Sunday, October 24, 2010

Gone With the Slaves

So I finally bit the bullet and bought the few films that I consider "essential American films" that I already didn't own, since I was closing in on them anyway. The difference between these films and the other ones I've bought is that I've never seen them and/or I saw them and didn't particularly like them. It was a short but powerful list: Singin' in the Rain (never saw), The Wizard of Oz (never liked), The Godfather (never completely saw), and the great albatross of 20th century American film, Gone With the Wind.

For reasons that aren't worth getting into now, I somehow ended up seeing it two times within a two week period for two different classes in college, meaning that for some eight hours in one fortnight I was watching with fear and loathing while that crazy bitch named Scarlett O'Hara fiddle-dee-dee'ed herself from one petty, self-delusional situation to another. When I told my professor from the southern culture class I watched it for that I found Scarlett completely unsympathetic, he responded with all of the shock and dismay as if I had just shot his mother.

"But people love Scarlett," he reasoned in his thick southern accent. "Scarlett helps the wounded. She delivers Melanie's baby. She goes back to Tara and saves her family. Scarlett is a hero!"

Watching it again recently, I finally understood what he was saying. Being a complete bitch and doing what's right -- even when it's very difficult -- are not mutually exclusive entities. I guess I'm just predetermined to always face the film with two strikes against it: one, as a northerner, where everyone from my part of the country is treated as one big bad city-burning, carpetbagging enemy; two, as a historian, where the South is a thinly-veiled lost world of paradise, built upon delusion and lies.

It makes me think about something a different professor said about historical films: Any film attempting to depict a historical time ends up telling more about the time in which it was made than the time that it is trying to present. This statement has never been truer than in Gone With the Wind (okay, maybe Birth of a Nation, but I digress).

I once read the introduction to a classic film guide aimed at families. The whole impetus for the book arose from when the author was watching Gone With the Wind with his two young daughters, and the older one turned around and asked him why all of the black characters talked so funny. The question makes the author jump out of his skin for a moment and see everything fresh like it was the first time. He had never thought about those issues because he gave the movie a "free pass" for its extreme historical and cultural significance, but now a child's innocent question made him feel otherwise.

In our post-P.C. age of African American Best Actress winners and presidents, our instincts tell us to avoid the film as much as possible, and when it does come up, compliment its innovations and influence, while flatly dismissing it for its pie-in-the-sky depiction of the Old South and its slave system. The latter move is an attempt on the speaker's part to distance themselves from the world it creates; in this regard it can be seen as the social flipside of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry and George end every observation about gay people with the line, "Not that there's anything wrong with that..."

The problem for me with Gone With the Wind, then, is that the slaves are the most interesting characters in the film; and as I researched the actors further, it's probably is no coincidence that the actors who played them are even more fascinating.

Most famous is Hattie McDaniel, who plays Scarlett's no-nonsense Mammy (no other name for her is given, if indeed she even had one) is the most famous, taking what could have been a two-dimensional caricature and fleshing it out with real human emotion and depth. Much of this is done with her eyes -- at times thankful, at times sullen, and almost always wary -- which defy the hackneyed lines she is given.

Her performance was so strong that her peers couldn't ignore it, and she famously became the first African American to be nominated for and win an Oscar, beating out costar Olivia de Havilland among others. (And lest we think that the Academy can take one step forward without also taking one step back, it should be noted that the second African American to win an Oscar was James Baskett "for his able and heart-warming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and story teller to the children of the world in Walt Disney's Sound of the South.")

She gave a heartfelt speech at the awards program, calling her Oscar win "one of the happiest moments of my life" and honor that has made her "feel very, very humble" and that she will "always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future." She continued: "I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you." It was a moving speech and she cried through most of it; the fact that white studio execs wrote it for her to read tempts one to believe that this may have been her finest performance of all, but her emotion was real because she knew that the moment was bigger than the circumstances that may have surrounded it.

Hers was a hard-earned success; by the time she appeared in Gone With the Wind, she had already racked up dozens of the 300-odd films she would appear in (although she would only receive screen credit for around 80), appearing alongside a virtual who's who of the Golden Age of Hollywood: Katherine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Will Rogers, Shirley Temple, Jean Harlow, Lionel Barrymore, Ronald Reagan, and, of course, Gone With the Wind co-stars Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, and Clark Gable.

Gable had worked with McDaniel before and fought for her to get the role of Mammy in Gone With the Wind. When the film premiered in Atlanta, the state's segregationist laws prevented the African American actors from partaking in the festivities; when producer David O. Selznick attempted to bring McDaniel anyway, MGM encouraged him not to since she would have to stay in a separate hotel and not be allowed to sit with her fellow white peers. When Gable learned of this and threatened to boycott the premiere himself, it was McDaniel who convinced him to go anyway.

She remained as active on the camera as off. She was instrumental in organizing a restriction covenant that would have forced African American actors (including herself) from the chic West Adams Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. Superior Judge Thurmond Clarke visited the neighborhood to see for himself and decided to throw the case out of court, declaring that "It is time that members of the Negro race are accorded, without reservations or evasions, the full rights guaranteed them under the 14th Amendment the Federal Constitution. Judges have been avoiding the real issue too long." Said McDaniel of the decision: "Words cannot express my appreciation."

McDaniel remained active, even as the stereotyped servant roles of her film career raised the ire of progressive groups like the NAACP. When they critiqued McDaniel's work, she answered with timeless wit, resolve, and grace: "I'd rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be one for $7."

McDaniel was truly a trailblazer in Hollywood; the other African American slave characters of the film by comparison did not come close to breaking through their two-dimensional roles. Oscar Polk -- born Christmas Day, 1899, the exact same day as Humphrey Bogart -- played the part of "Pork," the shuffling butler who was every bit as weak and whiny as Mammy was strong and out-spoken. But Polk cut a memorable image on the screen that countered his role and performance; when he is ordered by Scarlett to do some of the farm work, the way he moans in protest that he and Mammy are house servants (as opposed to field hands) is at once hard-to-watch and searingly memorable. Unlike McDaniel, who seemed to find a way to radiate her personal strength through her role, Polk seems to do the same thing despite it.

It turns out that Polk was an accomplished stage actor who appeared in at least ten Broadway shows, along with several others that were off-Broadway. In 1949, he was scheduled to make a comeback of sorts with a major role in the play Leading Lady, but was fatally hit by a taxi cab as he stepped off the curb in Times Square. The role went to a young Ossie Davis, who a hundred years later would tell Spike Lee's Mookie to always do the right thing in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.

And then of course, there's Butterfly McQueen, who made her motion picture debut in the role of Prissy, a simple-minded childlike slave who was so over-the-top in her cringe-worthy performance that Malcolm X later wrote that seeing her performance onscreen as a child made him so feel such shame, he wanted to crawl under the rug. One only has to think of her most memorable line -- the shrill shriek of "I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies!" to Scarlett after assuring her earlier that she had lots of experience with this -- to understand just what Malcolm X was talking about; McQueen was a 28-year-old woman playing the role of a character that had been a 12-year-old child in the original book.

But like the others, McQueen found her way through the Hollywood machine, appearing in at least two stone-cold classics -- bit parts in Mildred Pierce with Bette Davis and The Women with Joan Crawford -- as well as much later appearing in The Mosquito Coast with Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren, and River Phoenix; in the meantime she worked all over the entertainment industry, taking roles on Jack Benny's radio show in the 1940s and in the groundbreaking (if also painfully stereotyped) television show Beulah in the 1950s, as well as appearing on The Dating Game in the late '60s.

She grew restless, and found herself drawn to politics, eventually earning a Bachelor's degree in poli-sci from the City College of New York in 1975, and then a few years later earned an Emmy for her performance as a fairy godmother on an ABC Afterschool Special. All along the way, she was a strong advocate against organized religion, likening her freedom from religion as akin to her ancestors' freedom from slavery. When she died three days shy of Christmas 1995 at the age of 84, it was a result of burns received when a kerosene lamp she was attempted to light exploded. Seeing through her atheist beliefs through the end, McQueen donated her body to science and contributed to the Freedom from Religion Foundation in her will.

These are the actors about which I was able to find out significant information, much of which I found fascinating. But for every actor that I could find information about, there were dozens more that remain lost to the ages. For example, I tried to learn about Everett Brown, who played "Big Sam," the field-hand foreman slave who literally saves Scarlett's life midway through the movie, but found next to nothing about him. According to the Find a Grave website, he was born on New Year's Day, 1902, and died on October 25, 1953; he also appeared in at least 28 films including classics like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Tarzan and His Mate, served in the Coast Guard during World War I, and is buried in the Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, CA. Otherwise he remains a phantom.

But for me, as much as I can marvel at the heroes like Hattie McDaniel and wonder at the phantoms like Everett Brown, it is the people in between -- the Oscar Polks and the Butterfly McQueens -- who keep me coming back for more. We know just enough to fill out a general sketch of who they are and what they did, yet enough blanks remain to give them a distance that is both odd and compelling.

Butterfly McQueen in particular has always fascinated me -- I remember seeing her for the first time as part of the Oscar's montage of actors who had died; if memory serves, she was one of the few who was given dialogue: her infamous "birthin' babies" line. I remember asking my mother about her and getting an unusual response that seemed to indicate that there was something forbidden and uncomfortable about her, something that gave Malcolm X so much shame he literally wanted to hide. It was ugly, but also strangely fascinating. This lovely young lady with an instantly-memorable voice, now a forgotten-movie star that many are happy to leave that way.

But as I piece together parts of her life -- her early career as a dancer, the way she fluttered her hands around while performing that earned her the nickname "Butterfly", the mix of pride and duty that may have led her to amend her autograph with "'Prissy' of 'G.W.T.W'" -- that, when taken into account with the Hollywood movie, radio, and television roles, the political science degree, and the atheism, only gets weirder and weirder the more you think about it.

For instance, one of the things I learned about her from this piece was that she appeared in a Technicolor western film from 1946 called Duel in the Sun -- an attempt by producer and writer David O. Selznick to outdo his own success with Gone With the Wind (it didn't) -- in which she appeared alongside Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Lionel Barrymore, and Lillian Gish. I can't help but wonder whether McQueen crossed paths with Gish, who had first made her name over thirty years earlier in that other great Civil War epic, D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, and if so, whether or not these films came up in conversation. Probably this is all too much to hope for -- I'm not even sure if they even appeared together in the film -- but I like how this half-forgotten cowboy-and-Indian romance picture ties together two actresses, one a legend and one an embarrassing relic, from two films, each of which were the biggest movie of their day, but now are swept under the rug in the name of historical inaccuracy and racial guilt.

Perhaps Gish and McQueen did meet and talk about the elusiveness of memory, the lines dividing great film and responsible storytelling, and how every historical picture reveals more about the time in which it was made than the time that it attempts to depict, but in my mind, the scene plays out best if the two women catch each other between takes, nod and smile and greet each other, and talk for a few moments about the frivolities of making Duel in the Sun while drinking Coca-Cola.

And then Butterfly would say something funny in her signature squawk that would make Lillian throw her head back slightly and laugh, and for a moment, all would be forgotten.

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