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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

MENTAL MONTAGE: The Rat-Race of Race

The integration of different races into our cinematic culture has been a lengthy and complicated battle. The appearance of racial minorities in early film was both rare and heavily stereotyped. It comes as no surprise that in the days of segregation, movies too were segregated, thus the faces from the golden studio era that we remember are only intermittently peppered with non-Caucasian faces.

Even when a role called for a specific race or ethnicity that was outside of the Anglo-Norman norm, the character was portrayed for the most part by a white actor in make-up. Lon Chaney was praised for his incredible metamorphoses in Shadows, Outside the Law, and Mr. Wu, in which he defied stereotype and inserted great humanity and depth into his portrayal of different Chinese characters. Warner Oland (left) for years made his career by portraying Charlie Chan, and even Myrna Loy cut her teeth in cinema by playing Asian temptresses in films like The Mask of Fu Manchu opposite Boris Karloff. While these performers are to be commended for their sensitive interpretations, it does not take the edge off a rusty blade.

For example, Chinese actress Anna May Wong (above in Piccadilly)was forced to watch as the heroine O-Lan in The Good Earth was portrayed by Luise Rainier in "yellow-face" rather than by herself, an authentic Chinese woman. (Rainer won the Oscar for her performance). Anna was primarily offered the roles of venomous villainesses; the lead roles of long-suffering heroines went to white actresses in makeup, who could legally perform in love scenes with white actors. Anna was unable to engage in interracial romances on the silver screen, even if the actor performing with her were portraying a Chinese character. Still, Anna May paved the way for future Asian actresses, heightening her place in film through her nuanced and insightful portrayals. In a great show of character, she turned down the role of "Lotus," the evil siren of The Good Earth, after the role of O-Lan, which she craved and rightfully deserved, went to Ms. Rainer. Anna had talent, but she also had pride!

Even after an actor or actress such as Anna May Wong, Paul Robeson, or the lovely-- and already greatly missed-- Lena Horne had established themselves as respected and accepted members of the acting community, they faced their trials. Hattie McDaniel (left) was the first African American to win an Academy Award (for her supporting role as "Mammy" in Gone with the Wind). Her charismatic nature and jovial personality defied her stereotyped roles and endeared her to audiences so much that she became as famous and adored as her Caucasian contemporaries. Even her contender for her 1939 Oscar win, co-star Olivia de Havilland, would admit that the prize was rightfully bestowed. Despite all of this, Hattie would still have to combat prejudice.

Her one wish upon her death was to be buried in a shiny, white coffin at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the same place where so many of her acting contemporaries and predecessors had been laid to rest. However, even in death, Hattie's skin color did not qualify her as an equal. She was denied interment at the cemetery, and instead was laid to rest at the more racially friendly Angelus Rosedale Cemetery (ironically, the same place where Anna May Wong would be buried). Years later, to correct the terrible wrong that was done, Hattie's relatives were offered the opportunity to have her finally placed at Hollywood Forever, but since so much time had passed, and they did not wish to upset her body, she was left at Rosedale, buried not far from her brother Sam and actor Dooley Wilson, remembered best for his role as Sam in Casablanca. Instead, Hollywood Forever, and more specifically new owner Tyler Cassity, placed a monument dedicated to Hattie right next to the cemetery's pond, so at least in this small way justice could be done to one of cinema's most charming individuals.

Hatties resting place at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery

Hattie's Monument at Hollywood Forever.

Another actor who faced prejudice was James Baskett (above), who starred in the half live-action/half animated classic Song of the South. This film remains the center of controversy and debate, with many claiming that its subject matter is insulting to the African American community. The bulk of this argument has to do with the infamous "tar-baby" scene, as well as the continued myth of the "happy slave." It is more than safe to say that slavery never made anyone happy, a fact even Hollywood confirmed through films depicting the longed for liberation of white slaves and prisoners, including Ben-Hur and Spartacus (how fickle is history). Song of the South remains unavailable for purchase, (unless you are super savvy and know where to look on the down-low, ahem), and this is a true crime, for James delivers a beautiful and heartfelt performance as the lovable storyteller of the shenanigans of Brer Rabbit. His performance of the sentimental and eternal Disney song, "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah" is reason enough to allow this treasure to be shared. The film boasted a cast of many black performers, including Ms. McDaniel, and was a big step forward in the history of film.

However, despite his great performance and his leading role in the film, James was unable to attend the premiere in Atlanta. Due to the city's continued segregation, he would have been unable to enjoy any part of the celebration, thus making his attendance moot.  What a crime. I can still remember seeing this film as a child, and being enthralled by the music and the magical blending of the animated and the real worlds, much as I would be by Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.  To my youthful eyes, there was no difference between Mr. Baskett or any other actor. He was "Uncle Remus," and in my heart, he became my Uncle too. For future generations to be deprived of the knowledge of him makes me very sad indeed. Perhaps the world would be better if adults could see it as children do... But that is another argument all-together! Thankfully, James had the last laugh, receiving an Honorary Oscar in 1946 for his performance as amiable Uncle Remus (below).

This topic is one that is far too broad and all-encompassing to be discussed in one short article, and there are countless artists worthy of our respect and admiration for their pioneering efforts, from Dorothy Dandridge to Sidney Poitier; from James Wong Howe to Honorable Wu. I introduce the subject to mention Mae West's position in this corner of history. In Mae's heart, there was no room for prejudice or racism. To her, if you were talented, you were talented; it didn't matter if you were black, white, red, or purple. This is an attitude she learned from her father, boxer Battlin' Jack West, who befriended many black boxers whom he often invited over for dinner. Mae's equally giving nature also drew her to the underdog, and just as she would make great strides toward the acceptance of the homosexual population, so too would she do with the African American population. 

Mae: more than a pretty face

Working on the stage in New York before she made it to Hollywood, Mae was always raising eyebrows (and temperatures) with her discussion and portrayal of sex, prostitution, drugs, and murder. Her sense of humor was able to dilute the harsher topics of the day before she fed it to her audiences, who were both shocked and appreciative that such subject matter was finally being discussed in the open. One of the many progressive steps that Mae took was to introduce a dance that was popular in the black community to her audiences-- the "Shimmy Shawobble." She did so in the play Sometime, in which she referred to the risque and wild dance as "the Shimmy." It seems innocent now, but certain sects of society were absolutely shocked! The other half, of course, ate it up and asked for more. It was different, liberating, and exciting to the general, repressed theater-goer, and theater is, after all, all about living vicariously. During the influenza epidemic of 1918, the happy-go-lucky vision of joyous bodies in motion was certainly a welcome reprieve to frightened and paranoid audiences.

Aside from their dancing, Mae also adored "black music," aka Jazz. She therefore had no qualms about using it in her films when she went to Hollywood. In fact, she can be credited with presenting musician Duke Ellington to uninformed audiences with her Belle of the Nineties, in which she insisted that he perform his music himself. Paramount had wanted to hire a studio orchestra to perform the music, but Mae refused. Always deferring to the intelligence of her fans, she knew that they would recognize the difference and demanded the authenticity of Duke himself. People wrote to her in later years and thanked her for introducing them to his music. During this film, she also supplied jobs for many black extras, as she did in her other films. She was equally responsible for giving several African American actresses a leg up in her movies, casting Louise Beavers (above), Gertrude Howard, and Ms. McDaniel in various roles. The scene in I'm No Angel where Mae is sitting around with her maids, who are more like girlfriends, chatting it up and having a laugh, is still a memorable and entertaining piece of film. Actress Libby Taylor, in fact, had been a real life maid of Mae's, but Mae saw her talent and encouraged her to go into film-acting. She freely let Libby leave her employ and helped her to get a job in the business, including a role in Belle.

These little known facts are the things that people should know about Mae, but she always kept the sweetness that she carried within her cloaked from the public, not just to save her reputation as a hard-broiled dame, but also because she didn't need the flattery or validation for doing something that she considered the responsibility of any and every one. Her small contribution made a definite difference to the few black performers that she helped in the business, and the ripple effect of her efforts contributed to the noble war of equality that many argue is still being waged in the entertainment industry. If we learn one thing from Mae, it should be to tip our hats to these often overlooked but equally important talents of the silver screen, whose brave, boundary pushing movements have been worth their weight in gold.


  1. hello Mer . Excellent post When I was a kid I would have sworn that Oland , Toler and Middleton were Oriental. I’m still trying to recover from the fact that Adolphe Menjou was from Pittsburgh! The illusion created by Hollywood was so convincing that many of us felt the same way. Thanks

  2. Thanks so much for this. You know, the world was what it was, and what it was was ignorant, frightened and wrong. But that shouldn't keep us deprived of wonderful contributions like Mr. Baskett's and others.

    Falling more and more for Mae!

  3. Thanks fellas! Glad you enjoyed. And glad I'm getting more Mae love :)

  4. Beautiful post! That's so fascinating about Mae West. I love reading about those sorts of stories - the people who suffered through the prejudice to achieve their dreams and the people who defied prejudice in order to help others achieve their dreams - equally fascinating and worth looking into. Thank you for sharing! This was a wonderful post (as always!)

    By the way, after reading your last post, I went and added several Mae West films to my Netflix queue! Thought you should know!

  5. Sally: Yay! I hope you enjoy them. I think "I'm No Angel" is my favorite, but they are all light-hearted and fun. You'll have to let me know what you think ;)