Prior to the Obama administration (2009-2016), these feature films should have, but almost never did, appear on all-time-best lists of American cinema. This is “counter-cinema” in the sense of “counterculture,” not necessarily part of a separate culture but made in a spirit of challenging the status quo. Each was considered fairly progressive upon release (however they seem now). Among the criteria: each film had to be at least an hour long, fictional (not a documentary), American in the sense that no other country could claim it (and centralizing at least one Anglo-American character), and streamable as of August 2021 (many great films are not). Welcome to 100 excellent, influential, and/or important milestones of diversity, inclusion, and intersectionality.
“…children should not be admitted to see this picture unaccompanied by adults, but if you bring them it will do them an immeasurable amount of good.”
What is the oldest surviving American feature film that was directed by a woman? Well, some say it’s 1916’s Where Are My Children? No director is credited on screen, but we know that the film was written, produced, and directed by the wife-husband team of Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley. Released by Universal, the production company is credited as Lois Weber Productions, something Weber insisted upon partly because she meant to attract other projects that were both socially relevant and formally daring.
Florence Lois Weber was born in 1879 in Pennsylvania, toured as a young singer, pianist, and evangelist, and worked as a repertory and stock actress for years until meeting the head of an acting troupe. Phillips Smalley, graduate of Harvard and grandson of Oliver Wendell Holmes, proposed to, and married, Lois when he was 38 and she was 25. Keeping her name, Weber began writing spec scenarios for film companies. In 1910, Weber and Smalley started making short pictures and were hired by the New York-based Rex Motion Picture Company, where Weber wrote, acted, directed, edited, made sets, and sewed costumes. In 1912, Rex merged with four other companies to form Universal Film, prompting Weber and Smalley to move to Los Angeles. The merged company’s chief, Carl Laemmle, distinguished Universal from other studios by virtue of its female directors and producers. After Laemmle incorporated the Cahuenga Pass gateway from the valley to L.A. as Universal City, Laemmle encouraged Weber to run to become its first mayor, a job she was elected to in 1913. Weber barely had time for mayoral duties in 1914 as she directed 27 films, establishing herself as one of the industry’s most reliable, most interesting directors. In summer of 1914, Weber hired a new writing assistant named Frances Marion, and mentored her into the most prolific, best-known screenwriter of the silent era, male or female. Weber’s films became increasingly complex and layered, from The Jew’s Christmas to The Merchant of Venice to Hypocrites, the latter of which featured actually naked actresses to demonstrate the hypocrisies of religion and, well, encourage the kind of publicity that would draw both over-prurient audiences and over-prudish lawsuits.
The scenario for Where Are My Children?, written by Lucy Payton and Franklin Hall, was meant to capitalize on, but not plagiarize, the sensational stories around the obscenity trials provoked by Margaret Sanger’s work. Nurse Margaret Sanger was an activist alongside the likes of Emma Goldman and Upton Sinclair whose personal experience with fatally flawed family planning led Sanger to publish, in a socialist magazine, columns on sex education that evolved into her monthly newsletter, The Woman Rebel, in which she coined the term “birth control,” explained contraceptive methods in detail, and asserted every woman’s right to be “the absolute mistress of her own body.” By sending The Woman Rebel through the post office, Sanger provoked a 1914 over-prudish lawsuit in the form of her challenge to federal anti-obscenity laws, although the press around her trial seemed more interested in her estrangement from her husband, which is where Where Are My Children? more or less picks up.
Where Are My Children? begins with title cards forewarning that the forthcoming film is a fantastic idea but showing it to children is not. A card says “Behind the great portals of Eternity, the souls of little children waited to be born” to show abstract golden gates opening to smoke and clouds and columns and…maybe heaven? The next card says “Within the first space was the great army of ‘chance’ children. They went forth to earth in vast numbers.” We see a painting of dozens of Raphaelite angel cherub babies three times, the first adorned only by billowing smoke, the second laced by fire and brimstone after a card proclaims the “sad unwanted,” and the third glowing as a cross appears above them after a card hails a group sent forth “only on prayer.” Finally, the film’s first non-abstract imagery introduces us to eugenics believer and District Attorney Richard Walton telling a court that criminals are simply ill-born. Richard greets his wife, Edith, as she tends her dogs on a Versailles-like garden patio where a card says Richard “concealed his disappointment” over their lack of children, “never dreaming it was her fault.” Outside, Walton watches kids play, including his sister’s kid, and shakes his head with frustration. In court, D.A. Walton confronts one William Homer because of distributing his book “Birth Control,” from which Walton reads aloud the first sentence of Chapter Five: “When only those children who are wanted are born, the race will conquer the evils that weigh it down.” We flash to Homer’s experiences in slums, where one woman with a sick infant jumps off a bridge, and another woman physically battles her drunk husband. Homer’s Chapter 10 asks if “unwanted children should be born to suffer blindness, disease, or insanity?” A title card declares curtly, “A jury of men disagreed with Mr. Homer’s views.” After a bevy of blueblood ladies leave a lavish garden tea party, Edith murmurs to one that if she doesn’t want to be a mother, she might see Dr. Malfit, and soon Edith accompanies this woman to the doctor’s office, where Edith describes her friend’s condition as a “serious ailment.” We see those abstract golden gates close as a card discloses that an “unwanted one” has been returned so that a social butterfly can return to parties. The Walton mansion receives two guests, Edith’s rapscallion brother Roger and their housekeeper’s young adult daughter Lillian, whom Roger courts in the manner of “men of this class.” A month later, Lillian is pregnant, as symbolized by the golden gates opening and an abstract cherub angel alighting on the shoulder of Lillian, who agitatedly asks Roger for help, who turns to his sister Edith, who is coming to regret her previous abortions and reluctantly gives Roger the name of Dr. Malfit, who botches Lillian’s abortion. Lillian staggers out of his office, lies prostrate on the car ride home, wobbles out of the car, and collapses, discovered by the distraught district attorney. On her deathbed, Lillian tells her mother the truth, leading to an angry physical confrontation between the housekeeper, the Waltons, and Roger. Later, Walton comforts his housekeeper as she mourns over the intensely blue-lensed shroud of her dead daughter. Walton expeditiously brings Dr. Malfit to trial, but we cut from the courtroom to Edith’s common room where she sees, then burns, a letter that reads “Mrs. Walton, Call your husband off this prosecution or I will draw you into the case. Herman Malfit.” Edith asks her husband to go easy on Malfit, prompting Walton to forbid him bringing his books or other patients into trial. When the judge pronounces the sentence, fifteen years of hard labor, a bitter Malfit dumps his book in front of Walton and warns he should see to his own household. Walton opens Malfit’s book and learns the truth about Edith’s abortions. The Walton housekeeper, quitting and leaving, staggers past a society social of ladies, which Walton soon sunders by storming in and saying, “I just learned why so many of you have no children. I should bring you to trial for manslaughter, but I shall content myself with asking you to leave my house!” The women blow away, but not before some of them blame Edith, and after they’re all gone, Richard demands of Edith, “Where are my children?” As she breaks down sobbing, Walton laments, “I, an officer of the law, must shield a murderess!” Walton mourns his lost legacy and lost love at, uh, his beautiful stone fountain. Edith prays for pregnancy, but, as a card tells us, “having perverted Nature so often, she found herself physically unable to wear the diadem of motherhood.” The final title card says “throughout the years she must face the silent question, where are my children?” which cuts to a somewhat remarkable final shot of Richard and Edith sitting apart in front of their fireplace as ghostly kids come to snuggle with them and then Richard and Edith notably age, yet remain in place, as young adult ghosts visit.
It’s hard to disentangle the film Where Are My Children? from the contemporary politics of eugenics, a word that appears in many of Weber’s title cards. Sir Francis Galton coined the term eugenics in 1883, one year after his cousin Charles Darwin died, a date worth denoting because Darwin disagreed with Galton’s ideas about human-directed evolution. By the time Galton died in 1911, eugenics had become an academic discipline at many universities, the official policy of many governments, and a recommended methodology of many ministers. Eugenics gave scientific justification to ancient practices of infanticide of the disabled, and in practice, its focus on developing traits deemed desirable worked to legitimize racism. Today, from our esteemed universities that have each excised any eugenics departments, we commend the film Where Are My Children? for its anti-eugenics politics even as we wonder if it could have been a little less clamorously anti-choice. One could argue that Weber’s real target is wealthy women, or that Sanger’s position, as expressed by a man named Homer, gets its, ah, day in court…but the game is given away by the title, not Where Are The Children but Where Are My Children, as though the man has possessive rights to any progeny. Another factor is the nascent star system – Tyrone Power was the film’s star, whose privileges extended to getting his new-ish wife cast as Edith.
Stylistically, Lois Weber’s work on Where Are My Children? is utterly assured, moving breathlessly and confidently from plot point to plot point and from artistic scenery to theatrical spectacle. Weber certainly shared with Margaret Sanger a presumption that censorious officials’ attacks on her work would bring it more publicity, and indeed that plan worked well enough to result in packed houses in New York and New Jersey, but less well in Pennsylvania, where Where Are My Children? was banned for immorality. The one-two punch of Weber’s film Hypocrites and this film gave Lois Weber the reputation of America’s first female director.
Influenced by: Susan B. Anthony; prevailing, Griffith-era codes of style and decorum; Lois Weber is not credited as director but scholars have named her the film’s lead creative force
Influenced:Weber stood next to Griffith and Chaplin as one of the period’s most influential directors
“It is my duty and the duty of each member of our race to help destroy ignorance and superstition.”
Before turning 25, Micheaux worked as a marketer, a stockyard hand, a shoeshine boy, and a Pullman porter, the latter granting the gregarious gentleman grace to meet many sorts of men and to travel West, where he used two thousand dollars he’d saved to buy land in South Dakota and work as a homesteader. Micheaux wrote letters to at least 100 of his African-American friends to encourage them to join him at farming, but only his brother ever took him up on it. At the age of 29, in 1913, Micheaux used his pastoral profits to publish a thousand copies of a biographical-ish novel he wrote called “The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer,” and walked around South Dakota and Chicago selling his book to friends and acquaintances and strangers.
After years of producing more modestly profitable grain and novels, in 1918, Micheaux received a letter from the Lincoln Motion Picture Company; after many negotiations throughout 1918, Micheaux decided he would ask his network of supporters for money for him to direct The Conquest into a film. Retitled The Homesteader, the film is about a Black farmer who resists many white women out of race loyalty while having terrible difficulties with his Black wife, eventually leading to her patricide and suicide and her husband being blamed for both. Released in 1919, considered the first feature directed by an African-American, The Homesteader did decent business amongst carefully targeted Black communities throughout the Northeast. Sadly, Micheaux’s first feature is now thought to be a lost film. We are lucky enough to be able to watch his second feature, the oldest surviving film directed by a Black person, Within Our Gates.
We don’t know much about the production of Within Our Gates other than to say it was made very cheaply, with actors barely paid, no reshoots allowed, and sets, costumes and props liberally borrowed and re-used. That said, the film condenses so much information into every minute that it never feels repetitive or overdrawn.
Within Our Gates begins with a title card placing us “in the North, where the prejudices and hatreds of the South do not exist – though this does not prevent the occasional lynching of a Negro.” Sylvia Landry, a Southern mixed-race schoolteacher, on a visit to Boston to her cousin Alma Prichard, reads with her a letter from Canada, dated June 1920, from Sylvia’s fiancé Conrad whom Alma secretly loves. Alma eavesdrops as her stepbrother Larry tries to court Sylvia, who tells him she doesn’t love this Larry whom titles tell us is also known as “The Leech,” is on the loose, and is a “notorious member of the underworld.” Alma intercepts a telegram from Conrad intended to inform Sylvia of his Thursday arrival in Boston before the army ships him to Brazil. A cheating scam in a poker game ends in a shootout where Larry kills a player named Red…which turns out to be Sylvia’s dream…or was it? Upon Conrad’s arrival, Alma tries to seduce Conrad who rushes to Sylvia’s bedroom only to find, thanks to Alma’s machinations, Sylvia in the arms of a white man. Conrad starts to strangle Sylvia, sighs “I loved you so!” and skedaddles. Now fifteen minutes into the movie, a title card takes us to “the depths of the forests of the South, where ignorance and the lynch law reign supreme, we find the hamlet of Piney Woods and the school for Negroes.” We meet Reverend Wilson Jacobs, “founder of the school and apostle of education for the black race,” alongside his sister Constance, as they meet Sylvia applying for a job. Later, Constance tells Sylvia that Wilson can’t bear to turn pupils away, but the state doesn’t provide enough for Negroes and they’ll have to close if they don’t get $5000. Sylvia tells the Reverend that it is the duty of “each member of our race to help destroy ignorance and superstition,” so she’ll go up north and try, with God’s help, to raise the money. In Boston, Doctor V. Vivian looks out his window, sees a thief mugging Sylvia, runs to cut off the thief, collars him, hands him over to a cop, hands Sylvia back her purse, and returns with her to his office for a pleasant chat. A rich racist, Geraldine Stratton, nods while reading an article quoting anti-Black-suffrage Senator Vardeman (who is real) saying “from the soles of their flat feet to the crown of their head, Negroes are, undoubtedly, inferior beings.” A week into fruitless fundraising, a fretting Sylvia gets flattened by a car carrying one Elena Warwick, who helps bear Sylvia’s body to the car. Elena interviews Sylvia in the hospital where Sylvia shows Elena a telegram from Jacobs saying the school will need to be closed in ten days. On Elena’s invitation, Sylvia visits her mansion, where Elena professes to be interested in her race and promises to help the school however she can, but when she asks her Southern friend Geraldine for advice, Geraldine laments “Can’t you see that thinking would only give them a headache?” Instead of granting Sylvia $5,000, Geraldine recommends giving $100 to a Black preacher named Ned, whom we see made up like a devil animatedly telling his nodding congregation, “The white folk, with all their schooling, all their wealth, all their sins, will most all fall into the everlasting inferno! While our race, lacking these vices and whose souls are more pure, will most all ascend to heaven!” Later, when two of Ned’s old racist white friends show him the article about Black voting, Ned bows his head, shuffles his feet, smiles sheepishly, and tells the whites his sermons always say “this is a land for the white man and Black folk got to know their place.” As Ned leaves them delighted, Ned says only to himself, “Again I’ve sold my birthright…As for me, miserable sinner, Hell is my destiny.” Geraldine apparently convinces Elena, who horrifies Sylvia in their next meeting, as she knows, as we see, Jacobs is receiving her telegram message to keep the school open because funds are coming. This is a misdirect, because Elena re-meets with Geraldine to tell her that based on what she said, instead of giving the school $5000, she’s going to give the school $50,000. After Dr. Vivian dreams of Sylvia and Sylvia dreams of Dr. Vivian, the two meet and hold hands warmly just before she returns to the South, where Reverend Jacobs proposes marriage and Sylvia refuses, venerating vivacious Vivian. On the lam, Larry the Leech locates the lavishly funded school, corners Sylvia on a bench, and tells her to steal from the school or he’ll tell everyone what sort of person she really is. Sylvia hits him, calls him a liar, storms off, cries alone, comes to a decision, and leaves the school in a torrential rain. Larry returns to Alma’s where a cop finds him, mortally wounds him, and prompts the arrival of Dr. Vivian, who learns from Alma that her cousin Sylvia was raised by the long-ago lynched Landrys. Alma confesses the casuistic cuckolding of Conrad, and we cut to a title saying “Sylvia’s Story” in a deep forest of the Gridlestone estate. Jasper Landry, uneducated and disenfranchised, lives on the hope of an education for his kids, hangs out at a kitchen table with his wife and Sylvia, and finds they have just enough saved to send Sylvia and Emil to school. We meet the rich white patriarch Gridlestone, a “modern Nero,” and Efrem, his shifty servant, “an incorrigible tattletale,” who warns his master of the insecurity of Sylvia sensing his swindles. On rent payment day, Jasper and Gridlestone argue angrily as, outside the window, a disgruntled white farmer shoots dead Gridlestone knowing Landry will be blamed for it. After Efrem spreads this fiction around the town, a hillbilly-looking lynch mob develops into a weeklong manhunt as the Landrys leg it into the large forest. Two yokels accidentally assassinate Gridlestone’s actual killer as Efrem laughs at these forest escapees compared to him sitting pretty with whites, a laugh that arouses the anger of the hayseeds. A newspaper calls Efrem a “recent victim of accidental death at unknown hands,” while expressing Efrem’s version of events, a fabrication we watch enacted as a cackling plastered Jasper blasts shot after shot at Gridlestone. A title card reads in full, “Meanwhile, in the depth of the forest, a woman, though a Negro, was a [all caps] HUMAN BEING.” A tired fugitive, Jasper’s wife wonders how long before justice arrives, with more all caps reading HOW LONG? The lynch mob belatedly locates the Landry parents, hang them with nooses, and sets their bodies afire, which is cut with an old white Gridlestone brother attempting to rape Sylvia in a far-off safehouse. As the violence becomes more vicious, we cut to Vivian hearing the narration of Alma, whose dialogue card says “A scar on her chest saved her because, once it was revealed, Gridlestone knew that Sylvia was his daughter – his legitimate daughter from marriage to a woman of her race – who was later adopted by the Landrys.” Alma explains that the brother didn’t explain himself to Sylvia, stopped hurting her, started helping her, and paid for her education. Somehow, Dr. Vivian finds Sylvia and somehow says, “Be proud of our country, Sylvia.” Vivian mentions Roosevelt in Cuba and soldiers in Carrizal and World War I. He tells her, “we were never immigrants!” He says he knows of Sylvia’s hard feelings, but “In spite of your misfortunes, you will always be a patriot – and a tender wife. I love you!” Sylvia goes with this all the way to a wedding canopy when a title says “The End.”
The Johnsons and Micheaux had argued about The Homesteader blaming Black people for their problems, and so there’s a slight irony in the fact that, after Micheaux had found success without them, he went on to make a film with the reformist values the Johnsons wanted. Despite the ubiquity of D.W. Griffith’s blockbuster The Birth of a Nation, Micheaux didn’t want Within Our Gates read only that way; despite Micheaux’s protests, it often is. Both films have an overarching structure of a North-South marriage that might re-bind the country in a manner that the writer-director considers, uh, enlightened. Within Our Gates’ rich, racist, anti-suffrage lady resembles the Lillian Gish character from Griffith’s film, here transformed from a heroine into the villain. Birth of a Nation culminates in innocent whites fending off a home invasion by Black savages; Within Our Gates culminates in Sylvia fending off a home invasion and rape by a savage rich white man, a scene intercut with a lynch mob hanging two innocent Black people and burning their bodies. Local censoring boards singled out these two vignettes, particularly in the wake of what were called “race riots” in the summer of 1919 in many American cities especially Chicago. That summer of white violence against Blacks was its own sort of reaction to the validation given to the Ku Klux Klan by The Birth of a Nation, which was still playing to packed houses in 1919 four years after its release. Micheaux explained he was reacting not only to Birth of a Nation but to everything: Jim Crow laws, suffrage, the Great Migration, peonage, Black criminals, and especially the savagery and hypocrisy shown by whites against Black people. Reacting to the Chicago board, Micheaux did make a few superficial cuts, but chose to premiere Within Our Gates in Chicago anyway, where it began doing reasonable business in carefully targeted theaters in urban America – the sort of theaters where whites rarely ventured. Ronald J. Green felt the title “Within Our Gates” was a warning to white marauders coming into Black communities, although it can also be read as a proto-for-us-by-us solidarity.
Influenced by: The Birth of a Nation; W.E.B. DuBois-era literature, resistance
Influenced: Micheaux created the “race film” (made for and by black people), which would remain a minor and low-budget subgenre until about the 1950s
“When an Arab sees a woman that he wants, he takes her.”
The man renamed Rudolph Valentino would later credit June Mathis for “discovering” him as she cast him as tango-dancing Argentinian Julio Desnoyas in Four Horsemen, but other than Mathis, the rest of Metro found Valentino hard to work with and shunted him into smaller roles for the rest of his four-movie contract. In 1921, Rudolph Valentino moved to Famous Players-Lasky, where Jesse Lasky had many things ready to go: a distribution deal with Paramount, a marketing plan, a star named Agnes Ayres, and a script based on Edith Maude Hull’s novel “The Sheik,” which surprised Hull and the publishing world by becoming a best-seller upon its 1919 release.
A bit more about that marketing plan: the film’s poster already appeared as we now see it, with a photo of only Ayres in a pith helmet smiling on the sands, and her name above Valentino’s, despite his recent notoriety for Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. However, Valentino knew he was getting the title role and a plan to begin marketing him as “The Latin Lover,” a brand-new coinage. Oh, about that plot: in Hull’s novel, the Sheik clearly rapes Lady Diana, but Lasky had no intention of beginning his relationship with Valentino quite so sordidly. To that end, Lasky hired reliably pliable director George Melford, who had a somewhat interesting career that doesn’t require detail here. As for Edith Maude Hull, she never expressed regrets about her novel’s celebration of misogyny, only saying she regretted selling the film rights for too little to Lasky.
The Sheik begins with camels and desert canopies and oasis markings and praying Arabs in tunics and a title card saying “where the children of Araby dwell in happy ignorance that civilization has passed them by.” Another card introduces us to “maidens chosen for the marriage market – an ancient custom by which wives are secured for the wealthy sons of Allah.” We meet the young Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan smiling broadly while granting a desperate chief an exception to losing his daughter to the market. A title card reads, “On the way to the harems of the rich merchants, to obey and serve like chattel slaves.” Drinking tea at a souk in Biskra, a real city in Algeria, wealthy white women disapprove of Lady Diana Mayo’s “wild scheme” of a tour into the desert “with only native camel-drivers and Arabs!” We meet Lady Diana and her brother, Sir Aubrey, who fails to persuade her to call off her adventure. At an evening party in Biskra’s “Monte Carlo,” Arabs perform with prancing ponies and upcast spears as a young tuxedo-clad man begs Diana to remain with him, to which she answers, “Marriage is captivity – the end of independence. I am content with my life as it is.” Sheik Ahmed enters, commands his retinue into the casino, and shares a brief warm eye contact with Diana, who is told, by a white guy, that the casino is Arab-only. When she objects to such savage rules the white guy objects that the Sheik is no savage, but a Paris-educated Arab. Diana sees a belly dancer performing, returns to her room, and instructs a servant to bring the dancer to her room whereupon Diana obtains the woman’s full uniform. Veiled, Diana sneaks into the casino to observe a belly dancer performing for the sheik and other bidders, but when a host grabs Diana by the hand, we’re misdirected into believing we’ll see Diana perform and/or sold as chattel. Instead, the Sheik inspects Diana, rips off her veil, and smiles broadly while declaring to his fellows, “The pale hands and golden hair of a white woman!” (Agnes Ayres’ hair is brown throughout the film.) The Sheik removes Diana’s outer burka to reveal her ornate bedlah and a gun she is pointing at him, causing him to grinningly ask who invited her, to which she answers she wanted to see the savage that would keep her from the casino. The Sheik cheerfully bops the burka back on Diana, asks if he the savage can escort her to the door, sees her off, and hears from one Mustafa Ali that he is booked to escort her to the desert. At dawn, not unlike in Disney’s Aladdin seven decades later, Sheik Ahmed scales her balcony and hops into her chambers, in this case to creepily watch her sleep before escaping, awakening, and serenading her with a song about loving pale hands. In pith helmets, Diana and brother Aubrey ride horses into the desert until she tells him she’ll see him in a month in London, and roughly a second after he absconds, Mustafa smirks as he signals a score of soldiers on horses who storm over the hill and induce Diana to panic, flee the other way, shoot back at them, and drop her pistol. Sheik Ahmed leads the posse, sidles up alongside Diana, jumps onto her horse, grabs her, and says “Lie still, you little fool!” as the regiment, rejoicing, raises its rifles. A card says “Her exultant dream of freedom ended – a helpless captive in the desert wastes.” In the Sheik’s desert village, Diana delivers a defiant glance as Ahmed walks her into his massive tent complex and introduces her to Zilah, her barefoot female servant, as well as Gaston, his be-suited French valet who is told to attend to Diana’s every need. When she asks why he brought her here, he smilingly replies, “Are you not woman enough to know?” Ahmed leads her into her private room and disparages her pants, saying it wasn’t a boy he saw in Biskra. Diana tries to escape in a strong sandstorm, but the Sheik brings her back inside to be rewarded by her blade, at which he laughs, disarms her, and claims he could make her love him. Later, Diana cries at her bed as Ahmed comes in, clearly considers clutching her by force…and then reconsiders and cuts out, in a colossal change from Hull’s novel. Zilah enters and gives Diana a comfort hug and an uncomfortable burka to wear. Sheik Ahmed is thrilled to learn of a coming visit from his novelist friend Raoul from Paris, but when Diana distresses of Raoul discovering her in Arab accoutrements, Ahmed arranges for her attire to return before he returns from Biskra with Raoul. Seeing her joy, Ahmed attempts a goodbye kiss only to see her distaste so he says “You hate them so much – my kisses?” While the Sheik is in Biskra, on an excursion with Gaston, Diana fools him into dismounting, hits his horse, and escapes. Elsewhere, Ahmed winsomely warns Raoul not to be bewitched by Diana, Raoul replies “Does the past mean so little to you that you now steal white women and make love to them like a savage?” Ahmed thinks, smiles, and responds, “When an Arab sees a woman that he wants, he takes her!” A caravan of bandits led by the villainous Omair almost seizes the runaway Diana, but Sheik Ahmed’s entourage arrives in the nick of time to save Diana’s life. After a shared dinner between Diana, Ahmed, and Raoul, the latter pulls aside the Sheik to remand him for “the humiliation of meeting a man from her own world.” With Diana and Raoul dressed for British high tea, Diana returns to Raoul the rough draft of his manuscript with praise and skepticism that his novel’s heroic man can be found anywhere as an eavesdropping Ahmed despairs of her antipathy…until an assistant runs up to Raoul for medical help and Diana’s cry of “Ahmed!”, though mistaken, proves her affection. Ahmed prepares to leave Diana with Gaston, asks her not to run away again, warns of Omair, returns to her her pistol, and confides that he trusts her. On the road, Raoul tells Ahmed that Diana is a liability that he could escort back to Biskra, causing the Sheik to laugh that Raoul wants her too before admitting that making her suffer isn’t giving him the pleasure he expected. Raoul ripostes “Because you love her” as the films cut to Diana in the desert lazily writing “Ahmed I love you” just before she and Gaston are attacked by Omair, Mustafa, and their fellow marauders. Diana and Gaston hold them off until most of their ammo runs out, when Diana asks Gaston to kill her rather than let her be captured, but just before Gaston pulls the trigger to kill her, someone else pulls his and kills Gaston. After Omair takes Diana away, Sheik Ahmed shows up and scans her words somehow preserved in the sands. In a room in Omair’s gargantuan stone palace, Diana gets roughed up by Omair’s noticeably darker servants until they are interrupted by Omair’s assistant who has been told to “bring forth the white gazelle.” In disturbing imagery, Omair assaults Diana, who futilely fights back…when Sheik Ahmed’s battalion storms the palace. The Sheik and Omair fight man to man, and both men seem mortally wounded. Back at the Sheik’s village, while praying “Tribal hearts appeal to Allah,” Diana states that the sleeping Sheik’s hands are small for an Arab’s, to which Raoul replies, “He is not an Arab. His father was an Englishman, his mother a Spaniard.” Raoul tells Diana that the former Sheik found Ahmed abandoned by his parents, raised him, sent him to Paris, and died with the arrangement that Ahmed would return from Paris and lead the tribe. Ahmed wakes up and embraces an affectionate Diana as a praying Arab outside gets the final word: “All things are with Allah!”
The Sheik was absolutely understood to be problematic at the time, which was part of its appeal, perhaps comparable to “50 Shades of Grey.” Several critics took issue with the removal of the novel’s rape because it turned the story into a sort of regressive wish fulfillment for 19th-Amendment-resisting men and women. As with 50 Shades of Grey, these audiences came out in droves, turning The Sheik into a substantial hit for Paramount in 1921 and 1922. Metro’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, in which Valentino plays a tango-dancing Julio, remained in theaters at the same time as both films were among the early 20s’ highest earners. Valentino would never again be second-billed or not pictured on the poster. June Mathis, then Metro’s first female executive, broke her Metro contract to join Valentino at Paramount, become Hollywood’s highest-paid executive of any age (she was 35), and put Valentino in more Latin-lover-flavored leads, beginning with being a bullfighter named Juan Gallardo in Blood and Sand.
The Sheik was by far the most influential silent film regarding two important ethnic groups, Arabs and Latinos. Scimitars and sand tents had certainly been seen on screens before, but maybe because Britain lost most of its Muslim holdings including the nation newly called Turkey, The Sheik rode or set off a wave of cultural appropriation-slash-appreciation that could be heard in popular songs, seen in new architecture, or just noticed every time the press covered Jazz Age parties using words like “harem” and “sultan” and “sheik.” Every studio found space for an apparently Algeria-analogous area of the backlot to support the suddenly successful sub-genre, including United Artists’ and Douglas Fairbanks’ 1924 film The Thief of Bagdad, which pioneered several effects as well as the fledgling career of Anna May Wong. Arab culture was treated with both reverence and revulsion, something that would trickle down to Hollywood’s eventual portrayals of Arab-Americans, which comes up in much greater detail later in the C-list. For now it’s enough to say that in the 1920s, Muslim/Arab culture was both regarded and disregarded, which is something we now also say about the “Latin Lover” archetype. To modern sensibilities, the awkward appropriation of Arabia may sound far removed from the term “Latin Lover,” but in fact, Latin didn’t yet mean Latin American or Latino. When newspapers of the 1910s spoke of Latin influence, it referred to languages that derived from Latin, including Italian, Spanish, and French, not excluding the French that was Algeria’s official language; Latin and Mediterranean were often used interchangeably. Of course, it’s true that the Italian Rudolph Valentino was not what we now call Latino, but it’s not true that in 1921 Italian-Americans had anything like the white privilege they could assume a century later. It’s not only that Italian-Americans were then regularly described with epithets like “dago,” “wop,” and “guinea,” the latter an association with kinky hair that sought to equate Italian- and African-Americans. Official prejudice against Italian-Americans went all the way to the top, to the State Department that forced Italy to accept restrictive emigration protocols, and to Congress, that passed the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 which rolled back the Italian immigration rate to the group’s percentage of the population in 1890, essentially defining Italian-American as non-white even as Valentino had arguably become America’s biggest movie star.
Influenced by: colonialist ideas about Arabs and white women, though the novel’s rape scene was removed
Influenced: Latin Lovers, “sheik” as a very popular type/name of the period
“You white-livered, lying, hypocritical beast – to steal my poor mother’s money!”
Body and Soul is sometimes called Micheaux’s masterpiece; it’s the only one to survive with all its original title cards, though that may be partly because it starred and debuted a 27-year-old future star and anti-racism activist named Paul Robeson. There have been no fewer than three big-budget bio-pic feature films about Valentino, but so far none about Robeson, despite, ahem, the following.
Robeson’s father William was a slave who escaped in his teens to, eventually, Princeton, New Jersey, where he became a church minister and fathered Paul in 1898. In 1915, Robeson became Rutgers third, and then-only, African-American student, where he went Phi Beta Kappa while collecting awards in debate, singing, basketball, track, and football, the latter including first-team All-American as a junior and senior. After Robeson’s classmates elected him valedictorian, his address was not unlike some of his winning debate oratories in that it questioned Black soldiers fighting in the Great War while being denied commensurate opportunities at home and exhorted the audience to fight for equality for all Americans. In the early 20s, Robeson attended law school, sang at the opening of the Harlem YWCA, and began his, yes, career with the National Football League, playing for the Akron Pros in 1921 and the Milwaukee Badgers in 1922 before quitting football, finishing law school, starting as a lawyer, and quitting law because of structural racism. In 1921, Robeson married Essie Goode, who encouraged him to pursue theater, where he landed several theatrical roles to the point of Eugene O’Neill asking for him, and soon, not unlike June Mathis, Essie Robeson negotiated and arranged for Paul to star in dual roles in his film debut.
In the five years between Within Our Gates and Body and Soul, Oscar Micheaux somehow wrote and directed ten films with mostly African-American casts. By 1925, the press referred to his movies as “race films,” a term that his distributors encouraged because it drew Black audiences to his movies. By 1925, Micheaux had already adapted the seven novels he’d written before making his first film, but he well knew how many more African-American stories had never been seen onscreen. Micheaux had a plan for a Black Priest and the Pauper, if you will, and when he learned that Eugene O’Neill’s favorite Black actor was the son of a preacher man, he only needed to know if Robeson could risk offending his father. Robeson replied that his dad was dead and Robeson would be proud to play a false prophet. New York State, however, claimed the “immoral” and “sacrilegious” result would “tend to incite to crime” and Micheaux wound up making many cuts before the film’s exhibition. Based on the trenchant testimony that sustains, I would have loved to have seen what New York State saw.
Body and Soul begins by introducing us to Reverend Isaiah Jenkins, “Jerimiah, the Deliverer” – “still posing as a Man of God,” as a newspaper article confirms. A “Negro in business,” Rogers, welcomes Jenkins into a Prohibition-prohibited speakeasy where Jenkins samples and approves of Rogers’ liquor. A cut to two women seems at first like a mistake, but I ask you to put a pin in that moment. Speakeasy proprietor Rogers informs Jenkins that he normally asks for payment, but he’s a Reverend…who pockets a full flask of moonshine and successfully demands payment from Rogers if he doesn’t want to hear about his speakeasy in a sermon soon. As the drunk Jenkins staggers home, we return to the house of the women as mother Martha takes savings money out of a Bible, sits in her chair, and sleeps. Her young adult daughter, Isabelle, awakens at 1:30am to see her mother stressing over a dream, standing, stashing the cash back in the big Bible, stuffing the book in a dresser drawer, and shoving into bed. “Yellow-Curley” Hinds of Atlanta arrives in Tatesville and proceeds to Rogers’ speakeasy, where Rogers charges Hinds to check out Jenkins’ church. On Sunday morning, while preaching from the pulpit, Jenkins spies Hinds in the pews and flashes back on the prison time they shared together. In a private room, Hinds tells Jenkins he isn’t looking for him, but instead for girls for “Cotton Blossom’s Shoulder Shakers” like, say, Isabelle. Jenkins’ dead-ringer look-alike, Sylvester, courts Isabelle, who brings him home to get her mother’s permission for them to marry. Martha refuses permission, casts out Sylvester, and insists that Isabelle should marry Jenkins, whom Isabelle calls a drunkard and a sinner, calumnies that cross-cutting confirm. Amidst photos of Booker T. Washington on the walls, Martha promises Isabelle a fortune if she marries her pastor, but upon her continued refusal, the mother calls the daughter an ungrateful sinner and pushes her down on their bed. With Isabelle gone courting Sylvester, two neighbors come calling in frilly Sunday clothes, Sis Caline and Sis Lucy, who are soon joined by Reverend Jenkins. When Isabelle returns home, Martha offers her daughter to the preacher, who prompts the prissy ladies to leave so that he can save this young woman’s soul. Isabelle refuses Jenkins and opens the door to hug her mother, upon which Jenkins blames her attitude on the devil, his “no-account brother,” and Martha for “letting this child become worldly.” After Martha closes the door on them again, Jenkins literally twists Isabelle’s arm followed by an ominous title card with one word, “Later.” Martha re-enters to see her stiffly standing daughter and smiling Reverend, who saucily sounds off, “It was a great struggle, Sister Martha; but the Lord’s Will be done. He won.” As Martha clutches a shell-shocked Isabelle, Jenkins shouts, “And now as I must carry his work into the byways for other sinners, I’ll be moseying along.” With him gone, Isabelle cries in the arms of Martha, who makes many wrong guesses about what’s bothering her daughter, and title cards bring us inside her thoughts, “something vague, disquieting, bewildering – but of course, it was only the work of the Lord!” Believing Isabelle wants fresh food to cheer her up, Martha goes to the store, buys some, runs into Sis Caline and Sis Lucy, and laughs with them as we cross-cut to a disconsolate Isabelle packing up all her possessions, writing a note, feeling “crushed – body and soul,” leaving home, stumbling around lost, and boarding a train. On the street, Jenkins runs into Yellow-Curley Hinds, who lost money to Rogers and demands some from Jenkins, who refuses only to be threatened with exposure as a faker. At the speakeasy, when Hinds accuses Rogers of rigging all of his games, Rogers grumbles “Mah money, mah liquor” as he pays Jenkins who gives some to Hinds. Martha returns home with Sis Caline and Sis Lucy, aims to show them Isabelle’s dowry, opens the Bible, gets stunned to find it cash-less, and finds the note reading: “Dear Mama, I have taken your money and am running away. Don’t attempt to follow for I shall hide. Please try to forget your heartbroken daughter, Isabelle.” In a very appealing modern Atlanta, Isabelle ambles her suitcase into a very unappealing alley near Decatur Street. Months later, in the same Atlanta neighborhood, Martha spies on a pitiable Isabelle as a stranger takes pity upon her by buying her some street food. Martha follows Isabelle to her small apartment, knocks on her door, opens it, says “Mah baby!”, embraces her daughter, sits down with her, and continues to rebuff any bad beliefs about Jenkins. Isabelle says she never took any money, knew her mother wouldn’t believe her, but “the time has come when you must hear my story.” We flash back to Jenkins driving Isabelle in a horse and buggy through a forest in a fierce rainstorm that stops their buggy, starts the horse to run away, and strands the pair wandering in circles until they find a deserted, multi-room cabin. Inside, Jenkins leaves Isabelle at a fireplace to dry her wet clothes, but after she undresses, he returns with a lustful look and a title card telling us “half an hour later” before he leaves. Back in the present, Isabelle explains that all things considered, Sylvester understood her best, but when Mama refused to let her marry him, that opened the door for more of Jenkins’ assaults. We flash back to an extended version of the arm-twisting scene, with Jenkins contorting Isabelle’s limbs until she finally confesses, and draws from, the stash of the secret savings. Complex extreme close-up cuts between cotton, a kitchen iron, and the cash. Isabelle and Jenkins each accuse the other of stealing the money, but he adds that Martha will never believe her daughter, and so he’ll “be moseying along.” Isabelle makes one last lunge for the lucre, but he knocks her to the floor while boasting Martha won’t believe that either. When he advises her to gather her things for the 4:30 train to Atlanta, she protests she doesn’t have a cent, and so he gives her ten dollars just before Martha returns. Back in the Atlanta apartment, Martha accepts Isabelle’s truth and cares for Isabelle as she lies in bed, lapses into severe illness, and looks…at a divine presence? A title card says “Reverend Jenkins had promised to preach that sermon which is every black preacher’s ambition – ‘Dry Bones – in the Valley.’” In the Tatesville church, the happy townspeople, including Sis Caline and Sis Lucy, gather, tithe, and cheer as Jenkins orates “Dry Bones” so drunkenly and raucously that he repeatedly punches one of his assistants, who touches his bleeding nose and says “Hallelujah!” The church party stops upon the entrance of Martha, who reports having just come from an Atlanta funeral, continuing with a card reading “Yes mah brudders an’ sistahs! Isabelle is dead – and there stands the man who killed her!” The congregants believe Martha and converge on Jenkins with fury, but he manages to escape. That night, as Martha tries to rest at home, a bedraggled Jenkins staggers in her door, begs her for mercy, and pleads, “you coddled me – and you – ruined me!” When they hear a door knock, Jenkins tells Martha that with her prayers she can now save him. Jenkins hides as Sis Caline and Sis Lucy enter, tell Martha a police bloodhound led them here, and somehow fail to convince Martha to reveal him. Jenkins crawls away, hides in the woods, and beats to death an approaching vigilante. In her chair, Martha rests, opens her eyes, and sees Isabelle and Sylvester enter with a title card telling us “All a dream – only the night-mare of a tortured soul!” Isabelle beams, “Oh, mama! Sylvester’s discovery has been accepted, and he is to be paid three thousand dollars, advance royalty, in sixty days!” Martha hugs Isabelle as the kind-hearted Sylvester looks on sheepishly. Martha goes to get Isabelle’s dowry from inside her hidden Bible, sees that it’s where she expected, and faints with happiness into the couple’s arms. In a brief coda, the happy, smartly dressed couple return to Martha’s “Home again after a honeymoon up North.”
Let’s be clear that some films are renowned for the effect they had right away, like The Sheik, and others are here for their larger legacy. Oscar Micheaux’s films were mostly unseen and unknown to studio moguls of the silent era. Only later did they take their place as some of the best films of the period…whether or not critics have placed them on their all-time lists.
Body and Soul is either a scathing critique of church-sanctioned corruption and violence and rape, or, uh…all a fanciful fantasy? Normally, I’m not a big fan of the “it was all a dream” school of filmmaking, but Body and Soul is more complex than that. We saw Martha awaken in her chair in the second-to-last scene, but when exactly did Martha’s dream begin? We first saw Martha sleeping in her chair about 7 ½ minutes into the film, with her daughter nudging her into awakening and gasping “Ah done had a ter’ble dream!” But do you remember me telling you to put a pin in that glimpse of Martha and Isabelle before we knew who they were? In fact, we saw seven minutes of action before Martha sat down in her chair to sleep…suggesting that that action may well have been real. That suggests that Sylvester, or someone looking a lot like him, really did lean on the speakeasy proprietor for corrupt kickbacks. Instead of reading Body and Soul as merely a fever dream about disbelieving one’s daughter’s tale of assault before happily marrying her to a nice young man, I prefer to see that young man as having some of the darker side we so exhaustively saw. After the way Micheaux showed Robeson’s ruthless side for an hour, it’s hard to easily buy him as a sheepish angel.
Influenced by: Micheaux’s remarkable ambition and perspective on many parts of society
Influenced: Robeson became a star and eventually an almost Marcus Garvey-like figure, but this film was mostly only seen by Black people, codifying the “race film”
“Your mother was an Indian. Your father was a white man. He married her after my sister refused him.”
Helen Hunt Jackson’s very popular novel “Ramona,” published in 1884, had already been adapted into two films, the first a short directed by D.W. Griffith in 1910, but Edwin Carewe had several personal reasons to make what came to be considered the canonical Ramona. For one, American audiences had demonstrated their empathy with Native Americans, most recently with the 1925 hit film The Vanishing American, and Carewe felt that within the confines of soapy melodrama, he could create at least one scene that showed the true brutality and violence of white settlers against Natives. Another reason was that Carewe saw certain parallels with Jackson’s story and his and Dolores Del Rio’s actual life. Del Rio was born with mixed ancestry and grew up under wealthy, yet reduced circumstances, much like the novel’s Ramona. When Carewe met Del Rio, she was living with an attractive man and a mother figure, just like the novel’s Ramona, and he was instantly smitten with her, just like Alessandro, the Native American co-lead of the story. (Jaime was 18 years her senior, Edwin all of 21.) In Jackson’s novel, Alessandro waits, then spirits away Ramona, at first to a village, then high up in the California hills where her former friend can’t find her. Carewe spirited Del Rio as far as Hollywood; maybe if he kept making movies with her, he could convince her to leave Jaime and join him in the high hills. Carewe might have even played Alessandro, but UA demanded a star, and found Warner Baxter, a white guy who, in Valentino’s wake, had steadily been playing Latin Lovers, yet wasn’t dark enough for a Hollywood Injun and so realized the role in repulsive redface.
Working with his brother, screenwriter Finis Fox, Carewe wound up mostly removing the novel’s elements of conflict between Mexicans and Americans. The novel justifies Señora Moreno’s anger because the white American invaders have cut up her land; in the movie, she’s an evil Spanish aristocrat with contempt for her brown employees, more like the malicious caballeros in the then-popular Zorro stories. In the novel, despite Alessandro’s native heritage, he is very piously Catholic; although the movie’s Father Salvierderra does marry Alessandro and Ramona, we don’t hear Alessandro say anything Catholic and instead presume Ramona has converted to Temecula. After things go horribly wrong, the film’s Ramona prays to Mother Mary saying “Forgive me!” suggesting she’s sorry she suspended her Catholic faith. You’ll forgive me if I read this as one of several somewhat mixed messages from the movie, to wit:
Ramona’s first narrative title card reads “Early California in the colorful days of the Spanish Dons,” as we cut to mission bells, monks in repose, and miners pickaxing a river. At a massive hacienda, we meet Señora Moreno, “owner of the greatest rancho in all California,” who rules with an “iron hand” over “feudal grandeur.” Staunchly severe Moreno enters the kitchen, strides imperiously amongst the noticeably browner women, and asks one of them, Marda, “Have you seen Ramona and my son?” A pigtailed Ramona cheerfully rides a burro on country grounds as a card tells us of the mystery in her dark eyes and her adoption by Señora Moreno. Don Felipe Moreno begrudgingly holds the mule’s tail as a card tells of his proud Castilian blood. Ramona pulls Felipe onto the mule, sees his happiness, playfully pushes him off the mule, sees his anger, prods the mule, and loses the race as Felipe stops the mule who throws Ramona over his head. Felipe puts her on his back for the walk back to the hacienda, where the two of them mischievously sneak around staunchly sour Señora Moreno, who affectionately kisses her son and sends him to wash up for supper, then criticizes Ramona’s tomboyish outfit, manners, and lack of love for her. Ramona flips the question back, asking why Señora Moreno has never shown even an adoptive mother’s love. When the Señora falls asleep at dinner, Felipe gathers a plate of food, sneaks out of the dining room, sneaks into Ramona’s room, gives her dinner, and shares nose-to-nose affection that might be fraternal…or more. After three years at a Los Angeles Convent, Ramona returns to sneak a flower under the nose of a guitar-strumming Felipe, who embraces her and asks her to dance. Ramona’s energetic courtyard dance inspires Marda and a club of her colegas to clap along, but when staunchly surly Señora Moreno arrives, the workers scatter. Ramona finds the fulsomely Franciscan Friar-ish Father Salvierderra in the woods, kneels, kisses his hand, and gets his blessing. At least a dozen Native Americans ride horses across a river until we meet Alessandro, “the captain of the sheep shearers, son of the last chief of the Temecula Indians.” Alessandro quarters his men, greets Señora Moreno, requests and receives Father Salvierderra’s blessing, salutes Don Felipe like an old friend, stops by the river, spies Ramona doing washing, and is smitten. In cuts of people looking offstage right, we see the entire cast singing “the sunrise hymn,” followed by Ramona asking Felipe to explain the mysterious beautiful voice which he identifies as Alessandro’s. Well before any such thing as Disney princesses, we, and Alessandro, see Ramona’s amorous affinity with animals, including birds that ride on her shoulder. As Alessandro’s men shear the sheep, Alessandro sneaks off to leave a small pot of small flowers on Ramona’s barred window, which she places in her un-pig-tailed hair as she accepts his hand-kiss. Weeks later, Felipe ardently reveals to Ramona that he often thinks of their happy childhood, but “You have grown into a beautiful woman – and I would like to tell you…” She interrupts, “Felipe you know I love you – as a brother.” Ramona meets Alessandro at a thick oak, where he reminds her he’ll be leaving tomorrow, declares his love, hears her gladness, and asks, “Señorita, do you mean that you are mine? That you will marry me?” Staunchly sullen Señora Moreno shows up, demands to know why Ramona is dishonoring her, and hears “Señora, we have done nothing wrong. Alessandro and I are going to be married.” Moreno takes Ramona to her private bedroom, locks the door, pulls out a chest of “precious jewels,” and explains “your father gave it to my sister, Ramona, whose name you bear.” Somewhat like Martha in Body and Soul, Moreno promises the young woman the treasure if she marries a man “who is not beneath you,” but if not, the jewels go to the church. Ramona says she’ll give up everything to marry Alessandro, and Señora Moreno slaps her and threatens to return her to the convent. Kneeling, crying, Ramona asks why she can never know who her mother was, and staunchly saturnine Señora Moreno says, “Your mother was an Indian, your father was a white man. He married her after my sister refused him.” Randomly, Ramona rises, raises her arms, roars, berates Señora Moreno, runs out of the room, and relegates Marda and Felipe with, “have you heard? I am an Indian!” While Alessandro waits at the oak, Ramona wraps up all her stuff in a rug, but can’t walk away because Moreno locks her in her room. Felipe opens it and tells Ramona he’ll sing to distract his mother while she gets away. Ramona replies, “Goodbye, dear Felipe, I will love you always,” and kisses his mouth, causing him to take her in his arms and declare his non-platonic love. When she keeps treating him like a brother, he reluctantly blesses her journey, steps out of her room crying, and tearfully sings to his mother, who compliments his beautiful voice. Ramona successfully sneaks past the Morenos to rendezvous with Alessandro, who departs with her on horseback into a “dark, secluded canyon.” Ramona holds Alessandro, declares herself at home for the first time, speaks (according to him) “in the language of our people – the stars – the flowers…,” lies down, and receives a kiss as the film flashes forward to their wedding, officiated by Father Salvierderra. A title card welcomes us to the couple’s home in a village several years later, where Ramona prepares food, looks over their bountiful farm, and shares affection with her husband and toddler. At the hacienda, Marda laments that Felipe hasn’t been the same since Ramona left and his mother died. At the Temecula village, Alessandro arrives with the awful news that the doctor won’t treat their sick son because they’re Indians. Ramona holds her child in her arms as he dies, prays to a statue of Mary, “Holy mother, forgive me,” and screams to hear Alessandro sawing together a miniature coffin. A card says “Marauders motivated by hatred and greed, descend upon the defenseless Indian village,” and we witness a rather impressively filmed scene of swarthy beardy white guys on horseback overrunning the village and iniquitously liquidating the indigenous, seen in forlorn, blood-soaked close-ups. Holding her Mary statue like a baby, Ramona escapes to a distant hill with Alessandro as they weep to watch the whites burning their home to the ground. A card tells us Felipe failed to find Ramona and Alessandro “in all the Indian villages between San Diego and San Francisco.” Father Salvierderra informs Felipe that since the massacre, no one has heard from them, but we see them in the couple’s high mountain cabin. When an exhausted Alessandro returns riding an unfamiliar horse, Ramona warns that he’ll be accused of stealing, but he assures her he only traded their old horse and sends her to the stream for water. Sure enough, a white on horseback turns up, calls Alessandro a thief, and shoots him dead, Ramona arriving just too late to save him. Ramona goes mostly mental, screaming while pushing through scrub brush that cuts open her face, and lying comatose in an “Indian hut” for ten days. Felipe finds her there with blank open eyes, where another Native American tells him she’s not ill, but has lost her memory. The hacienda help happily hails the homecoming of Ramona until they see she’s awake but catatonic. In the courtyard, with the staff watching, Felipe recalls “every happy incident of their youth,” moments we see in flashback. Ramona flutters, flickers, spins, dances, and falls into her step-brother’s arms, saying “are – are you Felipe?” As he answers affirmatively, he appears more than ready to kiss her lips, but she turns her head and says “Why, why, it is just as though I had never been away.” Instead of Jackson’s ending of marrying Felipe, Ramona perhaps more realistically keeps him in the friend zone.
Despite the soapy aspects, Ramona sustains as perhaps the best surviving silent feature directed by a Native American, and as a relatively nuanced look at indigenous-slash-Mexican-slash-white relationships. The white slaughter of the Temecula village is almost better for being less motivated than it is in the book; the imagery remains fierce and uncompromising for any era, especially considering we well-nigh witness the white-caused deaths of two indigenous infants. Also, Ramona was one of a few movies to make Dolores Del Rio into a star, but it was arguably her signature role, an impression abetted by a certain bit of music.
In March 1928, two months before Ramona was to be released, Dolores Del Rio appeared on a radio show along with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, John Barrymore, and other stars to show they could still star in the sudden new era of sound cinema. Del Rio’s accent was as thick as that of anyone who’d been speaking English as a second language for less than three years, but on the show she wowed listeners by beautifully singing a new song written for the film called “Ramona.” A few days later, Del Rio recorded two studio versions, one in English and one in Spanish, that were used in radio promotions and on a Vitaphone record soundtrack, but neither in the film itself. Accounts differ: some say that United Artists shoehorned part of her recording some versions of the film, but those is lost; others say UA didn’t have time to slip anything in; still others say Carewe looked for an artistic way to use the song but couldn’t find the right spot or perhaps…didn’t want to?
If Edwin Carewe was hoping truth would emulate fiction, he may not have been happy with the results. I told you that indigenous sophisticate Carewe saw similarities in the Helen Hunt Jackson’s story of the indigenous sophisticate Alessandro who came along to sweep this poor little Mexican rich girl off her feet. However, Dolores may have seen Jaime as her Alessandro and Edwin as her Felipe. In mid-1928, Dolores divorced Jaime, killing their relationship as surely as the film’s redneck killed Alessandro. I mentioned the altered ending’s relative friend-zone realism, and Dolores Del Rio arguably emulated that realism with the press after her next film under contract with Carewe and United Artists, Evangeline, when she told reporters, “Mr. Carewe and I are just friends and companions in the art of the cinema. I will not marry Mr. Carewe.” Del Rio didn’t need to add that she was contradicting many rumors that Carewe had planted in the press, but with her under contract, Carewe threatened to make her onscreen life hell, much as he had planned to make his then-current wife’s life hell. Del Rio fought back, canceled her contract, received his lawsuit, and they settled out of court. Carewe’s ramped-up revenge was remake a 1927 hit of Del Rio’s, the Russian-set Resurrection, as a film starring Hollywood’s second-biggest Mexican star, Lupe Velez. The 1931 film did mediocre business, and Carewe directed one more film, ever, in 1934. It’s hard to avoid the impression that Edwin Carewe threw away his career out of frustration for his unrequited love of Dolores Del Rio.
Influenced by: Two previous versions, one directed by D.W. Griffith (!), both of which Carewe improved upon with more authentic indigenous culture; this was UA’s first film with synchronized sound and music, but not dialogue, marking this as a transitional silent
Influenced: suffered from timing, because by 1928 everyone wanted dialogue, but Del Rio proved her chops, partly by singing the theme song, and soon became Hollywood’s biggest Latina star of the 20th century (until Jennifer Lopez)
“Seems like you made it mighty late to get ’round here to be married. The damage is all done!”
By the standards of the 1920s, King Vidor was another ally who also happened to be one of the most powerful and successful directors of the 20s. Vidor said, “For several years, I had nurtured a secret hope. I wanted to make a film about Negroes, using only Negroes in the cast. The sincerity and fervor of their religious expression intrigued me, as did the honest simplicity of their sexual drives.” Despite Vidor’s tremendous track record, MGM resisted until Vidor promised to invest his own salary, dollar for dollar, with that of the studio, whose then-head of production, Nicholas Schenck, reported told Vidor, “If that’s the way you feel about it, I’ll let you make a picture about whores.” It’s not clear if he meant that hypothetically.
Donald Bogle recounts how the Black press, uh, pressed MGM into making crucial hires behind the scenes for Hallelujah. Vidor sought realism by moving parts of production to Tennessee and Arkansas – the distance from L.A. to the Deep South by far the furthest an all-black cast had traveled to make any kind of film – and there they consulted black leaders on “everything from river baptismal services to revival meetings.” The real Curtis Mosby performed while the real Eva Jessye supervised choral sequences, including one that needed 340 black extras who all had to know how to sing. Bogle writes, “That Sunday morning, black church choir benches in the city were said to be practically empty.” Bogle goes on that “though sequences of black crapshooters and rowdy cabaret folks were familiar images, nonetheless the film sometimes attained a highly moving cultural authenticity.”
Hallelujah begins with the MGM lion, but instead of hearing his roar, we hear a mashup of tribal drums and choral vocals taking us through bits of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” “Hallelujah,” “Let My People Go,” and “Way Down Upon the Swanee River.” In a cotton field, we meet Zeke happily teasing kids and a woman he calls Mammy as they finish for the day and haul in the cotton singing “Cotton, Cotton.” After the sharecroppers finish their picnic-table dinner that evening, Zeke’s brother Spunk plays banjo while some of the boys tap dance. When one Missy Rose plays an indoor piano for the group, Zeke sneaks in and seeks to sneak a kiss that Missy clearly does not want, and Zeke seeks forgiveness by speaking, “it looks like the devil’s in me here tonight.” In glimpses, we see life on this rural plantation consisting of women hustling after children who say good night in a large room full of single beds. Hearing passing troubadours, Zeke sings “At the End of the Road,” a chorus stops and joins in, and Spunk uses machines to lathe the cottons into bales. We hear another song about what we’re watching, cotton bales getting rolled into a paddle steamer riverboat, as we wander to the payment office, where Zeke collects his plantation’s full cash payment. A nearby woman, Chick, dances high-step jigs in the middle of an appreciative crowd that comes to include Zeke, who tries to pull Chick aside, hears her throw shade that he’s poor, and flashes his money wad. In a surprisingly legit juke joint/dance hall, Chick performs a spunky, spirited “Swanee Shuffle” then settles in to a slow dance with Zeke, who hears Chick tell of how lucky her last beau got with a sucker named Hot Shot whom she just happens to spy. After Hot Shot insults Zeke as a buck-and-a-half cotton-picker, Chick successfully persuades Zeke to shoot dice with Hot Shot…and lose all $100 of the cash he was holding. When Zeke demands to see Hot Shot’s dice, Hot Shot insults him, Zeke pulls a knife, Hot Shot pulls a gun, Zeke fights him for the gun, and Hot Shot just happens to shoot Spunk who just happens to walk in the door. As Zeke holds his dying brother in his arms, we see Hot Shot and Chick hiding in a nearby room arguing over percentages of the take. When Zeke brings home Spunk’s corpse, he prompts all the plantation people to chant, cantillate, cry, and croon, until Zeke’s “pappy” staggers outside, points out the parting of clouds, and inspires Zeke to sing with open outstretched arms of the coming of the Lord. The rest of the plantation joins Pappy on his knees as Zeke gestures heavenward, hails Hallelujah, and segues into a reverent “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” A title card says “And Zekiel became a Preacher,” and a berobed, redubbed Zekiel rides a donkey in an elaborate town parade attended by a poshly dressed Chick and Hot Shot, who push through the paradegoers to heckle Zekiel until Mammy, riding along near Zekiel, says “ah shut up, you yellow hussy…all you want is to get after my boy!” Zekiel stops his donkey, wags his finger at Hot Shot, claims to be an instrument of the Lord, assaults Hot Shot and Chick, and gets back on his donkey. At an outdoor revival meeting, on a raised wooden stage, Zekiel offers some of that old time religion, calling the people “friendly and kind,” on their way to the next station of faith, where they’ll “surely” avoid the devil. Chick joins the crowd to fire off libels and taunts, but most of the crowd ignores her in their elation at the sermon, and by the time Zekiel revives the song “At the end of the road,” Chick is crying to be saved as well. At least 200 believers gather for a river baptism, where their splendid singing is, uh, swamped by wailing from Chick, who gets baptized in the water, falls into Zeke’s arms, cries that she’s sanctified, and tempts Zeke into carrying her into a tent before Zeke rebukes himself better. Back at home with Pappy and Mammy, Zeke asks Missy Rose to help him drive out the devil by marrying him, to which she accepts through tears of…ambivalence. Elsewhere, Chick sings hallelujah to a cracked mirror until Hot Shot turns up, guffaws at her falling for that fake preacher, sees she means it, and grabs her, prompting her to beat him with a poker. Chick sees a second sermon where Zekiel sanctifies, purifies, and saves the sinners with word and song, but Missy Rose and Mammy aren’t happy to see him mesmerized by Chick to the point of following her outside as though ensorcelled. Missy runs into the woods for him, fails to find him, and returns to the enraptured and supportive congregation. Months later, Zeke works at a log mill, walks home, and notices a buggy outside his new shack, as we cut inside the shack to see Chick hold a kiss on Hot Shot, hear Zeke approach, and hustle Hot Shot out the backdoor. When Zeke enters with accusations, Chick takes him outside to show him no buggy, then inside to speak tenderly to him, sit in his lap at the kitchen table, caress him, and assuage his doubts until she’s sure he’s asleep. Chick tiptoes into the bedroom, packs a suitcase, and sneaks out the window, but the suspicious Zeke lifts his head and dashes into the bedroom to see her gone, whereupon he seizes a rifle, jumps out the window, sees her jumping into the buggy with Hot Shot, and fires upon them. Hot Shot and Chick seem to escape, but their speeding buggy hits a rough patch of mud and loses a wheel and Chick, who Zeke catches up with in a mud puddle begging for forgiveness and salvation before she dies. Without a rifle, Zeke chases Hot Shot through a tree-lined swamp, finally catches him, and maybe kills him. We next see Zeke breaking rocks on a chain gang until the title card “Probation,” leading to Zeke strumming a guitar singing “coming home” on a cotton bale on the river and on top of a train. Zeke hides behind a tree and surprises his family, who welcome him back with open arms and Missy Rose’s kisses and promises of chitlins and an invitation to help with the picking. Sharecroppers lug bales of cotton to the plantation over music as the film ends.
Hallelujah has accounted for many academic arguments. For every person who lauds its “freshness and truth” that wouldn’t be seen for 30 more years, another person calls it paternalistic, promoting of stereotypes, and, uh, pretty racist. Pioneering African-American scholar Donald Bogle sent his own mixed messages, praising its cultural authenticity in one book, reviling Chick as the uber-tragic mulatta in another book.
Warner Bros. now owns the film and puts a disclaimer on it that says it: “may reflect some of the prejudices that were common in American society, especially when it came to the treatment of racial and ethnic minorities. These depictions were wrong then and they are wrong today. These films are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed. While the following certainly does not represent Warner Bros.’ opinion in today’s society, these images certainly do accurately reflect a part of our history that cannot and should not be ignored.”
Film critic Kristin Thompson objects to that warning because it basically labels the film as racist, and for her, “Warner Bros. demeans the work of the filmmakers, including the African-American ones. The actors seem to have been proud of their accomplishment, as well they should be.”
When Melvin Van Peebles died in September 2021, his son Mario, also an accomplished filmmaker, said, “Dad knew that black images matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth? We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. “ I think Hallelujah sometimes shows this, although it’s not consistent. So it’s essential without being sufficient. It at least moved the conversation forward – if this, why not that?
As it turned out, Hearts in Dixie and Hallelujah both did reasonable but not boffo business, their Northern receipts not quite making up for the absence of Southern ones. Hollywood would not attempt another all-black film for…wait for it…wait for it, Black people certainly did…seven years. Of course, Black people were in films, from Stepin Fetchit vehicles to Imitation of Life, which we’ll discuss in a few minutes. But Hearts in Dixie and Hallelujah established the pattern: a white producer would feel strongly about the relative novelty of exploiting black music as part of an all-black cast, a studio would agree but cut corners, the resulting film wouldn’t smash box office records, and white Hollywood would shake its head and use the film as a cautionary tale for any future all-black-cast projects. After 1929, the same thing would happen in 1943, with Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, and then again in the 50s with Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess, and then in the 70s with The Wiz, and, yes, in 2006 with Dreamgirls.
Influenced by: jazz, Stephen Foster, Vidor’s interest in “negro spirituals,” prevailing racism
Influenced: mainstreaming of both African-American culture and stereotypes, but because it and Hearts of Dixie (also 1929) bombed, 14 years passed until another major studio film with an all-black cast
“We accept her, we accept you, gooba-gabba, one of us, one of us.”
MGM bought the rights to Tod Robbins’ story “Spurs” back in the silent era, but was spurred to make it by director Tod Browning after the success of Dracula, which spurred Universal to re-orient toward the horror of characters like Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, the Mummy, and maybe a werewolf or phantom or hunchback or whatever Universal might have available. In that context, the idea of a single film about unusually formed circus sideshow performers looked like the more mature take on a trend, exactly the kind of film MGM’s then-director of production Irving Thalberg preferred to make. By then, MGM was trying to become classier, and no longer had Nicholas Schenck vocally approving of pictures about whores, although that didn’t stop the adaptation of Spurs from centralizing a gold-digging woman.
Thalberg was the named producer on Freaks who by all accounts closely collaborated with Browning on every aspect of pre-production, from set design to planning the 24-day shooting schedule to casting. At first, Thalberg wanted to cast stars as the full-size humans, but Thalberg came to agree with Browning that stars would overshadow the film’s real stars, who were the so-called Freaks. That said, Thalberg didn’t trust the foreign accents of the contract players he did cast, and was worried that MGM’s pre-existing carnival set would look too American, so he moved Robbins’ story from France to the U.S. Thalberg also wound up moving some of the principal actors from the MGM commissary to a special tent for their meals, because some MGM stars were disgusted by having to eat next to the sideshow attractions. They had something in common with test audiences from January 1932, who supposedly ran out, became ill, fainted, and/or threatened MGM with lawsuits. Louis B. Mayer was ready and willing to destroy the negatives, but Thalberg fought his boss and supervised an edit that severed 30 minutes of Browning’s 90-minute cut, ironically truncating Freaks into the sort of two-thirds-stature creature that the film was celebrating. (To make sure it ran at least an hour so as to play at proper venues, they had to add the carnival barker frame story and the epilogue.) As was then custom, the removed footage was destroyed.
Freaks begins with a title card that an unseen hand rips off the screen, cutting to an umbrella-closing by a host telling a small crowd, “we didn’t lie to you folks, we told you we had living, breathing monstrosities. You laughed at them, shuddered at them. And yet but for the accident of birth, you might be even as they are. They did not ask to be brought into the world, but into the world they came. Their code is a law unto themselves, and you offend them all.” The host ushers the crowd to view something unctuous but unseen to us, apparently an individual in an open crate that’s set up for viewing like a coffin. The host reports this person was once presented as The Peacock of the Air as the film flashes back to a trapeze artist, Cleopatra, that Hans calls the “most beautiful big woman I have ever seen.” We meet Hans and his fiancée Frieda, who are both little persons, as she questions his loyalties and he reaffirms them. During a costume change, Cleopatra condescends to Hans’s moony eyes as Frieda watches with cagey eyes. In a pastoral glade, one man complains to another that such people are supposed to be smothered at birth, and we meet them dancing in a ring, making clear their physical abnormalities, from microcephaly to missing legs. When the angry man accuses them of trespassing, a full-bodied woman introduces herself as Madame Tetrallini and her charges, whom she hugs, as “children” that God looks after. Back at the circus, two full-bodied male trapeze artists make fun of Josephine Joseph, half-woman half-man, laughing, “Don’t get her sore, or he’ll bust you in the nose.” Cleopatra thanks Hans for the flowers and asks for another thousand francs, which he says he’ll bring “with pleasure” to her wagon that night. Venus breaks up with Hercules, moves out on him, and rants at clown Phroso, who pep-talks her and cheerfully greets conjoined twins Daisy and Violet, one of whom is readying to marry stuttering comedian Roscoe, who acts as though he can be with one without the other. Hercules enters the wagon of Cleopatra, hits on her, kisses her, spies Josephine Joseph spying, and comes out and collars Josephine to Cleopatra’s cackles. Frieda warns Hans not to smoke so much, and a barely-listening Hans says no woman tells him what not to do. Hercules and Cleopatra enjoy the fruits of Hans’s fruit basket, but when Hans knocks on the wagon, she shushes the shady Hercules, lies to Hans that she’s in the bath, gets him to agree to come back later, and in a hush, howls with Hercules at Hans’ expense. Venus tells Frieda she need not worry because Hans doesn’t love Cleopatra, but Frieda admits Cleopatra’s persistent, over-flattering demands for gifts have her worried. In the big tent, when Hercules and the two male trapezers play cards and make jokes about midgets, Hans objects and Cleopatra asks him for a back rub, which he delivers as she and the big men share scornful snobbish stares. Phroso rehearses his missing-head clown act with Venus while telling her about his dream of the two of them, but Half-Boy and Koo-Koo the Bird Girl interrupt because the bearded woman is giving birth. We don’t see the baby, but Phroso congratulates the mom on a girl who will have a beard while the baby’s father, the Human Skeleton, passes out cigars to the sarcastic snobs at the big top. In two separate scenes, two different women use feet as hands in a quotidian manner. Roscoe speaks with the Human Torso, a Black man with no arms and no legs, as he uses his mouth to light himself a cigarette. Venus looks on with admiration as Phroso kindly compliments three women with microcephaly. A swarthy man, Mr. Rogers, hits on Violet and eventually kisses her, a sensation we see the conjoined Daisy feeling. Daisy introduces her fiancée, Roscoe, to Violet’s fiancée, Mr. Rogers, as each man invites the other to come see them sometime. In an emotional private scene, Frieda warns Hans he won’t be happy with Cleopatra, but he assures her otherwise even as he asks for, and receives, her forgiveness. While Hercules and Cleopatra are laughing at Hans but not his latest bracelet, a knock prompts Hercules to hide as Frieda enters, remonstrates Cleopatra, warns her not to marry Hans, but lets slip about Hans’ inherited fortune. After she leaves, Cleopatra schemes with a chuckling Hercules, “Yes, he would marry me. Midgets are not strong. He could get sick. It could be done. I know it.” A title card says “The Wedding Feast,” cutting to a large table under the big top where one man swallows a sword, another fire. Cleopatra pushes a drink into Hans, laughs, calls herself lucky, calls Hans a “little green-eyed monster,” and kisses Hercules for way too long. Dwarf Angeleno, standing on the table, suggests a loving cup as Josephina Joseph begins a rousing, thumping chant of “we accept her, one of us, we accept her, one of us, gooba-gobble.” Angeleno walks around the table with a bowl-sized goblet of festive drink that most of the guests are happy to swig from, but when he hands it to Cleopatra, she stands, stares at the chanting crowd, and shrieks at them “Dirty, slimy, freaks, freaks!” She splashes Angeleno with the drink, orders them to get out of there, and says, while watching them go, “Make me one of you, will you!” When Hans says he’s ashamed of her, she calls him more baby than man, asks what kind of things they can possibly do together, and takes him on a “horseyback ride.” Later that night, Hercules and Cleopatra apologize and pretend they were joking to Hans, who answers yes, we’ll laugh in divorce court at Hans the fool, ha ha…and collapses. The so-called freaks watch from the wings as Cleopatra says “I know what I’m doing” and takes him to a doctor who blames ptomaine poisoning and credits Cleopatra’s mustard water for saving his life. When a less credulous Venus demands Hercules reveal the wine formula to the doctor or she’ll tell “the coppers,” Hercules accuses her of betraying her own people, and Venus answers, “My people are decent circus folk, not dirty rats what would kill a freak to get his money.” After a week, a convalescent, reconciliatory Hans thanks Cleo, who carefully prepares his medicine, spoon-feeds it to him, and steps out of the room, whereupon he spits it out. When he tells her “I’ll never forget what you are doing for me, Cleo,” she replies, “But it is what I want to do, my darling,” not realizing his subtext or that he knows hers. Cleo departs while noticing several of the so-called freaks spying on her, but not Angeleno, who confirms with a broadly grinning Hans that tonight is the night. As rain thunders down, as horses bear the train of circus wagons, Cleo tells Hans’ friends to leave their wagon, but they brandish weapons at her – Half-Boy points a gun – until she surrenders her little black bottle of poison to Hans. Worried about Venus, Hercules smashes into her wagon, Phroso battles him hand-to-hand, the horse train collapses, and Hercules strangles Phroso until a little person throws a knife in his chest. In one of cinema’s more evocative minutes, a supine Hercules slithers and squirms under the stopped wagons as the weapon-bearing, ahem, freaks slowly close in on him…and, nearby, Cleopatra, whose scream sends us back to the frame story. At the display box, the host tells the carnival patrons “how she got that way will never be known” although “the code of the freaks” is a possibility. Finally, we see Cleopatra squawking as her head is somehow on a duck’s body, with her human arms stretching to duck’s feet. In a coda that not all audiences saw, a sad, mansion-bound Hans receives a spiffily attired Phroso and Venus and Frieda, who tells Hans nothing was his fault and, as the other two go, Frieda hugs Hans and says “I love you.”
I tend to side with the scholars who say that Freaks forces us to rethink how we think of horror. It’s all in the brilliant title: who are the freaks, is it the sideshow performers, or the contemptuous full-sized people who judge them, or maybe…us? I quote Eugenie Brinkema: “Freaks is a horror film because the gaze itself is horrific, because locating the gaze is a work in terror.”
Andrew Sarris calls it “one of the most compassionate films ever made” and Ed Gonzalez praises “the film’s blistering humanity and the audacious aesthetic and philosophical lengths to which Browning goes to challenge the way we define beauty and abnormality.” Still, what survives as the final ten minutes certainly shows…something freaky? I’m rooting for the sideshow performers all the way, but I wonder if Cleopatra and Hercules have somehow caused them to lose some of their humanity? Maybe not.
At risk of bias toward the full-sized, I would have loved to have seen the full-sized movie. Some parts feel incoherent; for example, we are meant to believe in dramatic naturalism but also that men could date conjoined twins while believing they could get one alone. I’m fascinated at the notion of a circus movie without a circus, without a single shot of circusgoers seeing a trapeze artist in motion or a clown car or a lion being tamed or what have you. Would such shots have then required us to have seen the “Freaks” in their sideshow boxes and cages? It’s not clear Browning ever filmed any of the characters, full-sized or otherwise, doing their jobs, and so scholars understand the missing circus activity as a structuring absence. Probably it’s part of the film’s radical humanism: it only has the running time of this one film to show us the neglected aspects of these 15 or so “Freaks,” so no need to waste any of it on the aspects viewers already know. (Even during the one clown rehearsal, Phroso pretends to lose his head, thematically demonstrating his allyship with characters like The Living Torso.)
Here are some of the ableist reviews: In The Kansas City Star, John C. Moffitt wrote, “There is no excuse for this picture. It took a weak mind to produce it and it takes a strong stomach to look at it.” The Hollywood Reporter called the film an “outrageous onslaught upon the feelings, the senses, the brains and the stomachs of an audience”
“Not even the most morbidly inclined could possibly find this picture to their liking. Saying it is horrible is putting it mildly. It is revolting to the extent of turning one’s stomach…Anyone who considers this [to be] entertainment should be placed in the pathological ward in some hospital.” — Harrison’s Reports, 16 July 1932
MGM first reacted to reviews like these with a press notice that said
What about the Siamese twins—have they no right to love? The pin-heads, the half-man, half-woman, the dwarfs! They have the same passions, joys, sorrows, laughter as normal human beings. Is such a subject untouchable?
Yet after more complaints from critics and distributors, Louis B. Mayer ordered Freaks pulled from release, making it MGM’s first film to fail to complete its prearranged engagements.
Tod Browning did direct four more films, but the financial failure of Freaks is blamed for him losing his independence and interest in moviemaking. Browning died in 1962, possibly too drunk to have noticed that Freaks had recently undergone a European revival that translated to the film being revived on American campuses and repertory theaters, becoming one of the first so-called “cult classics.” Speaking of so-called, I also believe that part of the legacy of Freaks is the re-orientation of that word into a badge of honor.
Influenced by: almost nothing; described as belonging to a subgenre of one
Influenced: reviewers were disgusted, but later artists loved it, e.g. the Ramones, Bertolucci, Scorsese, ‘The Simpsons,’ ‘South Park,’ Ryan Murphy
“Why don’t you come up some time and see me?”
Mary Jane West was born in 1893 in Brooklyn and broke into Broadway at a young age, singled out at the age of 18 by the New York Times as “a girl named Mae West, hitherto unknown, pleased by her grotesquerie and snappy way of singing and dancing.” Yet the show closed after a week. West had various supporting theatrical roles for the next 15 years, and finally decided to write the sort of risqué, ribald, radical-ish roles she wanted to play. Like Lois Weber, West well understood the value of press controversy, as demonstrated with her play Sex, starring herself, which in 1927 caused the police to raid the theater, arrest the cast, and charge her with “corrupting the morals of youth.” West might have paid the fine, but instead did the time, telling reporters she dined with the warden and rejected the burlap sack uniform in favor of wearing panties. West’s next play, The Drag, looked sympathetically at homosexuality, and criticized police beating men for being gay, but despite West’s best efforts, the vice squad’s best efforts prevented the play from opening. Her next play, Diamond Lil, about a vivacious victorious vamp of the 1890s played by herself, was a boffo Broadway blockbuster in 1928. West wrote three more plays over the next three years, some bigger than others. In June 1932, needing money, West went west to Hollywood, arriving there for the first time at age 39, something almost no other major female movie star has done before or since, although West hid her true age during her golden age. On that front, Paramount Pictures was her ally, considering they had hired her out of Depression-caused desperation while the studio was facing bankruptcy.
In 1932, the Hays Office pre-emptively reproved Paramount per any poster or title that reminded the public of the notorious play Diamond Lil, so West simply changed her character’s name to Lou and the name of the movie to She Done Him Wrong. Although Lowell Sherman is the named director of the film, and Sherman had an interesting career in his own right, no one should think him the auteur of She Done Him Wrong; West wrote it, honed it over hundreds of performances, chose which parts to cut, and chose which lines the censors would probably cut so she could keep the subtler lines she really liked. The card after the big title card that says “She Done Him Wrong” begins “by Mae West,” and that’s correct. If any novice film student reads about Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd and their other comedian-creator contemporaries and wonders, when was the first female version?, Mae West is it. West always insisted she discovered Cary Grant by seeing him walking around the Paramount lot and telling Sherman, “If he can talk, I’ll take him!” West’s story doesn’t include the fact that Grant was on the lot because he had already been discovered by Joseph Von Sternberg to play opposite Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus. More credibly, following her stage work, West always insisted on at least one African-American performer in the cast, and that’s how Louise Beavers was enlisted to play Pearl, Lou’s servant.
She Done Him Wrong starts with a card saying The Gay Nineties was “a lusty, brawling, florid decade,” and a Streetcar Named Bowery brings us into bawdy, libidinous street life. At Gus Jordan’s saloon, men nudge each other over a new nudie painting while a greedy glutton gorges on grub from the free buffet. One Dan Flynn confides in a second man that he can prove the crimes of one Gus Jordan, whom we meet across the bar accusing one Mister Cummings of acclimating his mission next door at the expense of Jordan’s saloon. Flynn needles Jordan about how popular Lady Lou has become, about his jealousy, and about what he might do if someone tried to take her away from him. In a private room, Gus rendezvous with the Russian Rita and Serge and swears them to secrecy, although we’re not sure what about. A well-heeled horse and buggy delivers the legendary Lady Lou, at whom rich woman sneer, rich men genuflect, and a lady beggar compliments as a fine woman, prompting Lou’s first line, “one of the finest women to ever walk the streets.” When Serge links up with Lou with a long hand kiss and lauds that he’s heard so much about her, Lou claims, “Yeah, but you can’t prove it.” Lou cracks many other quips, caprices, and coquettish comments on her way upstairs to her boudoir, where a very mammy-ish Pearl waits on and laughs with Lou. After a patron, Sally, attempts suicide, Lou has her brought to her boudoir, where Lou tells Sally that the guy is alive, prompting Sally to ask how she knew there was a guy and Lou to reply, “There always is. You know it takes two to get one in trouble.” After Sally mentions she didn’t make out he was married, Lou mutters, “Married or single, it’s their game. I happen to be smart enough to play it their way.” Lou gets Pearl to dress Sally in finery while Lou reassures Sally that when women go wrong, men come right after them. Gus and Rita sit on either side of glammed-up Sally who doesn’t want her parents to know where she is, so Rita suggests she study how to sing, dance, and move to the Barbary Coast. A big tough palooka called Spider Kane warns Lou that things may go badly if she doesn’t visit her ex, Chick Clark, in prison. A spendthrift stumbles into the saloon seeking sanctuary, so Cummings hides him and tells an approaching Officer Doheney he hasn’t seen him, a fiction that Lou corroborates as Jordan ousts the officer. Cummings and Lou trade japes until she supplicates, “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?” Entering the upstate prison with Spider, Lou gives familiar ribs to each of the occupants of six separate cells before she enters the seventh, home of Chick, who warns Lou he has ways of finding out and getting out. Lou says she’s only been singing at Gus Jordan’s, but Chick directs her not to double-cross him during his scheduled remaining year of prison time. As Lou leaves, she lets Spider know Chick’s concern about Dan Flynn, and Spider replies Flynn landed Chick in prison. Back in her boudoir, Lou meets with one Ike Jacobson to propose she buy his blessed building next door, something he refuses until he sees the necklace she offers. After a company of chorus girls creates anticipation, Lady Lou comes on stage and croons “I wonder where my Easy Rider’s gone” to tumultuous applause. Back at the boudoir, Dan Flynn warns Lou that Gus Jordan is in legal jeopardy for what he did to women like Sally, but he, Dan, could let Lou off if she’ll let him love her but she lets him down. Next, Cummings declares Lou’s diamonds to be devoid of soul, mentions Sally’s mother is at his mission, and accuses Lou of knowing where Sally resides, but Lou denies this and tries and fails to redirect Cummings to her. During someone else’s number, Chick sneaks into the boudoir, says he “had to croak a guard to get out,” demands Lou come with him, reacts to her refusal by really strangling her, stops himself, and for the first time in the film someone successfully kisses Lou…but when Serge’s knock interrupts, Lou chases him off by promising to meet him at another club later. In the saloon’s main room, Sally’s mother fingers Rita, freaks out, and finds herself flustered by security as Dan Flynn tells a refusing, refuting Rita where he saw Serge going. Serge enters Lou’s room, attempts to seduce Lou, offers diamonds, and says “I shall die to make you happy,” prompting Lou to answer, “But you wouldn’t be much use to me dead.” Rita enters with the fury of a lover so jealous that even after Lou dismisses an unrepentant Serge, Rita pulls out a knife to stab Lou, yet in the scuffle, Lou accidentally kills Rita. While Lou onstage performs “A guy what takes his time,” in the District Attorney’s office, Sally and her mother testify against Serge, Rita, and Gus, as the camera dolly-pans out to reveal that Cummings is more than he appeared to be. Lou and Gus trade admirations as Lou quotes Cummings on soullessness, leading Gus to laugh that she located a lad she can’t land. After Gus leaves, Spider’s declarations of love for Lou imply he let Rita have it. While Lou is trilling “Frankie and Johnny,” Chick is sneaking back into the boudoir and cops are descending on the saloon, including Cummings, who speechifies while arresting Lou, more stealthily shoots Chick as Chick threatens Rita, and brags Lou will “be well taken care of.” Instead of the regular paddy wagon, Cummings places Lou into a private buggy with him, where he discusses her prison term, names himself as her long-term jailer, places a diamond ring on her finger, and says “you bad girl.” Lou cants “You’ll find out” as the film cuts from their carriage canoodling to the card saying The End.
The idea of Mae West often trumps the reality of watching her films.
If her persona’s materialism cautions us against too much admiration nowadays, consider the context. The shock of the stock market collapse, the 20% unemployment, the blocks-long queues for bread and job applications…this removed a lot of the stigma about getting what you could when you could, particularly for women. If in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, well, in a land decimated by desperation, Mae West represented something like the new American Dream.
How different was West from what America was already used to? In January 1933, days before She Done Him Wrongcame out, Motion Picture Herald named, as America’s top star, Marie Dressler, who was then 64 and enjoying a second career peak as a somewhat Melissa McCarthy-ish bawdy comedienne, but not a sex symbol or envelope-pusher. Greta Garbo, as Queen Christina onscreen and a queen of the press and rumored lesbian offscreen, and Marlene Dietrich, as the gender-fluid icon I described when discussing Morocco on the B-list, were powerful and transgressive sex symbols but also European. Mae West was all-Yankee, all-naughty, all-racy, all-raunchy, yet also sexy, at least according to West, no matter how non-tall, non-skinny, non-ingenue-aged she might be. F. Scott Fitzgerald called West “The only Hollywood actress with both an ironic edge and a comic spark.”
Everyone wanted to be in on that comic spark, or just in. She Done Him Wrong was released in January 1933, and America welcomed both Roosevelt’s New Deal and West’s Lewd Deal with open arms. She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel turned Cary Grant into a star and turned around Paramount Pictures, rescuing the company from Chapter 11 bankruptcy and beginning a legacy now symbolized by the Mae West Building standing today inside the only studio in geographical Hollywood. She Done Him Wrong earned a Best Picture nomination in 1934, and a year later, Mae West officially became America’s highest-paid woman. In 1934, West found herself saluted by artists as varied as Frida Kahlo, in her painting “My Dress Hangs There,” and Cole Porter, whose list in “You’re the Top” included “Mae West’s shoulder.”
Mae West was so powerful that Hollywood had to make a new Motion Picture Production Code to stop her, which is only a slight exaggeration. With the battle over Prohibition lost, America’s religious and moralist crusaders turned their attention to a more winnable battle, shaming and punishing Hollywood’s moguls, who as Jews always worried about being branded anti-Christian. Mae West and the gangster cycle that included Little Caesar and Scarface demonstrated the problem with simply praying studios would punish onscreen depravity without more of a proactive enforcement mechanism. On June 13, 1934, the Hays Office announced that as of July 1, 1934, every studio film would be required to bear a seal of approval from the new Production Code Administration. The PCA was not created or enforced by any government; the studios chose self-regulation over government regulation. Gore Vidal, who had to hide his queerness from the censors, memorably called the Code “a Jewish owned business selling Catholic theology to Protestant America.”
At first, Mae West could afford to joke that she created the PCA as surely as she’d created Cary Grant; eventually, the jokes wore a lot thinner, off screen and on. West’s films were too watered down to be winning anymore, and when she rallied toward ribaldry, no studio rushed to distribute her racier rawness. West continued to perform in films for decades, but the Code criminally curtailed the career of America’s first off-color comedienne-sex symbol-writer-star. Mae West walked (in trick-platform heels for height) so that Madonna and Roseanne and others could run.
Influenced by: character comedy like that of W.C. Fields; West’s Broadway career, which was pro-feminist and pro-LGBTQ
Influenced: Hays Code enforcement; helped make Cary Grant a star; generations of funny and brassy women
“Go amongst your own. Quit battlin’! Your little head’s sore now from buttin’ against stone walls. Open up and say, ‘Lord, I bows my head.’ He made you black, honey. Don’t be tellin’ Him His business. Accept it, honey. Do that for your mammy, your mother, dear.”
Producer Carl Laemmle Jr. and director John Stahl hoped to slip Imitation of Life under the wire before the Code could try to control the role of Peola or its actress. However, Joseph Breen’s office had no intention of letting Universal off that easy. Peola’s very existence implied miscegenation, or as Breen’s note put it, “Hurst’s novel dealing with a partly colored girl who wants to pass as white violates the clause covering miscegenation in spirit, if not in fact!” With his left hand, Stahl kept, uh, stalling Breen, but with his right, Stahl and Laemmle began principal photography on Imitation of Life on June 27, four days before the PCA would become industry law. They knew their film’s poster would be the first dedicated to Claudette Colbert after her star-making turn in It Happened One Night, a film that had been doing boffo box office since its February 1934 opening and would likely win Best Picture (which it did).
Frankly, Laemmle was sparing no expense; he got Louise Beavers (Delilah) and Rochelle Hudson (as teenage Jessie) on loan from Paramount after their smaller roles as Pearl and Sally in She Done Him Wrong. And yet by July 17, Breen still hadn’t approved the script, and threatened to make Imitation of Life the first test case of a studio film without Code approval. Ultimately, Stahl and Laemmle removed several of the novel’s elements. Laemmle entirely eliminated a scene of a Black man being nearly lynched for approaching a licentious white woman. Although Universal had advertised Peola as a Black woman who would kiss a white man, the film cut that plotline entirely, though it was revived in the 1959 version. In the novel, Peola runs away for good; in the movie, she returns to remorse and responsibility in more typical Code fashion. As usual, the Hays Office also complained about language – though maybe not as much as Stahl himself, who deleted every n-word in the script.
Imitation of Life begins with Bea Pullman bathing her toddler Jessie, who begs for her duckie and begs not to go to the day nursery. A phone call tells us that Bea lost her husband but keeps up his maple-syrup-can-selling business. When Delilah knocks at the kitchen back door looking for a job, Bea explains that Delilah has the wrong address, dashes upstairs for Jessie, and returns to the kitchen to see Delilah has made them breakfast. Delilah introduces her light-skinned daughter Peola, explains that she’s well-qualified but won’t be separated from Peola, and offers to work for next to nothing but room and board. On a different day, after Bea devours Delilah’s delicious pancakes, Delilah discloses that down South whites came from miles around to taste pancakes made by her grandma, who passed the recipe to Delilah’s “mammy,” who passed it to Delilah where it will discontinue…until Delilah decides to whisper it into Bea’s ear and loan Bea a lucky rabbit’s foot. On the boardwalk, Bea negotiates with a landlord to rent his house and abandoned storefront to sell Delilah’s pancakes and Bea’s syrup. As the family foursome finds its way into living in the store’s ample back, Bea meets with contractors and shrewdly drives hard bargains, including on a sign she dreams of Delilah delightfully smiling next to the words “Aunt Delilah’s Pancake Shop.” Now that Bea has invented Aunt Jemima, the film cuts to the Aunt Delilah sign, pans up to Delilah in baker clothes pouring pancakes, dollies over to Bea in pin-stripes at the counter finishing her final fees to her fixture contractor, and cuts to a prepubescent Peola and Jessie studying happily together, telling us about five years must have passed. Peola re-enters sobbing, explaining that Jessie called her black, that she won’t be black, and that it’s her mother’s fault for making her black, causing Bea to tell Jessie to apologize for this “mean, cruel thing.” Delilah waves off Bea, saying it’s better Peola, like Delilah, accepts the ways of the Lord. On a rainy day, Delilah brings Peola’s rubbers and umbrella to a schoolroom with a mystified teacher until Delilah suggests her daughter may have been passing, causing the kids to murmur “I didn’t know she was colored” as Peola runs out of class shouting at her mother, “I hate you!” Back home, Delilah tells Bea that Peola was passing, that Peola’s father was broken by the struggle of being a light-skinned African-American, and no, Bea, Peola can’t just keep changing schools. Out of the rain comes a scruffy Elmer, who eats pancakes and entreats Bea to trade more of them for his two-word idea, “box it.” In the next scene, sitting next to Elm, Bea tells Delilah that their boxed flour has earned $15,000 in a few months and will earn $100,000 next year, so Delilah should sign the papers to earn 20% of the Aunt Delilah corporation to get her own house. Delilah refuses to sign, worries she’ll be sent away from Bea, and reacts to Bea’s promise to put her share in the bank by suggesting she save it for her, Delilah’s, funeral. A lighted rooftop sign brags of 32 million packages of pancakes sold last year above a swanky society soiree in Bea and Delilah’s New York City mansion, where we learn that Peola is now a young adult who still wishes she were white to her mother’s worry. Elm’s friend Stephen, a handsome ichthyologist, arrives at the party and has a meet-cute with Bea, and finishes the party with Bea’s kiss and promise for future bliss. Bea insists that Delilah approach Peola about going to an HBCU, and as our two leads separate, the camera lingers on Bea going upstairs and Delilah going down. Delilah describes the idea to her daughter as mingling with other high-toned people so that her cross will be a little less heavy to bear, but Peola hates the idea as much as she hates Delilah calling herself Peola’s “mammy.” Stephen proposes Bea see Brazil, then just proposes, and Bea accepts on the condition that Jessie, who is coming back home for a break from boarding school, gets to know Stephen as a friend not a fiancée, to which Stephen jokes, “I’ll be so nice to her that by the time you’re ready to break the news, she’ll be begging you to marry me.” Teenaged Jessie surprises Stephen, and then her mother, with her height, and looks up the word ichthyologist while Bea tells Stephen they should both chaperone Jessie to all New York’s best eateries and shows. However, Delilahshows Bea a letter from the HBCU that Peola, an excellent student, left unexpectedly four days ago but they “trust she arrived home safely.” Delilah and Bea know that she didn’t, prepare to travel South to leave no stone unturned, and leave Jessie in Stephen’s care. When they find Peola working as a restaurant hostess, Peola denies her name and asks her manager how this woman could possibly be her mother, prompting Bea to enter and ask how she could possibly say such cruel things to her mother, at which Peola runs out of the store as Delilah hangs her head in shame. Back at home in New York, Peola tells Delilah she wants her mother to truly let her go, even to pass her by if she sees her on the street, and when Bea says no, Peola retorts, “You don’t know what it is to look white and be Black.” Delilah begs her baby not to make her bear that cross as Bea also tries to block her, but Peola is adamant and absconds. Bea tries to console the inconsolable Delilah, and soon tells an agreeable Jessie that nothing must ever separate the two of them. Jessie proclaims she’s been having a grand time around New York with Stephen, doesn’t want to return to school, cites algebra as useless for a girl, and says she has to go out but will return in an hour or two. Bea calls Stephen, who asks when he can come over, so Bea gives him 30 minutes while she takes a bath. As Stephen hangs up, Jessie arrives at his place and confesses her love for him, so he clarifies he thinks of her as a great child. Bea promises to stay next to a convalescent Delilah until she recovers, but Delilah, a longstanding lodge and church member, tells Bea how to arrange her funeral with a “long procession,” with “plenty of bands playing,” with horses drawing “a white silk velvet hearse,” with “purple satin inside the coffin,” hoping “colored folks’ eyes bulge out.” Crying, Bea overhears an odd colloquy between Stephen and Jessie, and Jessie soon asks to finish her boarding school years in Switzerland. Delilah cries out for a missing Peola and tells a grief-stricken Bea to find Peola and then, with her last words, Delilah says, “just tell her a right sweet goodbye, tell her to be a good girl, why, Peola ain’t little more than a baby now.” Delilah’s funeral is as grand as commanded, with a brass band and colored color guard outfitted with sabers and feather-corner hats as a woebegone Peola shows up moaning, “Mother! Please forgive me. I didn’t mean it…Miss Bea, I killed my own mother…Always thought of me first, never herself.” On Bea’s terrace, Bea breaks up with Stephen because Jessie will resent them, but Bea swears that if and when Jessie truly forgets, Bea can return to him. After Stephen leaves, Jessie arrives with the news that Peola is going back to the HBCU and a question about the day Bea met Delilah, and Bea reminisces about baby Jessie begging for her quack-quack.
In real life, of course, every rich white person is wealthy because of something a Black person was underpaid for, and Stahl’s version does more than Sirk’s version to acknowledge this, at least as metaphor. Yes, Bea offers Delilah the stock shares, but Delilah chooses to live as a dependent – and we all know people who make unnecessary walls for themselves. From a writer’s perspective, Delilah’s choices are necessary partly to explain why Peola hates her mother.
In 1934, almost no white people had seen a funeral for a black woman on anything like the scale of Delilah’s, and not enough Black people had either. Universal had hired Freita Shaw’s Etude Ethiopian chorus and Sarah Butler’s Old Time Southern Singers. I struggle to define this; on the one hand, it’s a step forward in representation, on the other hand, Delilah has to die for it to happen.
Louella Parsons wrote that everyone including her cried in the theater, and “I felt that a new high in humanitarianism had been reached among those great thinkers, and a better condition for the Negro is bound to come.” Donald Bogle quotes Black reviewers who similarly lauded the film, and then quotes one, Sterling Brown, who didn’t, writing at the time that it required “no searching analysis to see in Imitation of Life the old stereotype of the contented Mammy and the tragic mulatto; and the ancient ideas about the mixture of the races.” But Bogle’s very next sentence is “The criticism marked a shift in attitude within the African American community. Roles for black performers were now being examined more closely.” In the era of Stepin Fetchit, that counts as crucial progress.
At its best, Imitation of Life gets into genuine, granular female struggles and Black struggles as the distinct and different problems that they are, but also shows how they reflect some of the same oppression. It deserved its Best Picture nomination.
Influenced by: the original novel and film
Influenced: Hollywood’s pivot to literary work; its approaches to race and to women; Micheaux’s God’s Step Children (1938) was a response
“To a new world of gods and monsters!”
Despite being more Hays Code-monitored than Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein is more confident and more intersectional. Where Frankenstein began with an actor warning the audience of horrors before jumping into the story, Bride of Frankenstein restores Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s centrality by beginning with her, Lord Byron, and Percy Shelley dreaming up nightmarish ideas in the year without a summer, 1816. The same actress, Elsa Lanchester, plays both the story’s scribe and the story’s bride, a choice that is open to multiple interpretations. In Shelley’s actual novel, Dr. Frankenstein does create a mate for his great formulate, but he destroys it before it can live, which is not so different from what we see onscreen.
In their lab, Bride of Frankenstein doubles down on what we now call “raygun gothic,” the sort of laboratory lightly lifted from Lang’s Metropolis. A lightning bolt generated by one of the Kenneth Strickfaden-designed machines has now passed into legend, or at least stock footage, regularly appearing briefly on shows and movies. Bride of Frankenstein doubly doubles down on German Expressionism, with various twilight vistas of twisted branches and twirled gravestones. For example, when the monster first finds freedom, the forest is full, but after, when the lynch mob chases him, the same forest turns barren, the shadowy branch-less trees already resembling a prison even before the monster is formally placed into one.
I like to think that all that outdoor atmosphere, filmed on Universal’s indoor sets, sets up the scenes between the Monster and the hermit, whose long robe and white beard sets him apart from the mob. James Whale had to shut down production for at least a week while waiting for legendary Australian stage actor O.P. Heggie to do the role, despite Laemmle’s firm opinion that Whale could have recast it with a stock player. 30 years before the film A Patch of Blue, which is about the love between a white blind woman and a black man, here a blind man sees what no one else in this village can, the humanity of this ostensible monster. Granted, this alliance between the persecuted has its own problems, for example the notion that blind people are gifted with a sort of sixth sense, but I believe it does provide some kind of model of allyship, however oddball.
The hermit teaches the monster how to speak, as if to suggest that only a fellow subaltern can teach a subaltern to speak. In fact, Boris Karloff hated the idea of uttering words, but I find it interesting that the British actor does the words in more or less an American accent, as though the monster is an American abroad. I do wonder if Frankenstein’s monster really works as a sort of ur-other, a metaphor for all the persecuted non-whites out there.
Bride of Frankenstein begins with an extreme long shot of a Gothic castle on a dark, stormy night as the camera dollies into the window to reveal Lord Byron extolling by name himself as well as guests Percy Shelley and his wife Mary, whose story of a monster Byron was sad to see end. Mary Shelley at first says the night is too awful for horrors, but quickly changes her mind to correct Byron that her story, about the follies of man playing God, didn’t end, and now she continues it. On top of a hill, through tangled fallen logs, we see the villagers cheer the fiery death of Baron Henry Frankenstein and his monster. One man wants to see the monster’s fire- blackened bones, descends into the pit, and gets drowned by the monster, who makes his way to the hill, seizes another person, tosses her into the pit, and scares an older gypsy lady, Minnie, whom no one takes seriously. Minnie and the villagers deliver the ostensible corpse of Baron Frankenstein back to his gothic castle and fiancée Elizabeth, but as she mourns over him, he comes to life and soon tells Elizabeth he may have been meant to create more life. Baroness Elizabeth says that God never meant for people to do His work and that she had a vision of a ghost that would punish him. Minnie permits into the Baron’s bedroom his former mentor Dr. Pretorius, who begs to make a colleague of Henry, who, like Mary Shelley, suddenly changes his mind, in this case about doing more experiments. Henry finds persuasive Pretorius’s portentous threats of murder charges on behalf of the monster’s victims as well as Pretorius’s claim to have also created life. The Baron and Doctor strike out that night to Pretorius’s lab, where he offers Henry gin, raises his glass, and says “to a new world of gods and monsters!” Dr. Pretorius unveils his creations, which are homunculi, or action-figure-sized humans, in glass jars, something the Baron slights as less science, more black magic. Dr. Pretorius suggests that he and Frankenstein work together to bring forth a new race on the planet by creating for the monster a female mate. In the woods, the appearance of the monster causes a shepherdess to fall into water, but in a reversal from the first film, the monster rescues her, yet her screams alert nearby hunters who shoot at and wound the monster. An enormous lynch mob gathers, chases the monster through the woods, surrounds him, uselessly fires at him, wraps him in ropes, throws him in a barrow, drags him down to the town dungeon, and binds him in many chains. Not long after, Frankenstein’s monster snaps the chains, breaks out of the dungeon, gets fired upon by guns that didn’t exist in 1816, attacks everyone who attacks him, scrambles out of the medieval village, burns his hand on a campfire, and becomes interested a cabin where a man is playing “Ave Maria” on violin. The gray-bearded hermit introduces himself as blind, welcomes the monster inside, touches the monster’s burnt hand, walks him into the cabin, sits him down, and offers him food, healing and rest while offering God humble thanks for sending him a friend. Later, the hermit teaches the monster many words that we hear him say, like “alone, bad, friend, good.” As the hermit plays violin, two lost men approach the cabin, but when they see the monster, the ensuing fight knocks wood out of the fire and the hermit’s house burns down as the monster sounds out, “friend!” In gorgeous, macabre twilight vistas of graveyards, shadows, and torches, the mob reassembles. The monster manages to make his way into a crypt where he waits watching Dr. Pretorius and his assistants open the coffin of a woman who died in, uh, 1899. After the assistants leave with the corpse, Pretorius meets the monster, who likes the doctor’s mating plans for him, confirming his approval with “hate living. Love dead.” Dr. Pretorius arrives at Frankenstein’s castle to be rejected by both Baroness and Baron, but to the latter, he brings the monster, whom Henry recklessly rebuffs from his room. The monster finds Elizabeth, kidnaps her, and gets away, followed by Pretorius telling the Baron that if he wants to see her alive again, he must help create the monster’s mate. Working and sweating in the lab, Henry claims to need the heart of a victim of sudden death, and so Pretorius has one of his hamstrung henchmen kill a random woman, bring her to the lab, and lie to Henry that it was a police matter. After the monster shows up to hurry Henry, Pretorius waves him off with wine “drink, good” as Henry demands to speak to Elizabeth, so Pretorius hands him a 20th-century-looking wire-speaking device upon which Baron and Baroness share brief bon mots. In increasingly canted angles, Frankenstein and Pretorius put the finishing touches on their mummified, fabricated figure, note the approaching thunderstorm, and behest a henchman to raise higher the kites as they lower into their lab a “cosmic ray diffuser,” which is a many-circled, many-wired, many-fixtured conductor antenna. Throughout the lab, electricity crickles and crackles, sparks fly, smoke poofs, and vibrating shadows intensify the scientist faces’ as they send the sheet-covered figure up to the roof via gurney. They lower her down and rip off her eye bandage, causing Frankenstein to say, “She’s alive! Alive!” One discreet cut later, the woman stands maskless in white gown and frizzy white-streaked hair, as Pretorius increases everyone’s confusion by saying “The Bride of Frankenstein.” The monster arrives, offers his shaking hands along with the word “friend,” hears her scream, and says “She hate me. Like others.” Henry dances the Bride away, sits her down, and brings over the monster, but when the monster holds her hand she screams again. The monster gets angry and breaks things until Pretorius warns him not to pull a certain lever or he’ll “blow us all to atoms.” As Elizabeth shows up, the monster chases the Baron and Baroness out of the tower, and they barely do escape just before the Bride hisses at the monster pulling the lever and the story ends with just the jouissance of the exploding tower.
Compared to the ending of Frankenstein, this ending is more explosive. In some ways it riffs off of King Kong, which had come out after Frankenstein, because the climax takes place around a phallic symbol, but Kong was merely knocked off; by finishing with the phallus exploding, Bride of Frankenstein prefigured everything from Die Hard to…uh, all of pornography.
Considering she’s the title character, the film brings us the bride only briefly, but arguably, iconically. Her hairstyle resembling Nefertiti, her hissing, and her hardy rejection of this world of men have been hailed by future generations. That said, it’s difficult to consider Bride of Frankenstein a feminist film; the actual, real wife of Frankenstein, Elizabeth, keeps getting shoved out of the room because the men are talking. At its best, the film knows this is an issue. I will say that unlike in the first film, the Hays Office insisted that no one in the film pretend to be playing God, but watching Pretorius with Frankenstein, the general gestalt of genesis aspiration remains in play.
Some feel the Pretorius character was specifically created by Whale to be played by Ernest Thesiger. Benshoff and Griffin write, “For an attuned spectator, it is easy to see Whale’s homosexual sensibility at work in his films…Whale cast his old friend, female impersonator Ernest Thesiger, as a decidedly odd fellow who steals Henry Frankenstein away from his bridal chamber so that the two men may continue their secret experiments in the queer creation of life.”
Influenced by: German Expressionism, obviously, although half the cast speaks in American accents; unlike many sequels, this was clearly justified by the source material, and Hurlbut and Balderston’s script, as well as John Mescall’s camerawork, built the best of all possible creations
Influenced: horror; noir; the representation of the freaky monster; often considered Whale’s masterpiece and one of the best sequels; then there is the ubiquitous iconography of the lead creations
“There’s a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in polite society, outside of a kennel.”
When Clare Boothe turned her attention to playwriting, she came up with a scathing satire of the sort of high-society women she knew all too well. Boothe, probably like yourself, had seen plenty of romantic comedies where the jilted man gets a pep talk from a male friend, but less where the jilted woman gets the kind of catty reception she knew her friends to be more than capable of. From there, the story evolved into a sort of answer to all or almost all-male stage plays, and not only the ones about war, but also less genrified dramas like “The Iceman Cometh.” “The Women,” the play, debuted in 1936, and ran for two successful years on Broadway. A Hollywood adaptation was almost too obvious; the industry had already demonstrated itself to be overflowing with female talent even before the heavily promoted search for the right actress to play Scarlett O’Hara accidentally made a household name out of the man David O. Selznick hired to direct his adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s smash-hit novel Gone with the Wind, Mister George Cukor.
If E.J. Fleming is right that Cukor was fired for being, uh, a “fairy”, one wonders if that’s exactly why the town’s most powerful mogul, Louis B. Mayer, hired Cukor, after his old job went with the wind, to direct The Women. It wouldn’t have been the first welcome to a group of women a gay man had received with a sort of knowing wink and nod. I nonetheless wonder what Dorothy Arzner’s version of the same film would have looked like. We’ll discuss Dance, Girl, Dance in a few minutes, but Arzner could have fit in well with a play written by Booth, a script written by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin, and, yes, in a 130-minute movie, 130 speaking parts all played by women and girls. The dogs were female; the faces in the table-set frames were female. However, if Cukor thought he could fill a cast with Scarlett O’Hara’s auditionees, most of them seemed to remember he hadn’t cast them. In the end, Cukor and MGM assembled the distinctly distinguished distaff staff of Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine and many other well-regarded wonders to play The Women.
The Women starts with two symbolic small dogs meeting and barely remaining on leash as they yap yap yap above the sidewalk plate saying Park Avenue Sydney’s Salon. Fur-coat-fronting society doyenne Muddy Van Adams picks up her be-ribboned terrier (who appeared in another 1939 MGM movie as Toto), opens the salon door, complains about other dog owners, says “but my little Lilykins is different,” and hands off the terrier and its bottled water to a Black woman named Olive. In brief vignettes, transitioned by wipe cuts and leftward pans, we see various white women undergoing varied beauty treatments, resting on slabs, stretching in a gym, and biking in a bike room. Sylvia hears gossip from her manicurist Olga, dashes to a pay phone, and calls her friend Edith Potter, an apparent housewife in a deluxe mansion with many little girls, who luxuriates in schadenfreude after Sylvia tells her “Stephen Haines is stepping out on Mary.” We meet Mary Haines and her maybe-10-year-old, little Mary, literally prancing with ponies, taking goofy pictures, bantering with chef Ingrid, preparing for a two-week trip to Canada with Stephen, and having a heart-to-heart about romance and who mother loves best. Women gather in the Haines’ front rooms for a lunch party, with the Dali-design-dressed Sylvia composing catty comments: first about Nancy’s professional writings, Nancy being the only one in the room with a job, second about women like the manicurist who babble, babble, babble and don’t care whose lives they ruin, third to her cousin Mary about Stephen’s fidelity, and fourth about her fabulous manicurist and nails, jungle red, nails Nancy notices looking “as if you’ve been tearing at somebody’s throat.” Prompted by Sylvia, Mary sojourns to Sydney’s and sits with Olga, who indeed names Stephen Haines’ cuckold as Black’s cosmetics counter-maid Crystal Allen and continues complimenting Crystal’s cleverness until Mary identifies herself as Mrs. Stephen Haines. Mary’s mother, Mrs. Morehead, makes her way to the manse, flashes Mary her jungle red nails from Olga, posits that most men stray this way, offers a mother-daughter trip to Bermuda, and strongly advises her daughter say nothing about the affair to Stephen nor her girlfriends, who, if they know she knows, will see to it she loses her husband and home. (“I know my sex.”) Mary answers that was one thing when women were weak chattel as in her mother’s generation, but Mary won’t live with Stephen on these altered terms. Sylvia and Edith venture to Black’s to spy on Crystal, whom we see backroom-browbeating Lulu, who is Black, for belittling the dinner Crystal expects her to impress Stephen with, prompting a work pal, Pat, to riposte, “she thinks because Lulu’s dark, he won’t be able to see her.” Sylvia and Edith grill Crystal with insinuating comments, but only get Crystal mistaking Sylvia Fowler as “Mrs. Prowler.” Mrs. Morehead and Mary show little Mary home-movie footage from Bermuda, and later, Mary maintains that since the trip she’s been with Stephen every night and is “divinely happy.” Mary, Peggy, Sylvia, and Edith attend an elaborate fashion show that is presented in six minutes of Technicolor before the film returns to black-and-white and their chary chitter-chatter, especially when Sylvia spots Crystal Allen and chases Mary into her private fitting room and persistently presses Stephen’s perfidy to the point of Sylvia reflecting in four mirrors recounting a recent rumored date when Crystal kissed Little Mary. Big Mary stops being big and strides into another fitting room to confront Crystal, who bandies barbs about bliss and blessings. At Sydney’s, Sylvia and Peggy are completing catty calisthenics, including Sylvia’s cold-shouldering a woman who jumped off a building – a reference to the real Dorothy Hale. Edith enters to explain she’s equipped the exquisitely named gossip columnist Dolly Dupuyster with an exclusive based on Sylvia’s exaggerations. The next day’s New York Dispatch blares “Wife K.O.’s Love Thief” as Jane and Maggie, two of Haines’ employees, eavesdrop and examine the Haines’ exchanges right up to the ender, “Stephen, I want a divorce.” Later, Mary scoffs at her mother’s pleas to call it off, signs the final papers with her attorneys, sets up to travel to Reno, and sits down with Little Mary, who doesn’t understand how her parents can fall out of love with each other but not her. Peggy joins Mary on the train to Reno, with its dining car full of divorcing women, including the lively Countess De Lave and Miriam Aarons. At the Double Bar T Ranch in Reno, the acerbic Lucy laughs over her husband beating her being no grounds for divorce as Lucy banters with Peggy, the Countess, and Miriam, the latter two confiding that Miriam’s current lover is one Howard Fowler. We hear that after six weeks, Mary’s divorce came through that morning, as an epistle from Edith reveals the birth of her eighth daughter, something that spurs the Countess to sing a song. Surprisingly, Sylvia shows up, spills her squabbles with Howard, sees a letter from him with an attached article about Miriam Aarons, puts two and two together, literally yanks Miriam off her horse, and causes a calamitous combat, carnage, clash – call it anything but a catfight. After, Sylvia calls Mary ungrateful, breaks dishes, and gets dragged kicking and screaming by Lucy. Peggy appertains she’s pregnant, phones Johnny, and makes peace. Miriam makes manifest to Mary all the many reasons she, Mary, might remain married, and when the phone rings from New York, Mary seems ready to swallow her pride and call off the divorce until she learns that Stephen just married Crystal. Eighteen months later, in an opulent tub, Crystal chats up a new beau on a private phone yet hangs up to browbeat Little Mary until the girl finally admits how awful she finds Crystal. Sylvia enters, deduces Crystal’s affair with Buck Winston, but agrees to keep mum so as not to give Mary the satisfaction. Mary, Peggy, Miriam, and Edith gather in New York to drink and hear the Countess say that Buck Winston is cheating on her. Little Mary snuggles with her mother, worries about Crystal’s “lovey dovey” phone talk with another man, and inspires Mary to rise, dress, and announce to her mother, “I’ve had two years to grow claws – jungle red!” In a nightclub’s ladies’ lounge, Mary tricks Sylvia into spilling the name of Crystal’s inamorato, Buck Winston, leading to hijinks and low-jinks until Crystal tells off Mary and her friends with her happiness leaving Haines because she’ll have Buck…as the Countess reveals she’s been bankrolling the untalented Buck. Crystal admits she’ll be returning to the perfume counter but quits the room with a final quick quip, quote, “By the way, there’s a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in high society outside of a kennel.” Mary tells Peggy a woman in love doesn’t bother with pride and leaves the lounge with the look on her medium-closed-up face telling us she must be looking right at Stephen…as the film cuts to the card saying The End.
I believe the film exudes a kind of fascinating energy that isn’t really imaginable in most movies. In The Women, women become what Homer Simpson called beer: the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems. If you squint hard enough, it can almost feel like Themyscira, the home of the Amazons so vividly brought to life in the recent Wonder Woman films. I’m also reminded of the intentional all-female space of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which fell apart because of its exclusion of trans-gender women; 1939’s The Women excludes not only the trans, but also the Asian, the noticeably indigenous, and essentially, the African-Americans who are reduced to servants. Perhaps Boothe doesn’t want to lose the villainization of the white Upper East Side? Rosa? Elyce Rae Helford, in her book on Cukor, wrote that “in The Women, the serious, sympathetic central character detracts from the biting social critique of wealthy, catty wives.” I understand and agree with much of Helford’s critique, although in our current day and age, we ask for minority voices to tell minority stories, which is another way of saying that we want artists to tell stories they would know better than anyone else, and in a sense, play author Clare Boothe IS focusing on her expertise by telling us about upper-class women as opposed to, say, the Joads of Oklahoma.
George Cukor and sometimes Howard Hawks maintained a 30-year reputation as Hollywood’s foremost director of women. On the one hand, it’s a disgrace that no woman ever held that title. On the other hand, Cukor sometimes turned that title into terrific pictures, as in The Philadelphia Story, Gaslight, Adam’s Rib, Born Yesterday, the Judy Garland version of A Star is Born, and others. Cukor wasn’t out to the world but he was out amongst his peer community, and I don’t know of an out gay American who accomplished more before 1954.
Influenced by: related to his queer status or not, Cukor was known as Hollywood’s best “woman’s director” thanks to films like Little Women and Sylvia Scarlett (where Katharine Hepburn plays a woman pretending to be a man), leading to him being hired to direct Gone with the Wind, but he and producer Selznick fell out, freeing Cukor to make this film
Influenced: on one level, this film demonstrates the glamour and surfeit of female stars (and wedding-ready sets) of late-30s Hollywood; on another level, this was a road not taken with any other disenfranchised group
“When I think of Dennis jilting a lovely girl like Elizabeth to marry that little Mexican wildcat, I can hardly contain myself.”
Maria Guadalupe Villalobos Vélez was born in 1908 in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, was sent to a school in San Antonio, Texas, for a couple of her teenage years, returned to Mexico, broke into Mexican vaudeville, went to Los Angeles at the age of 18, was promoted by Fanny Brice, impressed Douglas Fairbanks and Cecil B. DeMille, got signed to MGM, became a featured player in films like Wolf Song with Gary Cooper, dated Cooper, transitioned to talkies quite well considering her accent, broke up with Cooper, continued to star in roles promoted as “ethnic” or “exotic,” worked on Broadway as well, lost her MGM contract in 1934, found herself shunted to supporting roles, and did two years of roles in England and Broadway. Owing to her forceful personality onscreen and her rumored forcefulness offscreen, in the 1930s, Lupe Vélez was regularly referred to in industry papers as “The Mexican Hurricane”, “The Mexican Wildcat”, “The Mexican Madcap”, “Whoopee Lupe,” and “The Hot Tamale.”
When three white men Joseph Fields, Lionel Houser, and Leslie Goodwins dreamed up their story of a white man bringing a volatile, mercurial woman of Mexico City back to America where she would start fights and wreak havoc on white people’s lives, they drew upon the biography, or at least legend, of Lupe Vélez and her emotional and physical clashes with Cooper, Johnny (Tarzan) Weismuller (whom she’d married and divorced), and some fellow female stars. By most accounts, Lupe Vélez did not object to the “spicy” type, and in fact enjoyed making fun of, and imitating the voices of, Dolores Del Rio and other stars that she considered too hoity-toity. Upon turning 30 in 1938, she was greeted at Mexico City’s airport by a reputed 10,000 applauding fans. There, Vélez starred in her first Mexican film, La Zandunga, which was a critical and financial success that had her planning to star in four more Mexican films just as that industry was reaching its artistic peak. But then… Vélez got the phone call from RKO to star as the title role in The Girl From Mexico, leading her to abandon those four Mexican films and return to the U.S.
Just a couple of pre-production notes: After The Girl From Mexico was a surprise B-movie hit for RKO, the studio quickly assembled the same team, but allowed Goodwins to focus less on bland bohunk Donald Woods and more on the actor playing his uncle, Leon Errol, who had starred in many of Goodwins’ other comic films. Errol was upgraded to playing two roles, one as Velez’s comic foil, the other as a Monopoly-man-type plutocrat. With Errol’s screentime upgraded, Mexican Spitfire perfected the formula that best served Velez’s persona and performances.
Mexican Spitfire begins at a New York airport where Matt and Della Lindsey establish their Brooklyn-banter bona fides as they await the arrival of their nephew Dennis and his new wife, Carmelita. Della exalts the Plymouth Rock stock of their son’s jilted lover Elizabeth, who arrives and conspires with Della to break up the new marriage, calling Carmelita “a wildcat” whose “claws” they’ll “clip.” Entering, Carmelita introduces her new male Chihuahua Elizabeth, but sees her dog’s namesake necking with Dennis until Carmelita has them knock it off. Dennis says he had to abort the short honeymoon to sign a contract with two clients who have flown from Britain, and tells Carmelita to take a taxi home, but Elizabeth offers a ride, buries the hatchet, suggests they go shopping, and responds to Carmelita saying she has no money by advising they stop by Dennis’ office. There, Elizabeth prompts Carmelita to pretend to be Dennis’s secretary as a joke, and she agrees, striding in and scribing notes and behaving like a strumpet with Dennis and his upper-crust, aristocratic clients Mr. Chumley and Lord Epping, whom Dennis has already invited to a home dinner. Back home, when Carmelita realizes that Della and Elizabeth are conniving to present Elizabeth as Dennis’s wife, she sweetly says “you know what I think?” and fires off a barrage of Spanish insults. Carmelita seizes Uncle Matt for support, travels to Epping’s hotel, and sees him in the lobby, but before she can explain she’s married to Dennis, Epping says they won’t be coming to dinner and departs, leaving Uncle Matt to imitate the posh pretentious plummy Epping. Carmelita gets inspired, brings Uncle Matt to a costume shop, and sees Matt perfectly resemble the monocle-wearing, foppish Epping. Carmelita returns home, claims to have been a fool, and agrees for this one dinner to pretend to be Dennis’ secretary while Elizabeth pretends to be his wife, though Uncle Matt declares the whole farce immoral and storms off. Soon, Matt re-arrives, impersonates Epping, fools Dennis, Della, and Elizabeth, sits to dinner with the four, fake-flirts with Carmelita, repeatedly insults Della and Elizabeth, and retires to another room. The real Epping appears, parks at the seat his impersonator just vacated, supplies mixed signals to the butler, and points out they have to sign the contract tonight because in the morning they make for Mexico. Carmelita believes the real Epping is Matt about to commit forgery, so she follows Epping and Dennis into a private room where she tries various ways to wink-signal Epping and sabotage the signed contract, leading to lighting it afire. Della catches her husband in half-costume as the real Epping breaks off the deal and sets off to the front door, where Della confronts him as her horrendous husband in disguise, only to see Matt, as he really is, escaping with Carmelita, causing her to faint and Epping to facetiously feel grateful to the Lindseys for a lovely night. At a restaurant called Mexican Pete’s, Carmelita confers with Matt, calls the house, and comes upon Elizabeth, who claims that Dennis doesn’t want to talk to her ever, spurring another spurting of spirited Spanish slights and slanders. Carmelita confesses she’s not good for Dennis, prompting Matt to call the house pretending to be a German inspector, but Della, hip to him, answers that Epping has called the cops to arrest her husband. Believing this fabrication, Uncle Matt flies with Carmelita to Mexico City, where she files for divorce, culminating in Carmelita’s Spanglish, “Am I loose?” to which the clerk answers, “Definitely.” After they leave, Mexican cops arrest this clerk for charging for fake divorces, check his recent log, and go looking for Matthew Lindsey. At the lobby desk of their Mexico City hotel, Matt overhears a cop looking for Matthew Lindsey, and turns his sombrero down to stealthily sneak out with senorita Carmelita. Matt re-disguises himself as Epping just to get to the airport, but sees the real Epping, runs from him and a cop, and bumps into Chumley. After a few comic reversals with Chumley, Uncle Matt learns Epping never sent any cops after any Lindsey and manages to obtain a truly Epping-signed contract to bring back to New York so that his nephew can complete the business deal. In New York, the unhappily divorced Carmelita returns to Mexican Pete’s, where Dennis is having his bachelor party for his next day’s wedding…to Elizabeth? By the time Uncle Matt arrives, Carmelita and Dennis are back in each other’s arms and a Mexican police telegram informs them Carmelita’s divorce wasn’t legal. The next day, everyone awakens at Dennis’s, where a large party gathers for a wedding, and Della tells Elizabeth that she’s invited Lord Epping to let Elizabeth secure the contract. However, as Elizabeth re-enters in her splendid white wedding dress, she and Della get to see the Mexican police telegram, causing Della to cry and Elizabeth to push Carmelita’s face into a parfait. One pushed pastry leads to another, and soon the entire sophisticated wedding party devolves into an unsophisticated food fight, culminating in Carmelita using Elizabeth’s bridal veil the way a matador uses a cape as Elizabeth almost throws the main massive wedding cake at her, but instead, in the final shot, erroneously upends Lord Epping.
On the one hand, in the film’s name and nature, here’s the feisty firecracker stereotype in full bloom, setting expectations for all Latinas to be scrappy, spunky, unstable, over-sensitive, and explosive. On the other hand, in a time when Hollywood and America admired assimilation, there’s something great about Carmelita’s refusal to fully assimilate, to insist on her truth and her distinction from these Anglos. And besides, Lupe Velez is there, on center stage, loud, proud, and unallowed in a society like the one in The Women, which only makes her intervention more important.
This film established the first franchise to star a woman of color. What do I mean by franchise? Well, Mexican Spitfirewas an even bigger hit than The Girl From Mexico. RKO made six more films with the same crew and characters over the next four years, namely Mexican Spitfire Out West, The Mexican Spitfire’s Baby, Mexican Spitfire at Sea, Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost, Mexican Spitfire’s Elephant, and finally, Mexican Spitfire’s Blessed Event in 1943. The formula got a little tired, especially in comparison to full-color films featuring Carmen Miranda, which we’ll get to in a few minutes. But RKO hadn’t quite shut the door on more from the store when Velez took a break to make a couple of other films, including one in Mexico called Nana that would wind up her final film. On December 14, 1944, 36-year-old Lupe Velez was found dead in her house in Los Angeles after having swallowed 75 Seconal pills and leaving a suicide note addressed to her then-lover, Harald Ramond, claiming it was better that she kill herself and the baby inside her rather than live without his love. This story, often claiming that the baby was really Gary Cooper’s, would get reshaped, revamped, revised, and rewritten by sources from Clara Bow to Johnny Weismuller to Kenneth Anger to The Simpsons to the pilot episode of Frasier. On some level, Lupe Velez died as she lived, divisively, defiantly, audaciously, and denying easy categorization.
But back to Lupe’s largest legacy, namely the Mexican Spitfire series that bottled, bowdlerized, and bolstered her spitfire persona. From today’s perspective, stylistically, Goodwins’ films seem rather TV-ish to me. But remember that this was World War II when almost no one had a TV. In fact, I think you can make an excellent case that the success of the Mexican Spitfire franchise was a crucial, necessary antecedent to the TV show that basically established great fictional TV ten years later, namely “I Love Lucy.”
Influenced by: some of Dolores Del Rio’s comedies; prevailing norms, although it was its own breakthrough
Influenced: perpetuated the hot-blooded, temperamental Latina stereotype; some felt these films influenced “I Love Lucy”
“What’s it for? So you can go home when the show’s over, strut before your wives and sweethearts and play at being the stronger sex for a minute? I’m sure they see through you. I’m sure they see through you just like we do!”
Dorothy Arzner was born in 1897 in San Francisco but mostly raised in Los Angeles by her parents who owned a restaurant often frequented by the first great silent-film stars. Arzner told a biographer that after World War I, almost anyone could break into the film business if they were smart and young and willing to work hard. (She probably meant anyone white.) She also said that after watching Cecil B. DeMille work, she knew she wanted to direct, “because he was the one who told everyone else what to do.” Arzner worked her way up in the ranks, editing and script doctoring, eventually working side-by-side director James Cruze on a number of projects at prestigious Paramount. In 1927, Arzner wrangled an offer from B-studio Columbia to direct a picture, which she leveraged into a negotiation with Paramount to let her direct or lose her, and sure enough, in 1927 she made a picture called Fashions for Women, despite the fact that, as she later told an interviewer, “In fact I hadn’t told anyone to do anything before.”
Arzner directed twenty films between 1927 and 1943 as Hollywood’s only woman director, and was known for introducing to the public great female stars from Clara Bow to Katharine Hepburn to Rosalind Russell to Lucille Ball. As with almost all studio directors of this period, Arzner was not encouraged to articulate themes or idiosyncracies, but scholars have found Arzner’s anyway, particularly regarding unconventional romance and upending gender expectations. Within the Hollywood community, Arzner did not hide her queer sexuality, most often wore pants and/or suits, and beginning with Fashions for Women maintained a long, longstanding relationship with choreographer Marion Morgan that seems to have been mostly maintained until Morgan’s death in 1971. Arzner’s partnership with Morgan was one of the reasons Arzner was interested in making Dance, Girl, Dance, for which Morgan did the choreography and the onscreen characters exhibited…something that some scholars see as lesbian leanings.
The script came from a story by Vicki Baum, known for the Best Picture-winning Grand Hotel; RKO bought Baum’s newer idea and hired Frank Davis and Tess Slesinger to make it into a movie screenplay. Women dominated studio screenwriting in the twenties and thirties, though that was evolving and worsening by 1940 for many reasons, including moguls hiring more and more Broadway writers, and the fact that most of those who could leave their families to travel 3000 miles west happened to be men. This is part of the context of Dance, Girl, Dance: although burlesque shows had always existed on Broadway, during the Depression, as many writers fled to wealthy Hollywood, New York’s burlesque scene became steadily more legitimate and lucrative, attracting even accomplished and adept dancers who, ten years earlier, might well have remained part of the Martha Graham Dance Company or similar. Every film director who tries to make a movie about professional dancers runs into the same problem, finding actors who can act as well as they dance. Outside of Rogers and Astaire, Arzner did about as well as any director when she cast as her leads Lucille Ball and Maureen O’Hara, particularly the latter, who brings a certain unfakeable gravitas to her role as struggling dancer Judy O’Brien.
Dance, Girl, Dance begins with the sign for Harris Tires of Akron Ohio and a pan down to a gamblers’ nightclub in Akron, Ohio, where eight showgirls, including Judy and Bubbles, sing and dance in harmony with the Black musicians until the arrival of the police, who break up the club and tell the showgirls they’re lucky not to be arrested. Judy retorts they’re no worse than the customers and can’t leave until they get paid, causing lingering audience member (and secret tire-company owner) Jimmy Harris to stand up, applaud Judy, fend off Bubbles, somehow successfully take up a collection for the women, dance with Judy, flirt with Judy, compare her to a morning star, get thrown off by Judy’s blue eyes, and allow Bubbles to steal him away. At their all-female flat, Sally and Judy kvetch until Bubbles returns with a story about a good date with Jimmy until he found a cat-sized stuffed bull, handed it to her, and skedaddled. Jimmy arrives at Elinor’s, reveals he gave away Ferdinand but not to whom, and their chat reveals to us that they’re divorcing and she’s leaving for Reno. In New York, in Times Square, Judy reconnects with her aged dance teacher, Madame Basilova, who can’t sell Judy’s morning star dance, but may have a Hoboken hope for a hula dancer. At the audition, the club owner isn’t interested in Judy’s hip-shaking, but Bubbles hustles on in, hulas in a come-hither fashion, and gets handed the $25 a week job as Basilova fails to convince the owner to hire the other hard-luck hula girls as background. On her way to bringing Judy to an audition, Basilova gets hit by a car and can barely breathe her last words to Judy, “remember, Steve Adams, Dance, dance, dance.” Judy explains the car-killing calamity to Mr. Adams skeptical secretary, who offers a waiting room seat to Judy, who instead peeks into the rehearsal space to see exceptional professional dancers doing ballet to then-modern Broadway-style choreography. In another room, Steve dictates to Olmy, who actually appears age-appropriate as Steve lovingly calls Olmy the only woman who understands him. Judy, embarrassed by her lower caliber, flees for the elevator, but Steve shares it with her, notices her, steps out into a very rainy day, sees Judy lose a dime in a rainy puddle, offers her an umbrella, sees her unable to afford her bus, and offers her a taxi ride. Not recognizing him as Steve Adams, Judy insists she prefers walking in the rain, and steps swiftly on sidewalk nubs as Steve notices her nimble feet. Bubbles, now going by Tiger Lily White, offers Judy a job at a burlesque club, where Bubbles wows the all-male audience with a sexy, slinky, seductive number, and Judy’s more traditional toe ballet gets her booed offstage. In a montage, the Bailey Bros. Burlesque Show conquers Broadway, with posters blaring the success of Tiger Lily White and her “stooge,” Judy, whom customers blithely boo between Lily’s numbers. In one audience, we see Steve Adams enjoying Judy’s performance as Jimmy Harris heckles Judy’s hecklers on his way to Judy and Lily’s shared dressing room. After Lily reveals Judy’s been carrying the stuffed Ferdinand everywhere since Akron, Judy spends all night with Jimmy, kisses Jimmy goodnight, goes up to her flat, sees the last star of the night, and wishes to become a real dancer. The next night, Jimmy brings Judy to a posh, high-society club where the white-tuxedo-wearing singer sings “morning star” in front of a massive bull statue as Jimmy calls Judy “Irish” only to be interrupted by Elinor, who trades accusations with Jimmy that neither would come there again. Jimmy beats up Elinor’s beau and begs Judy to stay, but Judy responds he’s obviously still in love with Elinor. After the story makes headlines, Lily/Bubbles bangs on Judy’s door, but Judy refuses to see anyone, including an intoxicated Jimmy, inspiring Lily to pose with Jimmy for paparazzi pictures and lickety-split leave in his limo. That evening, in the dressing room, Lily lets Judy know this is her last show because she just got married to Jimmy, and something comes over Judy during her act’s usual heckles when Steve and Olmy just happen to be there. Judy stops dancing, stands firm, and states, “Go ahead, laugh. Get your money’s worth. Nobody’s going to hurt you. I know you want me to tear my clothes off so you can look your 50 cents worth. 50 cents for the privilege of staring at a girl the way your wives won’t let you. What do you suppose we think of you up here? With your silly smirks your mothers would be ashamed of. We know it’s a thing of the moment for the dress suits to come and laugh at us too. We’d laugh right back at you only we’re paid to let you sit there and roll your eyes and make your screamingly clever remarks. What’s it for? So you can go home when the show’s over and strut before your wives and sweethearts and play at being the stronger sex for a minute? I’m sure they see through you just like we do.” Olmy starts a round of applause that the whole crowd joins in, embarrassing Judy off the stage where she gets slapped by Lily, who begins to perform only to receive unusual boos, an unusually forced retreat, and an unusual counter-strike from Judy, until the pair collapse fighting on the stage. A reporter calls the drunk Jimmy Harris to inform him of his new marriage he doesn’t want. In night court, the judge is taken aback by Judy admitting her lethal intentions and what he calls her Irish temper. As Steve Adams watches, Judy gives another, more personal speech, about what Bubbles, Jimmy and herself have really wanted this whole time – respectively, everything, Elinor, and to dance – and the judge gives Judy ten days in prison for disorderly conduct. Lily blesses the reunion of Jimmy and Elinor – on account of an annulment that Lily announces will cost Jimmy $50,000. In the final scene, Judy enters Steve Adams’ office, realizes who he is, and gets imprudently impudent before Steve tells his staff to clear the decks for his latest discovery. In the film’s final line, Judy laughs and cries at how simple it could have been and collapses in Steve’s arms, but not romantically.
Reading So Mayer in The Guardian and elsewhere, one would think that the matter is settled: Judy and Basilova have feelings that go beyond mentor-mentee, Judy and Bubbles are a sort of bickering couple, and the fact that neither Judy nor Bubbles finish the film with any sort of romantic attachment signifies…something.
It doesn’t surprise me to learn that Dance, Girl, Dance was not a hit for RKO during the same year, 1940, that RKO had hits with two different Mexican Spitfire films. Dance, Girl, Dance doesn’t exactly play to audience expectations, particularly after Judy puts Jimmy and Elinor back together and chooses to be with Steve professionally, not romantically. Remember that 1940 was the peak of the screwball comedy, sometimes defined as the comical mismatching of a naïve rich person with a more world-wise working-class person, as seen in previous podcasts in contemporary films matching Cary Grant with Katharine Hepburn. Mexican Spitfire was a minor twist on the formula, but Dance, Girl, Dance entirely refutes it as surely as Judy refutes her own audience members. I like Richard Brody’s take:
“The movie lives up to its title—its subject really is dancing. Arzner films it with fascination and enthusiasm, and the choreography is marked by the point of view of the spectators and the dancers’ awareness that they’re being watched…he very raison d’être of these women’s performances is to titillate men, and that’s where the story’s two vectors intersect—art versus commerce and love versus lust. This idealistic paean to the higher realms of creative and romantic fulfillment is harshly realistic about the degradations that women endure in base entertainments.”
Judy might have chosen to marry into New York’s posh high society with Jimmy, in a manner that other dancers seem to be trying to do. Instead, she chooses a life of relative professional hardship to maintain her dignity. By the standards of many of the women in The Women, Judy is less like her story’s Elinor and more like Eleanor Roosevelt.
Influenced by: Arzner’s skill, deploying yet subtly challenging Hollywood codes
Influenced: this was Arzner’s last completed film; unfortunately Hollywood did not rush to hire other female directors
“Dancing, but on account of the bartender being sick, the cook had to take the bartender’s place, the waiter took the cook’s place, and I had to take the waiter’s place.”
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson become a movie star at the age of 57 when he danced up and down stairs with Shirley Temple in 1935’s The Little Colonel, and sashayed with Shirley through three more pictures during which the duo became Hollywood’s only inter-racial dance partners or, uh, pairing. Yet these scenes were routinely cut from film prints that were distributed in the South, and 20th Century Fox had difficulty finding a lead role for Bojangles. Liberal studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck certainly wanted to find something better for Bojangles, not least because his contract had made him the highest-paid Black performer in Hollywood.
Fox’s William LeBaron well knew that MGM was prepping Cabin in the Sky to co-star its contract player Lena Horne. When LeBaron asked MGM to loan Horne to Fox for Stormy Weather, both studios understood the arrangement, like all studio-loans, to be mutually beneficial, as the publicity generated by one studio would redound to the other’s benefit. Perhaps that’s why LeBaron didn’t cast Horne’s mentor Adelaide Hall, whose life the Selina character was roughly based upon, although it must be said the film is hardly the real biography of Horne, Hall, or Robinson. More than anything, Stormy Weather is an excuse to string together a succession of songs and performances by legendary African-American performers, showcasing samples of 25 years of some of the greatest music ever made. MGM’s Cabin in the Sky may have a more coherent narrative – or not, based on your views of angel-devil-driven stories – and it does feature Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong, but if you only have time for one, Stormy Weather features 20 songs in 77 minutes, several by stone-cold legends doing showstopping setpieces. Sean Griffin writes “the integrated structure of Cabin in the Sky leaves little room for the minority performer to disrupt the unified concepts of the white screenwriters, songwriters, director, and producer; the looser vaudeville structure of Stormy Weather creates more leeway for individual creativity.”
We start with the title card Stormy Weather over stormy, thundering credits. Bill Williamson is dancing “oh the rang tang tang” on his front porch with Black children when one of them brings Bill a magazine with his face on the cover, celebrating “the magnificent contribution of the colored race to entertainment of the last 25 years.” The kids gather round Bill reading, so two minutes into the picture, Bill flashbacks us to real footage of returning World War I soldier parades intercut with younger Bill bearing and beating a drum saying “Jim Europe’s 15th Infantry Band.” Bill’s army buddy Gabe brings Bill to a big, bluesy, blowsy New York bash where Bill is thunderstruck to meet and dance with the beautiful Selina Rogers, kid sister of his fallen troop-mate Clem and an emerging singing star in her own right, as she demonstrates with her performance of “There’s No Two Ways About Love.” Selina introduces her piano accompanist, Chick Bailey, who bears blues at befriending Bill and Gabe as Jim Europe introduces an elaborately choreographed number, “The Cake Walk,” during which Bill promises Selina he’ll return from Memphis after he becomes somebody. On a riverboat, an exhausted, cotton-sickened Bill finds his feet refreshed by the sounds of a scat band, sings to the other performers “I can do some shuffling too,” shuffles, and hears one commend Bill to a job at one of Memphis’s Beale Street cafés. At Ada Brown’s Beale St. Café, Bill waits tables while Ada Brown and poster headliner Fats Waller perform the frisky Dixieland duet “That Ain’t Right” including Fats singing, “Sister, I was born ballin’ and I’m gonna keep ballin’ all my life.” Ada and Fats scramble to look their best for the arrival of Chick Bailey, Selina Rogers, and their band, for whom Fats performs his song “Ain’t Misbehavin,” its first appearance in a movie. Chick invites all of Ada and Fats’ band to join him on tour, putting Bill out of a job, but Selina, happy to see Bill again, convinces Chick to let Bill join their tour and even start on top. Back in the frame story, the kids ask Bill if Chick kept his promise to put Bill on top, and we see that he did, making him wear tribal African clothes and a feathered wig as he beats a Zulu drum sitting on a stage’s tree branch to accompany Selina leading their troupe in the African-themed “Diga Diga Doo.” Backstage, Chick blows off as bourgeois both of Bill’s brainstorms, one to take Selina out for a sandwich, the other for Bill to dance when he should focus on drumming. During their next number, while Chick performs in a lei and straw hat in front of a dozen African-dressed drummers pounding barrel-sized drums, Bill puts down his sticks and begins dancing on his drum and the other drums to wild applause from the crowd. In the frame story, the kids hear about Chick learning the deal, firing Bill, getting punched by Bill, and later taking credit for discovering him. Bill tells the kids that he ran into Gabe again, shining shoes in New York, where Bill is trying to open a show in New York facing mutiny from the unpaid chorines, and soon, Gabe arrives at Bill’s rehearsal wearing a tux and tails, impressing the showgirls as a guardian angel of greenbacks. One chorine, Mae Johnson, performs the surprising song “I Lost My Sugar in Salt Lake City.” The troupe’s two comedians get suspicious of Gabe, put on blackface (yes, they’re African-American), and perform their “indefinite talk” “Bum Garage” routine. When they recognize Gabe as a bootblack, the chorines threaten him, but a lucky windfall to a random driver allows the show to go on, and Selina and Bill lead a swanky, splashy, stylish, sumptuous ensemble in “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” After landing a Hollywood contract in 1936, Bill offers Selina a home for her to settle in while he keeps performing, but she insists upon her independence. Bill and Selina go their separate ways, her to a successful career in Paris, him to that house where Bill is talking to the kids, who see a ritzy car approach and greet its driver with “Cab Calloway!” When Cab gets out calling “Hi-de-hiii-de-ho,” the kids, as is customary, call back “Hi-de-hiii-de-ho.” Bill corrects Cab that the kids aren’t his, but he keeps the house in case Selina ever comes back from Paris, and Cab invites Bill to the downtown club for its serviceman send-off. At the club, Cab Calloway renders “Geechy Joe” wriggling in a roomy white suit in front of his orchestra. Bill sits at a small table stunned to see Selina perform “Stormy Weather” with emotion attached to the lines “since my man and I ain’t together, keeps raining all the time”; the instrumental includes an intricate, abstract dance number performed by Katherine Dunham and her troupe. Backstage, Bill wishes Cab’s son well on his way to war and also wishes he had such a son only to see Selina agree and say she wants a future with Bill, leading to the two plus Cab reprising “There’s No Two Ways About Love” with feelings bursting through the artificial trappings. A large dance troupe finishes off the song before Cab Calloway takes center stage again to perform “The Jumpin’ Jive,” accompanied by his orchestra and, crucially, the Nicholas Brothers, who perform arguably the greatest duo dance captured in a 20th-century film. Wisely, the film recognizes that it can’t really follow that with anything but one more shot, and what a shot, 90 seconds of a roomful of recruits rumba-ing with women as we dolly in on center stage where Cab, Bill, and Selina sing “My, my ain’t that something to shout about.”
It’s true that there are stereotypes here, for example during the cakewalk scene with its Little Black Sambo figures. It’s also true that by 1943, Hollywood still hadn’t made an all-Black drama film, and wouldn’t for 18 more years, musicals being Hollywood’s favorite way to contextualize and distribute African-American culture. But with all that, I might love this film. Every time you turn around, there’s something sensational, spectacular, surprising, even stirring. I love that this ends with two such different and distinguished dances, one a modernist critique of white America by Katherine Dunham, the other an eyeball-popping duet by the Nicholas Brothers that Fred Astaire called “the greatest movie musical number” he had ever seen. (The Nicholas Brothers had been literally showstopping musicals since they signed with Fox; in a film before Stormy Weather, audiences would applaud so loud that the reels would need to be rewound.) Watching Dunham and the Nicholas Brothers in Act 3, one thinks that Stormy Weather couldn’t have asked Bojangles to pass the torch any better than that. In fact, now that he had finally headlined a major film, Bojangles didn’t feel like returning to stand-alone scenes, and Stormy Weather wound up as his final film; he died of heart failure at age 71 in 1949, his funeral attended by almost every then-famous and prestigious African-American.
In theory, 20th Century Fox’s decision to promote Stormy Weather with Lena Horne’s name and face appearing first – in Bojangles’ biopic! – should have represented another sort of torch-passing. However, Stormy Weather wound up as Horne’s first and last full lead role of the decade. MGM never quite knew what to do with her outside of guest-star roles, particularly when the studio failed to cast her in the role of Julie LaVerne in the 1951 remake of Show Boat, instead casting and song-dubbing Ava Gardner in blackface. Horne went on to a terrific career of recordings and performances, but was never quite the movie star she should have been.
Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, both released in 1943, did decent but not spectacular business in the North, which wasn’t enough to make up for not being released in the South. Not for the first nor the last time, we see that the bar is set too high for all-African-American films: first, Hollywood cuts corners during their production and publicity campaigns, second, the films under-perform, and third, Hollywood shrugs and says such films aren’t profitable. This happened in 1929 with Hearts of Dixie and Hallelujah, in 1943 with Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, and then in 1954 with Carmen Jones, and then more later.
Influenced by: Bojangles’ life, but very loosely; black music for 25 years
Influenced: as with the two all-Black musicals of 14 years before, Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky did well, but not well enough for skittish white moguls to take another chance like that for another 11 years, with Carmen Jones (1954); nonetheless this film reverberated, particularly with later dancers like Gregory Hines and Savion Glover
“Some people say I dress too gay, but every day I feel so gay, and when I’m gay I dress that way, is something wrong with that?.”
Fox’s habit of having Carmen Miranda perform a pastiche of pan-Latin-American, white-written versions of Mexican, Cuban, Portuguese, and Argentinian dances and cultures soured many Brazilians on Miranda. Carmen recorded a song meant to explain herself to her countrymen called “Bananas is my Business”; the song may not have helped her with Brazilians, but it sure helped Busby Berkeley as he was putting together his full-color, full-camp “Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat” segment for The Gang’s All Here. Berkeley knew he had to observe Miranda’s contract, which included her backing band and a restriction against ever cutting from her face while she sang. Berkeley leaned into this in more ways than one.
For everything 20th Century Fox paid for Technicolor film and Berkeley and the chorines, there didn’t seem to be a lot left in its record budget for music or strong lead male actors. Granted, many of the studio’s best men were then enlisted men, but James Ellison practically sleepwalks through his role as the young romantic lead, and Phil Baker, as our host comedian, is never funny; the least Marx Brother or Stooge or silent genius would have done more with the role. Benny Goodman carries Ellison’s and Baker’s same sense of bemused entitlement as well as none of Benny’s better songs, as though the self-appointed “King of Swing” didn’t want to risk Fox laying claim to his most swinging things. After watching Stormy Weather, knowing it was just filmed on the same lot, one can’t help but wish LeBaron would have rehired Cab Calloway or Fats Waller or Ada Brown to truly earn the title The Gang’s All Here.
The Gang’s All Here begins with the darkest actor in the film, medium-shaded Nestor Amaral, crooning softly in Portugese in complete darkness until the camera pans over to a ship, the S.S. Brazil, where uptempo female voices carry the “Brazil” melody. Into New York, the ship unloads passengers and one car-sized net of assorted fruit, which the camera pans down until it comes to the hat of just-disembarked Dorita, who descants in Portugese, receives the city key from Fiorello’s rep, and continues cantillating in colloquial English “you discover you’re in New York.” We discover we’re noton New York’s docks but on an obvious set at a ritzy club where some dinner patrons turn out to be blue-eyed blondes a la Busby Berkeley, singing one line each in close-up as the camera pans along. At the song’s conclusion, host Phil Baker quips “well, there’s your good neighbor policy” while wealthy Andrew Mason brings his jittery business partner Peyton Potter to the risqué show where he laughs at Peyton’s prudish personality alongside his son, Andy Mason. Phil Baker introduces a “new sensation,” the “Uncle Samba,” signifying sweethearts samba-dancing with soldiers, interrupted by Andrew Mason Senior, who dances with Edie Allen, whom Andy fancies from afar. When Phil offers $50 that Andy will go down swinging like Casey at the bat, Andy takes that bet and follows Edie to the Broadway Canteen, where we soon see Benny Goodman and his orchestra performing “Minnie’s in the Money” for a crowd of hundreds of troops and other white people. (In real life, New York’s Stage Door Canteen was known for being integrated, especially during the war; none of that is suggested in The Gang’s All Here.) Andy dances and flirts with Edie, but lies that his name is Casey, because he doesn’t want a woman who only cares about wealth, even as she lies that she expects him to spend $50 on their night, because she doesn’t want a man who cares about wealth…but she comps him a sweetheart seat for the Club New Yorker’s show. The extensive, extravagant, extraordinary exegesis of “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat” begins with at least fifty chorines lying around an exaggerated tropical island set wearing yellow-and-black outfits that expose their shoulders, midriffs, and legs. They run over to Dorita, who is beset by closer-clothed bandoleros and her own very fruity attire as she sings, among other lyrics, “Some people say, I dress too gay, but every day, I feel so gay, and when I’m gay, I dress that way, is something wrong with that? N-o.” The chorines hold human-sized, plastic bananas in plenty of positions, including swinging them up and down in various stances like a six-pointed star made by other supine chorines. As Dorita sings of Brazilian señoritas being sweet and shy, the women return to their tropical layabout positions. Edie hits the town with Andy, arrives at a ship, sings “A Journey to a Star,” lets him kiss her goodnight, and looks at the stars hopefully. At a pool party at the Potter’s Westchester house, we meet Vivian Potter, Andy’s girlfriend, and her mom, Blossom Potter, who sees a newspaper photo of her husband Peyton awkwardly dancing with Dorita and dramatically dances with a young dude as retaliation. At Grand Central Station, Edie promises Andy she’ll write every day, kisses him goodbye, watches him leave, and runs into Phil and Dorita, who describes her first horse race as mostly a matter of wasted tickets that she throws into the air, landing on a passing woman’s newspaper segueing into a rather up-to-the-minute montage of headlines blaring defeats of “Jap Ships” double-exposed with Andy, who earns medals and a trip back home. Mason Sr. wants to do something special for his son, grabs Potter, goes to Phil’s club, and proposes, to Potter’s chagrin, Potter’s Westchester house as a rehearsal space for a war-bond fund-raising show, to Dorita’s definite delight and disfigured English. Phil shows Potter and Mason his latest stage number, Edie solo-singing “No love, no nothing, ’til my baby comes home,” a song we’re meant to see as more than faked for Phil. Dorita, Phil, Edie, and Vivian share a car to Westchester, where Vivian and Edie realize their men, Andy and Casey, are both returning from Australia, not realizing, as we do, that they’re the same person. At the country estate, Blossom Potter cordially welcomes Benny Goodman, Edie, everyone else, and Dorita, whom Blossom characterizes as a dangerous element. Italian-American dance legend Tony DeMarco, playing a temperamental Spanish-speaking stage manager named Tony DeMarco, extirpates in explosive Español at Peyton Potter’s roses and rudeness, but when he sees Vivian, the two share an enchanted dance duet that has Tony demanding the young chanteuse in his pageant. Blossom conspires with Phil to fake-threaten Peyton with revealing Blossom’s former nightclub identity, and Peyton curiously and furiously falls for it. Vivian shows Dorita a framed picture of Andy whom Dorita recognizes as Edie’s beau, and so when Edie enters, Dorita hides the framed photo behind her back, steals it out of the room, sleeps with it under her pillow, gets woke by Edie, and lies it was Andy’s surprise. Dorita brings Peyton Potter mint juleps, japes in jumbled jargon, asks for investment advice, kisses his face with a big lipstick smear for each recommendation, and inspires him to come on to her. Peyton watches his wife wander in, chases Dorita out, and tells his wife they were merely discussing investments, to which Blossom replies “No wonder you come home from the office so tired” causing him to wipe off his brow, see the lipstick, call it ketchup, and for her to reply, “No doubt. And from a Brazilian tomato.” Cornered, Dorita confesses to Edie that she and Vivian share the same sweetheart, as Dorita moves from reversals to rehearsal”ing”s. Andy comes home, reunites with Vivian, sees Edie, pretends not to know her, watches Vivian run to rehearsal, and tries to make up with Edie, who curses her writing him every day and leaves Andy to Vivian. An embroidered message invites us to a War Bond Garden Party which opens with Benny Goodman’s orchestra playing “Paducah,” sung sedately by Goodman, then spicily by Dorita who also samba-dances with Tony and a band of bubbly bandoleros. Edie reprises “A Journey to a Star” with a Greek chorus (of singers) and Tony and Vivian’s spotlighted dance, after which Vivian confides in Edie that Tony is taking Vivian to New York as her new dance partner and so she’ll end her relationship with Andy which was just kid stuff anyway? Edie gets onstage with ballroom-dancing children in polka-dot bow-ties and polka-dot dresses to perform the 1880-themed “The Polka Dot Polka.” From her song-ending vocals, the film transitions to surreal neon pink circles in blackness that become glowing hula hoops held by scores of futuristically dressed dancers…moving into more Dali-esque, kaleidoscopic imagery that culminates in longshot-to-closeups of each cast member taking turns on “A Journey to a Star,” ending on a shot of dozens of detached heads harmonizing over a blue background as pink fountain-water surges from the bottom to signal The End.
Pauline Kael wrote, “those who consider Berkeley a master consider this his masterpiece.” Shari Roberts wrote, “while Carmen Miranda’s parodic star text offers various negative images of Latin Americans and of women, her persona also reveals these images as stereotypes, allowing for negotiated reading by fans.” In interviews, Miranda often seemed to wink at anyone who was taking her bombshell status too seriously.
I have mixed feelings about the number The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat. I think aspects of it are fine. The sexualization of the women and the bananas seems calculated to test the audience’s Puritanism. I understand why some scholars see a commodification or fetishization or sexualization of Latin American women, for example Griffin writing with Harry Benshoff that the number “presents Latin America almost like a theme park for US tourists to revel in, without any real sense of the region’s economics, politics, or culture…overflowing with abundance just waiting to be sampled by the North American male spectator.” But that would actually bother me less if it wasn’t for the matching peaches-and-cream skin tone of the scores of chorines in the number. Is this supposed to represent Latin America, Brazil, or Bahia, the mostly African-descended area that inspired Miranda’s association with bananas? To me, the beauty of all of those places involves a much wider spectrum of colors. I would enjoy an update of this iconic number where the color palette of the chorines more closely resembled that of any of Brazil’s soccer teams. But, oh well.
Some critics now call the ending proto-psychedelia. Contemporary reviewers compared the ending of the film to Fantasia, which is interesting because of all the studios, Fox and Disney seemed most interested in Roosevelt and Rockefeller’s Good Neighbor Policy, Disney making Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros about Donald Duck traveling around Latin America with his Mexican bird friend Panchito and his Brazilian bird friend Jose, the latter of whom takes Donald to Bahia to meet Aurora Miranda, Carmen’s real-life sister. If you’re introducing kids to the Good Neighbor Policy, you might start with one of Disney’s 40s films, but for adults, I believe The Gang’s All Here is probably the best filmic example of the policy as well as of Miranda’s star image.
Influenced by: though this was his first film in color, Berkeley’s long history with objectifying yet glorifying women is worth discussing, particularly as the scores of “Brazilian” female dancers are all as white as paper; Miranda’s “Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat” wasn’t quite original to this film, although this took it to its campy extreme
Influenced: long considered a camp classic and a sort of gay totem, this also influenced ideas about Latina women
C16. Gentleman’s Agreement (Kazan, 1947) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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Darryl Zanuck read Laura Hobson’s new novel Gentleman’s Agreement and found himself relating to it as a Gentile often mistaken for Jewish, perhaps because he was the only non-Jewish studio mogul. Perhaps that’s why Zanuck felt he could ignore Jewish friends like Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer who warned him that the film version would only stir up trouble.
Journalist and novelist Laura Hobson said she was inspired to write Gentleman’s Agreement not because she knew of any Gentile reporter who had gone undercover as a Jew, but because in 1944, Congressman John Rankin called Walter Winchell a “little kike” and was applauded in Congress. No one should believe anyone retconning World War II as Americans fighting to save Jews; instead, people should read the story of the SS St. Louis, when Florida refused to take a ship full of 900 Jewish refugees who were returned to Europe and, in many cases, slaughtered by Nazis. American soldiers were as surprised as anyone else to learn, in 1945, what Hitler was actually doing in the concentration camps, and for years afterward, many denied or repressed the truth.
Darryl Zanuck had already told the press, “We are in this business primarily to provide entertainment, but in doing so we do not dodge the issue if we can also provide enlightenment.” He was not a denier or represser, something Laura Hobson knew when she sold him the film rights shortly after her book hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. For the adaptation Zanuck hired the Jewish writer Moss Hart, friend of Dore Schary’s and likely the most prestigious playwright/screenwriter on both coasts. When Moss Hart wondered about the screenplay actually naming anti-Semitic politicians like Rankin, Zanuck told Hart he hoped they got the publicity of a lawsuit. As for a director, Zanuck felt he could rely upon Greek-American Elia Kazan.
Gentleman’s Agreement begins with journalist and widower Philip Schuyler Green and his eleven-year-old son Tommy newly arriving in Manhattan and meeting up with Phil’s mother, Ma Green. Phil takes an elevator up to Smith’s Weekly to meet with his new editor Mr. Minify, who pitches him on an anti-Semitism article for a couple of hours, takes him to his mansion for dinner, and introduces him to his niece Kathy, who had suggested the anti-Semitism essay. At breakfast with his father, Tommy asks for and receives definitions of Jews and anti-Semitism, but his dad struggles to explain why Jews are hated. Later, Mrs. Green says she’d like to live in a world where such conversations were unnecessary for kids like Tommy or, long ago, Phil. Eschewing his prior reluctance, Phil praises the premise to his editor, who tells him he expects a wide scope that includes interviews with ingratiating people who don’t think they’re anti-Semitic…and Phil and Kathy share a pleasant dinner bantering about assumptions. Phil brainstorms with his mother, hits upon asking his army buddy Dave Goldman what it’s like to be Jewish, and then decides to write Dave a more anodyne letter. Ma Green has serious heart pains that scare her family, though the doctor advises they may only be false angina. While caring for her, Phil remembers his reporter experiences of living as an Okie and coal miner, and realizes the angle he needs is pretending to be Jewish, a conceit assured by his anonymity in New York and his dark eyes and hair. Phil invites Kathy over to explain his idea, excitedly says “I know there will be stumbling blocks, but I don’t care,” and then at the last second…expresses his enthusiasm with a kiss as though that were the surprise, and even escalates to a marriage proposal. Mr. Minify loves the Jew-face idea and hosts a posh luncheon where a person proposes Minify pay no mind to the problem, ironically proving the need for the piece. When Phil tells his new secretary to prepare job applications under two different names, Green and Greenberg, she admits she changed her own name to Wales because Smith’s Weekly turned her down under her Polish name. Phil gets more comfortable living with the pretense as it provokes petty anti-Semitism from his family doctor and landlord. At a patio dinner, after Kathy learns more about Phil’s story angle, she insists on knowing if Phil is really Jewish, a question that hangs like a dark cloud over their evening until Phil leaves, returns, and they forgive each other in a warm embrace. In front of Phil, Mr. Minify condemns a subordinate for failing to hire any Jewish secretaries, and as he leaves, Minify decries “the sloppy notion that everybody’s doing bigger things, there isn’t anything bigger than beating down the complacency about prejudice.” Miss Wales worries to Phil that the new hiring guidelines will hurt her if a “kikey” girl is hired, leading to Phil dressing her down about that word and any other racial slur (he says some) from a Jew or a Gentile. At Phil’s lunch with liberal fashion editor Anne Dettrey, a third reporter presumes that if Phil served, it must have been in public relations, causing Phil to question why he couldn’t have been a G.I., the man to begin “Some of my best friends are…” and Anne to cut him off with “Some of your best friends are Methodist, but you never feel the need to mention that, do you?” Anne invites Phil and her fiancée to a society party, where she introduces them to Dr. Lieberman, a physicist who, at Phil’s prompting, discusses Palestine, Zionism, race, science, and his opinion that secular Jews still avow their Jewishness out of pride because anti-Semitism persists. At Kathy’s place, she admits she confided in her sister that Phil is only faking Jewishness prior to them coming to Connecticut for a pre-nuptial party, making Phil upset at Kathy making any loopholes or assurances. When Tommy tells Dad kids want to know if he’s Jewish, Phil says he’s pretending for a story, but asks Tommy to tell curious kids Dad said he’s partly Jewish. Dave arrives for a surprise visit, eats Ma Green’s pancakes, explains that a great job offer has him searching for a place in New York big enough for Carol and his kids, accepts Phil’s offer to crash at Phil’s, and listens with fascination about Phil’s fake Jewishness and real problems with Kathy. Later, Dave, Anne, and Phil enjoy a laugh-filled lunch until a stranger sees Dave’s military uniform, asks him his name, hears Dave say “Dave Goldman,” says “I don’t like officers, especially if they’re Yids,” and provokes Dave to stand and snatch the stranger’s collar until his friend breaks it up. Kathy calls Phil to say that he’d be so proud of her for straightening out her relatives, although at the party in ritzy, recherche Darien, Connecticut, Kathy grills her sister why only the “safe” families seem to be there. Kathy shows Phil a lovely cottage she made that looks like something from a Katharine Hepburn screwball comedy, with Kathy saying she and it have been always waiting for Phil. When Kathy gives away that they’re honeymooning at the Flume Inn, Anne tells the couple it’s restricted, and Dave says knowingly the hotel will never directly admit it but instead exaggerate some excuse for exclusion. When Kathy resists Phil’s idea to stand up to such snobs, Phil speechifies, “They’re persistent little traitors to everything this country stands for and stands on, and you have to fight ’em.” At the hotel, Phil signs in and says “One more thing, is your hotel restricted?” leading the manager to ask why he wants to know, Phil to demand a simple answer to a simple question, and the manager to mention some mistake because there isn’t actually an available accommodation. Phil shouts in the crowded hotel lobby “Do you or do you not accept Jews?” as the manager leaves and, to several stony stares, so does Phil. After Dave says he can’t take his dream job because he can’t find a place big enough for his family, Phil privately grills Kathy why Dave can’t live in her cottage, and she cites a “gentleman’s agreement” about not renting to Jews in Darien. Tommy says he was beaten up at school and called a dirty Jew and kike, but when Kathy comforts him by saying “it’s not true! You’re no more Jewish than I am!” Phil reprimands Kathy, pulls Tommy away, gets Tommy’s full hateful story, and praises Tommy for not declaring himself Gentile or pretending there’s anything wrong with being Jewish. Phil and Kathy have it out, with Phil saying she assured Tommy of his superiority, Kathy saying “they” turn friends against each other, Phil saying he now sees how prejudice thrives among the supposedly non-prejudiced, and Kathy, on her way out, saying she admits being glad of not being Jewish, comparing it to preferring youth to oldness or health to sickness or wealth to poverty. When Phil hands Miss Wales his story with its suggested headline “I was Jewish for Eight Weeks,” she’s shocked that he’s Christian and Phil upbraids her for self-hatred and being shocked that anyone would give up Christianity for two months. Phil quits Smith’s Weekly even though everyone is thrilled about his piece, with the photo editor joking to Phil that “you Christians are so loud and pushy.” Phil eats a private dinner with Anne, who excoriates Kathy for “clucking her disapproval” and speechifies that more citizens need to assume more stands against soft bigotry. At a restaurant, Kathy assures Dave she’s not anti-Semitic because she first suggested the story, and yet she tells another story about a man at dinner telling an anti-Semitic story with no active resistance from Kathy. Ma Green reads aloud some choice quotes from her son’s article about what it’s like to feel the shame of jobs supposedly filled and kids knocked around and how the founding fathers felt that and fought to fix such favoritism. Dave arrives with the news that Kathy bravely gave Dave her cottage, causing Ma Green to make her own rousing speech about how maybe this won’t be the American century or Russian century or atomic century but instead, “when people all over the world – free people – found a way to live together? I’d like to be around to see some of that… even the beginning. I may stick around for quite a while.” In a final coda, Phil returns to Kathy’s embrace.
I don’t think this movie would be made today, but not for obvious reasons. These days, any movie character who is a little bit biased or racist is irredeemable. If you made a movie that included a young Barack Obama being against same-sex marriage, the movie wouldn’t ask you to support him later. We don’t dare have movies about prejudiced people being forgiven. Am I forgetting something?
On the one hand, okay, some people should absolutely never be forgiven. But I do think some people, sometimes, should have some kind of path to forgiveness. However clunkily, this movie actualizes a version of this. Gentleman’s Agreementwould be a very brave movie if it came out now with major stars in the main roles. It would be canceled before it began.
In later years, Kazan, Peck, and Zanuck would all describe this movie using adjectives like “quaint,” so it’s now hard to believe that in 1947 other moguls had cautioned against making it. Let’s be very clear that the notion of a straight cisgender WASPy man “stooping” to understand a marginalized group can be very different depending on the codes of the group; what may seem funny in Some Like It Hot may be coded very differently in films like Black Like Me, Little Big Man, and many others. Prejudice is no simple topic; on the one hand, different groups absolutely experience different very specific forms of prejudice, and so if you’re changing a queer man into a straight Jew, as Crossfire did, it’s hardly enough to simply rewrite a few terms. On the other hand, it would be naïve to suggest that the experience of American discrimination can’t be generalized at all. At its best, Gentleman’s Agreement is both specific about anti-Semitism and also generalizable about prejudice in America. After Gentleman’s Agreement earned a lot of money and won the Best Picture Oscar for 1947, making this the third and most politically conscious Best Picture in a row, a small section of Hollywood felt emboldened to make films to help bring forth the world that Ma Green describes at the end of Gentleman’s Agreement.
C17. Home of the Brave (Robson, 1949) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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In early 1949, Stanley Kramer sought a way to differentiate his upstart independent production company from John Ford’s and Howard Hawks’s and Humphrey Bogart’s, etc. As Kramer put it, “Instead of relying on star names, we pinned our faith in stories that had something to say. If it happened to be something that other movies hadn’t said before, so much the better.”
This pitch worked on the obviously wealthy father of their friend Robert Stillman, who came up with the entire small $250,000 budget for Home of the Brave. The budget included a hefty fee for the rights to Arthur Laurents’ play “Home of the Brave,” because it had run on Broadway for 69 performances in early 1946. Having spent that much money, Kramer told Laurents that the lead character would change from Jewish to African-American, because “Jews have been done,” and maybe because President Truman had just ordered the Armed Forces to be racially integrated. Foreman, as white as Kramer, worked on the script to make sure that their Peter Moss would speak of experiences specific to an American Black man.
Kramer hired Mark Robson, RKO B-film director, as he had on Champion, because Kramer could trust Robson to work efficiently, not require too many takes, and manage three locations simultaneously for 30 days to keep the union guys from going over-schedule. (Those three locations were an RKO indoor backlot of a jungle set, an RKO indoor backlot of a tin-shack hut set, and an unused beach north of Malibu.) Kramer also trusted Robson to work in secret, using the phony production title High Noon, which Foreman and Kramer would use for real three years later. Kramer felt he had to keep under the radar of the Hays Office for many reasons, not least the film’s frequent use of the n-word, a term Peck’s character had only spoken quickly in Gentleman’s Agreement as part of a list of many slurs his secretary shouldn’t speak about others or herself. Yes, forgiveness is easier than permission: the Hays Office saw the film just before its release, and made it the first film officially permitted to use the n-word since the stricter rules began in 1934. The title now went way beyond Laurents’ play: this celluloid was the Home of the first movie Brave enough to truly take on that term.
Home of the Brave begins with real footage of the war in the Pacific. On a base in a tropical hut, an army psychiatrist tells two officers that because Private Peter Moss has lost use of his legs and memory, he needs the officers to offer more information about the mission. In Major Robinson’s flashback, lower officers Finch, Mingo, and T.J. gather in a tropical hut where Robinson tells them of a four-day mission for four men to survey an island that “Japs” half-control. The mission is voluntary, but they are three of the four best-qualified, and they are all stunned to meet the entering fourth, Private Moss, an African-American whom Finch embraces as an old school friend. In a private room, Robinson calls his colonel to complain that the engineer he sent is colored, and the colonel counters citing a manpower shortage saying “I wouldn’t care if he was purple all over and had green stripes down his back…What do you think this is, a war or a country club tea dance?” Mingo and T.J. trade accusations of being scared, prejudiced, or just reluctant to work with someone unfamiliar, but when Robinson returns to ask who’s volunteering and who isn’t, only Finch and Moss step forward. Back at the shrink’s office, the doctor says his narcosynthesis is helping but may never solve the root problems, and soon T.J. wheels in Moss, who doesn’t recognize Robinson or the names Finch and Mingo. Privately, the Doctor sedates Moss and asks what he can recall of the other men on the mission, and a half-conscious Moss gives the men half-compliments, except for Finch who hates him like all whites hate him…Moss says to forget that as he flashes back into a college basketball game where Moss and Finch play as teammates. In flashback one evening, Finch comes to Moss’s porch where Moss admits he missed dinner because most of Finch’s friends don’t treat him as well as Finch does. After the doctor pushes, the groggy Moss recounts the mission on a PT boat arriving in darkness worrying about a rumored 15,000 Japs on the island. After they’re dug in, when the men complain bitterly about the C-rations, Moss breaks out some fried chicken that the men greedily devour as T.J. notes that colored men are great cooks and comedians, for example his janitor in Chicago, whom he imitates saying “I is so tired, I spose I was born tired” without noticing Moss’s disgust. Finch and Moss share bush patrol and discuss after-war plans that Finch thinks to combine into a great restaurant-bar. The men do their surveying, mapmaking, and ground-sampling work for four days; Robinson orders TJ to bring him a compass, TJ walks a click to order Moss to get the compass, Finch says he’ll get it, TJ stops Finch, Finch calls out TJ’s behavior since they arrived, TJ calls Moss a shoeshine, and TJ calls Finch an n-word-lover, although unlike me he says that n-word. When Mingo breaks up TJ and Finch’s fistfight, he says to save it for the Japs, causing TJ to answer Finch is more interested in saving his yellow-bellied n-word friend. Mingo sends TJ away to ask Finch and Moss to understand that a 36-year-old civilian hasn’t caught up to the world or the army, but Moss asks them to understand childhood episodes of slurs and bullying and fights and Moss blurts, “what do you want us to do? What do you want us to be?” As Finch asks if they’re still friends, as Moss calls him a corny dope, they hear gunshots and quickly move into combat readiness. TJ and Robinson rejoin them, Moss shoots an enemy out of a tree, and Mingo takes a bullet. On their retreat, Finch insists on going back for the map case as Moss insists that he forget it until an exasperated Finch turns to Moss and says “shut up you dirty yellow-bellied ni—” uh, “nitwit.” Finch takes another bullet, falls, sees Moss hiding, throws him the map case, and says he’s sorry for his slur before more gunfire makes Moss retreat. The men hear Finch crying out in pain, but forbid Moss from going after him, because the enemy is torturing Finch hoping to lure and kill more of them. Mingo tries to comfort Moss with a poem that ends, “coward, take my coward’s hand.” Later, Moss sits alone in a clearing hating and repeating the n-word, sees Finch crawling to him, tells him “I missed you dope,” and…watches Finch die in his arms. The platoon’s rescue PT boat arrives on time as the men find Moss trying to bury Finch, but when they prompt him, he says he can’t walk and doesn’t know why, so TJ bears him on his back as they scramble out of the jungle onto their dinghy to the PT boat. Back in the doctor’s office, the doctor asks the hazy-eyed Moss why he can’t walk and Moss says the incident with the “nitwit” innuendo told him Finch had lied and “hated me because I was black.” When Moss admits he was at first glad that Finch was shot, because of the nitwit insinuation, the doctor contradicts him: “Every soldier in this world who sees a buddy get shot has that one moment when he feels glad…I’m glad it wasn’t me. I’m glad I’m still alive.” Calling him Peter, the doctor tries to convince Moss his guilt is normal, not racial, not part of the same guilt that came from 150 years of slavery leading to second-class citizenship and the sort of people calling him names who actually need more mental help than Moss does. The doctor repeatedly orders Moss to walk, but when Moss repeatedly refuses, the doctor calls him a dirty n-word (yes, he says it) and inspires Moss to truly take a few angry steps forward. A one-armed Mingo bickers with TJ until Moss walks in and TJ claims Moss, going home as a war hero, will soon attract all the high-yellows with long hair. After Mingo and Moss remove TJ from the room, Moss falls apart making Mingo admit his own breakdown when he woke up without an arm, thinking back to all the times he’d felt glad when other buddies had fallen. Moss asks who told him to say that, but when he realizes Mingo is on the level, Moss accepts that they have something important in common. In the final moment, Mingo asks Moss if he, Mingo, can become Moss’s new business partner as their transport arrives to start their voyage home.
Spike Lee put it on his short must-see movie list. One thing I like about Home of the Brave is that it’s as sensitive to Black issues as it is to disability issues. There are several films about a paralyzed person who learns to put mind over matter and walk by the end, like one we’ll be looking at in a few minutes, but I appreciate that after Moss can walk, he forms a bond with now-one-armed Mingo. In other words, instead of ending with the magical elimination of disability, the story invites us to remember that some wounds won’t be healing.
The low-budget-ness of the film is somewhat obvious, but I think it’s saved by tremendous performances from Jeff Corey as the doctor, Lloyd Bridges as the friend, and especially James Edwards as Peter Moss, who is called upon to express almost every emotion a person could possibly express in a film.
In Donald Bogle’s short history of Black Hollywood, “Bright Boulevards Bold Dreams,” Bogle devotes three pages to the fascinating biography of James Edwards, including a hospital stay after a debilitating injury in which a racist soldier in the next bed gradually warmed to him, something Bogle says could have easily been written into Home of the Brave. Edwards played a few of the supporting roles that were, before 1949, the only ones offered to black men not named Stepin Fetchit or Bojangles, and because of two of them, Stanley Kramer offered him Peter Moss if he would work for wastrel wages. Per Bogle, Edwards said, “I told Mr. Kramer, I’d play the part just for three meals a day and a place to sleep. Money was unimportant. This is the kind of role that happens only once in any actor’s life.” Bogle goes on, “Home of the Brave transformed Edwards into a symbol of a new era for African Americans in movies.” Diahaan Carroll felt he had become the only really famous black actor, “who had done the undoable by creating the image of the black man as a sensitive, intelligent, articulate human being who had to be reckoned with.”
C18. Border Incident (Mann, 1950) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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One reason MGM hired Dore Schary was his association with B-film director Anthony Mann and his favorite director of photography John Alton; the pair had impressed many with the semi-documentary look of 1947’s T-Men. MGM got the men making noirish movies up to and including Border Incident, the film that pivoted both men from B-films to A-films. Border Incident begins with bright daytime scenes, but eventually dives deep into Alton’s characteristic palette of greys and blacks that well suit the material. Elsewhere, I expanded on how Mann planned but was canned from Spartacus, but it’s odd that this director’s director isn’t more directly responsible for canonized films. Maybe one reason is that after Border Incident, Mann made some of the 50s’ best westerns that starred but did not exactly compliment white men, or as Benshoff and Griffin put it: “The Westerns of director Anthony Mann often figured their white heroes as obsessed neurotics.”
Border Incident was the first Hollywood film to examine the bracero program, which began in 1942 because American farmers had been drafted for war and needed willing Mexicans to till the crops and fill the jobs. Braceros were granted temporary work permits and living wages, but some criminals attempted to take advantage of these on both sides of the border, leading to restrictions from Mexico through 1947. After the U.S. promised to punish U.S. companies who hired illegal workers, Mexico lifted many restrictions in 1948, leading the total number of braceros to rise to about 200,000 a year…despite the fact that the U.S. didn’t really pursue its promised punishments. During the 1940s, the bracero program was a win-win enthusiastically endorsed by most Americans and most Mexicans; the spirit of boisterous bilateral relations in the film is maybe a bit overdone, but also somewhat representative of the period.
Border Incident is remarkable for casting an actual Mexican-American, Ricardo Montalban, as its Mexican hero, instead of casting a white star in brownface as, uh, Elia Kazan did three years later when Viva Zapata brought forth a remarkably bronzey Brando as, uh, Emiliano Zapata. Even more remarkable was Montalban’s career up to that point, marketed by MGM as the latest Latin Lover supporting those splashy sunny films Mayer favored. Border Incident represented Montalban’s first lead role, the first time his name appeared first in the credits, and, when it was released in late 1949, Montalban became the first Latino actor to appear on the cover of Life magazine.
Border Incident opens with aerial shots of the U.S.-Mexico border and farmlands as the newsreel narrator explains the bracero program feeds Americans, mostly employs law-abiding Mexicans, but as we see, it also employs illegals who do the labor, get paid, dash back across the border, and get robbed and killed and buried by bandits. On an airplane from Mexico City come Rafael Alvarado and Pablo Rodriguez, two of Mexico’s top criminal investigators, while another airplane from Washington brings John McReynolds and Jack Beanres. In a government office in Mexicali, on the southern side of the border, the four men agree that Jack will secretly trail Pablo as he goes undercover presenting himself as a bracero trying to be smuggled from Mexicali to Calexico. Pablo wears a sombrero and denim, mingles with the enormous crowd seeking permits, befriends one Juan, sees Juan get rejected, learns Juan has done this every day for six weeks, and asks Juan if there’s a fleeter, less legal way. Juan sends Pablo to a man who takes Pablo’s 70 pesos and tells him to meet in front of La Fortuna Barberia at 10pm. Juan prays at a church, says goodbye to his mother, and joins Pablo at the meeting point. Juan, Pablo and others are “pssst”ed into a building where a gypsy-ish woman checks their hands, lets Pablo pass, makes sure he’s out of earshot, tells an associate he doesn’t have bracero hands and should be observed closely, watches all the men leave, sees Jack tail them, and asks her own man to tail the gringo, but Jack tails his tail and takes him out. At the backroom of the Perla de Oro, when supervisor Hugo accuses Pablo of faking it, Pablo suggests reasons why a non-bracero might want to be one, for example being on the run for handling money for a convicted drug dealer. After Jack tips off the police, their banging on the door prompts Pablo to beg Hugo to keep him from the Tres Marias island prison, so Hugo agreeingly hustles Pablo with the others into the truck, and the police charge in to find an empty bar. In a hidden compartment under the fake truck floor that looks like a brutal middle passage, Pablo rides with Juan and an old man who has a heart attack and dies, so the drivers take his corpse and leave it in the desert. At the next junction, the men file into a trailer camper as their Mexican driver accepts $330 ($30 per head) from Jeff, a new white man who wants a cut of their return fee and asks what happened to the 12th man. At the next junction, Parkson’s farm, Jeff learns Parkson has no faked permits for these people, leading to an argument about where else they might go, leading to Parkson reluctantly agreeing to temporarily mix in this group with his legal workers. When Juan asks why he is being paid 25 cents an hour compared to the 75 cents an hour he was promised in Mexico, Jeff calls him a law-breaker who should be happy with what he gets. Undercover, Jack leaves an immigration permit on the bar at Perla de Oro, so that night Hugo sends his men, Zopilote and Cuchillo, to wake up Jack, search him and his safe, threaten him, bring him to Hugo, and torture him. Jack gives up his Jack Bryant ID, shows his criminal record, and tells Hugo that he’ll have to pay top dollar for the other 400 permits he’s hidden. Zopilote and Cuchillo cross the border to Parkson’s to offer him the 400 work permits from Hugo’s prisoner Jack Bryant, but Parkson surprises them by unveiling Jack Bryant, brought over by Jeff. Jack dismisses Zopilote and Cuchillo, haggles with Parkson, agrees to $10 per permit, writes a wire to Kansas City, and reluctantly agrees to remain in Parkson’s water tower until the permits arrive. Juan’s stray comment causes Pablo to realize where Jack is, sneak off to see him, obtain whispered instructions to contact Neely in Calexico, run through a lettuce patch, and barely avoid being shot by Jeff, to whom he pretends he was just going to mail a letter to a sweetheart. Parkson’s man Clay seizes Jack’s driver’s license, rides a motorcycle to the Calexico Post Office, asks for a package for Jack Bryant, shows them the ID, gets spotted by smart cops, rides back, gets chased by a cop car, and loses the tail on a train trestle. Parkson purloins the package of permits, makes arrangements with Hugo on the phone for a hundred more braceros, negotiates with Jack, and that night commands Jeff to distribute permits to a hundred braceros and ships them in separate trucks to various southwestern ranches. At the last moment, a phone call from Kansas City tells Parkson that Jack must be a cop, resulting in a brief fight that Jack loses. In the covered flatbed of a departing truck, Pablo sees Jeff and Clay leading Jack to execution, cuts open the cover, jumps on the truck running board, beats up and ejects the driver, takes over the truck, U-turns it, reveals his true identity to Juan, and explains they need to help Jack who is a “friend of all braceros.” Juan and Pablo cross a river to sneak onto a field that Clay covers with a rifle, meaning they can do little but crawl and watch in claustrophobic low-angle shots as Jeff kills Jack by driving a harvester over him. However, Pablo does manage to drive the truck some distance, stop at a friendly house, tell Juan to tell the ten other riding braceros what’s happening, enter the house, order a frazzled Mrs. Amboy to let him use the phone, call agents in Calexico, and tell them to come arrest Jeff and Clay for Jack’s murder…only to be told, at gunpoint from Jeff’s wife, to hang up the phone. Mrs. Jeff Amboy warns Parkson, who soon arrives with Jeff, who puts a pistol in Pablo’s puss until Parkson proposes they chaperone Pablo and this truckload of braceros to the canyon, despite Pablo’s protests that they’ve done nothing wrong. Jeff double-crosses Parkson, forcing him to learn what it’s like to march in the deepening canyon de la muerte while holding the braceros at gunpoint. Pablo sneaks around, disarms Parkson, and places him at the front of the line, where he becomes easy pickings for Jeff, snipering from the top of the canyon and shooting Parkson dead into quicksand. When Zopilote and Cuchillo ambush the braceros, a brawl befalls them all as Juan fends off Cuchillo’s large knife and kills him with it. Pablo and Zopilote fight and fall into quicksand, with Juan and the braceros barely able to, uh, brace and bring up Pablo. The narrator takes us to a government ceremony where Jack is honored, Pablo is rewarded, and the camera pans out to a shot framed by an American and Mexican flag as the narrator thanks officers in both countries for “destroying and rounding up the human vultures who prey on unsuspecting victims” and the flags frame a final shot of a field as “food is brought from the earth by the hands of the workers now safe and secure living under the protection of two great republics and the bounty of God almighty.”
One issue with this film is that the braceros are treated as more or less helpless victims whom only police officers can possibly help. The idea of legal braceros banding together for better treatment is nowhere near this film’s horizon, and that may well be because of the very real fear of being labeled Communists. Eventually, three filmmakers who were labeled Communists would double down on defying McCarthyism by making Salt of the Earth, a more pointed look at Mexican labor exploitation that I cover next podcast.
I grant that Border Incident veers toward propaganda for police and the bracero program, but in retrospect I find that touching. Later studies have found that the 200,000 official braceros employed every year from 1948 to 1964 didn’t adversely affect America’s labor market.
This both-sides-of-the-border movie somehow proved both sides of Schary and Mayer’s argument about message pictures. When it came out in late 1949, Border Incident wasn’t a hit and was one more piece of proof Mayer could use against Schary’s social consciousness. Another piece came out a year later, when Schary oversaw Anthony Mann and John Alton’s film Devil’s Doorway, about a Native American who fought for the Union in the Civil War only to return to face prejudice in the home town he supposedly freed. Abbott and Costello comedies during this period could come and go, and the duo would just keep making more of them, but when a social-problem film like Border Incident or Devil’s Doorway failed, all the smart executives said people don’t go to movies to think, or that HUAC was making things too difficult.
C19. The Young Lovers (Never Fear) (Lupino, 1951) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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1948 was a key year for Ida Lupino: she turned 30, became an American citizen, married Collier Young, founded Filmmakers Inc with him, and co-produced and co-wrote a low-budget film called Not Wanted, about a young woman who gets pregnant, gives up her baby, and kidnaps another one. Their director, Elmer Clifton, fell ill on set, and Lupino finished the film but refused credit out of deference to Clifton. Also in 1948, Lupino completed her first film with her name as the credited director, Never Fear, later retitled as The Young Lovers. At the time, Lupino told a reporter she was interested in bringing to America something like the realism of Roberto Rossellini, saying “People are tired of having the wool pulled over their eyes. They pay out good money for their theatre tickets and they want something in return. They want realism. And you can’t be realistic with the same glamorous mugs on the screen all the time.”
Never Fear was a personal project for Lupino, who had contracted polio at the age of 16, perhaps from swimming at a Hollywood pool party. Afterward, Paramount canceled her contract, and she lived some of the fears of the film’s central character, Carol, although Lupino mostly recovered within about two years. Lupino’s health updates were published in industry trades, and she steadfastly helped raised money for polio research. By the time Lupino was in position to make a film about polio, in 1949, she knew the Kabat-Kaiser Institute well enough for them to trust her to shoot on location and even film some of the actual polio victims who were willing to appear on camera. Lupino knew of at least two dancers who had had polio experiences like Carol in the film, and despite the opening card, she combined their stories for melodramatic effect.
Never Fear opens with a title card that says “This is a true story. It was photographed where it happened.” Guy Williams arrives at Club 18 and taps his gardenia on a poster that advertises himself as half of the Carol & Guy dance team. On a large stage, Guy chats with his dance and romance partner Carol Williams about steps they can take, on stage and toward major successes. Cut to their show, in which they swordfight, swirl, swivel, slither, and smooch to the supper-goers’ kudos. To celebrate a new contract, they drive to the beach, watch the sunset in robes, and Guy surprises her with an engagement ring that she accepts. In a studio, Guy tries a song on the piano as Carol sits, cries, stands, looks at Guy looking blurry, clings to a stage rope, holds her throat, and falls to her seat as Guy scrambles over. After a few tests, Doctor Taylor calls a hospital to take a case of suspected polio. In a new hospital, Guy breaks the news that instead of going home or to the Wilshire, she’s got a great room at a lovely facility that she’ll soon walk out of, prompting Carol to snap, “I’ll never walk or dance again” and Guy to say lovingly, “you’re not the kind who gives up, are you?” As Guy rolls Carol into the Kabat-Kaiser Institute, we see other wheelchair-bound residents bantering happily with staff, but after Carol is left alone in her plush room, she has to cover her mouth to muffle her scream. Dr. Middleton tells her she’ll walk again but only if her mind and heart find the will to walk, a thought that makes her so sad that she gives the bum rush to Len Randall, a handsome wheelchair-bound man who stops by. In a montage, Carol undergoes physical therapy. Guy visits Happy Homes realty, speaks to its owner Mr. Brownlee, pitches his inexperience as a positive, volunteers to take a percentage instead of a salary, and somehow convinces the man to let him sell houses. We see polio patients performing peerlessly in the pool, then repose in a pasture as a mariachi sings of Mexico and Guy tells Carol of his new position and her excellent prospects. Alone in her room, Carol voice-overs to Guy about being better for him only to fall in music-amplified frustration. In an art room, as Carol defaces her sculpted face next to sculpted Guy’s, Len rolls over and tells her that the doctors and patients are worried because she began trying but now isn’t. Carol retorts she has time but Len asks her to think of the patients outside the hospital who could use the care and then, partly as apology, invites her to square-dancing Saturday, a suggestion to which she takes great offense. However, we cut to the auditorium where the band is by the square dance caller saying “everybody, forward and back, give those chairs a wiggity-wack” as Len and Carol do wheelchair-dancing with a dozen other couples. Guy sees her, takes her aside, and suggests they marry soon, escalating into Guy wondering what’s wrong that she can’t accept his love and her shouting back, “I’m a cripple, Guy! That’s what’s the matter with me!” A man on crutches walks by to feel sorry for her. Dr. Middleton pages Carol to insist that he take a drive in a convertible with Guy, but when they stop alone on a country road, Carol rejects him again and insists he find another co-dancer despite his protests about how he’d lose his arm if it would help her. At Happy Homes, Guy gets fired for poor sales, gets a pass from secretary Phyllis, invites Phyllis to dinner, winds up at her place, kisses her, falls asleep, and awakens to her explaining she’s not a good part-time girl and he needs to follow his passions professionally and romantically. At Kabat-Kaiser, Josie tells Carol that she married her husband Mac after her polio diagnosis and has loved him for them facing it together. After another brief montage, Carol is barely but briskly ambulating, and the institute throws her a big birthday party where she thanks everyone for putting up with her self-pity. Guy arrives, gives her a gift, says hi to everyone, accompanies her as she walks on crutches to the outdoor garden, compliments her, hears her ask for a drive, and breaks the news to her that after other jobs failed, he returned to hoofing and must leave for Las Vegas now. Carol throws herself at Len but Len says Carol is still in love with Guy and far too young to settle. Carol says long laborious goodbyes to Josie, Dr. Middleton, Red Dawson, and, with much difficulty, Len, as she staggers out the door, holds the building, watches people hustle and bustle past her, surrenders to despair, and sees, standing several feet away…can it be Len, telling her to walk? She manages to walk to him and they embrace amongst the busy sidewalk as the film dissolves to a title card saying “This is not THE END. It is just the beginning for all those with faith and courage.”
I absolutely recognize elements that might be considered typical of a “woman’s picture,” like melodramatic line readings, the motif of flowers, and the showcasing of dance. To me, these aren’t weaknesses, but instead strengths.
Never Fear’s production may have inspired Kramer to make the aforementioned The Men, about a ward of paralytics, and Kazan to make, as his fourth film, Panic in the Streets, about a plague epidemic. Kazan was also influenced by the real-life 1949 polio epidemic in which more than 42,000 cases were reported and about 2,700 people died. One may have thought this could have helped the box office of Never Fear, released at the end of 1949, but it wasn’t a hit, so perhaps people wanted to perceive polio as little as possible. However, Never Fear caught the interest of Howard Hughes, who signed a distribution deal with Filmakers Inc that gave them complete control over their next few films.
For a few years there, Lupino was as socially conscious as she was cost conscious. Lupino bragged of her flinty frugal filmmaking, saying that if she was once the poor man’s Bette Davis, as a director she was the poor man’s Don Siegel. (Listeners know him from Dirty Harry.) She would make deals with companies to put their brands in her films. She called herself a bulldozer for financing, but a mother on set, and the back of her director’s chair said “Mother of Us All.” She became the only woman to direct a film noir during the classic period, namely The Hitch-Hiker in 1953. After her production company shut down in 1955, she went on to direct more than 100 TV episodes in every genre as well as perform as an actor in various roles through the 1970s. By that time, Lupino was openly calling for more women in all phases of production. One reporter asked if she considered herself a feminist, and she answered that she was always careful about words like that as a director, because “keeping a feminine approach is vital. Men hate bossy females. Often I pretended to a cameraman to know less than I did. That way I got more cooperation.”
To me it sounds like the behind-the-scenes equivalent of Ginger Rogers dancing backwards and in heels. Lupino probably had to work twice as hard to be half as accepted. But I’m going to say it paid off in some marvelous movies and her inspiring of future female filmmakers.
C20. Broken Arrow (Dawes, 1950) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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Broken Arrow was arguably the first post-Stagecoach film to treat Native Americans as three-dimensional humans and not stock villains. John Ford’s Fort Apache in 1948 had also humanized its Indians, but they’re not in the movie much; in Broken Arrow the indigenous assume center stage. This was a crucial intervention considering the context that, by 1950, Westerns had become arguably the country’s favorite genre or at least the one that most regularly defined how Americans became Americans.
Albert Maltz had already been named as one of the Hollywood Ten when Darryl Zanuck at Fox hired him to adapt Elliott Arnold’s 1947 historical novel Blood Brother; by the time the film was released in 1950, Maltz was in prison and the studios had been ordered not to hire any known Communists. In consultation with Maltz, Fox changed the name in the credits to Maltz’s friend and fellow screenwriter Michael Blankfort, although Maltz’s credit was restored in later prints. Broken Arrow was Delmer Daves’ first directorial effort for Zanuck, who signed the long-time director of Warner Bros.’ war and noir films to a long-term contract with Fox in 1949. From Zanuck’s perspective, Daves was the perfect director for Broken Arrow, experienced enough to do the job, but new enough to his contract not to second-guess Zanuck’s many pre-production decisions, as Elia Kazan had been…but now wasn’t.
Although other Westerns had been shot in Sedona, Broken Arrow was the first to really take advantage of the vibrant color contrasts between the rust-red rocks and the grass-green streams nearby. Films like The African Queen and Roman Holiday helped convert parts of Hollywood into travel agents for far-flung venues, but before those movies, Broken Arrowwas a proto-travelogue film for Sedona, then almost unknown to most of America. Of course, Sedona looked nothing like Tucson or southeastern Arizona, where Elliott Arnold’s historical novel was set. The idea of a Broken Arrow signifying peace was a Blackfoot tradition, not Apache. Following fellow white man and novelist Elliott Arnold, Zanuck and Daves tried for Apache authenticity in alternate aspects, as with the respectful presentation of the Social Dance and the Girl’s Sunrise Ceremony. After decades of American audiences becoming accustomed to grammar-challenged indigenous voices, led by Tonto on the popular Lone Ranger radio show, Broken Arrow broke precedent by eschewing broken English for all of its Indians, instead inferring in Tom’s opening that though we hear English, the words were spoken in Apache, something Native author Angela Aleiss applauds in her book “Making the White Man’s Indian.” Zanuck would brag that production hired 240 Native Americans from Arizona’s Fort Apache Indian Reservation, as well as Native actor Jay Silverheels, who gets at least one good scene where he assumes his Mexican moniker Geronimo.
However, Silverheels, or someone else, should have played the key role of Cochise instead of white actor Jeff Chandler in redface. Producer Julius Blaustein told the Los Angeles Times that he searched everywhere for the right actor to play Cochise; Blaustein should have searched harder. Bearing in mind that as late as the 60s, actors from Paul Newman to Laurence Olivier were following the century’s stage convention of whites darkening their faces to play ethnic, Jeff Chandler is excellent in the role, partly because Maltz gives Cochise the film’s best, most astute dialogue. However, on every level, there is absolutely no excuse for Fox casting 15-year-old white Debra Paget in redface as 41-year-old Jimmy Stewart’s love interest who kisses him in several scenes. As Tom, Stewart becomes attracted to this girl when he meets her at her ceremony for crossing the threshold into puberty. Beyond the redface, the pedophilia is unpardonable, unallowable, unjustifiable, and unforgivable. I will only say that contrary to other 21st-century-published books that discuss Broken Arrow, much less contemporary reviews, I’m at least mentioning the pedophilia and ridiculous age discrepancy between male and female love interests that became shamefully acute – I hate to say “normalized” – in the 50s when classical studio stars got paired with newer starlets.
Broken Arrow begins with Tom Jeffords explaining that his story will be presented as unaltered except for Apache speaking English. On a bright day during the tenth year of a whites-vs-indigenous war, Tom rides a horse, comes upon a wounded Apache boy, decides not to kill him, fends off his knife blow, and offers him water. The camera dissolves from a closeup of the Apache boy sipping to a longshot of a night campfire which Tom has made to heat the knife to dig the eight pieces of buckshot out of his back. After a few days, arrows suddenly thwack near them signifying an Apache attack, and when the boy tells Tom he had better give up his weapon, Tom finally does. When the Apache boy tells the warriors that this white man healed him, they call Tom a woman for not taking the boy’s scalp, but Tom counters that Apache don’t scalp and aren’t women, and they agree to let this gold prospector go just this one time. Then, the sudden appearance of a dozen white prospectors on horses causes the Apache to tie and gag Tom, ambush the whites, kill some, force Tom to watch as they torture others, and let Tom go with the warning that no white can live where Cochise lives. Back in a barroom in Tucson, after Tom corrects a cowboy’s calumnies about Cochise’s latest ambush, rancher Ben Slade asks why he didn’t kill the boy while a Colonel asks Tom to scout for him, and Tom answers both men with Cochise’s military advantages. When Tom says he is tired of fighting a war the Apache didn’t start, a man retorts that whites haven’t behaved perfectly but do bring civilization, “clothes, carpets, hats, boots, medicine” and “first-class whiskey.” In Tucson’s post office, when Milt complains to Tom about Apaches thwarting his couriers, Tom asks one Juan if he will teach him enough Apache to truly parley with Cochise, something Milt warns no white man has withstood and lived in ten years. After lessons, Juan smoke-signals to the Apache from a remote location where Juan leaves Tom with a warning not to lie to Cochise because his eyes will see Tom’s heart. Tom’s ride into Indian country gradually gathers gun-pointing chaperones right into the Apache village, where Tom dismounts, disarms himself, seeks a discussion with Cochise, and discloses to Cochise his proposal that the Apache permit post couriers safe passage, a plan for peace that the chief finds pretty problematic. That night, Tom observes a tribal dance ritual that he tells Cochise is the dance before the sunrise ceremony, and an impressed Cochise brings Tom into the wickiup of the temporarily holy White Painted Lady who blesses Tom’s old war wound. The next day, this girl, Sonseeahray, peeping-Toms the shaving Tom, who offers her his mirror, asks about courting rules, and says that after seeing her and returning to Tucson he’ll feel lonely for the first time in his life. In a Tucson town turnout, Tom tells them Cochise promised protected postal passage, and Lowrie counters that Chiricahua Apache recently slaughtered men on wagon trains and he bets that five postal riders won’t return safely. One by one, the five couriers travel to and fro intact, but then we watch an epic, dramatic military battle in which 50 whites are killed and 100 wounded. Back in a bigger barroom, white men call Tom an “Indian lover” and “copperhead” and transform into a lynch mob, but the one-armed “Christian General” Howard stops the mob, pulls Tom into a private office, and enlists Tom’s help because President Grant has authorized him to make a proper peace deal where Apaches remain sovereign over current territory. Sonseeahray and Tom share feelings, fondnesses, and a first kiss at an idyllic stream. We see Apache rituals of Cochise reading names of warriors “gone to join their fathers” and the Girls Sunrise Ceremony, including Sonseeahray, who chooses Tom, who joins her in a secluded grove where Cochise finds them wanting to be married, asks them where they will possibly live without prejudice from others, and yet agrees to serve as a go-between who soon brokers a marriage blessing from her parents. That night, in Cochise’s wickiup, Sonseeahray’s ex, Nahilzay, fails to kill Tom, and when Cochise sees Nahilzay unconscious and what has happened, he tells Nahilzay he honors their mutual battles as he shoots him dead. Tribal leaders gather on a promontory to listen to Tom and the Christian General lay out the plan, including the claim that when the current chief of white men dies or leaves office, his word is bond over the next chief. After the white men leave the meeting, Geronimo rises and challenges whites as unreliable and the plan for tending cattle as unrealistic. Cochise breaks an arrow, affirms the plan, and says he will step down as chief if a majority announce their opposition, but after only a minority do, Cochise sends them off with Geronimo as enemies. Cochise promises a testing period of a 90-day armistice that starts off well until Tom chaperones the first Butterfield stage in five years to cross a certain river…where Indians shoot at them and pin them down. Tom recognizes them as renegades, reasons with the stage men to remain pinned but protected, rides off to send smoke signals, and arouses Cochise’s men to ride out and scatter these separatists enough for the stage to go through. On Day 12 of the armistice, Tom and Sonseeahray are married in an ostensible Chiricahua ritual that includes a tribal chief saying “Now for you there is no rain, for one is shelter to the other. Now for you there is no cold, for one is warmth to the other. Now there is no loneliness.” Tom and Sonseeahray are told to “ride white horses” to their “secret place,” which turns out to be a pond in view of Cathedral Rock, where they get horizontal, kiss, and speculate about their free children riding white horses. Ben Slade’s son finds Cochise, Tom, and Sonseeahray and spins a yarn of stolen horses, a yarn Tom is eager to disprove, but when the kid takes them to the spot, he hi-yaaa’s his horse and the long-ago-lynch-mob leaders ambush them, wound Tom, kill Sonseeahray, but eventually fall to kick-ass action hero Cochise, excepting a few who flee to Mexico rather than face the U.S. military. As Sonseeahray dies in Tom’s arms, Cochise forbids Tom from taking revenge on Apache territory. After a brief scene of Milt and the Christian General paying respects, Tom voice-overs that “as time passed, I came to know that the death of Sonseeahray put a seal on the peace, and from that day on” wherever he went, and we see him riding into an un-Arizonan mountain range, “I knew my wife was with me.”
The movie vaguely suggests that Jeffords left Arizona, but in real life he stayed through the end of Cochise’s life to try to keep the treaty, which failed. More relevant to the veracity of this film, there is NO record of Tom Jeffords having a romance with any Sonseeahray or any other Native American woman or girl. This was made up by Elliott Arnold, embellished by Hollywood, and emulated by way too many future filmmakers.
Broken Arrow was made in the summer of 1949, released in the summer of 1950, and both helped and hurt at the box office by Anthony Mann’s western Winchester ’73, which was released at the same time, also starring Stewart in a more stunt-driven, action-hero-type role. By that winter, Zanuck was determined that Academy voters would not forget Broken Arrow. He paid for an hour-long Lux Radio Theater presentation of the story in January 1951, with Burt Lancaster replacing an ill James Stewart. Zanuck either won or basically bought a special Golden Globe Award for “Best Film Promoting International Understanding.” Zanuck’s campaigning got the film three Oscar nominations, one for Ernest Palmer’s color cinematography, more or less assured by simply situating Sedona scenically, one for the script given to Michael Blankfort pretending to be Albert Maltz, a laurel restored to Maltz after the blacklist ended, and one for Jeff Chandler for Best Supporting Actor as Cochise, something that Kim Newman credits as establishing “the 1950s model of an Indian hero,” and a fashion “for westerns to be pro-Indian,” with a reinvigorated retail market for respectful posters of rebels like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.
Key to all this was Zanuck hiring Rosebud Yellow Robe to travel the country giving interviews about the film. Born in 1907, Lakota Indian Rosebud Yellow Robe attended President Calvin Coolidge’s 1927 ceremony in South Dakota honoring Coolidge’s support of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 that assured full U.S. citizenship and land rights to Native Americans; in one photo, Coolidge and Yellow Robe stand beside each other wearing traditional headdresses. Cecil B. DeMille asked Yellow Robe to play Ramona, but she turned him down and the role went to Dolores Del Rio, as explained on an earlier podcast. Rosebud Yellow Rose became more interested in acting, moved to New York, and lived there most of her life, performing, writing books, and educating people about Native American customs and traditions in places like the summertime Indian Village in Jones Beach. Some say that Orson Welles named Rosebud after her. In interviews given in 1950 and 1951, Rosebud Yellow Rose noted that Broken Arrow didn’t name Sonseeahray as a princess, “princess” being a term and a disposition white men had mistakenly made up for Pocahontas. The Pocahontas story, by then familiar yet bowdlerized to most Americans through stage, story, and screen, was here distinguished from Broken Arrow in many ways, not least because it took place 250 years before the U.S. Civil War. If Pocahontas was a problematic creation myth, Broken Arrow was, uh, an also problematic story of reconciliation that had ostensibly happened during the lifetimes of most living Americans’ grandparents.
So now it’s Broken Arrow, not Pocahontas, that gets remade/reinvented every twenty years, first in 1970 with both A Man Called Horse and Little Big Man, then in 1990 with Dances with Wolves, then with the 2009 remake Avatar, the highest-grossing film of all time. If those films didn’t influence American perceptions of the indigenous, I don’t know what else did. Some or all of them might be considered white-savior films. Another pernicious influence of Broken Arrow was the gradual, organic cultural metastasizing of the films’ wedding blessing, called the “Apache Wedding Prayer” at thousands if not millions of Caucasian weddings. This prayer wasn’t Apache, but instead Arnold, a fantasy from his novel that we now know not as folklore, but fakelore. “Now for you there is no rain, for one is shelter to the other”? Now for you there is no fake cultural appropriation, for you need a better shelter than that.
C21. Glen or Glenda (Wood, 1953) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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C22. The Salt of the Earth (Biberman, 1954) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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C23. Carmen Jones (Preminger, 1954) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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C24. The King and I (Lang, 1956) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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C25. Tea and Sympathy (Minnelli, 1956) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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C26. Sayonara (Logan, 1957) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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C27. The Defiant Ones (Kramer, 1958) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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C28. A Raisin in the Sun (Petrie, 1961) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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C29. Flower Drum Song (Koster, 1961) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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C30. The Children’s Hour (Wyler, 1961) clip imdb LB RT trailer wiki
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C31. The Miracle Worker (Penn, 1962)
C32. Cheyenne Autumn (Ford, 1964)
C33. The Pawnbroker (Lumet, 1965)
C34. Night of the Living Dead (Romero, 1968)
C35. The Boys in the Band (Friedkin, 1970)
C36. Cotton Comes to Harlem (Davis, 1970)
C37. Little Big Man (Penn, 1970)
C38. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasss Song (Van Peebles, 1971)
C39. Coffy (Hill, 1973)
C40. Enter the Dragon (Clouse, 1973)
C41. Blazing Saddles (Brooks, 1974)
C42. Dog Day Afternoon (Lumet, 1975)
C43. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Sharman, 1975)
C44. Up in Smoke (Adler, 1978)
C45. Stir Crazy (Poitier, 1980)
C46. 9 to 5 (Higgins, 1980)
C47. Zoot Suit (Valdez, 1981)
C48. Chan is Missing (Wang, 1982)
C49. El Norte (Nava, 1983)
C50. Yentl (Streisand, 1983)
C51. Desert Hearts (Dietch, 1985)
C52. The Color Purple (Spielberg, 1985)
C53. Aliens (Cameron, 1986)
C54. She’s Gotta Have It (Lee, 1986)
C55. Children of a Lesser God (Haines, 1986)
C56. Stand and Deliver (Menendez, 1988)
C57. Hairspray (Waters, 1988)
C58. Coming to America (Landis, 1988)
C59. Rain Man (Levinson, 1988)
C60. Daughters of the Dust (Dash, 1991)
C61. My Own Private Idaho (Van Sant, 1991)
C62. Thelma and Louise (Scott, 1991)
C63. Boyz N Tha Hood (Singleton, 1991)
C64. Mississippi Masala (Nair, 1992)
C65. A League of Their Own (Marshall, 1992)
C66. Malcolm X (Lee, 1992)
C67. The Joy Luck Club (Wang, 1993)
C68. Philadelphia (Demme, 1993)
C69. Pocahontas (Gabriel and Goldberg, 1995)
C70. Waiting to Exhale (Whitaker, 1995)
C71. The Watermelon Woman (Dunye, 1996)
C72. The Birdcage (Nichols, 1996)
C73. Selena (Nava, 1997)
C74. Smoke Signals (Eyre, 1998)
C75. Boys Don’t Cry (Peirce, 1999)
C76. Love and Basketball (Prince-Bythewood, 2001)
C77. Ali (Mann, 2001)
C78. Better Luck Tomorrow (Lin, 2002)
C79. Real Women Have Curves (Cardoso, 2002)
C80. Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (Leiner, 2004)
C81. Brokeback Mountain (Lee, 2005)
C82. The New World (Malick, 2005)
C83. Dreamgirls (Condon, 2006)
C84. The Hurt Locker (Bigelow, 2009)
C85. Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail (Perry, 2009)
C86. The Princess and the Frog (Clements and Musker, 2009)
C87. The Kids are All Right (Cholodenko, 2010)
C88. Machete (Maniquis and Rodriguez, 2010)
C89. The Hunger Games (Ross, 2012)
C90. Django Unchained (Tarantino, 2012)
C91. Fruitvale Station (Coogler, 2013)
C92. 12 Years a Slave (McQueen, 2013)
C93. Selma (Duvernay, 2014)
C94. Tangerine (Baker, 2015)
C95. Furious 7 (Wan, 2015)
C96. Moana (Clements and Musker, 2016)
C97. Wonder Woman (Jenkins, 2017)
C98. Black Panther (Cooler, 2018)
C99. Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018)
C100: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Rothman, Ramsey, Persichetti, 2018)