Thursday, February 12, 2009
Lincoln’s Birthday, having been usurped by the all-purpose Presidents Day, is no longer the block on the calendar it once was, but with the many references to President Abraham Lincoln during the inauguration of President Barack Obama, Honest Abe seems to be more in the news than ever.
The connection between Lincoln’s legacy in popular history as it pertains particularly to African-Americans remains at the front of his memory. Today on the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, we have this clip below from “Holiday Inn” (1942) to examine one Hollywood interpretation of that relationship.
The clip is cringeworthy camp. I can remember broadcast television showings where this scene was omitted, and not just to fit in more commercials. It is, after all, a bit uncomfortable to watch. Leaving it out may make watching this otherwise lighthearted froth of a movie less offensive, but leaving it out is a lie. By watching the scene carefully, we can learn a bit more about a wartime era when our armed forces were still segregated, when popular entertainment leaned heavily on exaggerated stereotypes.
The song is pleasant, another one of Irving Berlin’s patriotic tributes to his adopted country that make up this movie. As illustrated by the photo above, it was also released on a 78rpm. Listen only to the song and you have a stirring tribute in a big band flourish, and Bing Crosby’s steady baritone.
Open your eyes to watch the film clip, and you must really open your eyes to some other things. The stars in blackface, giving it their all as it once was performed in hokey minstrel shows from the 19th century up through the middle 20th century in vaudeville. The chorus in “mulatto” makeup and costumes meant to turn Holiday Inn into a cartoon plantation setting where happy slaves evoke the name of their savior, Abraham.
The only thing more ridiculous looking than Bing Crosby in this scene is the unfortunate Marjorie Reynolds, who bounds out like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Topsy” having just ingested some mind-altering substance. It may be laughable, but becomes all the more embarrassing when one realizes this performance is not meant as an insult, but intended as good-natured parody. The condescension in this scene does not seem to be apparent to Bing or Marjorie, the chorus, or the director or studio.
We see it. Many others saw it as well in the era when the film was made; not everyone was so blind. This kind of entertainment was already on its way out. The explanation in the plot for the use of blackface was to hide Marjorie Reynolds from being recognized by Fred Astaire, but the “cover story” if you will, is just to give credence to a typical Lincoln’s Birthday minstrel routine that was now becoming passé. This scene is a museum piece in more ways than one. The “Abraham” number was reused as an instrumental piece in “White Christmas” (1954) some 12 years later, for a fast-paced dance featuring Vera-Ellen. A big production number in “White Christmas” also salutes the days of minstrel shows. Nobody wears blackface.
But keep watching the original “Abraham”. Louise Beavers turns the scene on its ear. The warmth and sincerity she exudes singing to her children is what makes Bing and Marjorie all the more silly. She has dignity, and this was Abraham Lincoln’s great gesture to his fellow Americans of every race, the idea that human beings were born with innate dignity, and nobody could take it away from them, even if they took away their freedom. People can only give up their dignity willingly, which is what Bing and Marjorie are doing in this scene.
No matter that Miss Beavers has only a couple lines to sing in a movie that is a musical; no matter that one line includes the word “darky.” She’s got dignity to spare, which is good because Bing and Marjorie can really use some help to save this number.
I like to think that director Mark Sandrich saw that too, and that was his intention, this striking and moving comparison between the black lady and the white stars in blackface. Perhaps not, perhaps he was as blind to the dignity as he was to the indignation. But the studio left the scene in, and now so does cable television.
Have a look at the clip of “Abraham” below. Enjoy the song, but don’t close your eyes.