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calendar   Saturday - March 12, 2011

I think I felt it

For A Moment There

I Had A Moment There




As I mentioned in my previous post - which is the next post here actually since the new ones go on top - I’ve been watching Laurel & Hardy films this week. Not that I’ve ever really considered myself a serious student of film, having only taken 2 courses on it in college, but Laurel & Hardy have this reputation as being the definitive comedy team from way back when. Perhaps in stand-up routines they were. In their 5 to 10 minute short films they certainly can be. But when it came to full length films, they bombed. That’s the saddening revelation I’ve come to after watching several. I can’t claim to have seen their entire body of work. That other post wrote a bit about Pack Up Your Troubles, which was far more of a “find the orphan girl a home” film than it was a war story. And aside from the barbed wire lasso scene, a few two-idiots-in-bootcamp bits stretched over several painful minutes, and one or two falling prats, the film wasn’t funny at all. What jokes there were, were both simple and far apart.  The slapstick bits I can get, even though I have outgrown Three Stooges antics. But this film, and the one I’m getting to, Pardon Us seem to be cobbled together out of 2 minute skits glued together with long and boring non-sequitor scenes. I’m trying to cut them a lot of slack, because these are old movies from the early days, and tastes have changed. But the pacing is so slow I found myself nearly falling asleep, while the “killer comedy” did little more than get a small chuckle out of me.

And then I was blown away. In a very not at all funny manner. I was watching Pardon Us. I don’t think I’d ever seen this movie before. It’s another one from the Hal Roach period, 1931, which are supposed to be golden nuggets. Nuggets is right, but not golden ones. In this one, the boys get sent off to jail for bootlegging, and it’s a dark and forbidding place. There are little bits of funny here and there, which just seem to be thrown in and glued on, like when they have to go to one of those prisoner improvement education classes and the teacher gets the class going with a question and answer session:

Teacher: You—spell “Needle”!
Ollie: N-E-I-D-L-E.
Teacher: There is no “I” in needle!
Stanley: Then it’s a rotten needle.
Teacher: Now, what is a comet? You!
Prisoner: A comet. A comet is a star with a tale on it.
Teacher: Correct.
[points to Stanley]
Teacher: Name one.
Stanley: Rin Tin Tin.
Teacher: D’oh!

and so forth. When tough guy prisoner The Tiger attempts an escape, the boys walk out the other door when nobody is looking. And having previously mused, on one of their visits to solitary, about how great life would be down on the farm, after their escape that’s where they decide to make their hide out.

Cut to the farm. Not just any farm. Dat Ole Plantation, wid da cotton fields fa fa away. It’s an outdoor shot, and while the cotton plants look a bit scraggly and far apart [ Damnyankee boy here: even with red clay soil, wouldn’t the cotton plants be closer together than 4 or 5 feet? This field looks mighty poor ]. And in the field are dozens of black folk, dressed in the requisite Mammy and Big Jim clothes (this film was 8 years before Gone With The Wind), and they’re pickin’ that ol cotton by hand, and singing spirituals all de live long day. I was flabbergasted. I could not believe what I was seeing. And for one brief moment I felt White Guilt, right there in my own living room. Holy shit. I was stunned. But as the scene went on and on, and the Colored People went from singing By and By into Swing Along and then a rousing Hand Me Down My Silver Trumpet, hoppin’ and a boppin’, I realized this wasn’t anything racist at all. Hey, for all I know, poor black field pickers actually DID wear those Aunt Jemima outfits back then, and group singing at work was a black thing. I know that part was true. And then I realized that my immediate embarrassment was the result of cultural conditioning: in today’s world we deny the reality that such things ever even existed, and cry raaaaaacism whenever anything appears that shows that it actually did. We don’t just deny that black people were often portrayed in film as quaint or funny, we deny that black people ever even worked in the roles that these old films portrayed them in. And certainly not while happily singing on the job! And then the camera cuts to Laurel & Hardy, hiding out in plain sight. In the back of the cotton fields. In blackface. OMFG. Greasepaint faces and hands, with white lips and eyes. And their trademark hats. You know what the really funny part was? Neither one of them could pick cotton for shit. Stanley rips the whole plant out of the ground and stuffs them in his sack, while Ollie picks just one blossom at a time, and then plucks every last bit of dust and seed pod off before placing it softly in his bag. Meanwhile the field hands are filling up 100lb sacks, dragging them along behind, of course with the obligatory cute little black kid catching a ride on one while her momma worked. At day’s end the white guy on a horse, dat ol oberseer, calls off work ( I was almost expecting 2 boys swinging on a bell while Big Jim yells “Quittin Time!” Wrong movie ) and the workers link arms and happily dance themselves off the field and back to their shanties. Where the music continues, with an uncredited but much better and more Western dressed quartet doing some song about a train going north. How black. How soulful. People today would be outraged. The racism! The exploitation! The stereotyping! But you know what? The field hand singers were damn good, and the guys who did the train tune later on were even better. Even Ollie had a good voice, doing a very nice “Lazy Moon”, followed by Stan’s loose limbed soft shoe routine. While in blackface. A regular minstrel show. At the end of which he falls in the mud and all the black washes off. That’s the only real race joke in the whole bit, which lasts the better part of half an hour. The black keeps washing off, even when the Warden’s car breaks down by the field the next day and the boys try to fix it. Slap on a handful of automotive grease and nobody notices. They get caught and go back to prison not because anyone realized they were white, but because Stanley has a loose tooth that whistles, which everyone is insulted by because they think he’s giving them the raspberry, and the Warden remembers him from when that same thing happened back when the two were in the jailhouse.

So from my short moment, I had a bit of an epiphany about just how much social conditioning has got through my defenses, even though I’ve been aware of it and working against it for nearly two decades.

Later on I watched that scene twice more. The black washing off running joke was pretty funny, and whoever those singers were, they were really good. No reason to deny that at all.


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Posted by Drew458   United States  on 03/12/2011 at 01:25 PM   
Filed Under: • HollywoodRacism and race relations •  
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