william steig drawing

June 1, 2010
Kartina Richardson

Race in Film: Tammy & the Bachelor

In elementary school, my desire to be white was so strong, I created two imaginary sisters. They were both older and white with red hair and lived in California. One’s name was Gina, and the other’s was Tammy. I named her Tammy after the character in the 1957 film Tammy and the Bachelor directed by Joseph Pevney. Who could be whiter than Tammy?

Tammy is not a good movie. It isn’t even a “bad” movie that amuses its way to being “good” (Frankie & Annette have a special place in my heart). It’s just bland and uninventive. I know the Beach Party movies aren’t winning any medals for innovation, but they at least possess a certain stupid energy. Tammy is a joyless film. A strange statement for a movie about a girl whose most cherished attribute is overzealousness, but even Reynold’s sparkling sparkles can’t cover up the fact (fact=my opinion) that no person’s love went into making the film. No one cared about it. Watching Tammy is like watching a small orphan roam through a busy market. We question the ways of the universe: How could this happen? How did it end up this way? Isn’t anyone looking after it? Doesn’t anyone care? Doesn’t anyone care?”
No. No one cares.
That is the problem.
How dare Universal slap this, AND subsequent Tammy movies, on the public, and how dare the public gobble this up. I am very forgiving when it comes to wide screen technicolor movies. Doubly so if it’s a movie that I enjoyed as a child. The very fact that they are Cinemascope with Stereophonic sound will keep me watching, but it cannot be faked with Tammy . It’s really unfortunate since Debbie Reynolds has no shortage of charm (in other movies).

Tambrey “Tammy” Tyree is a seventeen year old back woods girl living with her grandfather John Dinwitty (Walter Brennan, the film’s only saving grace) in the swamps of Mississippi. One day, while out being woefully ignorant of the modern world, she discovers the barely living body of Peter Brent (a dashingly handsome Leslie Nielsen) in the wreckage of a plane crash. She nurses him back to health, and of course falls for him. In return for her care, Brent promises her grandfather that should anything happen to him, Tammy would be more than welcome to stay at the Brent family home. In a shocking turn of events, something does happen to grandfather Dinwitty. He is arrested for moonshining, and off Tammy goes to appall/charm the Brents with her hardcore Christianity and heartwarming old fashioned ways.

In Mississippi, there’s no better celebration of heartwarming old fashioned ways than Pilgrimage Week, a journey back to the antebellum south:

The pilgrimage, according to The Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau, brings in tourists who want to visit the homes of the town. Scheduled tours are available to view seven antebellum homes. They are the Auburn, Longwood, Magnolia Hall, Melrose, Monmouth, Rosalie and Stanton Hall. In the Fall, plan to stay three days to see all of these homes.
The owners dress in period costumes and personally take a tour through their homes. They tell the history of the home, and the furniture of the period is intact. The monies collected from the pilgrimage are used to keep up the homes.

At the Brent home (Brentwood), Mother Brent (Fay Wray) takes Pilgrimage Week quite seriously thank you very much. Each year Brentwood hosts the “Rebel Ball.” A Jezebel style dance. Unfortunately for us, Bette Davis is not there to spice things up. Instead we must make do with pandering home owners and gullible tourists in a world where everyone has forgotten about the defining characteristic of the antebellum south: Slavery.

To say they have forgotten is actually not accurate. Members of the Brent household do reference slavery. In a matter of fact, off handed way. The maid Osai (played by the incredible Louise Beavers in an outrageously small part) expresses her irritation at being forced to wear the itchy “slave time bandanna”  to the ball. Peter points out the work of the bookshelf is made by “slave artists”. Trying to make a buck, Peter’s aunt Renie (the very likable Mildred Natwick) tries somewhat jokingly to pass her own art off as the work of “slave artists”.

The problem is you cannot celebrate the antebellum South without celebrating slavery. A celebration of slavery is not just the celebration of the oppression of Black Americans, but of a pain wrought on all Americans. Every part of antebellum life was made possible by the enslavement of millions of people.

Hey remember those wonderful days of yore when we all used to wear pink suits? Ah yes those were lovely times. Easier times. Everyday was like Easter. What’s that? How did we get them so pink? Oh we dipped them in the blood of newborn Frenchmen.

In a coffee shop recently I overheard a conversation between a man and woman. Both were in their 60s, and both were white. They were talking about their heroes. The woman listed Thomas Jefferson as one (right after Secretariat). The man replied,

Man: Yeah, I used to think highly of Jefferson but then I visited Monticello, and the things he did…
Woman: Oh yeah, you mean the slaves…
Man: Yes, it’s just so horrible.
Woman: Yes I know, and I struggled with that, but you know, I’ve made peace with it.
Man: …But how do you make peace with something like that?

An astute question sir. How do you make peace with something like that? Should it be made peace with? If not, how do you go about living in this country, especially as an African American? Do we forget? In Tammy it seems to just be a fact of life. Something to even joke about. Humor is the greatest coping mechanism, but how do you reconcile the history of your family, home, city, culture etc without grieving everyday?

I do not know much about modern daily life in the south, and I have only been there once. I am a yankee through and through. The rural south has always seemed magical and mysterious and full of secrets to me. Both beautiful and frightening.
Haunted.
To some people (my sister), this is due to the different natural environment, somber swamps and weeping willows.
To other people (me) this air of otherwordlyness is a direct result of that peculiar institution, as though the years of trauma climbed slowly up into the air where it hangs forever in a cloud discernible only to those who look for it (we may notice the shade but not what’s blocking the light). Once they do, they will see that haze. It has been there all along.

We are haunted by the ghost of slavery.

This past fall I went to Montgomery for a wedding. The city was like any other city (though somewhat deserted). Our host, a native Montgomerian, wished to show us a house he used to break into as a kid. It was in the outskirts of the city, a more rural area. It was indeed a magical looking place (see for yourself below). Abandoned and falling apart.

My friend pointed out interesting elements about the house, it had a moat for instance. He then casually mentioned the decaying “slave quarters” behind the house. There was a distinct air of discomfort and feet shuffled. The subject was changed rather swiftly and normal breathing was resumed. Amazingly no other member of my party seemed too interested in checking out these slave quarters, so I alone braved the meanest swarm of mosquitoes known to man, to see two small brick buildings standing quietly, side by side, in the shade of the backyard.
Each had only one room and was short and square.
A plastic rake leaned on the side of one. A shiny green hose at its base.
I stood on the moss, nearly covered by mosquitoes, and looked at these little buildings.
I thought of how new they looked. How recent slavery was. How we forget that.
And it happened suddenly.
I was overcome with emotion.
It wasn’t shocking that I should be moved. I am generally one of the most overly-sensitive people in existence. What was surprising was the intensity of my reaction. It felt out of my control and I could not identify the emotion. The sobs were deep and accompanied by a strong urge to vomit. It wasn’t simply anger or sadness or pain. I’m not sure it was even a mix of the three.
Maybe it most resembled helplessness.
I have traced my father’s family back. I know I have ancestors that were slaves in Virginia. And though I did think of them as I faced the quarters, it was my grandparents that were on my mind. Family I knew. The deep toll that racism took on their lives. Wearing and tearing. Eroding body and soul. And finally, after a succession of dramatic grieving focal points (all black people -> all African people -> all Afro Caribbean people -> all people of color -> all enslaved people -> all suffering people everywhere etc), it was the country I cried for, and the wound that will never heal, and maybe should never heal.
It is so recent.
I walked around to the front of the house away from the others, and stood on the corner waiting for my face to depuff. There was a house across the street. Through the window I saw a black woman watching television. I was amazed. How could life go on with this here. Right here. Always here.
Of course this was my in the moment melodramatic bullshit, and on that corner I could have been mistaken for the stereotypical light skinned activist-y negro (the idea being we feel we have to prove our blackness and so become Blacky McBlack the blackest of them all).
Still.
If freedom means being constantly chained to sorrows of the past, then it’s no freedom at all. But I am a proponent of frequent reflection. Though painful, it often times leads to movement. There’s nothing worse than stagnation. As Cocteau says “comfort kills creativity.”

…What does this have to do with anything you long winded ho?
I’ll tell you.

There is a shot in Tammy that is significant for two reasons:
1) It’s horrible.
2) Out of the ashes of its horribleness was born a glittering phoenix of unintentional symbolism.

When I first noticed this shot, I was convinced it was a mistake.
After all, this was a romantic scene. We are meant to focus on Tammy’s earnestness and melt under the spell of her innocent charm.
We may find this difficult to do however, for someone is lurking in the corner of the screen. It is Osai the maid in her slave time bandanna.
This might be slightly less distracting if Osai were occupied with some other business, but she isn’t. She pays close attention to Tammy’s conversation. She watches. This is really what makes it feel like a mistake. Beavers seems almost as though she is off camera watching Reynold’s performance. No other character is paying attention. This is sloppy direction. Why didn’t Pevney tell Beavers “hey, talk to that guy to your left during the scene” or “fill the cups with punch”. See how easy it is? I’m so aggravated by this shot. It’s the the icing on a “couldnt care less” cake.

As infuriating as the shot is, Osai is aware and this is striking. She is watching. She is there. A presence. Most importantly, she is judging. Beavers becomes the focus of the scene. She is silent, but her presence is clearly felt. Like the legacy of slavery itself. It is always there, lurking in the corner of our minds.

Race in Film is Mirror’s first special series! Read about it here and stay tuned for more!

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17 Comments

  1. Great post! The commentary is well-done and so is the post. You cover so much ground, so thoroughly. I also agree with you that if you can find a single shot/scene that can explain so many of your ideas, then it makes it all the easier to get your point across.

    A few years ago, I had a Southern fascination, also rooted in race relations and history. I, too, am a Yankee through and through, a white, male one, to boot, and I wondered why I had inbred misgivings against white Southerners. Why is it OK to blindly pick on them, like it was an allowance made in Lee’s surrender. The more I thought about it, the more I had the urge to go to Memphis and Mississippi and drink it in.

    I’ve been down there about seven times in the last ten years, but I won’t go on about it here. Maybe I’ll blog about it one of these days. Until then, I’m really enjoying your blog and spreading the word! Thanks!

    Reply
    • Kartina Richardson

      Thanksss Stephen! I would be very interested in reading about your feelings about the south as a northern white male. (I just made you sound like some kind of bird) If you ever write about it send me a link!

      Reply
  2. Will do, Kartina. I’ll share this one thought with you right now, the one question I kept asking myself (which encapsulates my feelings about my “inbred misgivings against white Southerners”): Why do I think that the TV series The Dukes of Hazzard was actually a documentary? I not only took it as religion, as a summary of all things Southern, but I also thing most others felt the same way, too.

    But, yes, my adventures down South are probably blog-worthy. Jesus, I met some wonderful people.

    In the meantime, I need to work on my William Powell post since I know at least one person will read it!

    Reply
  3. Incredibly well-written post. You’re quite a gifted writer, and I found myself laughing in spite of myself when you got to the “so what does this have to do with anything” line – a device I often use in my own writing.

    Looking forward to reading more.

    Reply
  4. trooper6

    Hello!

    What a great post! I found my way here from racialicious, and think this is really one of the most amazing things I’ve read recently. You also engage in a form of close reading that is right up my alley (my dissertation, all 300 pages of it, was all about one song–”Falling in Love Again (Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt”). Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading the things you write!

    Stephan

    Reply
  5. Interesting post. I am not convinced that having Osai hear the conversation in that scene was a directorial oversight. My first instinct is that there was a later scene planned in which Osai and Tammy would discuss what happened which got edited out of the final cut. Therefore, showing Osai hearing their conversation would be important. Another thought is of how the “ruling classes” seem to have a habit of carrying on all manner of conversations in full view of servants. It is an interesting statement (whether consciously intended or not) to stage an intimate scene with a silent servant lurking in the background. Her presence does not render the scene any less intimate under the classist conceit that Osai is not really a person but a household fixture like the punchbowl she serves drinks from. Must watch this movie again, I haven’t seen it since I was a kid.

    Reply
  6. This post sent gave me shivers. You’re a great writer; very thoughtful and emotive.

    Reply
  7. Damnit!

    Reply
  8. Marvelous essay, Kartina. I’m a white woman whose grandfather came from Georgia and used the N-word as a matter of course when speaking about African-Americans. Not that he was constantly railing about them; he didn’t seem prejudiced otherwise, which made it even worse. I always cringed when listening to him speak, although he employed a great many black people in his business.

    I haven’t seen Tammy, but I can’t watch Gone With The Wind without feeling unclean. I hate myself for enjoying it (book more so than the film; the film is actually much more tolerable and less stereotyped) and for how it depicts slavery and Reconstruction. When I read it or watch, I try to treat it as if it took place on another planet.

    Reply
  9. Excellent article, I very much enjoyed reading.

    I would hardly say the “defining characteristic” of the antebellum south was slavery. It was the defining characteristic as much as slavery was the sole issue motivating the Civil War. The issues were in fact quite a bit richer than that.

    Reply
  10. I too think that is a great article. I”ve lived in SC my entire life, and maybe I just don’t know the right people, but a lot of the people I know are proud of their heritage, of the history of the South. It’s just very schizophrenic, very parallel universe to the actual reality. And I’m left wondering how my folks who came before me, whose DNA I share, could have sanctioned slavery by fighting for the Confederacy, and later supported the laws of Jim Crow. And some of the descendants of those families till today still share those same values. Everything they believe has been turned topsy turvy so that is why you hear the word rage so often in relation to a certain group of voters. From my vantage point it is that simple.

    Reply
  11. How can I explain this? Watching these films as a child, shuttled between Mississippi and Detroit, I internalized these characters. I disappeared into these characters, borrowing them from the black and white TV in my grandmother’s living room, I used them to stave off loneliness and isolation. I studied them when they were on, saving them for later. I needed them. I pretended they were my friends. In particular I studied Tammy. I noticed the black woman in the background. I also noticed she was always invisible, usually speaking only to Tammy, like an imaginary friend. I didn’t want to be her. I studied Tammy thinking that if I were more like her: more like Tammy and even her cousins Heidi, anybody played by Patty Duke, any of the girls that attracted the young Elvis Presley, then I wouldn’t be left behind as I was. Understand? These ridiculous portrayals of white women were my yardstick for inclusion and hopefully access. Picture it, a nine year-old black girl with nappy hair in uncooperative braids pretending to be part of the black and white world of grown-ups and access and this is all I had.

    I know I wasn’t the only one. I just happen to be black. (btw. that’s how race is to the individual. it just happens. why we continue to be so judgmental and punishing over it confounds me. oh yea. it’s that slavery thing) But I have known white women who have also struggled with the ridiculous portrayals of the ideal woman as naive and overzealous and perpetually happy no mater what. Many who have managed to stand on that pedestal, however briefly, have fallen and broken their necks. These films were horrible for a whole host of reasons.

    thechimera

    Reply
  12. Kartina

    I totally agree with others who have commented here, this is amazing piece and I am now clicking every link I can find that will alert me to any new writing you post.

    Thanks

    tjay

    Reply
  13. I like how you trace the connection of each of us to all of us.

    Reply
  14. bastardface

    I know that this is two months late, but I was moved by your article. The juxtaposition of your first hand experience with history and the perceptions of the popular media were really moving.

    Reply
  15. This is a great post. You made some really insightful and thought-provoking observations. However, as an African American, southerner and native of Natchez, MS, I have to disagree with your assessment of the scene with Osai. Her very presence adds so much more depth and humanity to the scene as well as the movie. It is impossible to tell the story of anything Southern without the Negro. His presences colored every aspect of life in the South.

    She evokes the true nature of slavery in the antebellum South. Yes, she is watching Tammy intently, but she nimbly conveys in a matter of seconds that she is not just an ornament or fixture in the household. By the slight smile and arch of her eyebrow, she conveys that she is both pleased and impressed with Tammy’s “recital.” Her small but dynamic performance in this scene is what keeps it from being flat and banal misinterpretation of the Old South.

    Reply

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  1. [...] The Legacy of Slavery: Tammy & the Bachelor | Mirror "The problem is you cannot celebrate the antebellum South without celebrating slavery. A celebration of slavery is not just the celebration of the oppression of Black Americans, but of a pain wrought on all Americans. Every part of antebellum life was made possible by the enslavement of millions of people." (tags: via:kartinarichardson slavery film images stereotypes black white) [...]

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