©02 The Media DeskThe Desk's Non-Fiction articles
There are some things "these Kids these days" just can't grasp.
And it's not just them. The Desk itself doesn't understand all the implications of some things. It has trouble relating to 'fantods' and although it has eaten 'vittles' it's not sure it's ever cooked them.
But how do you explain to two teenaged girls the concept of Theatrical Blackface.
With the modern meaning of the word it was easy. Blackface, in the world of HTML code, is how you program a heavier font for viewing on the lower resolution screens used by Web TV. From what the Desk understands that tag <blackface> makes the Web TV browser put all the letters on the page it is looking at into something like Three-D so they can be read from across the room on a TV screen. Ye Old Basic Old Fashioned Browser will not even see that tag since a computer monitor has no use for it. Neat Huh? Ingenious name for it too.
The Girls grasped that right away. But the other use for blackface, a la Al Jolson and Amos N Andy they simply couldn't understand. See the top photo on the Picture Page.
Blackface harkens back to Vaudeville, to Jim Crow Laws, even back to Reconstruction as the popular live entertainment troupes that were to give rise to Vaudeville in the 1870's got their wheels, and tap shoes, under them.
Things that are no longer even mentioned in State School textbooks.
Face it, when Jolson (second photo down) was on stage just after the turn of the last century through the Depression in blackface doing his Plantation act or singing "Mammy" it was played for laughs or sheer entertainment, it was also done dramatically as seen in the picture of Marion Davies, Sam McDanial in the movie Operator 13.
All the major studios and several smaller outfits and independents made blackface movies. Some as send-ups or satires, others as serious pieces, some seeming to defy any categorization except the use of black greasepaint by the gallon. There was no rhyme or reason to it that the Desk can find from this far out. MGM seemed to make the most of them, but then again, for a time MGM was making as many pictures in a year as everybody else in town put together.
But as the movies came into their own, blackface has already seen its day. It would crop up even into the forties, as with Babes on Broadway, but it's time was running out. Why put a white dancer in blackface when talented black entertainers were right at hand such as Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson into the thirties, the Nicholas Brothers (from the thirties up to and including performing in Viet Nam for the US Troops), and up and coming Sammy Davis Junior (see the Desk's Rat Pack article)?
Blacks had been accepted as entertainers by white audiences long before they were recognized as equals. Sammy Davis Junior recalled the early days of Las Vegas where he would headline the night's entertainment at a major casino on the Strip, but he wasn't allowed to use a dressing room or sleep in that part of town, he had to travel over to the 'black side' of town and sleep in a dumpy motel or somebody's house.
Blackface had been a way around that according to some accounts, but that doesn't make sense when you run across Bert Williams, a black singer and comic who worked in blackface in the 1912 Ziegfield Follies and broke the Vaudeville (and the RECORDING) Color Barrier. see info under pictures
So what is to be learned here? We have all now studied the picture of Mickey Rooney in blackface (although the Desk appraised Judy Garland's legs first), and all the rest of them and decided that, all things considered, they looked rather pathetic. We have delved into the arcane details of Vaudeville and its transition into the movies in the twenties and later into TV. We can appreciate the talents of Al Jolson and Bill Robinson regardless of their race. Greasepaint or no. They were phenomenal talents.
All it proves is that in spite of the best efforts of the Racial Industry propagated by Jesse Jackson and his ilk. WE THE PEOPLE are less prejudice than we were. We are learning to look past the color of the performer and watch the performance. We can see that Marion Davies was a pretty woman no matter what color she was (she was very convincing in the blackface no?). Yes we have a ways to go. We may NEVER be totally color blind. Yet. If we can accept that, accept it and work through it, and go on. We can probably all live together in peace and all that... and watch Jolson and Bojangles and Amos and Andy and all the rest as the entertainment from a bygone era and laugh at them and ourselves.
And the Desk will buy the popcorn while Reverend Jesse looks for another job.
The Picture Page