One of the nicest things about that aspect of academic labor called sabbatical is the opportunity to re-connect with intellectual passions abandoned at the gates of the dark, Satanic mills of paper-grading that come to define one’s working life, at least at a community college. For me, this has meant time to go back to reading (among other things) film history, theory, and criticism, and to do so in a less focused, less disciplined way than the tenure-clock crunch of a decade ago had permitted.
Lary May’s The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way (Chicago UP, 2000) was one of the first texts I pulled off the shelf. Here, May, a professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota, argues against the prevailing view of classic Hollywood as a Frankfurt school-style machine churning out standardized product to “promote the ideals of liberal capitalism and classlessness, […] a false consciousness that took spectators’ attention away from issues of class inequality and cultural experimentation” (258-9). Instead, May proposes a cyclical, consumer-driven model, where “audiences at key historical moments … disrupt the production system and compel studios to alter their films in response to market demand” (260). The “key historical moment” here is the Great Depression, and a good half of May’s study is given over to analyzing how the ’30s created conditions that favored socially progressive narratives: as faith in the virtues of American capitalism reached a nadir, films reflected the new Zeitgeist by portraying a more democratic, cooperative, inclusive, and collectivist vision of the country. These conditions would in turn disappear around the hierarchical, paternalist, and individualist orthodoxy that emerged around World War II and McCarthyism; while the appearance of figures like Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando in the early-to-mid ’50s were harbingers of the ruptures of the following decade, when the industry once again found itself on the defensive (see, for example, Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls).
Perhaps the chief reason for the disparity between May’s conclusion and the “standard” reading of classic Hollywood is methodology. For the oft-cited Classical Hollywood System, for example, the authors (David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristen Thompson) examined “over a hundred” films of the period (in their case, 1900-1950)—a drop in the bucket of the total number of films produced in that half-century, and “not strictly a random” drop at that (Bordwell et al., qtd. in May 259). Such a narrow and selective pool, May notes, cannot hope to be representative. May opts instead for a broad examination of plot digests that appeared in the trade publication Motion Picture Herald. This allows him to get a more panoramic view of the period, and quantitatively analyze the rise and fall of particular ideological elements: “Films Featuring Big Business Villains,” “Films Featuring Progressive Reform of Society,” and so on, neatly encapsulated in the line and bar graphs that make up one of the book’s appendices.
If I am (politically speaking) ambivalent about May’s thesis—I am as satisfied to imagine a lost Marxist halcyon in the heart of the Hollywood machine as I am to imagine Tinseltown as a Sherman tank festooned with the skulls of Leftists—I am equally ambivalent about his methodology. Panoramic it is … but also, by necessity, so much the less detail-focused. For, just as one cannot confidently generalize about a historical period from a statistically insignificant and selective pool, so one cannot do any more than a car-window reading of a small percentage of the thousands of films canvassed for The Big Tomorrow. (May lists around 200 titles in his index, the majority of which get a passing mention.) This may be unnecessary to grab hold of the Zeitgeist. But it does make me wonder what got left out. The devil, after all, is in those details.
Not that I was expecting miracles. May himself concedes that “racist imagery, themes of liberal individualism, and backward-looking symbols [continued to] appear in major films” of the period (259-60). That acknowledged, I wondered just how much the progressivism May spotlights would shine through. On which issues might the challenges to mainstream American ideology be most thoroughly and radically expressed? On which would it remain shackled to the existing ideology? And how and where would the challenges as presented be neutralized or otherwise folded back into a narrative supportive of the ideology, as per Bordwell et al.’s thesis? (None of what follows, by the way, is intended to diminish May’s overall achievement. The Big Tomorrow is essential reading for anyone interested in the connections between twentieth-century American culture and politics. The chapter on the changing architecture of movie theaters alone is worth the whole book.)
The poster-boy for May’s 1930s is Will Rogers, on whom May lavishes a full and fascinating chapter. Rogers is a figure entirely lost, I think, to members of the post-baby boom generations of Americans to which I belong. Perhaps this is because he died in 1935, and never got to start a fast food franchise. Or perhaps the reasons are more political. Rogers, born to mestizo Cherokees in Oolagah, the Indian territory of Oklahoma, was an unabashed progressive and spokesperson for indigenous rights. From a modest beginning in Wild West shows at the turn of the century, the “Cherokee cowboy” climbed the vaudeville circuit to the Ziegfeld follies, and then went on to become one of the most powerful and beloved entertainers in the country—the sort who gave radio addresses listened to by millions of Americans, starred in some of the most popular Hollywood films of the day, and hobnobbed with the likes of FDR (May 24-5). One of his best-known quips, “My ancestors did not come over on the Mayflower—they met the boat” (qtd. in May 13), was actually emblazoned on a mural in the lobby of the Will Rogers theater in Chicago. If this seems incredible today, it is probably because we can no longer conceive of the vast majority of the “average men” Rogers championed recognizing its legitimacy.
Interestingly, biographers have often regarded Rogers as a regressive American mythmaker, one who “helped the nation’s fundamental institutions escape [the Depression] unscathed by the attempts to keep alive the myth and proverbial fantasy of a mobile and classless society” (Bergman, We’re In the Money, qtd. in May 13). May argues that Rogers was far more subversive than his biographers give him credit for. Invoking sociologist Craig Calhoun’s concept of “a radicalism of tradition”—one framed by the “effort to save institutions undermined by an untrammeled market and explotive power relations” (14)—May contends that Rogers “used th[e] backward-looking myth not to promote, but to undermine the status quo” (28). The chief “myth” here is the frontier, the image of the ideal American republic, “free of aristocracy and monopoly” (14). In addition, Rogers drew on Cherokee tradition to invoke a more inclusive vision of this “producers’ democracy” than the inherited Anglo-Saxon fantasy of an exclusively white frontier civilization raised up on land cleared of “savages.”
Based on my own small, biased sample of Rogers movies mentioned in The Big Tomorrow, I can certainly see May’s point, at least where social class is concerned. The pompous wealthy get skewered; the meritorious poor triumph; collective action by diverse characters saves the day. At the same time, it’s difficult not to think how easily these stories, at least considered in such broad strokes, fold back into the mythology of capitalism, which, it seems to me, celebrates democracy and the average man to the same degree that it undermines the one and destroys the livelihood of the other.
On the subject of race, these films, like other films of the period, are more ambivalent.* May hedges more here; he acknowledges that it strains credulity to figure Rogers’s films as progressive on race, given the prevalence of minstrel actors like Stepin Fetchit and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson; but he still asserts Rogers’s films “undermined stereotypical goals and purposes, opening the way for alternative race relations” (35). Perhaps the issue is less about race in general than African Americans in particular. For, while it is true that Rogers’s underdog-oriented films would have appealed to the increasingly diverse populations of the cities, it is also true that these groups were paying the “wages of whiteness” as they found their way to the American middle class. The history of African American class mobility is more complicated.
Part of the ambivalence of Rogers’s screen persona vis-à-vis race surely stems from his own conflicted and complex heritage. In the mid-19th century, Cherokees—one-third of whom were of mixed blood—grew cash crops using slaves (May 19-20). Given the American government’s history of Indian relations, and the fact that the Trail of Tears was hardly twenty years old at the outbreak of the Civil War, it is hardly surprising that more than half of Cherokees chose to fight on the side of the Confederacy (20). Will, then, was the product of as contradictory an inheritance as the “Cherokee cowboy” he portrayed. Hence his ease at playing the white southerner or southwestern frontiersman: the captain in Steamboat ‘Round the Bend (1935), the horse trainer in In Old Kentucky (1935), the title characters in Doctor Bull (1933) and Judge Priest (1934). Though audiences would have been well aware of the “mixed blood” that Rogers often touted in his columns and radio addresses, he could “pass” for white in his screen roles.** Such was hardly an option for Fetchit, Rogers’s sidekick in Steamboat and Priest.
By and large these are Rogers formula films as May defines it. In Judge Priest, for example, young lovers divided by social class (Priest’s nephew Jerome (‘Rome), a newly-minted lawyer, and the beautiful but unsuitably orphaned “girl next door,” Ellie May) suffer at the hands of pompous aristocratic elites from the “best families” (Priest’s sister Caroline, a Daughter of the Confederacy; senator and prosecutor Horace Maydew, who May helpfully notes looks like Herbert Hoover). Rogers, as a beneficent widower, spends the movie playing matchmaker, working to heal a divided community, humorously throwing wrenches into the gears of privilege, and generally manipulating town affairs with Dickensian aplomb. When, at the film’s conclusion, defendant Bob Gillis is revealed to be not just a former chain-gang member, but also a hero of the Confederacy and Ellie May’s father (who has also secretly been supporting her education), the marriage is suddenly sanctioned—and Caroline, the main impediment to the union, descends on the girl with the words, “Can’t you see this child needs a mother?” So opposites are joined, balance restored, “alliances forged across groups” (33): genteel and working-class, dispossessed daughter of the Confederacy and Northern-trained lawyer, city and country.
Unlike Steamboat, however, in Priest race is difficult to ignore. Set in 1890, an apparently better, vanished time in the border state of Kentucky, it is a full-tilt sentimentalization of the Old South. Priest mourns for his dead wife and children; and given that he sees the former in a vision in full antebellum regalia, himself in an officer’s uniform, and that his deceased son is named Robert E. (Lee, that is, whose image graces the back wall of the courtroom), it is difficult not to see them as stand-ins for the Old South as a whole. (That the gilding is coming off their picture is a more ambiguous signifier.) In fact, the entirety of the narrative revolves around the War: from the chorus of cuddly Confederate veterans full of romantic pride in the Lost Cause—and for some of whom the war isn’t ended, let alone lost—to the veterans’ benefit that serves as the movie’s centerpiece, to the Memorial Day parade that ends it, Priest marching right out in front with the Stars and Bars waving over his head.
Not that Judge Priest is devoid of irony. Clearly, Caroline Priest and Horace Maydew are the main targets of the film; Priest’s slouch and stutter are their dramatic antithesis. But the vets, the “average men” of Rogers’s pantheon, are mostly buffoons—cuddly ones, but buffoons nonetheless. Nor does Priest himself, credited with being an exemplar of “tolerance and wisdom,” escape ridicule. He first appears in the pre-credit sequence hidden behind the funny papers, which he only lowers to bang his gavel and call order at the camera (settling, we assume, spectators talking or finding their seats). Later in the film, Priest scares off a potential competitor (the sleazy town barber) for Ellie May’s hand by hiding behind the bushes and faking a conversation between himself and Jeff (Stepin Fetchit) to make it seem the girl’s father is coming after the barber with a gun. While the captions “clarify” this as Priest alternating between “imitating Jeff” and using his “normal voice,” the latter is hardly normal: his caricatured “judge” is closer to Maydew’s voice than his own.
Of course, the humor about Priest and the “average men” of the jury is a good deal gentler than that used to skewer the local aristocracy: the funny papers, the spittoon, the practical joke, these are peccadilloes that presumably mirror the film audience’s. And that’s the point: insofar as Judge Priest grazes the myth of the Old South, or at least Old Kentucky, it does so, it seems, only to more firmly entrench it.
Like Caroline and the Maydews, Fetchit’s Jeff Pointdexter is the butt of almost every scene where he appears. Mumbling, bumbling, lazy and thieving, he effectively condenses every negative stereotype about blacks into a single screen persona, as Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro so powerfully reminds us. But there is an ambivalence about Fetchit here, too—and it’s not just that his brilliant physical comedy shines through the degrading persona. In the opening scene of the film, for example, Jeff is on trial for chicken stealing. While the prosecutor drones and Priest reads the comics, he sleeps. When the judge’s turn comes, Priest reminds the jury of veterans that they have stolen food before—during the war, when a corrupt officer denied them their provisions. Later in the scene, when Jeff mentions that he had been fishing, Priest invites him up to the bench. Fetchit tells him how he catches the biggest catfish; the scene fades to a bucolic image of Priest and Jeff walking off to go fishing together.
Clearly, Jeff as much as Priest is being used here to satirize Maydew, and the way the scene ends suggests an affinity beyond the bluster of the courtroom. But in his brief analysis of the film, May overstates the case when he claims that the judge’s “appeal to common oppression persuades the jury to let the black ‘criminal’ go free” (37). The jury of vets is in disarray, arguing (with Priest as well) about the finer points of battles, and whether there are even any fish in “Sleepy River” at all. It might be intuited that said jury is persuaded; but it is more their dysfunction that predominates than any argument about “common oppression.”
More to the point, Priest’s defense of Jeff is undermined by the narrative: Jeff can’t keep his hands off anything, be it the housekeeper Dilsey’s food, the judge’s raccoon coat, or the bass drum for the Memorial Day parade. The incident with the drum is particularly suggestive, full of subversive potential the movie just can’t cash in on. Though I would love to imagine Jeff sabotaging the Memorial Day parade, and thus the commemoration of the Confederacy (the shot where Fetchit appears with the bass drum directly follows a shot of men arguing that they “can’t have a parade without the drum”), the drum is then used by a group of black musicians to play “Dixie,” just as Priest had asked Jeff to do, and with even more fanfare than he could have expected. Of course, the parade goes on anyway.
The scene where Priest asks Jeff to play “Dixie” is another ambiguous moment, and one that May misrepresents in his text. According to May, Fetchit says that he doesn’t know “Dixie,” but he can play “Marching Through Georgia”: the song, May glosses, that accompanied General Sherman’s pillage of the South (37). Actually, Fetchit says he can play “Dixie” … and he can also play “Marching Through Georgia.” The mixture of deference and defiance is much more consistent with Fetchit’s role throughout the film, obedience spiked with a drop of rebellion, even as, once again, neither character nor narrative can act on it. (It is also much funnier.) Also neglected by May is Priest’s response: “I already saved you from one lynching. You play ‘Marching Through Georgia,’ I’ll join the lynchers.”
The lynching Priest mentions raises another issue. According to May, there should be a scene where Priest rescues Jeff from being lynched, but it was cut from the southern version (37).*** The matter of this missing scene gets knottier, however, as we look more closely at May’s text. May claims that in the censored scene Fetchit “articulates an African American view of history. This happens when the judge asks Fetchit if he can play ‘Dixie’” (37; my emphasis). But the scene where the judge asks Jeff if he can play “Dixie” cannot be the scene where Fetchit “articulates an African American view of history,” at least in the southern version. May’s “this happens” is unclear. Could he mean that Fetchit’s nod to playing “Marching” is his alternative view of history? Perhaps … but that seems to make a mountain out of a molehill. The other possibility is that the version of the film May used (in the Will Rogers Memorial Archives) contains not just a deleted scene, but material rearranged and even re-shot. For only this way can one make sense of May’s point, and even more of what follows. Apparently, a “Southern Lady” complained to Rogers that Priest would “ruin him with the Southern people” because it “portrayed a southern woman entering public life aligned with African Americans. In the past as well as the present, Negroes ‘kept their place as servants’” (38). I have a hard time squaring this criticism with anything that appears in Judge Priest: no Southern woman enters public life in the film; and the “Negroes” don’t just know their place, they positively embrace it. What’s more, one would presume that the “Southern Lady” would have seen the southern cut of the film.
The “Southern Lady” is perhaps indicative of how difficult it is see a film, any film, from the perspective of a different time and culture. While she’s worrying about uppity blacks, one of the few YouTube comments where the film has been made freely available says quite simply what most modern viewers would: “This film is incredibly racist!” Unless the southern version is much more radically altered than just the lynching scene, even in the most generous reading, it is hard to see how Judge Priest “advance[s] … the message” of “bringing black energies and voices into public life” (May 36). There is precious little in the film that suggests anything but a wholehearted embrace of the existing racial order, and never more than the most velvet irony about the War to Save Slavery. By making the chain-gang convict a Confederate hero, the gentility can come under the customary withering scrutiny and fall under the mythical American wheel of merit, progressive reform can be touted (think of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang only a few years earlier), all the while leaving the Cause unscathed … and the virtual re-enslavement of blacks via the chain gang from which Bob Gillis once rode to glory unacknowledged.
By this point, you must be wondering why, on a music blog, I’ve spent so much time talking about movies. Shame on you if you’re not. Not that I haven’t talked about music in film twice before (see “The Interrupted Nocturne,” 12.20.11, and “Silent Movie,” 3.25.11). And I did just mention “Dixie.” So keep your shirt on. This is a long wind(ed)-up, even if I can’t promise the pitch will be all that impressive.
Popular tunes from the parlor canon weave in and out of Judge Priest. A truncated “Dixie” plays over part of the opening credits; at different moments during the veterans’ benefit, snippets of “Dixie,” “Swanee River,” and “Camptown Races” can be heard in the background. This long sequence, however, opens and closes with two scenes where music is foregrounded: a quartet of black housekeepers singing in harmony. They are led by Priest’s housekeeper Dilsey, played by the wonderful Hattie McDaniel. The quintessential Aunt Jemima, Dilsey rolls her eyes and smiles a lot, and she dotes on the judge, at least when she’s not scowling at Fetchit. And she sings while she goes about her work, improvising verses to the tunes of hymns while she hangs the wash or dusts. Based on this profile, the scene-opening number is pretty much what we would expect: the women sing about Jesus “washing [them] white as snow though [they] be black as tar.”
But it is in the closing scene of the party that something else happens. This scene finds the women on the same porch as at the beginning, cleaning up, we might say, the white folks’ mess. As they work, they sing “My Old Kentucky Home.” It appears that the evening’s spoils are quite extensive: slice after slice of leftover cake, and even what appears to be an entire untouched cake, disappear into the housekeepers’ baskets while they sing. Given that they keep blankets over the salvaged food, and only lift them to show their fellow housekeepers, the sense is that there is something illegitimate about the takeaway: perhaps the sheer quantity is unseemly? (Interestingly, in the previous scene, black children can be seen sitting in and among the baskets.) This feeling is reinforced a few moments later, when Priest joins them: first the sound of his voice, then visually, entering the shot from the right. There is a brief moment of concern among the servants, conveyed by their expressions and gestures. And then Priest points to Rome, who he enabled to escape the clutches of the prosecutor’s daughter, enjoying cake with Ellie May. Dilsey responds by showing him what’s in the basket. His expression suggests a mixture of disapproval and collusion—a wink and a nudge. Just as the servants make off with the cake, so Priest gets away with bringing the class-crossed lovers together. Both are working around (and in Priest’s case stealthily upending) the social hierarchy. Of course, the very fact that he sings with the help at all, that he harmonizes with them (the only white character to do so), re-enforces this sense of solidarity and parallel purpose.
The scene yields yet more interesting possibilities when we consider the choice of song itself. It is the Kentucky state song, though apparently many Kentuckians remain unaware of its history. The lyrics, inspired by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, portray a slave lamenting that they and their fellow slaves are to be sold down the river. It is an “antislavery” song … though one where, considered against the horrors of the sugar plantation, slaveholding Kentucky figures as a sort of paradise of benevolent Christian masters and obedient Christian slaves. (One reason many people today don’t know this is that the word “darkies” in the first verse was changed to “people.” In the film, it is “darkies.”)
Combined with the images, the scene is at once funnier and more ambiguous. Does the largesse of the white masters bespeak the paradise of well-fed servants and the stable social hierarchy of Old Kentucky, when the “tolerance and wisdom” of the common-folk white judge reigned? Or does the fact that the servants are singing an antislavery song—however unjustifiably framed—while making off with the spoils of a party meant to commemorate the war efforts of the slaveholding south trump this? I would tend toward the latter. The song itself cannot help but be ironized by the servants’ actions, undermining its pathos: “Weep no more,” they sing, in counterpoint to sneaking looks at all that cake under the blanket, and to the vision of the young lovers having their cake. When Priest’s voice joins the chorus, it sounds discordant—he hasn’t got their voices, and I’m pretty sure his mouth is full—and so he, too, undermines that Kentucky nostalgia which is the narrative’s main engine. Because this is the only moment in the film where Fetchit appears slightly “out of character” (his physical demeanor is different, his attitude more alert—even if he still reaches for cake and gets his hand slapped), I am tempted to say that in this scene, framed by music, Rogers appears as himself, that is, his public persona, not as the character of Judge Priest, and so is free to ironize more trenchantly the nostalgia and sentimentality on which the film (the lost war) and his character (the lonely widower) are based.
There is another possibility for singing together, one deeply connected to the African American song tradition: call and response. This brings me to another key musical moment, the one that made me want to write about this film in the first place. A little context: in the previous scene, Priest, moping on his porch about having been forced to vacate the bench, receives a nighttime visit from the town’s reverend. The latter is just beginning to divulge some great secret with pertinence to the trial when (of course!) we fade to the following morning: a closeup on an envelope with “Justice!” written across it. In the next shot we see Priest bent over a small desk in his foyer, screen right, writing. Dilsey, who we can already hear singing, appears on the left, bustling through, cleaning as she goes. She is not just singing her own pleasure (“happy darkies”), but to cheer up the judge, saying he “needs a toddy” to raise his spirits, improvising words on the melody of a spiritual. Cut to a medium close-up of Priest: without looking up, he chimes in, responding: “Yes, Lord! Yes, Lord!” Dilsey, now in the background, spins around at the sound of his voice, eyes wide. “Tomorrow he’s got to be like Mr Samson,” she sings; and the judge responds: “Saving Daniel [the accused Willis] from the lion’s den.” Dilsey hums the beginning of the verse and repeats the judge’s response: “Saving Daniel from the lion’s den.” “Yes, Lord!” shouts the judge, before returning to the original message: “The Judge sure could use a toddy right now.” “Yes, Judge!” she responds. “Yes, Dilsey!” he responds. And then together: “Soon as I get me some mint.” Dilsey exits; the judge calls Jeff over, and the scene about playing “Dixie” mentioned above ensues.****
What to say about this marvelous scene? There is much less to “read” here, in the traditional sense, than in the scene of the housekeepers singing “My Old Kentucky Home.” True, rather than joining in the singing of a racist state anthem, the judge joins Dilsey in singing a black spiritual. (It reminds me, though it is much less forceful, of that beautiful rhetorical move at the end of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, where he envisions blacks and whites joining together to sing, not a national anthem or patriotic song, but a black spiritual: everybody, James Baldwin might say, has been freed.) And yet, Dilsey is still the loyal, happy servant, the judge her satisfied master; the words they improvise express their ideal economic arrangement: “Dilsey, one toddy, please!” “Yes, Massa! Comin’ right up!” When Dilsey sings, where is the irony Baldwin heard in the blues? Where the undercurrent of sadness Douglass heard in every slave song? Can the white camera, any more than the white characters, hear them?
All true, all true. And yet.
That they sing this exchange makes it different, makes it more than the dialogue as translated into prose above. To say that the dialogue is musical means in part that form, structure, play a special role in creating meaning. In this regard, the order of the exchange and the repetitions are crucial: Dilsey begins; the judge responds; he joins her on the verses; each responds to the other; they conclude in unison. It is as though, in these few moments’ passage through the partially appropriated spiritual, a more genuine connection had been achieved, even a playful equality (yes/yes; unison). I know, that “as though” is a big fudge. And yet. It’s more even than the form or structure imposed by the musical dialogue; it’s the whole affect of the exchange that charges the scene differently, something we apprehend, as musicologists have recently begun to analyze, on a more physiological, less conscious level. Its power, that is, is more in the character and tenor of the exchange than its content. It is partly the sheer pleasure of hearing the two voices pinging off each other, improvising with each other—indeed, the freshness of this scene might be due to Rogers’s penchant for improvising on the scripts (see May 30), though it’s true the two would have needed at least an impromptu rehearsal to make it work. I should add that, on the judge’s end, it is purely carried by the singing voice: he never even looks up from his writing; only Dilsey’s gestures register the exchange.
In his discussion of the way Rogers’s films challenged racial stereotypes, May analyzes a scene from In Old Kentucky where Rogers, his face blackened by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to help him escape from jail, is forced to tap-dance by the sheriff. May notes that “no doubt white viewers had a laugh seeing Will Rogers recreate their old, demeaning racist stereotype. Yet … audiences [also] saw their populist hero subjected to the same class injustice as that faced daily by blacks” (36). Note here the way reactionary racist imagery and progressive class (and potentially racial) politics are fused in a single complex filmic moment. (No such ambiguity saves a blackfaced John Wayne in a similarly “comic” moment in The Spoilers, and I’m sure the examples could be multiplied.) Perhaps it is this “twofoldedness” I am seeing in the equally musical moments from Judge Priest, where once again music (and gesture, that is, dance) enables a second layer to appear, a constellation of meaning and feeling, over and above the story, over and above the spoken or sung content; one that subverts, either through ironic comment or culturally-proscribed affect. And perhaps, considered more broadly, the idea of performance can help salvage some of the other ironies in Judge Priest. If, as noted above, judge as much as prosecutor are unmasked as social roles, if Rogers can caricature himself as judge as well as Fetchit in dialogue … why not all the social labels that divide and hierarchize, race among them?
It can be hard going, watching a lot of classic Hollywood: the combination of wide-eyed naivete, grotesque racism, and misogyny can really wear you down. I wonder sometimes if the sorts of moments that attracted me to Judge Priest are enough to recuperate a body of filmmaking defined by contrived solutions to entrenched class disparities, thoughtless racism (is there another kind?), and the ability to turn strong women to quivering masses of jelly in under two hours. Moments of formal beauty that crop up in even the most negligible films, where the camera speaks in spite of the story, even perhaps in spite of itself. Moments of inspired performance. Things that can be separated, and held above, the flow of the narrative, and so undermine it, challenge it, put quotations around it, or breathe unexpected, unwarranted life into it. It is not at all surprising to me that music would have a role in constructing some of these transcendent moments. I think, for example, of the way music, or even just sound, irrupts into the realistic fabric of the novels of E.M. Forster, imbuing them with a spectral, irrational power—from the opera that bifurcates Where Angels Fear to Tread, his first and least accomplished novel, to the episode in the Marabar caves in his final, masterful A Passage to India. Where Hollywood is concerned, perhaps we could braid such moments together, and refer to them as an unofficial, secret history. Beauty. Hardly enough to redeem a culture, a nation. But enough to give a little hope.
* To cite one non-Rogers example: it may be true that Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) “challenged miscegenation codes” by having its white sailors intermarry with Polynesian women (93), and that Clark Gable’s “swarthy” features no longer relegated him to playing gangster roles, but rather the pre-eminent cinema hero of the ‘30s, now with a tinge of titillating darkness (83). (This latter point is a good demonstration of how May’s deep knowledge of the period adds brilliant nuances to his discussions.) But how far, finally, is the white men marrying Polynesian women of Bounty from the constitutive white male fantasy of the exotic, erotic other. Melville’s Typee jumps immediately to mind; even in the 1840s, the novel was attacked more for its anti-missionary digressions than its eroticism. (It was also a bestseller.) Needless to say, English women marrying Polynesian men would have presented a different matter entirely. The film is somewhat more suggestive in its treatment of social class, as the mutineers prepare to found a Pacific island utopia at the film’s end.
** I recognize that the question of how Rogers’s ethnicity was perceived and processed by audiences is complex, something I can’t really give justice to here, but I hope that some of the later comments in this post obliquely address this.
*** The Judge Priest page of Turner Classic Movies’ website sheds a contradictory light on the question of the widely available version. According to TCM, the lynching scene was cut from all versions of the release, because the studio felt it didn’t sit well with the tone of the film as a whole. Apparently, the scene included Rogers rescuing a falsely accused Fetchit from lynching, and then an anti-lynching speech by Priest. If this was indeed the only deletion, and the scene remains in the version held at the Will Rogers Memorial Archive, then my comments above remain. I should add that Ford made another film based on the Judge Priest character in 1953, The Sun Shines Bright, in which the issue of lynching is restored to the narrative.
**** Michael Rogin eruditely connects Judge Priest to the minstrel tradition and American history in Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (California UP, 1996). Rogin notes that “Dixie” was once played by black minstrel troupes “to protect them from white violence”; here, it is “enlisted for racial harmony.” The hymn about Daniel in the lion’s den is similarly re-appropriated, with the poor, white Bob Gillis taking the place of the oppressed slave. Given the depth of Rogin’s scholarship, it is all the more remarkable that he misrepresents the musical episodes discussed above: the scene of Priest singing with the housekeepers on the porch and with Dilsey at home are conflated (or Rogin doesn’t care enough to distinguish them), and the call-and-response scene is distorted. I have to acknowledge that Rogin, like May, is working to synthesize many more elements than I could ever hope to, based on a much broader knowledge of the period. He might argue that the mischaracterized and/or elided details are irrelevant to his argument. Indeed, it is impossible to do the intellectual work of synthesis these two scholars do without sacrificing an enormous amount of specificity along the way. And yet … I think a comment of Simon Frith’s from Performing Rites, which I also read recently, is partly applicable to film, and germane to this post: if we are to “understand” music in anything other than the theoretical perspective of key changes and intervals, description is absolutely key.