william steig drawing

September 15, 2010
Kartina Richardson

Race in Film: Swing Time & Shall We Dance

*This video includes clips and commentary for both “Swing Time” and “Shall We Dance”, so don’t turn it off after the Bojangles number! Also my voice cracks a lot in a weird way… I guess I’m becoming a real man.*

This, more than any previous Race in Film post, gets to the nitty gritty of the whole series, and I am very nervous.

It might be strange to get timid nine posts in, but there seems to be no rhyme or reason to what I am comfortable talking and not talking about.

Judy Garland is fair game, but Fred Astaire… Fred Astaire…

He is the man that makes my knees lose themselves.

I am in love with his high waisted pants, his receding hairline, and his feeble chin. He is supremely comforting. Like a Danny Kaye five thousand times more poised. My idolization is so great I suspect I unconsciously chose my first teenage boyfriend because he bore a striking resemblance to the man (but no trace of his panache).

Can you find offense with a film and still love it with all your heart? I think so… but it’s not fun.
There is a tendency, when someone suggests something might be offensive, for people to swarm in and point out all the reasons why it isn’t and could never be, before considering how it could be perceived that way. So, you are immediately alienated.

The need to belong, as uncool an admission as it is, is primal. There is safety in numbers. Good times to be had inside fun rooms. Jokes and laughing. Knowingness. A supreme and rare silence: evidence of comfort not unease. Being in is good. Being out is constant navigation. Talking about race in well loved movies places you firmly “out”.

I don’t even want to talk about it with myself.

You dirty whore. Do you know what you’re doing? Do you even know? You’re betraying Fred. That’s what you’re doing. And after all he’s done for you. Congrats on ruining everything. Have a nice life. I’m out!

Says a voice in my mind.

It’s a wispy voice this voice. It doesn’t carry much weight. But still it’s there flitting around like a vulgar gnat. A testament perhaps to a unhealthy dependency on RKO musicals. Rationally, I understand it’s ridiculous, but anxiety remains. I feel a real hesitancy in saying anything vaguely critical about Astaire. Like a member of my family. I don’t want to hurt his feelings, or disrupt our merry relationship. I’d like to keep Fred completely and totally untarnished. Perfect in every way…

But to do that I’d have to completely ignore his “Bojangles of Harlem” routine in the 1936 film Swing Time directed by George Stevens, and choreographed by Astaire and long time collaborator Hermes Pan.

I held my breath as I wrote that sentence.
Now I’ve done it. I’m here. I’ll have to continue.

First let’s make one thing clear. This isn’t a criticism of the routine’s technicality or an oversight of it’s innovation (super imposed images etc). This isn’t about Astaire’s innovations in shooting dance sequences, the genius of the choreography, or his perfectionism. This is about the racial element of the routine: Blackface, costume, and caricature.

According to many Astaire biographers this was clearly inoffensive. For something so obviously benign, the hurried tip toeing around the routine is great. It is shielded from criticism, cloaked in the softest fabrics known to man: silk, angora, and the ponytails of angels, and put to bed. Shhh do not disturb “Bojangles of Harlem”. It is held so far away from accusations of racism that calling it offensive would be like calling a dog a cat.

One Astaire biographer, Joseph Epstein, describes Astaire as performing in “Non-condescending black face.” What an interesting and awkward description.

Unfortunately in 1936 with Jim Crow, lynchings and segregation still in full swing, there was no such thing as “non-condescending” blackface. Though Astaire’s costume wasn’t as exaggerated as most in white mistrelsy, it remained offensive, especially during a period where blacks, particularly in Harlem, were actively fighting against blackface and portrayals such as this.

While Astaire’s admiration of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, was genuine, a salute to a black artist, is not a salute if it is also insulting to African Americans.

I don’t know if he and I watched the same movie, but writer and critic Stanley Crouch remarked that “Fred’s tribute was real and showed a definite respect for Bill Robinson. None of that minstrel-type thing Bing Crosby did when he put on blackface. The dignity in the number was extended to the way the chorus dancers performed.”

It’s true that Astaire’s number was nowhere near as offensive as for example, the Lincoln’s birthday blackface scene in Holiday Inn, but the number isn’t exactly “dignified”. It begins with the soles of two huge black feet aligned together to look like a black face, complete with giant red lips! The number isn’t dignified, it’s spectacle,  spectacular in the original sense of the word. Audiences didn’t love the routine because they loved Bill Robinson, they loved the pageantry. A white man playing a black man. The great Fred Astaire in blackface!

Rushing to Astaire’s defense again, biographer Bob Thomas said something revealing in his book “The Man, The Dancer” regarding the Bojangles number: “The dance is totally devoid of racial stereotype and scarcely related to Robinson’s style.”

Kartina: …But isn’t this a Bojangles tribute? If Astaire isn’t dancing like, or portraying Robinson, who then is he playing?

Smarter Kartina: All sources point to dancer John Bubbles and/or his portrayal of “Sportin’ Life” the sly drug dealer from Porgy & Bess, the Gershwin musical (the one with dubious portrayals of African American life).

In her book on the Nicholas Brothers, “Brotherhood in Rhythm” choreographer Constance Hill describes the difference between Bill Robinson’s style and John Bubbles:

Jazz tap dance, plays with weight distribution, both giving into it and resisting it. A fusion of Irish jig and African giube, early forms of jigging combined close to the ground shuffling steps with lighter and speedier winging steps. The quintessential embodiment of that vertical-stanced, up on the toes style was Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. But as tap dancing developed, paralleling jazz in the twenties, the up-on-the-toes jigging style gave way to syncopated hell-dropping rhythm tap whose primary exponent was John Bubbles.

In the routine, Astaire performs stomps and heel-digs much more similar to John Bubbles’ style. But if the dance isn’t similar to Robinson’s, what’s the point?

What makes it a tribute?

Dedicating a work in someone’s honor doesn’t have to have obvious reasons (like Lars Von Trier’s dedication of Anti Christ to Tarkovsky). A person’s overall talent, creativity, friendship, mentorship, aura etc may be more inspirational than their specific craft or technique.

But, if it was Robinson’s overall brilliance as a dancer and innovator, not his particular style, that moved Astaire, and he wasn’t trying to “portray” Robinson himself, the question remains, why the blackface? Why not an entirely different routine altogether? Why not a grand “stair dance” number*. The routine Robinson created and was renowned for?

I’ll tell you why. White audiences loved blackface! And though Fred’s wasn’t a gross caricature, a caricature it remained. He grins throughout most of the number (Fred did smile when a routine called for it, but grinning is different), his hand movements and those of the chorus girls, are quite minstrel-y, and he dances in a style intentionally different from his usual. It is not entirely Robinson’s and not entirely Bubble’s but an amalgamation of the two. He is playing an anonymous black character.

I gingerly suggest that the always innovating Astaire wanted to do a grand “Harlem Negro” themed number and decided to call it a tribute to Bojangles. The man wanted to do black face! It was the middle of the Harlem renaissance. The Cotton Club, Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington were all the rage. Astaire was a genius. He knew this would be a timely crowd pleaser, and it was. He was either unaware that blackface was connected to the painful history of African American subjugation by whites, or rationalized that it shouldn’t be offensive because it was well intentioned.

I have no doubt that Astaire truly admired Robinson, Bubbles, and other black dancers like the amazing Nicholas Brothers, however, the routine (as creatively and technically tremendous as it was) reinforced black stereotypes that implicitly helped in denying opportunity to black performers like Bill Robinson himself.

Though one person in the audience might have watched the routine and thought “Yeah that Bill Robinson sure was great!” other people certainly absorbed additional signals the routine broadcast. Messages minstrel shows, vaudeville, radio, and films had been sending for decades: Black people are great entertainers! Black people can dance! Black people are jazzy! Black people are happy! Black people are different and exotic! So different! But jazzy! God so jazzy!

When groups of people are valued only in certain contexts (like on stage or in the maid’s quarters) it gets a little tricky. Little problems arise. Things like Jim Crow (the set of laws whose very name is based on a character and song from a Minstrel show), racial violence, and segregation. Things that made it awfully difficult for black performers in film, no matter how talented, to gain any success. If they did, their roles were limited. Blacks could play servants, entertainers in a night club or restaurant (scenes that could easily be cut without interrupting the narrative), or, if they were lucky, Shirley Temple’s sidekick.

If it wasn’t a “negro” picture, you wouldn’t find African Americans in a lead role, forget about dramatic, double forget about romantic.

Meanwhile, many white performers were becoming stars singing or dancing in the style, or exaggerated style, of African American entertainers.

There’s an interesting scene in 1937′s Shall We Dance that not only perfectly sums up this power dynamic but is also an example of another tribute to black entertainers (a better choice than “Bojangles of Harlem”).

Astaire visits a cruise ship’s strangely fancy and art deco engine room. He pals around with the black workers where miraculously a jam session breaks out that begins the Gershwin song “Slap That Bass” lead by Dudley Dickerson.

Like a giddy little boy hanging out with a group of his heroes, Astaire appears to be in heaven. The scene offers a rare glimpse of Fred Astaire himself as the real fanboy he was. I’m not sure whose decision it was to include this scene, but even if it wasn’t Astaire’s initial idea, he was certainly instrumental in staging it. Though the men are still in the service/entertainer role, it seems (or I’d like to imagine) that Astaire was deliberately showing audiences the source of his inspiration. Tipping his hat.

In all his films, Astaire exudes elegance. As David O. Selznick said “He is a man, conceded to be perhaps, next to Leslie Howard, the most charming in the American theater” but in this scene in Shall We Dance, he looks… like a nerd. It is the only instance where Fred Astaire looks inauthentic when performing, an imposter. Who knew it was possible?

Astaire then dances around and finishes to tremendous applause from the black workers. He has gained the black stamp of authenticity. This white boy can do it too! Boy can he do it. And he can do it because he is a white a boy.

This isn’t denyng an iota of Astaire’s genius. He is the one. There is no other. Sure, I’ll take Gene Kelly home, but it’s Fred I’ll dance with.

Still one fact remains. An important one to keep in mind while watching the Bojangles or Boiler room scene. If Astaire were black he could’ve tapped ten times as fast but he wouldn’t have set a pinky toe on the RKO lot.

***

*In the 1939 film Honolulu Eleanor Powell, maybe the greatest lady tap dancer ever, does just this. Though she does a stair dance, and dances in the style of Robinson, her Robinson costume is even more offensive than Fred’s. BLACK, black face, with the exaggerated lips to boot.

Sorry 1930′s odes to Bojangles, it seems like you just can’t win.

And here is the real and magnificent Bill Robinson himself

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9 Comments

  1. Great stuff. I understand your Fred Astaire love, because I have a deep and abiding passion for Bobby Darin. I’m bookmarking this to read more, and to share.

    Reply
  2. Found this link via Ebert’s Twitter feed, and just finished reading the whole series on race in film. Fascinating stuff. I’m a white woman from rural Canada; for years, my only exposure to any people of colour was in the movies (and I am a huge fan of old RKO musicals, MGM pictures, and anything in Technicolor.) I never noticed anything strange about the portrayals of POCs in film until I got older. I’m conflicted about it now and am never sure how to square it in my mind.

    Talking of Fred Astaire, I’m not sure his motives were completely pure. Don’t forget the servant characters in Easter Parade – his own Sam, an Asian man with a peculiar accent, and Ann Miller’s Essie. I don’t know if he was overtly racist, or just complacent – but certainly I can’t recall any offensive POC portrayals in any of Gene Kelly’s films.

    Great work! I’m looking forward to reading more.

    Reply
  3. Kartina, you should stand by your boyfriend the way Whoopi stood by hers:
    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1355/is_n26_v84/ai_14488564/

    Um, naw.

    Pretty damned damning. Still, I find the second clip more offensive. That “10X more talented” reference you make cuts deeper than any blackface.

    But below are some examples of blackface tribute I don’t find offensive. Kind of affectionate, actually. (I could be fooling myself, but I like to believe that the Japanese generally aren’t racist so much as nationalistic.)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c7-9E6uHAek

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gP5xjNNIvMc

    Reply
  4. Well, I too love Fred Astaire and find it difficult and painful to fault him in any way, and I too have always found the Bojangles black face number… disturbing. I was actually thinking of writing about it at one point, possibly in conjunction with the song “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” which Fred Astaire did a couple of times and which is all about race.

    But it’s very hard, and not just because it is hard to think less than grand thoughts about Astaire. Hard to figure out how to evaluate the sequence and song in their original context.

    I don’t really want to defend the Bojangles number – like I said, I have always found it disturbing. But I do want to insist that we need to think clearly about what it meant at the time, and not just respond to it from our own perspective.

    Not that I think you are doing that. But we probably need to put the research time into getting a clearer sense of what blackface meant at the time – how racist it was, and in what way. Because I think it was racist, strictly speaking, but that is maybe only the beginning of how we need to understand it.

    One thing I love about your discussion was that you do a very crucial thing in coming to that fuller understanding, which is to take it on its own terms, as a tribute to Bill Robinson and ask how real that is. Your analysis of the dance styles is really telling and seems pretty right to me, but I want to pose a couple of questions. Do you think Astaire danced the way he did in this sequence, different from Robinson’s way of dancing, simply because he wanted or needed to be himself, dance his way, and that overcame, overrode, any impulse to mimic Robinson’s style? And, maybe more importantly, do you think Astaire could have danced credibly in Robinson’s style? Astaire is unmatched when dancing his way, but that is not to say he could do as well at anything going by the name of dance.

    Finally, there is the question of how to respond. My ex routinely walked out of old movies we were watching together because she found the gender dynamics unacceptable. (It’s interesting to think how much less disturbing we tend to find egregious sexism than racism… Along those lines, check out the Tracy-Hepburn film, “Woman of the Year”.) Since society back then was so racist, it’s going to be a regular part of films from that era. Mostly it appears through absence – the routine absence of people of color. Kind of like the TV show “Friends” in that respect. But we just don’t register that…

    Sorry – this is a bit incoherent – not so good at writing in these comment boxes.

    Reply
  5. Wow, I just loved your way of analyzing! It was long to read but I read it all, and that doesn’t happen often!

    I developped kinda crush on Fred, just love the way he dance, he talks, he looks, and how he says “I’m sorry, I didn’t realized I was disturbing you” with that cute innocent smile on “Top Hat”.

    I haven’t seen all his movies yet, but after watching some, I was questioning myself about the race question in those musicals. First time was after “The band wagon” and one of the first dance of the movie, with the shoeshine man, I found it quit stereotyping, just like you said “Blacks could play servants, entertainers in a night club or restaurant”… Then I watch “Swing time” and first (I did not know who was Bojangle) I was like “Wow, please telle me Fred is not actually doing that, this masquerade”,.
    After this I was quit disturbed, so I decided to have a look and I found out that Bojangles was a famous tap-dancer. So I was like “ok, in fact it’s an hommage, maybe it’s not that bad, maybe he’s blackfacing just to get into the role you know”

    I guess I was more or less trying to convince myself but couldn’t decide what was closer to the truth. I just did not want to think that Fred wasn’t the perfect dream-guy, specially because I can’t stand racism so then it was just fight in my head haha

    Well so I get to search more about it, and I found you article this way, and I think it’s really really nice, and interesting, and I’m not so much advanced, I guess to know how it was really, we should have been born in the 30′s to have an interview with THE guy.

    Stop talking about Astaire, althoug those days, movies are supposed to be all melting-pot and stuff, when watching movies with all kind of peoples, I think that it happen really often that the couples are always from same ethncity. I mean, when you have black and white friend, mostly the black guy will go with black woman and the withe guy with withe woman. I don’t know if it’s me but to me it doesn’t reflect reality. Not sure if it’s really clear at all…I have troubles to make big reflexions in english!

    Reply
  6. Dear Kartina,

    I’ve waited 75 years for someone to tell this story. I’ve been angry about Astaire and his black face routine since I was a boy of 7. Even got into a back and forth with some of our Twitter friends, last year, trying to show that even Astaire himself acknowledged that some of the Nicholas Brothers routines where they seemed to glide through the air were beyond his technical range. Yes, your point about if he were black… tells the whole story. Growing up black during the post Depression 1900′s was very depressing when you consider all the negative things Hollywood tried to do to your image. Thank you for this, I do so enjoy your writing!

    Reply
  7. Does anybody know the name of the band in the boiler room in Shall We Dance and where I can hold of any more music like that?

    Ignorant, but willing to learn,

    Tweed

    Reply
  8. fred was a known racist sorry.

    “People magazine in 2005 described LeGon as a pioneer of Black Hollywood, who “battled frank racism, stereotype-constrained casting and on-set segregation to achieve memorable art and pave the way to put us where we are today.” She also told the magazine that Fred Astaire, with whom she had danced a decade before, snubbed her in 1947 after she was cast as a maid in Easter Parade.

    “He never spoke to me, never acknowledged me,” LeGon told the magazine.

    “He knew I was the same person, I’m sure of that. I was really hurt. It’s inside and I can’t get rid of it. Hollywood was a black-and-white world.”

    Taken from:
    http://www.vancouversun.com/entertainment/African+American+dancing+diva+Jeni+LeGon+dies+Vancouver/7676015/story.html

    and

    http://www.newser.com/story/54321/bio-unmasks-astaire-as-racist.html

    Reply
  9. He treated Jeni Le Gon like something you scraped off your shoe. He really didn’t like black people all that much.

    Reply

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