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.