When Pre-codes go Bad #1

A brief series focussing on those moments in pre-code cinema when the pleasurable shiver of shock turns into the involuntary gag of outrage.

You don’t need me to tell you about the fun to be had in pre-1934 Hollywood cinema, where “slipping one past the goalie” was a popular sport practiced by all the best (and worst) filmmakers — and you have to picture the pre-code goalie as an obese, wheezing myopic wearing calipers and a sling, while the filmmakers are a supersonic first eleven. But there’s always that moment, isn’t there… a moment that may never arrive, but is always somehow there nevertheless… the frozen moment when the filmmakers take it a step too far and appall our modern sensibilities with a jape or image that may have been routine to them, but is beyond the pale for anybody not in the employ of Fox News.

Race, of course, provides the most obvious arena for contemporary discomfort. After all, even forties films, and even very good ones like THE PALM BEACH STORY, can provoke a twinge of unhappiness. And in the thirties, everything was so much more brazen…

Here, then, is a scene from MARIE GALANTE — apologies for the wildly out-of-sync sound, but trust me, it’s worth it. If you don’t watch it too closely, the fact that it’s a full sentence out of whack is less distracting… This is one of the few Fox precodes readily available (I think because it’s fallen through the cracks in the copyright system). It’s a so-so melo about a shanghaied French girl (the charming Ketti Gallian, who somehow never made it big) getting mixed up in a plot to blow up the Panama Canal.

The scene begins in fine form with Helen Morgan (from Mamoulian’s APPLAUSE — she plays another boozy chanteuse here), and some snazzy cutting, then plunges into the abyss of conflicted response with the shuffling appearance of Stepin Fetchit with his adorable “subnormal negro” routine. Just as the consensus on Fetchit was settling down to a general feeling that his schtick was, if you’ll excuse the expression, beyond the pale, a counter-movement has begun. First, it can be acknowledged that Fetchit, like Mantan Moreland and, to a lesser extent, Snowflake, was a skilled comedian whose performance can be admired, to some degree, in isolation from its intent. Secondly, it’s been pointed out that black audiences of the day enjoyed the comedy stylings of Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, to give him his real name. This may not mean much — after all, many women enjoy America’s Next Top Model — but it may mean quite a bit. It’s said that black audiences enjoyed the parody of what white audiences believed black people to be. If so, there’s a strong element of irony, a subversive undercurrent, at play: when the white audience laughs at the black comic, the black audience laughs at them. Slipping one past the goalie — and even the directors who used Stepin Fetchit may have been unaware of this satirical side.

But the real reason for featuring this clip is the aftermath of SF’s appearance, where Spencer Tracy and the other fellow assess his skull measurements. NO! There’s a time and a place for phrenology, gentlemen, but Panama 1934 is not it — and Stepin Fetchit should not be the subject. The whole thing puts Fetchit’s “comedy retard” act on a disturbingly clinical footing, as well as conjuring up the shade of Nazi eugenics to come.

You may now retrieve your lower jaws from the floor, dust them off, and go on with your lives.

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32 Responses to “When Pre-codes go Bad #1”

  1. Taylor Mead said “Stepin Fetchit was a black revolutionary!”
    He’s on view as his actual self in William Klein’s Cassius Le Grand confabbing with the young boxer who would become Muhhamed Ali. Most revealing.

  2. La Faustin Says:

    Which makes it all the sweeter when a black character or actor gets to do something outside the mold. I remember the shout of delight that went up from the audience at a screening of Baby Face when Teresa Harris’s Chico, last seen shuffling in misbuttoned gingham, strode crisply through a Manhattan apartment in her furs (not her own apartment, but you can’t have everything). Or Torch Singer, where a little black girl appears and is not Topsy, just an adorable little girl in petticoats and hair ribbon, as worthy of cooing over as Baby Leroy.

    Along the lines of your hall-of-mirrors satire, I like thinking of the different reactions, in the orchestra and in the balcony, to the scene in Alice Adams where Hattie McDaniels slowly and obtusely wrecks Hepburn’s design for gracious living.

    And what was it about Panama that appealed to 1930s moviemakers? Marie Galante, Hell Divers, Sensation Hunters, the ineffable Swing High, Swing Low – not to mention Charlie Chan in and Torchy Blaine in.

    Obligatory Jack La Rue connection! Ketti Gallian also stars in Under the Pampas Moon (featuring a 17 year old Rita Cansino) in which JLR is – you’ll never guess – a horsethief.

  3. I have the same issue, more often it manifests itself when a character is attempting to spout Darwin and what comes out is Herbert Spencer. I’ve seen it a couple of times now and it makes me cringe.

    I haven’t a doubt that Mr. Perry/Fetchit was a smart man. I’ve seen some covert wit to his “shuffling negro” act which made me wonder how many were in on the joke. I’ve also read old movie-mag gossip about him and it seems he was extremely popular and used his popularity to garner a good salary. The magazine article’s resentment over that was palpable, albeit couched in the sort of “fatherly advice” no father would give.

    It’s interesting to this day how heated debates can get about Fetchit. Then again, I know people who will take a film like Mask of Fu Manchu straight, as though Fu weren’t being burlesqued.

  4. David Boxwell Says:

    My own favorite such moment: Ricardo Cortez shoves Loretta Young’s fingers into his mouth as a seduction technique in Wellman’s MIDNIGHT MARY (33).

    Also: Clara Bow’s erect nipples as she wrestles a bollock-swinging Great Dane in CALL HER SAVAGE (33).

  5. David Boxwell Says:

    SF is billed FOURTH (!) in John Ford’s early talkie SALUTE (29), and seems to occupy endless amounts of embarrassing screen time doing his servile schtick. Ford loved him, but it was a love that was so, so wrong. As late as 1953 (THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT), Ford humiliated him on film.

  6. David Boxwell Says:

    Youtube has, seemingly, single-handedly revived early 30s animated cartoons replete with jaw-dropping racist imagery.

  7. They used to show those cartoons all the way into the ’70s before finally retiring them. I’ll bet I remember many of those. I know they tried to redraw some of them because I saw them one way when I was very young (a Tom and Jerry with a black “mammy” character), only to find years later that she was redrawn into a white woman…with the vocal track unchanged.

  8. The Tom & Jerrys screened here all through my youth, mammies intact. Have never seen any redrawn though.

    Ford seemed inordinately fond of humiliating his actors onscreen and off — being a good masochist was perhaps part of fitting into his repertory company.

  9. Good masochist…is that why Jean Arthur was in three (that I know of) John Ford films?

  10. Poor, brilliant, tragic Stepin! It must be remembered that he developed his routine on the chitlin’ circuit (TOBA–Theatre Owners and Bookers Association–aka Tough On Black Asses!), where his deviously lazy persona was taken to represent one comical individual. Things started to seem different when he became the first black man to break through to Hollywood stardom and found that, as the only black person generally on display, he was taken to represent an entire race. There’s a terrific biography by Mel Watkins.

  11. More on Teresa Harris soon.

    That biography sounds enticing. Just saw SF, near the end of his days, and surrounded by aging Hollywood talent, in Michael Winner’s beyond-abysmal Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood.

  12. Stepin Fetchit had a white chauffeur.

  13. David Boxwell Says:

    I adore Theresa Harris, who more than holds her own with Stanwyck in BABY FACE. In a better world, she would have been a star, with films built around her (at least Tourneur respected her and granted her a fair degree of dignity).

  14. I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is remarkable for just how far out of the Hollywood racial norm of the day it is.

  15. She has a great bit in Out of the Past too. As with most of the Tourneur-Lewton collaboration, it’s hard to know who was responsible for what: both men departed from the norm in their treatment of race.

  16. John Seal Says:

    Stepin Fetchit and Snowflake make me cringe, but Mantan always makes me laugh. A brilliant comic with outstanding timing.

    And Theresa Harris was definitely the bee’s knees.

  17. kevin mummery Says:

    Mantan Moreland did a kind of double-talk routine with another actor in one of the Charlie Chan movies that was the funniest thing I ever saw him do. He’d start a sentence, not finish it, and the other actor would supply his own vague response based on not enough information from MM for him to have given it. It ends with MM saying “That’s why I always enjoy talking to you, you’re so agreeable” or words to that effect. Haven’t seen it in maybe 35 years, but it sure was funny.

  18. That sounds good! There’s an excellent Two Ronnies sketch along similar lines. Any idea which CC film? The only one with MM I’ve seen is the seance one, and it ain’t that.

  19. Ben Carter, isn’t it? I think the doubletalk routine is in The Scarlet Clue. They may have done it in another Monogram Chan as well.

  20. Christopher Says:

    That Mantan Moreland routine turned up in several of the later Chan’s ..Always in a trip to the Big House or Jail for CLEWS!..Moreland’s Birmingham character would inevitably be reunited with some long lost buddy whos now behind bars..”s’that you Birmingham?..”

  21. I don’t like Sidney Toler as Chan, but I might have to see one of those… Moreland’s classiest film could be Eyes in the Night with Edward Arnold, directed by Fred Zinnemann. A nice B-thriller.

  22. I trust everyone here has seen Spider Baby

  23. Oh yes! Weirdly, THAT might equally be called his classiest film. Wonderful for him and Lon to have such a grace note so late in their careers.

    Are there any other good Jack Hill films? I don’t trust Tarantino on this, but there’s enough brilliance in Spider Baby to make me think it would have to resurface somewhere else.

  24. kevin mummery Says:

    I think mndean is correct; I’m going to Netflix The Scarlet Clue to see for myself. Or maybe there’s a secret treasure trove of Mantan Moreland performances on YouTube that someone has posted…in any event, I’m going to find out soon enough. Thanks for another memory-awakening post David…I always learn something here!

  25. kevin mummery Says:

    Found it!

  26. I knew there was more than one of those, but I couldn’t remember which Chan had it.

  27. Christopher Says:

  28. Why does that guy say “I am a sombie?”

  29. Maybe his tongue shambled?

  30. kevin mummery Says:

    Maybe we’ve all been mispronouncing it for the past 80 years?

  31. Maybe he has an undeadimpediment.

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