Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Black is the Color . . . . Toni Morrison, Shirley Temple, and Blackface On-Screen

I recently saw a dramatic version of Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, not on the screen but on stage. In it, a young African American girl with a grim past obsesses (circa 1941) over her desire to have blue eyes like her idol, child-star Shirley Temple. She’s not the only one in her increasingly tragic family circle whose life-goals are shaped by Hollywood movies. Her downtrodden mother, it seems, has long brightened her own sad life by admiring such Caucasian stars as Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, and Hedy Lamarr on the silver screen. Tellingly, she has named her daughter Pecola, closely mirroring the name of the young Black girl who successfully—though painfully—passes for white throughout much of 1934’s Imitation of Life.

 Funny thing about Pecola’s obsession with Shirley Temple’s blond-and-blue-eyed charms. Though Temple, who starred in black & white films in the 1930s and ‘40s, was truly an adorable tyke, her hair was on the auburn side and her eyes were emphatically brown. But Pecola, longing to be a little white girl, naturally assumes that her idol has big blue eyes, unlike her own. There’s something about the power of movies that showcases our dreams of what we’d like to be, particularly if those dreams are wholly out of reach.

 On the other hand, back in the 1930s and 1940s there are many screen entertainments that highlight white performers posing as Black for public amusement. There was an era when it was controversial indeed for a Black performer to be injected into a white cast, even when playing a so-called “tragic mulatto.” As late as 1951, when Lena Horne sought to play the tragically bi-racial Julie in an upcoming version of Edna Ferber’s hit, Show Boat, she was rejected in favor of the not-Black-at-all (and not-musical-at-all) Ava Gardner. It was OK for William Warfield, in the role earlier made famous by Paul Robeson, to sit on the dock and sing “Old Man River.” But it was definitely NOT OK for a light-skinned African American woman to be shown in a love relationship with a white man.

 Still, white performers of those eras seemed perfectly comfortable smearing on blackface makeup and pretending to be “colored.” This had been happening since the era of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), when all the rapacious Black men who trash democracy and menace heroine Lillian Gish were portrayed by white actors. Later it was common for musical performers like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney to do a blackface minstrel-show turn, as they did in 1941’s Babes on Broadway, completely with Judy’s hair in “pickaninny” braids.  In 1936, the great Fred Astaire—playing a nightclub performer—darkened his face for “Bojangles of Harlem,” designed as a tribute to Black tap dance legend Bill Robinson and also to Astaire’s friend and mentor, John Bubbles, whose dancing silhouette—I’m told—backs Astaire’s on screen in this number. I’m sure Astaire’s intentions were of the best, but today such moments can make us cringe. That’s how I felt when watching the otherwise frothy Holiday Inn (1942), in which Bing Crosby’s character establishes a country inn and nightclub which builds its floor shows around holiday themes. The President Lincoln’s birthday number, “Abraham,” features not just Bing (looking like Uncle Remus) and but also an entire dance band and chorus in blackface, with co-star Marjorie Reynolds forced to model exaggerated lips and a particularly obnoxious get-up. (One curious note: a cutaway to lovable Louise Beavers as the inn’s cook; she was earlier the  mother of Imitation of Life’s “tragic mulatto” child.)



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