Monday, July 6, 2020

Lena vs. Ava in the Role of Show Boat's "Julie"

Lena Horne
One of my favorite movies from the Hollywood heyday of musicals is Show Boat, made in 1951, starring Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson.

The sultry Ava Gardner also starred as "Julie," the mixed race (mulatto) character.  However, before she was cast, the beautiful (African American) Lena Horne was considered.

While Lena Horne was employed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios (MGM), her appearances in movies were shot so that they could be cut easily from the films she appeared in. This was because MGM feared audiences of that time, especially those in the South, would not accept a beautiful black woman in romantic, non-menial roles.

This was probably the main reason she lost out on playing "Julie."  I remember seeing her on a talk show back in the '80s explaining how MGM's makeup department had come up with a foundation for her to wear as "Julie," called light Egyptian.  Shortly afterwards, however, Ava Gardner was the one being slathered with it and not her!

Ava Gardner
Ironically, Ava Gardner was one of Lena's closest off-screen friends.  She practiced for the role by singing to Horne's recordings of the songs, since Lena had already appeared in the "Show Boat" segment of Till the Clouds Roll By (1946).  In that, she had appeared as "Julie" singing "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" (which was, as all her MGM appearances, shot in such a way that it could be easily edited out of the film).

Another irony for Lena is that she had been invited by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II themselves to play "Julie" in the 1946 Broadway revival of Show Boat, but had had to refuse because MGM would not release her from her contract.

Shortly after her death in 2010, Time Magazine provided a biography on what Lena Horne's film career could have looked like:

Gorgeous, gifted and preternaturally poised, the 24-year-old actress-singer came to Hollywood in 1941 and quickly became the first African-American movie star. She was a sensation in her first leading role, as the Congo goddess Tondelayo in MGM's White Cargo. She earned an Academy Award nomination as the light-skinned black girl passing for white in Elia Kazan's Pinky, then capped her first decade of stardom playing Julie and singing "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" in the 1951 film Show Boat.

Those roles were eventually played by Hedy Lamarr, Jeanne Crain, and Ava Gardner, respectively.  It's a shame we'll never know what Lena Horne could have done with them!

Have you ever seen Show Boat? Thanks for visiting and have a great week!

Monday, June 29, 2020

Fredi Washington: Didn't Live an Imitation of Life

Fredi Washington
Most white people who have ever heard of the term "passing," and know what it means, have probably seen the movie Imitation of Life.

Several years ago, my husband, who's white, watched the 1959 film with me.  He was fascinated by the subject matter, and impressed that Imitation of Life had been made back in the 1950s.

I told him that this was the second version, and that the original had been produced in 1934.  In that movie, I informed him, a "real black girl" played the part of Peola, the light skinned daughter desperate to pass as white.  (In the 1959 movie, the daughter's name is Sarah Jane and she's played by white actress Susan Kohner). If you're not familiar with Imitation of Life, based on the 1933 Fannie Hurst novel of the same name, click here.

The real black girl mentioned above was Fredi Washington, an accomplished African American dramatic actress during the 1920s and '30s.  Fair skinned with green eyes, she was often asked to "pass for white" in order to receive better opportunities in films.  However, Fredi refused.  "I'm honest," she said, "and you don't have to be white to be good."

She faced discrimination from whites and, because of her appearance, resentment within the black community, which had complex feelings about obvious mixed-race people. Washington expressed her opinions about race and color prejudice, and after retiring from acting in the 1930's, became an activist and journalist.

In 1937, Ms.Washington was a founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America (NAG), which created better professional opportunities for blacks in show business. She also worked as Entertainment Editor of People's Voice, founded in 1942.

Never ashamed of who she was, Fredi Washington was no Peola!

Have you seen either version of Imitation of Life?

Thanks for visiting and have a great week!

Friday, June 26, 2020

Gaslight and Gaslighting

On May 4, 1944, the psychological thriller Gaslight was released, starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, and 18-year-old Angela Lansbury making her Oscar nominated screen debut.

The dictionary definition of gaslighting is to manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity. If you're familiar with the term, but not exactly sure of how it originated, it all began with this story.

The 1944 film was adapted from the 1938 stage play of the same name. The drama centers around a  husband trying to drive his wife insane in order to distract her from his criminal activities. Here's a brief synopsis from Rotten Tomatoes:

After the death of her famous opera-singing aunt, Paula (Ingrid Bergman) is sent to study in Italy to become a great opera singer as well. While there, she falls in love with the charming Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer). The two return to London, and Paula begins to notice strange goings-on: missing pictures, strange footsteps in the night and gaslights that dim without being touched. As she fights to retain her sanity, her new husband's intentions come into question.
Charles Boyer and Ingried Bergman
With help from the outside, Paula eventually understands what's going on and realizes she's not mad. When Gregory faces the consequences and appeals to Paula for help, she uses what he's tried to convince her of against him, "If I were not mad, I could have helped you. Whatever you had done, I could have pitied and protected you. But because I am mad, I hate you. Because I am mad, I have betrayed you. And because I'm mad, I'm rejoicing in my heart, without a shred of pity, without a shred of regret, watching you go with glory in my heart!"
Charles Boyer and Angela Lansbury
I love old movies, but this was one I had never seen until a few years ago. If you enjoy psychological thrillers, you'll love this one! Have you ever seen Gaslight? Thanks for visiting and have a great week!

Monday, June 22, 2020

John Howard Griffin: Before He Was Black

I've been doing some research for a project, and in the process I've learned about the author of Black Like Me, John Howard Griffen. I had no idea he'd led such an interesting life!

If you're not familiar with Black Like Me, here's some information regarding it from Wikipedia:
In the fall of 1959, John Howard Griffin decided to investigate firsthand the plight of African Americans in the South, where racial segregation was legal; blacks had been disenfranchised since the turn of the century and closed out of the political system, and whites were struggling to maintain dominance against an increasing civil rights movement.
Griffin consulted a New Orleans dermatologist for aid in darkening his skin, being treated with a course of drugs, sunlamp treatments, and skin creams. Griffin shaved his head in order to hide his straight hair. He spent weeks travelling as a black man in New Orleans and parts of Mississippi (with side trips to South Carolina and Georgia), getting around mainly by bus and by hitchhiking. He was later accompanied by a photographer who documented the trip, and the project was underwritten by Sepia magazine, in exchange for first publication rights for the articles he planned to write. These were published under the title Journey into Shame.
Griffin published an expanded version of his project as Black Like Me (1961), which became a best seller in 1961. He described in detail the problems an African American encountered in the segregated Deep South meeting the needs for food, shelter, and toilet and other sanitary facilities. Griffin also described the hatred he often felt from white Southerners he encountered in his daily life — shop clerks, ticket sellers, bus drivers, and others. He was particularly shocked by the curiosity white men displayed about his sexual life. He also included anecdotes about white Southerners who were friendly and helpful.
The wide publicity about the book made Griffin a national celebrity for a time.
However, before Black Like Me, Griffin had lived a rather extraordinary life. Here's some of what I learned from an article in Smithsonian:
Born in Dallas in 1920, Griffin was raised in nearby Fort Worth. “We were given the destructive illusion that Negroes were somehow different,” he said. Yet his middle-class Christian parents taught him to treat the family’s black servants with paternalistic kindness. He would always recall the day his grandfather slapped him for using a common racial epithet of the era. “They’re people,” the old man told the boy. “Don’t you ever let me hear you call them [that] again.”
Griffin was gifted with perfect pitch and a photographic memory, but his most vital gift was curiosity. At 15, he earned entrance to a boarding school in France, where he was “delighted” to find black students in class but appalled to see them dining with white people in cafés. “I had simply accepted the ‘customs’ of my region, which said that black people could not eat in the same room with us,” Griffin later wrote. “It had never occurred to me to question it.”
Griffin was studying psychiatry in France when Hitler’s troops invaded Poland in 1939. Finding himself “in the presence of a terrible human tragedy,” he joined the French Resistance and helped smuggle Jewish children to England. When he told an informer of a plan to help a family escape, his name turned up on a Nazi death list. Fleeing just ahead of the Gestapo, Griffin returned to Texas in 1941 and enlisted in the Army Air Corps shortly after Pearl Harbor.
While working as a radio operator in the Pacific, he was sent on his own to the Solomon Islands to ensure natives’ loyalty to the American war effort. For a full year, Griffin studied tribal languages and adaptation to the jungle, but still assumed that “mine was a ‘superior’ culture.”
After getting blasted with shrapnel in an enemy air raid a few months before the end of the war, Griffin awoke in a hospital, seeing only shadows; eventually, he saw nothing. The experience was revealing. The blind, he wrote, “can only see the heart and intelligence of a man, and nothing in these things indicates in the slightest whether a man is white or black.” Blindness also forced Griffin to find new strengths and talents. Over the next decade, he converted to Catholicism, began giving lectures on Gregorian chants and music history, married and had the first of four children. He also published two novels based on his wartime experience. Then in 1955, spinal malaria paralyzed his legs.
Blind and paraplegic, Griffin had reason to be bitter, yet his deepening faith, based on his study of Thomas Aquinas and other theologians, focused on the sufferings of the downtrodden. After recovering from malaria, he was walking in his yard one afternoon when he saw a swirling redness. Within months, for reasons that were never explained, his sight was fully restored.
That's just a portion of the article, but I must say his life reads like a novel! To see the entire piece, click here.
Did you know anything at all about John Howard Griffin? Thanks for visiting and have a great week!

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Why I NEVER Bought Aunt Jemima Products


Aunt Jemima (then)
In today's high tension environment, I thought it would be important to explain something. I'm re-posting an article I published a few years ago regarding Aunt Jemima. Upon hearing that the Aunt Jemima Brand is now retiring, all I can say is, IT'S ABOUT TIME!

According to the New York Star Tribune, "Quaker Oats is retiring the 131-year-old Aunt Jemima brand, saying the company recognizes the character's origins are "based on a racial stereotype.

Just hours later, the owner of the Uncle Ben's brand of rice says the brand will 'evolve' in response to concerns about racial stereotyping."

Nearly 100 years after the Civil War, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put our nation on the road to racial reconciliation.  It’s a long road and we’re still on it.

Prior to racial barriers being broken, blacks were relegated to positions of servitude.  Even high achieving blacks in white schools were encouraged by teachers and counselors to seek trades.

Speaking of servitude, let's talk about Aunt Jemima.  When my kids were younger, they loved Aunt Jemima frozen waffles and Aunt Jemima pancake mix.  I grew up eating waffles and pancakes that my mom had made from scratch—which was exactly what I'd done for my kids.  Yet they preferred the pre-made frozen waffles and pancake mix they'd eaten at sleepovers, to what I'd fix at home. They'd also claimed that all the other supermarket brands weren't as good. “We want Aunt Jemima!” they'd demanded, so  I caved. I bought the products, something I thought I would NEVER do. And it was hard to actually put that pancake mix in my shopping cart. I didn't even tell my mother.

Aunt Jemima (now retiring)
Prior to my kids insisting on Aunt Jemima products, I NEVER bought them. And seeing the Aunt Jemima label in a black person’s home used to shock me. Though no ill-feelings existed behind the label, the origins of the Aunt Jemima character are insensitive, or what's today considered politically incorrect.

When I was a growing up, my mother NEVER allowed Aunt Jemima’s broad, smiling face to sit on our pantry shelf.  Why did Mom despise this seemingly  innocuous,  jolly woman?  Well it all goes back to slavery.

Back in slavery days, very young white children called much older slaves aunt and uncle.  Apparently the practice of calling any black person  aunt or uncle, carried over into post slavery times.

My mother grew up in 1930’s South Carolina, and when white salesmen would come to the door and address my feisty grandmother as Auntie (pronounced “Ainie” in the southern vernacular), she’d say, “My mother never gave birth to anything that looked like you!” before slamming the door.

So, Mom NEVER purchased Aunt Jemima because addressing a black woman as aunt or auntie (instead of Miss, Mrs. or ma'am) was a disrespectful practice.  However, she didn't a problem with Uncle Ben, perhaps because he didn’t appear as a buffoonish caricature.  For years Aunt Jemima was portrayed as the stereotypical black mammy of the plantation south. Old Aunt Jemima was a minstrel song written in 1875 and the Aunt Jemima character was a fixture in minstrel shows during the late 19th century.

The idea of this pre-mixed product being represented by a slave woman was inspired by the marketing aspect of bringing back “the good old days” when slaves did all the work. In the book Slave in a Box, Maurice Manning shows how “advertising entrepreneur James Webb Young, aided by celebrated illustrator N.C. Wyeth, skillfully tapped into nostalgic 1920s perceptions of the South as a culture of white leisure and black labor. Aunt Jemima's ready-mixed products offered middle-class housewives the next best thing to a black servant: a ‘slave in a box’ that conjured up romantic images of not only the food but also the social hierarchy of the plantation South.” (From the Slave in a Box Amazon page).

When I was a kid, my mom said, “If they’d just take that kerchief off her head and call the product Jemima, I wouldn’t have a problem with it.”  Aunt Jemima’s appearance has changed throughout the years.  She’s no longer buffoonish looking and doesn’t resemble a mammy.  She’s been slimmed down, her kerchief evolved into a hair band before finally disappearing, and she now sports a 1980s hairdo.  The only thing that hasn’t changed, and will forever prevent my mom from buying any Aunt Jemima product is the “Aunt” in front of her name. 

Most African Americans of later generations don’t know about the derogatory past of Aunt Jemima.  But there are probably plenty  in my mom’s age group that NEVER buy Aunt Jemima because of its hurtful past.

I’ll end things on a lighter note.  I won’t put you on the spot and ask whether or not you buy Aunt Jemima!  But I will ask this instead, do you prefer pancakes from mix or from scratch?

Thanks for visiting!