casually accepted it, there’d be no squirming, and without the squirming there’d be no joke, because he never actually paid the joke off.
I’m no sociologist, nor am I an African-American Studies scholar, I’m just a jerk who watches movies, but it’s not rocket science to say our continued discomfort with blackface is rooted in the continued disparity between whites and blacks in the US. We’ve dismantled the institutional aspects of racism, but that doesn’t change the fact that so many American blacks must continue to live daily with the effects of racial disharmony. Perhaps some day in the distant future, when true racial equality has been achieved, our future society will have lost that discomfort with blackface imagery—at which time the jokes I listed above will have become like “gay couples making love” in early talkies—a reference that audiences no longer instinctively get.
Or, to cast out another hypothetical for use as an analogy—what if a future society decides that images of men dressing up as women constitutes some kind of horrifying gender-based hate crime. Suddenly, old episodes of MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS and THE KIDS IN THE HALL would be tainted with negative cultural associations that they do not now have. In fact, this is a better analogy for our purposes, because it gets at one of the complications ahead of us. TROPIC THUNDER’S blackface gag is intended as satire, and works off existing cultural discomfort—as that culture changes, the satire changes, but satire was always part of its DNA. THE KIDS IN THE HALL in drag is not satirical—most of the time the KIDS handled gender issues with greater sensitivity and nuance, not only better than other comedies of the 1990s but better than most dramas. If a future society were to re-interpret those images with negative connotations, it would fundamentally distort what the original was meant to convey.
And this is where we find some of the 1920s and 30s blackface gags. For example, here’s Buster Keaton in blackface from COLLEGE:
Although the sight of Buster in blackface now carries the shock of racial confrontation, the actual scene itself intends no such thing. Note how the actual black characters in the scene are depicted neutrally—they are not the butt of any joke—and Buster’s ineptitude is consistent with his difficulty performing any of the jobs or tasks presented him in the film. He’s not caricaturing black people at all—he just happens to be disguised as a black man.
Modern eyes blanch at this moment instinctively, only because of how blackface has come to be so culturally toxic. But closer examination reveals that no insult is intended—and this should make a difference. Compare Scott Thompson’s flamboyantly gay character Buddy on KIDS IN THE HALL with the flamboyantly gay film critic Damon Wayans played on IN LIVING COLOR. The two were exceedingly similar in superficial respects, but the implications were profoundly different. One was a voice of tolerance and respect, one pointed and laughed.
When I try to bring these issues up with my silent comedy buddies, I am often met by a defensive response, “Well, slapstick comedians were equally opportunity offenders. Everybody got theirs.” That’s sometimes true, but not always—and it doesn’t work as a blanket excuse.
By way of illustration, consider Charlie Chaplin’s THE IMMIGRANT (by the way, one of my very favorite films of all time. If my house ever catches fire, I’m running back in to save my print). Charlie pokes fun at all the things that make immigrants seem different—they smell funny, they’re poor, they eat crazy foods, they don’t know our customs. But here’s the trick—Charlie himself plays an immigrant in the film. He was at the time the most highly paid and beloved movie star in the entire world. He knew audiences would grant him their sympathy and identification—and he used that power to connect those audiences to the experience of being the other. In a way, he got to have his cake and eat it too, making all the jokes about immigrants’ bad breath while also making a film of unfailing tolerance.
Meanwhile, Chaplin’s chief copycat, Billy West, put this gag in one of his films:
There’s no tolerance there. It’s just pointing and laughing at the other. It’s just mean spirited, and the very essence of the joke presupposes a division between the people being pointed at and laughed at, and the people doing the laughing.
Back in 2008 I somehow managed to attend three separate theatrical screenings of an exceedingly obscure silent comedy UNCLE TOM’S GAL starring Edna Marian. There’s a cruel irony in the fact that the film gods saw fit to preserve this horrifyingly ugly monstrosity for posterity while films like HATS OFF vanished off the earth. I know it’s wrong for a film geek like me to ever wish for a film to be destroyed, but all I’m saying is, if a film had to be destroyed, I’d rather live in a world that still had HATS OFF but had lost this.
I’m no censor. I’m going to prove it by using my own YouTube channel and my blog here to actually disseminate the very thing I’m arguing against. Real censors don’t usually go out of their way to show you the thing they want to suppress. So here are two clips from UNCLE TOM’S GAL to illustrate what makes me uncomfortable. Moreover—I’ll use my platform to actively publicize it: if you want to see the whole thing, go to Dave Stevenson’s LOOSER THAN LOOSE website and buy the DIZZY DAMSELS VOLUME 1 DVD. Even if you don’t want to see any more of this film, if you enjoy silent comedy you should own that disc, or at the very least become acquainted with Stevenson’s offerings.
Some background: the book UNCLE TOM’S CABIN was in its day intended as an anti-slavery tool, and by depicting the terrible reality of slavery in the South helped encourage abolitionists. Problematically, the novel’s depiction of the slaves was also tainted by stereotypes that later became so vilified that the book became more notorious for its racist content than its anti-racist agenda—in other words, the book UNCLE TOM’S CABIN became a victim of the very cultural shift we’re talking about here, left behind by a society that moved on.
In this short comedy, a movie company is making a film of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, and for no reason at all has decided to shoot on Edna’s farm. She’s an avid movie buff given to daydreaming of being a star, and she insinuates herself into the production. This first clip is from early in the picture, as Edna sidles up the camera with Hollywood glitter in her eyes. Already, the film is starting to offend on as many as three levels: the caricature of slavery itself (with such lines as “Now you charcoal babies belong to me” and the image of the plantation owner brutally whipping his slave) is just a jarring to find in a comedy. This was the problem with the book UNCLE TOM’S CABIN—the text itself hits wrong notes and raw nerves. Problem #2 is that the “filmmakers” have cast white actors in blackface. And problem #3, well, are Edna’s reactions to all this:
What’s she smiling about? It sure looks like she’s getting off on watching a black man being whipped. That can’t be right, can it? Surely she’s just excited by the prospect of being so near a film crew. . . but that’s not what it looks like.
Clip #2 comes once Edna has replaced the leading lady. So, she’s in blackface now:
At each of the screenings, Dave Stevenson got up to introduce the film, and said a variation of “This movie was made in the 1920s, things were very different back then and this will be very un-PC comedy. So, put on your 1925 glasses to enjoy this.”
I love Dave. He’s a friend and a colleague—did I tell you to bookmark his site and buy all of his discs?—but his introduction/excuse for this film is wrong. You cannot say that in 1925 this wasn’t offensive, that people weren’t hurt or humiliated by the dehumanizing imagery of this joke. What you can say is that the people who found it offensive or who were humiliated by it were not in a position to voice their discomfort openly. A mainstream audience of whites were permitted to laugh at this, to vicariously mock blacks, and never have it questioned. Yes, in today’s PC culture that joke crosses a line that hadn’t been drawn in 1925—but saying the line hadn’t been drawn openly isn’t the same thing as saying there was no line.
It’s more comforting, certainly, to tell ourselves that these old comedies were harmless. But ignoring someone’s hurt doesn’t erase your guilt. Nelson, from THE SIMPSONS once described “a victimless crime” as being “punching someone in the dark.” Mean-spirited jokes that poked fun at ethnic minorities, at gays, at women, at foreigners—these jokes had victims. And in the pre-PC days, those victims were effectively silenced, which gave the illusion of no victims. But notice how the people who usually say, “It’s all in good fun” are the ones making the joke, not the ones receiving it.
When I go to classic film festivals, or revival screenings, or other gatherings of film geeks, what I see is a crowd of predominantly white, middle-aged men. People who look like me. Showing a film like UNCLE TOM’S GAL doesn’t do much to open that tent to people who don’t look like me. And when people who do look like me debate how offensive this stuff is, we do so at a remove—we can never really know how hurtful a stereotype is, if it isn’t our stereotype.
During my production of various silent comedy compilations on DVD, I was approached by a collector who had, among other items, a number of shorts with blackface and racially oriented humor. He pitched making a whole DVD collection of such stuff. I didn’t even bother to review the films before I rejected the proposal out of hand—my explicit ambition was to grow the audience for silent comedy. I wanted to bring new viewers in, to nurture a love of slapstick comedy in folks who’d never sat through a silent film in their lives. The last thing I wanted to do was be divisive. I recognized that these films deserved to be preserved, and that there were people who would want to watch them, maybe even pay for that privilege, but I didn’t see it as my responsibility to put my own money into doing that.
However, I’m a hypocrite. That Billy West clip above—the one with the family eating watermelon? I did restore and publish that one myself. Even though I find that joke deeply offensive, I didn’t cut out the scene (although I could have and few would ever have known the difference). Instead, I made a point to buttress that short with what I considered counterexamples—I packed in some Ernest “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison shorts.
If the name doesn’t ring any bells—this is who I’m talking about:
He was less than 8 years old, and he was sharing the screen with Harold Lloyd—arguably, upstaging Lloyd. Soon he was providing support for comedians like Snub Pollard, and then Hal Roach gave him a fulltime contract. It was the first long-term movie contract given a black actor in Hollywood. Roach started hiring other children to surround Morrison in his own starring series—and this is how Our Gang began.
Eventually, Morrison got too “old” and Our Gang continued on without him—so when the Little Rascals did their version of UNCLE TOM, called UNCLE TOM’S UNCLE in 1926, it was up to Joe Cobb to put on the blackface and be whipped by Mikey Daniels. Because that’s what you want from comedy, right?
When I watch Morrison, what I see is a sharp-minded kid who adheres to no stereotype. But that’s just me—not everyone saw him the same way. As the Civil Rights era dawned, Morrison was shoved aside—along with so many other black comedians of his era, who were perceived by a new generation as having been Uncle Toms themselves.
Such as Mantan Moreland—a brilliant comedian whose presence enlivens many an otherwise trashy B-movie. The curious thing about Moreland is he had two discrete personas. One was more in the mold of the dumb black servant, a role he played—and ennobled—in films like KING OF THE ZOMBIES. But that was in movies aimed at whites. He also performed live, and in low-budget films aimed exclusively at black audiences, with a different schtick. Left to be himself, Moreland’s comedy was sped up to a crazy degree. He and whatever comedian he’d be with at the moment would banter back and forth so quickly they trampled all over each other’s lines, running out ahead of the dialogue and racing off into oblivion. It was a singular act, depending on a razor-sharp comic timing that would exhaust almost anyone. Here’s a sample:
Moe Howard loved the act. When Shemp died, and the hunt was on for a third third Stooge, and under pressure to push the Stooges away from violent slapstick and into dialog comedy, he proposed Moreland. The execs at Columbia rolled their eyes and patiently explained to Moe that under no circumstances were the Three Stooges to be integrated. Joe Besser got the gig instead (in the parallel universe where Mantan Moreland joined Moe and Larry after all, the Stooges kept making shorts long after the Moe-Larry-Joe combo fizzled out).
Moreland later complained that the worst thing to happen to him professionally was the Civil Rights era, as he was shoved into obscurity by a generation that felt instinctively embarrassed by him.
So, here I am, 21st century white guy, looking back at Morrison and Moreland as examples of black comedians whose acts don’t strike me as racially problematic, and whose memories I wish to rehabilitate in the face of this overly sensitive backlash that suppressed them. . . but who am I to say that Mantan Moreland wasn’t offensive? If it was blacks in the 1960s who said he was an embarrassment, who am I to disagree–I’m a white guy. Even if I could draw a line between “these comedians were offensive Uncle Toms selling out their race” and “these comedians subverted the system,” the result would be to lend support to the notion that some comedians from the past deserve to have had their careers destroyed, their films suppressed, and their names forgotten.
Check out this guy:
His name is Spencer Bell, also credited as “Fred Spence.” He played a supporting role to Larry Semon in nearly everything Semon made. And by that I mean he performed hundreds of billions of variations of racially unnerving jokes—here he is with Oliver Hardy in HER BOYFRIEND.
The ultimate punchline is another “scared black man” gag. Semon did a lot of these—in one film (I forget which one, sorry) Bell is so scared he disintegrates, leaving only a skeleton (I dunno ’bout you, but that’s just about as dehumanizing as it gets). By that standard, this scaredy-cat act by Bell is pretty tame, but the thing I’d like to emphasize here is what Bell does leading up to that moment. The way he lovingly admires his switchblade, as he contemplates bringing a knife to a gun fight, is a beautiful piece of comic timing. And those box-men lumbering out of the background are pretty gosh-darn terrifying—he’s right to be spooked by them.
In almost every Larry Semon film there comes a moment where white folks smear their faces with oil or tar or paint or somesuch blackening agent, and black folks are turned white by fear/paint/flour/etc.
Pointy heads are welcome to interpret this gag any way they wish—for every person who scribbles a master’s thesis about how these images trade in the notion that race was contagious, or that black people were just dirty white people (“does it wash off?”), there’s a contrarian waiting to argue that it celebrates the fungibility of race. I dunno, that’s not my point—all I want to say is that there is a reflexive reaction against these images, conditioned by contemporary racial attitudes, that inclines modern viewers to lump Mr. Bell in with the Uncle Toms.
But hang on—Spencer Bell made nearly 60 movies between 1919 and 1933. He supported Larry Semon, once one of the country’s most popular screen comedians. He supported Mickey McGuire, Billy Bevan, Andy Clyde. He was a prolific and valued performer. If we feel any discomfort at his act today, we do his memory an injustice to marginalize his entire career and pretend he didn’t exist.
In my earlier post I criticized William Haines’s screen persona as obnoxious, and some of you called me out for criticizing him for something imposed on him. Well, I never meant to blame him personally for his screen role—in fact, I think I was pretty clear in what I wrote that I laid his screen characterization at the feet of his employers. The same holds true here—whatever I feel about the way Hollywood portrayed blacks in the 1920s and 30s shouldn’t accrue to Mr. Bell’s legacy. I find Semon’s recurring joke to be unpleasant, but I’m glad Bell had steady employment, and I wish he’d been given more to do.
But these kind of arguments fly above the level at which most people engage with movies—and certainly the level at which kids engage with movies. The problem with letting the unreconstructed sexual and racial attitudes of the past out today without some kind of filter, is that they propagate their worldview into younger viewers. I know that makes me sound like I’m more worried about today’s kids being corrupted by watching too many old movies than by watching the anything-goes stuff of contemporary TV, which must make sound insane, but since I spend so much time trying to cultivate new viewers for old movies, it’s an issue that weighs on my mind.
I’ve heard tell that Warner Archive is planning to finally free the Censored 11 cartoons from their purgatory of the last 50 years—and the only reason this wouldn’t happen is if Warner decided the ‘toons deserved to be full-fledged replicated DVDs rather than Made-on-Demand mail order things. It’s about time—Bob Clampett’s COAL BLACK AND DE SEBBEN DWARVES is a thing of beauty.
But who will watch it, and what will they think? I’ve shown it to small gatherings before, and I’ve yet to find anyone who even laughs. Everyone I’ve shown it to shifts in their chair uncomfortably and looks at me strangely. And I choose my audiences carefully—my 5 year old nephew loves Looney Tunes, but this isn’t a disc I plan on buying for him.
In other words, it’s a collection destined for scholars and pointy-heads—destined for a segregated viewership. I use that word advisedly—how many black customers can’t wait to get their hands on COAL BLACK? Can you count them on the fingers of no hands? And doesn’t that make the CENSORED 11 DVD something akin to the silent comedy collection I rejected making? Clearly I’m not being consistent.
I know I’ve utterly failed to cohere a sensible argument on this topic. This may be the most formless rambling diatribe I’ve ever put my name to, but the disconnected nature of these thoughts reflects the complication of the subject. I am eager to hear your responses—but don’t bother calling me a hypocrite, because I already know that about myself.
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