Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Bing, Blackface, Censorship, and Me: Some Thoughts

Thanks to Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film for a chance to participate in the annual TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon.  Today's star is Bing Crosby.

How well I remember Holiday Inn.  I found it to be a brilliant film, full of wonderful music and great performances by Fred Astaire and today's Summer Under the Stars star, Bing Crosby.  I enjoyed it so much that I named it my Alternate Best Picture of 1942 in my Tuesdays With Oscar Retrospective.  In many respects, Holiday Inn is a flawless picture. 

However, there is one aspect of Holiday Inn that is very, very flawed.  Painfully flawed. Horrifyingly flawed.  And that has to do with one sequence that is simply jarring if one isn't given advanced warning.

Let me give a little background about Holiday Inn for the uninitiated.  The story is simple: Bing Crosby's character decides to open an inn that is open only on holidays (hence, Holiday Inn) and each holiday has a musical number attached to it.  The songs for Easter (Easter Parade) and Christmas (White Christmas) if memory serves correct are the only ones not sung for a paying audience, but all other holidays get them.  There's one for Valentine's Day, Washington's Birthday...and Lincoln's Birthday.

It's the last song I wish to discuss.  Abraham in itself is not one of Irving Berlin's best numbers and is a mercifully forgotten part of his songbook.  The song itself is not the issue (though it has some frightful lyrics which I'll get to in a bit).  It's the entire number that is controversial if not downright scandalous.

Here's a link to see the number in question.  I think it would help in furthering our discussion.

You have been warned.

Abraham is done in the style of a minstrel show, complete with blackface.  It's already ghastly to see Bing Crosby made up in blackface, but the band and the servers at Holiday Inn are similarly in blackface.  It's costar Marjorie Reynolds who ends up worse, as she is made up to look like a pickaninny, complete with round white mouth and hand gestures.

The entire sequence is horrifying to the untrained eye, punctuated by a ghastly lyric that has the only African-American in the cast sing to her children, "When black folks lived in slavery, who was it set the darkie free".  It's all cringe-inducing.

I say 'to the untrained eye' because here we need a little history and film lesson before we rush out and destroy every Road To... movie we can find. I think things need to be put in context before we brand Crosby as a racist. 

First, Holiday Inn goes through great pains to explain why at least Reynolds' character was disguised in such a garish fashion (an effort to try and hide her presence from his rival, played by Astaire).  I got the impression that Reynolds would have appeared sans makeup if not for Astaire's sudden appearance (not that it would have excused Crosby, the band, or the staff appearing in their makeup).

Second, nothing that I know of implies that Crosby himself was racist.  On a television special, Mahalia Jackson sings Summertime/Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, and when we go to Bing Crosby and Dean Martin, both decline to immediately perform after her, Crosby remarking that she's 'a tough act to follow'.  Crosby was also open in his admiration of Louis Armstrong, down to having a duet with him in High Society at a time when blacks and whites still could not mingle so casually. 

Third, I go back to what my old English teacher, Mrs. Dominguez, used to say.  "You cannot apply today's standards to yesterday's behavior".  In 1942, while blackface was not used regularly in major film releases, it was sadly acceptable, particularly to the predominantly white audience Holiday Inn was targeted to.  This film was made at a time when segregation and the fallacy of 'separate but equal' were still in full effect, where blacks and white didn't share much, let alone the screen on equal footing (High Society or a Shirley Temple/Bill Robinson team-up being a rarity).  Audiences, white and black, would be familiar with blackface.  White audiences would obviously not be offended, black audiences obviously would be.

In short, if we look at the context the blackface was done in, and look at the times in which it took place, I would argue we cannot ascribe overt racism to the Abraham number.  I would say it was shockingly ignorant and causally insensitive even at the time, and nowadays simply unacceptable.  The blackface in Holiday Inn should not be put on the same level as The Birth of A Nation or the yellowface of Breakfast at Tiffany's

THAT film, so beloved as a romance classic, is forever marred by the horrifying spectacle of Irish-American Mickey Rooney yucking it up as buck-tooth, spectacle-wearing, heavily-accented Japanese man.  When I first saw Breakfast at Tiffany's, I thought it such a strange juxtaposition: the beautiful Moon River melody playing while "And Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi" appears onscreen, as if this were all wonderful.  His first few minutes on screen were beyond appalling: him shouting at "Miss Go-right-ree" and looking almost obscene in his desire to see her nude doth not a beautiful love story make. 

People do complain about that now (as I do and as well we should) but Breakfast at Tiffany's isn't remembered predominantly for that.  Similarly, Holiday Inn isn't mercifully remembered for Abraham, but for White Christmas.  In the end, the entire ghastly spectacle I think is more Charlton Heston as Mexican in Touch of Evil than unhinged sex-crazed mobs in The Birth of A Nation: something that shouldn't have been done but that while bizarre, if not downright offensive now, does not take away from that film's brilliance. 

We now hit another question regarding Holiday Inn and the Abraham number: should it be cut altogether?  I'm of two minds on this issue. 

On one hand, I'm a purist when it comes to film, firm in my conviction that a film should be seen as it was intended to be, warts and all.  The filmmakers put a specific thought and plan to their product, and their vision, however flawed, misguided, or embarrassing, should be respected.

On the other hand (to quote Tevye), the Abraham number is just cringe-inducing.  When I first saw the Abraham number, I was shocked and sat in horror as this was going on.  Abraham, now, is deeply upsetting to me, and I can only imagine what an African-American viewer would think of something like that being shown as part of a 'holiday classic' (which to be fair, Holiday Inn is).  It isn't integral to the plot itself, and unlike Touch of Evil, Breakfast at Tiffany's or Birth of A Nation, you can easily remove the offensive parts out of it without interfering with the story.

It strikes me as a reverse of what happened to films like The Little Colonel.  In this film, Shirley Temple, a white girl, and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, a black man, not only danced together but, horror of horrors....HELD HANDS!  This rather innocuous situation of two people of different races dancing up and down a staircase caused so much outrage in the American South that it had to be cut for Southern audiences; never mind that Robinson played a 'servant' if not downright slave, the races in their minds simply shouldn't touch each other, period. 

Nowadays, we don't even think about it, and even back then, some people weren't as up in arms about it since they figured it wasn't 'so bad' since Temple was just a little girl and as such didn't have the implied relations that say, having Lana Turner or even Judy Garland hold hands with a black man.

As those scenes were restored, we now are asked to have something like Abraham removed.  I struggle with this due to my views on maintaining films as they were made, but I also know that some things, even if acceptable then, cannot be part of today's world.

With that, I offer a compromise: cut the Abraham number for television broadcasts but keep it for DVD releases.  For those buying the DVD, a warning should appear telling audiences about the blackface and putting things in context.  I think we might even have two versions available on DVD: one allowing the person to watch the film unedited, one allowing them to skip the Abraham number altogether.

I also believe that if Holiday Inn were shown in a theatrical release, there should be a decision based on the extent of the release.  If we're talking about a film festival or another one-time performance, keep it, but with a warning pre-show.  If we're talking about a wide release, it should be cut altogether.

As I look at Holiday Inn now, I still warm to the brilliance of Crosby, Astaire, and Berlin, and focus on that, not on one ghastly and cringe-inducing number.  Holiday Inn will not be shown as part of Bing Crosby Day at TCM's Summer Under the Stars marathon, perhaps understandably.  I understand TCM does not cut the Abraham number, though I figure they do tell audiences ahead of time about it.  The whole thing now is embarrassing, unpleasant, but not reflective of the film as a whole or on Crosby himself (who as far as I know was nowhere near a racist). 

Given we are still as a nation struggling with race relations, any steps that help (such as cutting the Abraham number for general audiences) is I think a good step.  However, perhaps we should keep the Abraham number, if only to remind us of how far we've come.   

Equal in Brilliance


  1. Great article Rick! Speaking of blackface, for years I wondered why one Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd cartoon (where Elmer was a mountie) ended so abruptly. It wasn't until I was an adult, I found out the true ending was a blackface number! So embarrassing!

    1. I didn't know about that WB cartoon. I know there was controversy when WWII-era cartoons mocking Japanese were issued. Sign of the times, sadly.

    2. There are quite a lot of WB and MGM (and other minor studio) cartoons of the 30s-50s that have blackface gags. Usually they are quick bite that can be edited out without really effecting the surrounding cartoon, (like the reaction shot after an explosion), and that's how they have been seen by most of us on TV in recent decades. Other cartoons, like ALL THIS AND RABBIT STEW, have a pervasive racial element that destroys the whole film. That one features a Stepin Fetchit type character with exaggerated physical features, which is very offensive. There are also lots of Japanese stereotypes in the propaganda cartoons of the WWII era that you mention, but also the war bond pitch cartoon ANY BONDS TODAY features Bugs doing blackface in an Al Jolson routine.

    3. Thanks for mentioning some WB cartoons I hadn't heard of before.

      I think that these cartoons, which were made for adults, should not be available for children. It's an unfortunate part of thinking that cartoons are 'just for kids'. If available, they should be put in context, and hope that people see them not as funny but in context, as reflecting the times they were made.

      Blackface, sadly, was acceptable at the time (as was the "Abraham" number), but the idea that the people behind them were out-&-out racists I think is wrong. They reflected dominant views & general ignorance of the times, but I don't think they themselves were bigoted, merely unaware of how insidious the whole thing was. This is what was accepted at the time, we know it's wrong, and if possible they can be reedited. If made available, it should be w/a warning and placed in context.

  2. Bing did more than admire Louis Armstrong, they were friends. They recorded together and when Bing, as producer of 1936s "Pennies from Heaven" cast Louis in a prominent role.

    Minstrel Shows being a part of the show business during both Irving and Bing's formative years, the real life implications probably didn't dawn on them. As you say, "cringe-worthy", but I think an innocent mistake.

    1. I agree.

      There's no history of bigotry on either Bing or Berlin's part, so the "Abraham" number was not intended to ridicule African-Americans. However, it is, in retrospect, a bad decision. Still, hindsight is 20/20.


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Thank you.