Archive for September 5, 2017

Shadows

Posted in Dance, FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 5, 2017 by dcairns

Allan Dwan’s ONE MILE TO HEAVEN (1937) got popped into the Samsung at Fiona’s suggestion — she wanted to see more Fredi Washington, and this was the seminal IMITATION OF LIFE star’s swan song. It’s an odd film — perhaps the finest cast of tulpas ever assembled.

The most prominent doppelganger was child star Joan Carroll (billed as Joan Carol for some reason, possibly to save on type). An alarmingly precise Shirley Temple clone only without the singing or acting, this moppetganger plays Fredi’s daughter, and the plot revolves around the vexed question of whether the blonde sprog could be the black woman’s natural offspring.

The second animate thought-form in the cast is Sally Blane, lookalike sister of Loretta Young, a sort of lorettaganger if you will, who turns out to be the child’s natural mother, now a wealthy socialite who believes the child dead.

The rest of the players aren’t exactly shades or walkers, but they have their uncanny aspects. the actual lead is Claire Trevor as a fast-thinking reporter, looking startlingly fresh in this pre-STAGECOACH role. Her anything-for-a-story approach actually makes her, in a sense, the heavy of the piece, threatening Fredi and little Joan’s happiness, but the film deftly distracts us from this by putting her up against a trio of flyblown heels, fellow reporters who are nasty chauvinists, forcing us to root for Claire, in a slightly conflicted way.

Also present: Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who’s partly on hand to help make us believe that this is a Shirley Temple picture, partly to add to the sense of a black community, which Fiona identified as the movie’s strongest asset. Bill plays a tapdancing policeman (Dwan proves to be an inept filmer of dance, alas) — when else have you seen a black cop in a thirties movie? We also see black shopkeepers, including Eddie “Rochester” Anderson in unconvincing old age drag. The black people in this film aren’t train porters, maids and shoeshine boys: Fredi is a seamstress (for once, this profession is not a Code-friendly synonym for prostitution), and there’s a real sense of urban community, with the district NOT represented as a dystopian ghetto. Sentimentalizing poverty is another problem, of course, and this isn’t that more realistic than the rural black community in TALES OF MANHATTAN, but it does offer at least an alternative representation to the prevailing stereotypes of the thirties and after.

We see Robinson shuffle at the policeman’s ball, where we also meet a fresh-faced copper played by Lon Chaney Jnr. Sadly, we don’t get to see HIS act — I’m imagining either a lycanthropic quick-change routine or a magic show where he crushes rabbits INTO his hat.

I haven’t seen Robinson in anything since I was a little kid. Shirley Temple movies, like Jerry Lewis movies, seemed to be on A LOT. Interesting how Temple still connects strongly with little kid audiences (try it on your offspring, if you have any — they make a brilliant platform for cinematic experiments), and a shame how they aren’t being exposed to her. But my memory of Robinson was “old guy who dances” — he’s not old at all, just bald and, as Fiona remarked, absolutely gorgeous. His eye-rolling minstrel business IS embarrassing (Fredi was asked to do this earlier in her career and simply refused), and Dwan’s insistence on fragmenting the dance numbers into close-ups of feet (but dance happens with the WHOLE BODY) and face (but you NEED TO SEE THE FEET) is endlessly vexatious.

But but but. This lightly likable film deserves all kinds of credit for the many little ways it departs from the toxic norms of representation of its day.

Did you catch the story about the Memphis, Tennessee cinema taking off GONE WITH THE WIND due to complaints about the film’s racial insensitivity? I must admit, I kind of thought GOOD. That apologia for slavery has had a free pass for way too long. I think it should be screened — but screened kind of like the way BIRTH OF A NATION is screened, with discussion and context or at least shared awareness. It’s not AS nasty a film as BOAN, and Hattie McDaniel is a fine actor who deserves appreciation, but it’s problematic enough that simply calling it a “classic” and looking the other way never struck me as adequate.

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