Thursday, March 12, 2009

I Dream of Jeanie (1953)

“I Dream of Jeanie” (1953) is a weak movie about a weak man, but there is great strength and passion in the music.

It is the third film biography done of 19th Century American songwriter Stephen C. Foster. Like most movie treatments in those days of famous songwriters, it is not terribly accurate. A Republic feature, now in public domain, even the print you see may not have held up all that well, but watch it for the songs, which are Stephen Foster’s talent and legacy to American popular music.

A simple plot revolves around how Foster, a kindly but not very bright stumblebum bookkeeper who has a side talent of writing songs, loves the glamorous and snooty older sister Inez, but eventually realizes the girl for him is the sassy younger sister Jeanie. With the light brown hair.

His early encounter with a young African-American boy who gets severely injured by a wagon running over him is meant to demonstrate to us how Foster is well-loved in the black community. Foster gives up the $22 he was saving to buy the snooty older sister an engagement ring to instead buy the boy, called Chitlins, an operation. Running over a little boy is an odd way to begin a movie. Chitlins’ mother is called, of course, Mammy, and is played by Louise Beavers for all of about five minutes. The rest of the movie leaves the black community and we never do find out how Chitlins fares. Soon the film reverts to white minstrel performers in blackface, and Hollywood’s bumbling of not only the truth of Foster’s life story, as well as its customary condescending treatment of African-Americans, but clouds the true nature of Foster’s intent in portraying in song the Negroes of his day.

When the film shifts to a re-creation of a Christy Minstrel program, modern audiences may feel only the cringeworthy aspect of whites with faces painted in an exaggerated mockery of black people. This is understandable and the racism is obviously impossible to dismiss, but there is still more going on here. There are two things of importance that should not be overlooked in this more than 10-minute sequence. First, it seems a fairly accurate representation of what a 19th Century minstrel show would look like, and one can see its origins in the modern musical variety show. Crude beginnings to be sure, but one can see the future amid the comic patter and the blockbuster numbers.

Secondly, we may easily miss, due to this film’s clumsy interpretation, that Foster was a pioneer in the evolution of white America’s depiction of black people. When he wrote the lament “Nellie Was a Lady”, a song describing the love of a black man for his wife who has died, it was likely the first time the tribute “lady” was used to describe a black woman by a white man in print. Sojourner Truth lamented “Ain’t I a Woman” in her famous 1851 speech, but Foster carried it further and called a black woman a lady. This was a revolution, begun in music. (Sojourner Truth’s landmark speech follows below if you’ve not read it.)

Foster also was adamant about instructing minstrel performers that they should not mock the slaves, but rather perform to elicit compassion for African-Americans. He wanted to clean up what he felt were the crude and distasteful minstrel shows of the day.

As for the film’s depiction of Foster as a helpless innocent when it came to financial matters, that was not entirely the truth, either. He had been accustomed to making business arrangements with publishers, but the deck was stacked against him. He lived in an era where there was virtually no copyright protection for the songwriter. This, the film handles well, and rather comically, as one song publisher after another berates poor befuddled Foster for having the arrogance to assume he should earn money for a song he wrote.

It is interesting that changes, rebellions and revolutions if you will, in our society often seem to begin with music. Each era on our timeline is identified by its style of music. Today we live in another age where music leads change in our society, and that is with the MP3 shared digital files controversy. It has altered the way the music industry operates with regard to ownership and royalties, and may be the template for an enormous future change in the sale of books.

The film’s real strength is Foster’s music, songs which defined an era and were the birth of American popular music as an industry, and as a cultural force. We hear plenty of Foster’s songs in this movie, and by some wonderful voices. Bill Shirley plays Stephen Foster, and you may recognize his fulsome tenor also as the prince in Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” (1959), and as the singing voice for Jeremy Brett in “My Fair Lady” (1964).

A standout in this film is Ray Middleton, who plays the comically bombastic Edwin P. Christy, leader of the Christy Minstrels. His majestic baritone does justice to these songs, and his booming speaking voice, always pitched at half gale, is a delight. All the principle players have stage voices (Middleton played several Broadway roles), and were clearly not studio singers, so they bring an appropriate sound and diction to these tunes.

That Stephen Foster’s songs still have the ability to reach us so many generations later, is evident in the CD “Beautiful Dreamer - The Songs of Stephen Foster” which won a Grammy Award in 2005. Among the artists performing these songs are Alison Kraus, Suzy Bogguss, John Prine, and Yo-Yo Ma. Alvin Youngblood Hart’s rendition of “Nellie Was a Lady” is especially poignant. You’ll find it here at Amazon.

The movie tells us nothing of Foster’s thwarted career and tragic end, but it gives us a kindly, if flawed, version of a giant in the American music industry.

by Sojourner Truth

Delivered 1851 at the Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman?

Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what's this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That's it, honey. What's that got to do with women's rights or negroes' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain't got nothing more to say


John Hayes said...

Kudos to you for once again taking on a difficult subject. Really fine job of creating historical context regarding the minstrel show phenomenon & also the current digital controversies re: copyright. & thanks for including Sojourner Truth's speech.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, John. I would recommend our readers have a look, if they haven't already, at your post of March 4th regarding Sojourner Truth:

K. said...

Beautiful Dreamer is an excellent CD. Stephen Foster was from -- of all places -- Pittsburgh.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, K. Thanks for stopping by. It is a lovely CD. Cheers to our friends in Pittsburgh. I understand there is an annual festival celebrating Foster's music called "Doo Dah Days." Gotta go sometimes, if only for the name.

Moira Finnie said...

This essay is an excellent demonstration of how to write about a flawed film within a greater and more interesting historical context. Thanks for your description of the movie, Stephen Foster's lasting significance and for Sojourner Truth's words. Beautifully done.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you most kindly, Moira. Perhaps really the only way to digest the historical context behind this weak film is to splay it against the way Foster's music holds up, as demonstrated in the terrific "Beautiful Dreamer" CD, the modern publishing controversy, and the punch of Sojourner Truth's words. I'm not sure the film can stand on its own, otherwise.

It would be something to see a modern movie on Foster's life and career, but would the minstrel aspect just be too distasteful to confront with historical accuracy?

Lolita said...

I just found your blog, interesting! Do you really mean that they went with minstrel make-up STILL in the 1950's?

May I link to your blog from mine? I think it's worthy! ;)


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Lolita, thanks for stopping by. Thanks also for offering to link to my blog.

As regards the minstrel makeup, they did use it in this 1953 film, but I think it's important to remember this was not a contemporary (1950s) story. This was an 1840s-50s story. I think it would be difficult to do a biography of Stephen Foster and not include a minstrel scene. Much of his music he wrote specifically for minstrel shows.

Campaspe said...

Great piece that takes a movie I saw and dismissed and really burrows under the surface. Made me wish I had watched it with more an of an open mind. Kudos.

Poor Louise Beavers, she was a superb actress and had to play all those damn Mammy parts, even in her finest role, in Imitation of Life. At least that one let her get beneath the surface of the stereotype.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks so much, Campaspe. I agree Louise Beavers deserved better. They certainly didn't need someone of her caliber in what is a mere walk-on role, stereotyped as always. I wouldn't think she'd still be under contract in 1953. Maybe she needed the work or was doing somebody a favor.

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