Friday, January 27, 2012


The other day I listed a bunch of musical plays that had affected me greatly. One I left out, my favorite of all, and left out only as I have never seen a good production of it, is the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein classic, SHOWBOAT. The magnificent musical has been filmed three times, two of note; 1936 (directed by James (FRANKENSTEIN)Whale and 1951 in color, the story cut in half and truly sanitized from the earlier version. Unhappily the '36 version is not available on DVD, but it is magnificent, with many of the stars from the original production (Helen Morgan and the superb Paul Robson) in the cast. I was listening to the complete recording made about twenty years ago (3 discs-EMI) a little while ago and though the music swelled around me as I walked down Second Avenue with my trusty Ipod going full blast, I was caught short by the vernacular used to make the show(circa 1926) authentic. "N-----rs all work on the Mississippi", starts one song while in a bit of dialogue one of the characters says to another, "Where you get that necklace, n------r?" Appalling and chilling listening to it in this day and age when,hopefully, racism in its most virulent form is a thing long gone, but would changing the lyrics to "Darkies all work on the Mississippi", as they did at MGM in 1951 be any better; any less offensive? But what to do as SHOWBOAT (as Huckleberry Finn which had the same problem)is an American classic. Do you throw the baby out with the bathwater? Paul Robson who was a strong defender of human rights and dignity starred in the stage production and the 1936 film and it obviously didn't faze him as he, and I think rightly, saw the word as an offense that would put the audience on the side of the black characters. (Indeed, one of the story lines is between Julie and Steve, a married couple, she part black, he white who have to deal with the crime of miscegenation in the post Civil War South. Famously, he pricks her finger with a knife and takes drops of blood into his mouth making him black, as the law says that even with a drop of black blood in you, you cannot play on a white stage as with the showboat. Also by tasting her blood, they can no longer be accused of miscegenation as they are both technically black. If listeners today could be educated to the story before hearing the offensive lyrics I believe they would, as with Huckleberry Finn, have to be left in no matter how repugnant they are.

Now, mind you, this goes only for classic works of art that have a positive reason for using pejorative terms. The other day, for instance, I was flipping channels and on TCM there was an old Jack Lemmon film playing where a landlady of an apartment house says, "Well there's a married couple on the first floor and next to them a couple of fags." Click. No classic that; no way I would stoop to the level of crap the film offered to go further.As the British say the whole topic is a "sticky wicket" but one that has to be addressed. Not to mention the fact that there is a subtle racism in what could seem to be tame language, i.e the Tea Party chanting, "We want our country back!" I didn't know it was missing. Ohhhhhh, you mean to get that black dude and his family out of the White House. Got it, and shame on you!!!


Rich47 said...

Right on!! Your blog needs more should be read and applied by a huge audience.

Rich47 said...

Right on!! Your blog needs more should be read and applied by a huge audience.

Wade Robbins said...

I wrote a long response to this blog entry yesterday and it was lost in the "internets". I will try again.

I actually have two comments:

A number of years ago there was a discussion on the "Jump the Shark" yahoo group concerning reverse jumps and things of that sort. Jumping the Shark is a term for when something goes from excellent to terrible. My point during the discussion was that the movie Blazing Saddles (which I have on my shelf) has jumped the shark without changing at all because of the maturation of our society. The jokes written by Mel Brooks that we all laughed at just don't seem funny. Some were funny because of the shock value and we just don't accept any humor in prejudice any more.

My second point will sound contradictory to the first but I do want to bring it up. My impression of Lenny Bruce as an historical figure is that he tried to eliminate the hurt and sting of racial epitaphs by using and reusing the terms to show that the words alone (if not spoken in anger) were powerless. I know that it is easy for me to say, but I would like to believe that there can be a time when words themselves can not be harmful. I believe that in some ways Bruce was right and that we allow the words to have an effect on us. I also am aware that some expressions are as inflaming as the swastika or the Dixie flag which are terrible and frightening symbols.

I know there will be disagreement, but I hope all who read this understand that I mean no harm and welcome all comments.