Archive for Fredi Washington

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.

Advertisements

Pancake Mix

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2017 by dcairns

One of the best films at the 2016 Il Cinema Ritrovato was ONLY YESTERDAY, directed by John M. Stahl. A mental note was made to see more of his stuff, but it must have gotten misfiled because here I am just getting round to it. Fiona immediately got very enthused about seeing Fredi Washington in action: such a fascinating figure.

IMITATION OF LIFE — the original. Very good, and interesting to compare with the Sirk. Our friend Nicky Smith remarked that the original is stronger because it makes it obvious that the white heroine is robbing her “friend” — Claudette Colbert mass-produces Louise Beavers’ family recipe for pancake flour, and gives her 20% of the profits. 20%? I wonder if 1934 audiences were able to convince themselves this was a fair deal.

Beavers, accustomed to playing maid/stooge to Mae West and others, here gets to play at least a version of a human being, though there are still jokes about her character being naive or “dumb,” and she arrives at the door with a portentous track-in on her beaming face which seems to be setting her up as some kind of Magic Negress, a miraculous Mary Poppins sent by Fate to help the white folks out. No needs of her own. But this is not precisely what happens.

Basically, the film parallels three plots — first, the rise and rise of Colbert’s business, which is a straightforward American Dream success story with no twists, reversals or developments of any kind except the irresistible rise of the Pancake Queen. Then there’s Colbert and her daughter both falling for the same man, starving lion Warren William. It’s a Story as old as Time: the love of a Pancake Queen and a debonair ichthyologist. And then there’s the relationship of Beavers with her own daughter, who grows up to be Fredi Washington, who decides to pass as white. As Sirk rightly said, this is the only aspect if Fannie Hurst’s source novel that actually gives you any drama capable of supporting a film.

We won’t deal with the pancake business anymore except to say that the business with Claudette opening her own pancake shop and then franchising reminded me very much of MILDRED PIERCE, which also has mother and daughter fancying the same man. The James M. Cain book and Michael Curtiz movie (enjoyed in its new restoration very much at Il Cinema Ritrovato THIS year) takes the romantic triangle MUCH further, and I wondered if there was a direct influence from Hurst’s 1933 novel onto Cain’s 1941 one. And the fact that Cain had a book (Serenade) adapted by Stahl (as WHEN TOMORROW COMES) in 1939 seems to me to make this likelier. Cain, a master of the technique he called the “love rack”may have sensed that Hurst was letting her triangle fizzle out by shying away from the more awful possibilities, and felt he could get a lot more value out of it…

The race theme is the heart of the picture, and thanks to Beavers and especially Washington, is moving and insightful, even though the story keeps having to contrive ways for dark-skinned mother to embarrass fair-skinned daughter. Both characters’ arguments with regards to accepting the hand dealt you, or using subterfuge to improve it, are compelling, and though the film obviously favours Louise, it doesn’t push its viewpoint too hard.

Beavers on the world’s largest pillow. I mean, that’s a seriously EDWARD SCISSORHANDS size pillow there.

Comparison with the Sirk: the idea of a remake was doubtless only embraced due to the salacious rumours circulating after the death of Lana Turner’s lover, gangster Johnny Stompanato (best gangster name ever? I mean, you don’t need to be called “Dutch” or “Bugsy” or Legs” or “Baby Face” if your surname is already Stompanato. Though J.S. did have a nickname, it wasn’t for himself, just his penis: he called it “the Oscar”). After Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane, stabbed Stompanato to death in the kitchen (or did Lana do it, really?) it was bandied about town that both Lana and Cheryl had been intimate with the Oscar.

(I’ve seen a short extract of Lana’s courtroom testimony. It’s a true Lana Turner performance: camo and artificial and soapy in the best way. The jury must have loved it. It suggests that either Lana is acting for her life, or that she’s sincere and so are all her weird, artificial performances. Strange.)

So producer Ross Hunter was hoping to titillate his audience by casting Lana in the remake. Her casting meant, for some reason, that the whole Pancake Queen thing had to go (and while we’re at it let’s have John Gavin NOT play an ichthyologist) which created some plausibility issues. In this version, widowed mother Lana becomes a star of stage and screen at 38. Hmm, could this be a roman a clef, closely based on the true life story of NO WOMAN EVER? Also, by cutting the pancake mix, Lana’s maid, Juanita Moore, isn’t trousering 20% of the profits from a flour empire, and so her colossal funeral at the end of the film doesn’t really make any naturalistic sense. I saw it with my late lamented friend Lawrie and he was in hysterics at the vast pomp of it all: “But she’s just a cleaning woman! A very good cleaning woman, but…” Not the intended reaction, and the original movie doesn’t have that problem (though it does have the unreal idea of Beavers having no interest in money — in my experience, most poor people would like to be rich).

(Getting distracted by petty realistic details is a vice. I showed ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST to a friend, who wanted to know, while Bronson’s brother was being hanged from an arch in the desert, “Where’s the ladder?” A foolish question anyway, since it could easily be the other side of the camera.)

The bigger problem in the remake is arguably the casting of Susan Kohner, of Jewish/Mexican decent, playing Moore’s daughter, the Fredi Washington part. We are less convinced by the genetics, and we also KNOW that there was someone out there of the correct racial background who could have played the part just as well. And though Kohner had done a few movies and was probably being built up by Universal, it’s not like the public really knew who she was. It would have made no big difference to the box office if the part had been played by a real pale-skinned African-American actress. And even if you’re willing to forgive the compromise, a bit more effort is require in the way of suspension of disbelief.

In many ways, the commercial cinema of 1959 was less liberated than that of 1934 — discuss.

Hot Voodoo

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on August 22, 2012 by dcairns

Now, if that title isn’t an open invitation for David Ehrenstein to post a clip from BLONDE VENUS in the comments section, I don’t know what is.

The scene is the West Indies. OUANGA, or THE LOVE WANGA is a 1936 “race film” — a lot more sophisticated, filmically and philosophically, than SON OF INGAGI. My ex-VHS copy of it is so bad it’s hard to tell how good some scenes may be, lost as they are amid hissing murk, but some moments are very good indeed. Long stretches obviously aren’t, though.

The main attraction is the remarkable Fredi Washington, star of the original IMITATION OF LIFE, which is less progressive than the Sirk in many ways, but they did cast a genuine light-skinned black woman, not a Mexican/Jewish girl. Washington was so pale-skinned she would sometimes be “blacked up” for the cameras, but she declined to “pass” and play white roles, thereby limiting her career but preserving her integrity.

She’s alluring and domineering as mixed-race plantation owner Klili Gordon, ex-lover of a white guy from the neighbouring plant. When he ditches her for an insipid blonde, Klili turns to voodoo for vengeance, casting hexes and raising a couple of zombie abductors, whom she commands with a whip. (The idea of zombies as the next stage down the racial-social ladder, the slave class of the slave class, is intriguing.)

On the one hand, this is a horror film about miscegenation in which miscegenation IS the horror. One the other hand, the story is structured so that Klili knows more about what’s going on than anyone else — she becomes the audience’s eyes and ears and therefore our substitute. It’s impossible not to root for her evil schemes to succeed, especially as nobody else in the film is particularly intelligent, attractive or interesting. The closest is the (supposedly) mixed-race guy who loves Klili and sets out to thwart her plans…

This is the only talkie made by George Terwilliger, whose career began in 1912, and seems to include some other racially-themed tales. He hadn’t directed in ten years, gets pretty bad work out of his actors, but delivers consistently interesting visuals. (Washington is very watchable, but in IMITATION OF LIFE you see how good and honest she can be, compared to her hoaky melodrama here. Still, she’s the bright spot.) Melting mists of multi-layered lap dissolves, expressionistic floor-level lighting, striking graphic compositions, and yet the dialogue scenes  are left to lie where they’ve fallen.

I guess Terwilliger packed it all in to pursue his dream of building a very long piano.

Some striking shots — acres of darkness, with night scenes apparently played against black cloth — comedy relief negritude that’s slightly less disturbing than usual, but only slightly — at it’s best, though, this evokes the stilted, oneiric crackle of WHITE ZOMBIE. We just need a better copy of it to be sure.