Shadows

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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11 Responses to “Shadows”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    Refining some thoughts I scattered around other boards:

    Back in the day, Shirley Temple movies were a de facto TV series, as were Abbott & Costello, the Bowery Boys, the Universal Monsters, Paramount comedies (Marxs, Fields, Hope and/or Crosby), and any number of B cowboys. Some stars or franchises, cranking out multiple cookie-cutter programmers a year from the 30s to as late as the 50s, accumulated enough “episodes” to hold down a regular local time slot indefinitely.

    I get the impression it was the same deal in England with the Carry On movies. Did other busy stars like Jessie Matthews and Will Hay settle in as scheduled regulars?

    As a small boy I watched Shirley Temple with siblings. I forgave her for being a girl because in her movies, the whole universe revolved around a little kid instead of grownups. She even had snobby kid villains to hiss, and usually some non-mushy little boys around with street cred. None of this being a prop in the grownups’ stories.

    Also, when Shirley did a show, she got production values. A kid-produced musical had practical rain and giant moving sets. Performing in a courtroom for some reason, she and George Murphy turned the art deco furniture into illuminated miniature buildings, ending with a rear-projected Times Square behind the judge. I wasted a lot of mental energy on how Shirley’s buddies — a bunch of impoverished vaudevillians — snuck into the courtroom the night before and installed all those backlit panels, or even could afford any of it. When I did school or community theater, we were lucky to get flat cardboard.

    The local station closed each broadcast with the same clip: “Good night, my friends. Sleep tight, my friends. God bless and pleasant dreams … Good night.” It was early Saturday afternoon.

    My niece was raised on Shirley Temple, although by her time I think it was VHS cassettes rather than broadcast TV. In time she decided to share a few with her own small daughter, and was shocked at grim stuff like Shirley’s mom dying in a car crash. Somehow that was purged from her memory or not even absorbed on first contact.

  2. The amiable musical Hooray for Love (with Ann Sothern and Gene Raymond) features Robinson in a number with Fats Waller and Jeni Le Gon, and Walter Lang films his dancing much better than Dwan did. He’s only there for a matter of minutes, but they justify the whole enterprise, even if you don’t care for the official star attractions.

  3. La Faustin Says:

    Jack La Rue completists will tell you that the 1932 RADIO PATROL includes a black cop (and JLR as a murderous hophead, for a change).

  4. La Faustin, was the black cop’s race a plot point, or was he just THERE? Extra points if he was.

    I’m assuming the link is to Graham Greene’s Shirley article? Indeed, the man had a gift for saying the unsayable.

    I never saw Will Hay as a kid but Norman Wisdom was fairly omnipresent, gumping up the airwaves.

    That number is charming as hell, if hell can be described as such. Anyway, it’s delightful, and Jeni is clearly a subject for further study. Fiona has the Bogle book on black women performers…

  5. I very much agree with your comments concerning GWTW. When I raised objections concerning racial representation in a 1980 screening at the now defunct Manchester University Film Society, the student at the door just dismissed them. Also thanks for this review featuring Fredi Washington who I read did not do much film work due to her anger at being offered sterotypical roles

  6. bensondonald Says:

    “Stormy Weather” is basically “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, except Robinson gets to play himself under a thin alias. In the final reel, Robinson’s suave, seemingly effortless tap is blown away by the Nicolas Brothers in a pyrotechnic production number. It’s as if “YDD” ended with Cagney sitting on the sidelines for Astaire in a big Irving Berlin finale.

    Always wondered how Robinson felt about that. He probably lacked the clout to dictate, but I’d think he’d lobby to have them appear a bit earlier and leave him something more than a hasty reconciliation with Lena Horne.

  7. Fredi caught crap from the black community for playing self-hating in Imitation of Life — not necessarily because people couldn’t separate the role from the actor, but maybe because of an assumption that even playing that role was self-hating, because she’s not a positive role model (Though by the end of the film, surely she is?)

  8. Wow! And the guy with the cellphone filming does a MUCH better job than Allan Dwan managed.

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