Disintegrating the Musical: Black Performance and American Musical Film

Disintegrating the Musical: Black Performance and American Musical Film

by Arthur Knight

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From the earliest sound films to the present, American cinema has represented African Americans as decidedly musical. Disintegrating the Musical tracks and analyzes this history of musical representations of African Americans, from blacks and whites in blackface to black-cast musicals to jazz shorts, from sorrow songs to show tunes to bebop and beyond.

Arthur Knight focuses on American film’s classic sound era, when Hollywood studios made eight all-black-cast musicals—a focus on Afro-America unparalleled in any other genre. It was during this same period that the first black film stars—Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge—emerged, not coincidentally, from the ranks of musical performers. That these films made so much of the connection between African Americans and musicality was somewhat ironic, Knight points out, because they did so in a form (song) and a genre (the musical) celebrating American social integration, community, and the marriage of opposites—even as the films themselves were segregated and played before even more strictly segregated audiences.

Disintegrating the Musical covers territory both familiar—Show Boat, Stormy Weather, Porgy and Bess—and obscure—musical films by pioneer black director Oscar Micheaux, Lena Horne’s first film The Duke Is Tops, specialty numbers tucked into better-known features, and lost classics like the short Jammin’ the Blues. It considers the social and cultural contexts from which these films arose and how African American critics and audiences responded to them. Finally, Disintegrating the Musical shows how this history connects with the present practices of contemporary musical films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Bamboozled.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822384106
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 08/14/2002
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Arthur Knight is Associate Professor of American Studies and English at the College of William & Mary. He is coeditor of Soundtrack Available: Essays on Film and Popular Music, published by Duke University Press.

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Disintegrating the Musical



Duke University Press

Copyright © 2002 Duke University Press.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-8223-2963-8

Wearing and Tearing the Mask


downtown vaudeville

What was not pleasant was the hush that coughed When the Negro clown came on the stage and doffed His broken hat. The hush, first. Then the soft

Concatenation of delight and lift, And loud. The decked dismissal of his gift, The Sugared hoot and hauteur. Then, the rift

Where is magnificent, heirloom, and deft Leer at a Negro to the right, or left— So joined to personal bleach, and so bereft:

Finding if that is locked, is bowed, or proud. And what that is at all, sporting the crowd. —GWENDOLYN BROOKS (1949)

Does blackface make everyone who puts it on white? —SANDER GILMAN (1991)

When The Jazz Singer (1927) finally came to the Black Metropolis of Chicago's South Side in early May of 1928, it came without synchronized sound. Even so, The Jazz Singer was not "silent." Reviewing the event, a writerfor the Chicago Defender reported that the African American organist at the Metropolitan Theater sang the climactic song, "My Mammy," while the blackfaced Al Jolson performed it on the screen. The next fall, after the Metropolitan had been wired for sound, The Jazz Singer returned. This time the mechanically reproduced Jolson sang for himself, but the feature was supplemented by a sound short of the great black musicians Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, authors of the music for the seminal black stage musical Shuffle Along (1921) and tuxedo-wearing vaudevillians who had long and famously refused to wear blackface. At least on the South Side of Chicago, then, Jolson's most famous cinematic blackface performance never proceeded without being twinned, visually and aurally, by an African American performance.

These varying conjunctions of black and blackface performance were perhaps uniquely local and not inherent in The Jazz Singer. However, beginning in 1930 with another Jolson film, Big Boy, at least twenty musical films—from at least seventy-two Hollywood movies containing self-conscious blackface, that is, blackface that draws attention to itself as a mask—internalized similar conjunctions by including both blackface and veritable black musicians or comics. Two of the last three classical-era Hollywood films to use blackface performance also staged this conjunction: Torch Song, starring Joan Crawford, and Walking My Baby Back Home, starring Janet Leigh and Donald O'Connor, were both made in 1953 and each featured their white stars blacked up along with veritable black performers. A knowledgeable fan would have noted the absence of this conjunction in The Eddie Cantor Story, the third blackface film of 1953. Cantor had become a star performing in blackface in the Ziegfeld Follies with the monumental, black and blackfaced comedian and singer Bert Williams, but this specific facet of Cantor's career is elided in his biopic, perhaps literalizing Cantor's claim—intended as a compliment—that Williams was "the whitest black man I ever knew."

In this first part of my analysis, moments of conjunction between black and blackface performance will be my primary texts, and understanding the possible meanings of such moments will be my primary aim. In this chapter, focusing on the period from the late twenties to the early forties, a period that saw the proliferation of blackface in cinema, I examine the complicated responses of black writers to black blackface as a live performance tradition. The second chapter considers the same period, but focuses on the conjunctions of white blackface and veritable black performance in films that live black blackface would have been competing against; here I pay especially detailed attention to Al Jolson and black responses to his work. Finally, the third chapter analyzes the few instances we have of black blackface in film. Eric Lott has called the presence of blackface in Hollywood musicals "minstrelsy's somewhat baffling afterlife." Understanding the extent and relative vigorousness of this afterlife and where it took place should help make it less baffling. It will at least delineate our bafflement.

The films that I will discuss in the following chapters serve to disprove two frequent assumptions about cinematic blackface performance that prevail in American film scholarship. The first and more general of these assumptions is that blackface performance disappeared from the American cinema after The Jazz Singer. This assumption probably arose from a combination of the growing feeling, beginning during the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, that blackface was a profoundly embarrassing, racist practice of the American "past" and the fact that most blackface performances took place in isolated musical numbers in what have come to be obscure musical films. Feeling and "fact" can reenforce one another, though, so that what has grown embarrassing becomes obscure—as, for example, when television stations cut "Abraham, Abraham," a number which pairs a blacked-up Bing Crosby with Louis Beavers, from the very familiar Holiday Inn (1942) or when scholars of the ideological effects of American movies ignore This Is the Army (1943), which is among the most financially successful musicals ever and which featured Ronald Reagan, Joe Louis, and a blackface number. The assumption that blackface ended, more or less, with The Jazz Singer denies the term "blackface" any historical, material specificity and, instead, recreates it as an empty, metaphorical term of disapproval. "Stereotyped" black performances in films and on TV, white performers playing black characters but without using darkening make-up (e.g., Susan Kohner in the 1959 Imitation of Life), and many white musicians who appropriate black music-making practices (Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, Vanilla Ice) thus all become "blackface more broadly understood." One purpose of these next three chapters will be to rediscover, then, through analyzing a full range of blackface practices in American musical film, the historical and material specificity of blackface as a performance practice and as a descriptive term throughout the middle of the twentieth century.

The second and more specific assumption films conjoining black and blackface performance disprove is that blackface, along with appropriated black music and gesture, "only denotes African American absence from the screen." This assumption is convenient because it suggests simple measures for white appropriation and clearly demarcated, always visible and audible boundaries across which appropriation takes place unidirectionally. But, as the examples from this chapter's opening suggest, such a belief is far too easy. Crucial foundations for the U.S. economy, society, and culture were set with the appropriation of black African bodies and labor, and most strands of white U.S. culture have sustained themselves by further appropriating elements from black cultures. Blackface performance stands as a particularly stark and obvious marker of such appropriations, and cultural critics and analysts need to recognize this obviousness. "It could be argued," Carol Clover has claimed, "that there was a perverse honesty to traditional blackface." We need to recognize that white appropriations of black culture, along with their blackface marker, did not only or always indicate absence of (and for) African Americans; rather, they indicate a complex, relational, multivalent, though virtually always constrained and unequal presence. That presence needs to be described and analyzed. Apropos of nineteenth-century uses of blackface, music historian Eileen Southern has noted, "No one forgot who was behind it all"—and sometimes African Americans were literally, materially behind it all. African Americans blacked up, too, and not just for white audiences. To impute this practice only to the force of racism or wholly to false consciousness on the part of many black performers verges on the racism such claims are meant to combat. A second purpose of this chapter, then, is to understand in a more complex, historically grounded manner the varieties and interconnections of blackfaces and representations of "veritable" blackness—interconnections that were not stable or constant but, rather, shifted with audiences and across historical moments.

My argument is not that blackface is not embarrassing and racist or that there are no continuities between self-conscious blackface performance and other (mis-) representations of African Americans. Rather, it is that blackface is not simply embarrassing and racist and that its continuities with other forms of representation cannot be assumed to be clear and direct. If scholars and critics permit discomfort and distaste to dominate (as opposed to inform) history writing and interpretation, then we risk reifying past practices and, consequently, reproducing the worst aspects of those practices as their opposites. As Stuart Hall puts it: "However deformed, incorporated, and inauthentic are the forms in which black people and black communities and traditions appear and are represented in popular culture, we continue to see, in the figures and the repertoires on which popular culture draws, the experiences that stand behind them."

The pairing of black and blackface performance in film musicals provides a limit case to Hall's claim, since it thematizes what, from a present-day perspective at any rate, seem to be the extremes of deformation, incorporation, and inauthenticity. Consequently, some of the questions that will organize my study in the following chapters are: What, specifically, was blackface performance? What did it look like and sound like? What was its history in relation to the American film musical, and what were its incarnations in the film musical? What black experiences "stand behind" blackface performance in Hollywood musical film? What happens when the experiences embodied in the figure of the black performer stand not behind but beside or within the blackface mask? How does the conjoining of the "authentic" with the "inauthentic" work, and toward what effect? What forms does it take, and what were the meanings of those forms to white and, more importantly, black critics and observers? Who sees (and hears) what behind and through the deformed form?

Black Critics of Blackface

By the time The Jazz Singer was released, blackface, as a self-conscious, professional, theatrical practice in the United States, was over a century old, and since at least the turn of the century both black and white cultural critics had been variously predicting and lamenting or calling and hoping for its demise. As a complete, self-contained form, the blackface minstrel show had ceased to be popular in the cities by the late 1800s. The minstrel show, largely performed by African Americans, did continue in rural areas, especially the south, into the 1950s. One writer for the black press estimated that in 1930 there were "twenty odd" minstrel shows and one hundred plantation shows and carnivals employing African American minstrels, but increasingly in the early decades of the twentieth century, "minstrelsy" had come to mean blackfaced "specialties" or "singles" in variety, burlesque, and vaudeville. By 1927 blackface seemed at once thoroughly residual (and, to many, retrograde) and tremendously resilient. Blackface showed this resilience when it appeared in early sound film, bringing Carl Wittke to conclude his celebratory history of minstrelsy, Tambo and Bones (1930), with this vision: "Here the story of the decline of American [blackface] minstrel shows might end, were it not for the fact that the 'talkies' promise a revival of this venerable art.... The future of minstrelsy seems to lie in the lap of Hollywood."

Partly as a consequence of this revival at the hands of Hollywood, blackface came under intense scrutiny as critics tried to understand its origins and development and championed their ideas for its future. Studies as diverse as Wittke's, James Weldon Johnson's Black Manhattan (1930), and Constance Rourke's American Humor: A Study of the National Character (1931) all explored blackface and its legacies in some detail. What was unique about this moment of reflection compared with earlier reflections on blackface is that it now included the voices of black critics, critics who often had significantly different ideas about blackface than white writers—never purely celebratory, though not necessarily only stringently critical. So the renewal that mass media offered blackface also resulted in African American attention to blackface that was unique both in its concentration and in the fact that via the growing black press this criticism, too, was mass mediated.

A common concern of African Americans writing about blackface was (re)asserting and tracing the black contribution to Carl Wittke's "venerable art." This common interest in black contributions to blackface led to questions of origins, extensions, appropriations, and evaluation, issues on which there was much less agreement. In a vein characteristic of the moment and of the concerns of many African American critics, James Weldon Johnson wrote in Black Manhattan: "Negro [i.e., blackface] minstrelsy, as a form of professional entertainment, seems dead; nevertheless, its history cannot be reviewed without recognition of the fact that it was the first and remains, up to this time, the only completely original contribution America has made to the theater. Negro minstrelsy, everyone ought to know, had its origins among the slaves of the Old South." Johnson had no illusions about blackface minstrelsy and what it meant for black performers: "Minstrelsy was, on the whole, a caricature of Negro life, and it fixed a stage tradition which has not yet been entirely broken. It fixed the tradition of the Negro as only an irresponsible, happy-go-lucky, wide-grinning, loud-laughing, shuffling, banjo-playing, singing, dancing sort of being."

It is easy to see why Johnson would want blackface "dead." Still, since the death of the form did not mean the death of that form's constraining effects, it was also important, for Johnson, to recognize what the form permitted: "Nevertheless, these [blackface black minstrel] companies did provide stage training and theatrical experience for a large number of coloured men. They provided an essential training and theatrical experience which, at the time, could not have been acquired from any other source. Many of these men, as the vogue of minstrelsy waned, passed on into the second phase ... of the Negro on the theatrical stage in America; and it was mainly upon the training they had gained that this second phase rested." Bert Williams, still wearing blackface, was among the avatars of Johnson's second phase, which saw the rise of the black musical theater. Sissle and Blake—who refused blackface, but who created Shuffle Along with Flournoy Miller and Aubry Lyles, who did not—would be the avatars of the third phase. Johnson seems to say, "Blackface minstrelsy is dead, long live blackface!"—though he certainly thought the place it should "live" was in the memory of the African American roots of this "completely original contribution America has made to the theater."


Excerpted from Disintegrating the Musical by ARTHUR KNIGHT. Copyright © 2002 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents


Introduction: Disintegrating the Musical

1. Wearing and Tearing the Mask: Blacks on and in Blackface, Live

2. “Fool Acts”: Cinematic Conjunctions of White Blackface and Black Performance

3. Indefinite Talks: Blacks in Blackface, Filmed

4. Black Folk Sold: Hollywood’s Black-Cast Musicals

5. “Aping” Hollywood: Deformation and Mastery in The Duke is Tops and Swing!

6. Jammin’ the Blues: The Sight of Jazz

Coda: Bamboozled?




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