It’s black history month and that means—well, probably that we’re not going to be super interested in the throwbacks. Next year, I’ll see if I can’t encourage them to feature blaxploitation flicks. I don’t think they’d go for our other idea, which was a “Blackface History Month”. You could show some great movies: The Jazz Singer and Holiday Inn. Birth of a Nation, too, but I think it would be more fun if you showed movies where blackface was highlighted positively.
Intriguingly enough, Stormy Weather is a movie you could show for blackface history month. Although it’s mostly song-and-dance, there is a rather funny comedy bit in the middle where two friends have a conversation without ever finishing a sentence, and the two light-skinned performers black up before going on.
Life is complicated. History, being all the lives that have gone before, especially so.
This isn’t so much a musical as it is a hyper-condensed musical review. It has the very rough shape of a typical musical: Bill Robinson plays a guy who gets back from WWI and falls in love with Lena Horne (because, duh) but hasn’t made a name for himself so he goes off to do that, the two run into each other again and Lena gets him a spot in the show she’s in, and ultimately the two go on to great success only to break up because Bill wants to settle down and Lena doesn’t.
Well, of course Bill wants to settle, he’s 65 years old. Lena’s only 26! (And neither of them age in the slightest between 1918 and 1943!)
The age difference never comes up because it doesn’t matter: This is an excuse for some of the greatest musicians and performers to do their thing and that’s what they do. If it’s not “great” in the traditional musical-movie sense, it is basically 76 minutes of sheer delight, most of which has been cut into individual bits and put on YouTube over the years. The Flower, for example, had seen Fats Waller’s numbers (“That Ain’t Right”, “Ain’t Misbehavin'”) and The Boy and/or The Flower had seen the Nicholas Brothers’ stunning dance number.
Speaking of problematic, besides the blackface, there’s an African primitive number. Heh. Why, it’s almost like, at a time when racism was a far more serious concern, people were much less sensitive to nonsense.
Cab Calloway, possibly my favorite bandleader of the era, wears an amazing zoot suit for his number. (The Flower did not care for that particular fashion.)
When he’s roped back into performing—the basic gimmick being that he gets to see Lena’s heartfelt rendition of the titular song—he’s lured in by someone saying “It’s for the soldiers.”
“Anything for the soldiers!”
It stuck out, you know? I mean, obviously this is WWII, but having just seen Mal-Mo-E, I realized that we no longer have the actual language to be patriotic and grateful for our own country. You can argue—not without basis—that Robinson’s patriotism was a virtual requirement for a movie of the time. Nonetheless, the language was there and it was delivered sincerely.
Anyway, it’s an amazing little time capsule and worth watching if you have any interest in the music of the period.