Friday, September 3, 2010
Dumbo Part 21
And so we come to the crows. Any controversy attached to this film has revolved around the crows. Some see them as a racist portrayal, others not. This blog is not going to settle the question, but I do want to look at some of the historical context. The crows, as black characters, are treated in significantly different ways than black performers in other Hollywood films of the time.
The portrayal of blacks in film breaks down into three categories: white people in blackface, black performers who created a reputation outside of film and black performers whose careers were built on film.
Blackface, where white people would apply burnt cork to their faces and hands, is a mode of performance that dates to 19th century minstrel shows. White actors would perform songs, dances and jokes while impersonating the white perception of black people. That tradition survived into the 20th century in theatre and film with performers like Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor and, on occasion, performers like Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, and Judy Garland. One of the most popular radio shows of the 1920s and '30s was Amos and Andy, focusing on a black community but voiced by white performers.
Black performers who achieved a reputation outside of film worked mostly in music. Louis Armstrong (this clip includes Martha Raye in blackface), Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, Fats Waller, Bill Robinson, and Lena Horne appeared in films with their stage or musical personalities intact. They were brought into films to cash in on their existing reputations, usually performing on film what they performed in other media.
Black performers who worked predominantly in film were usually relegated to characters with menial jobs. Porters, butlers, maids, cooks and occasionally loyal sidekicks of the white hero. Performers like Clarence Muse, Ernest Whitman, Louise Beavers, Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen and Dooley Wilson fit this mold. Three other performers, Mantan Moreland, Willie Best and Lincoln Perry (whose stage name was Stepin Fetchit) had the same type of roles but were there to be comic relief. They played up the white stereotypes of black people; they were buffoonish, lazy and easily frightened. Black actors might get throwaway bon mots to deflate a villain or some other pompous character, but they never directly confronted a white person.
In Dumbo, the voice of the lead crow, named Jim Crow in the studio draft, is Cliff Edwards, a white performer who was previously the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio and who had a successful career on Broadway, in vaudeville and in early talking pictures starting from the mid 1920s. The other crows were voiced by black performers from the Hall Johnson Choir, a singing group which performed black spirituals that was formed in 1925.
The crows are unquestionably meant to be the animal equivalent of black characters. Their speech patterns and eccentric wardrobes play to familiar stereotypes. However, their behaviour is something out of the ordinary. Jim Crow talks to Timothy and takes liberties (like blowing cigar smoke in his face) that would never be tolerated in a live action picture of the time. Jim Crow's whole attitude is one of superiority to the other crows and to Timothy as well. Referring to Timothy as "Brother Rat" is frankly a dig. This is one crow who doesn't know his place as defined by Hollywood in 1940. The other crows laugh at Timothy and Dumbo when they get dunked in the puddle, a demonstration of ridicule that also wasn't the norm for the time.
So while certain stereotypes are present, others are broken. However, this sequence is complicated further by the fact that Jim Crow is really white. Does that make his attitude more acceptable? Did the audience immediately know that it was Cliff Edwards? There are no voice credits on the film, though publicity photos exist of Edwards with Ward Kimball. It's not possible to know how audiences of the time interpreted the racial politics of this sequence, if they bothered at all. While it's not immediately apparent, Edwards' performance is a form of blackface.
And while there is information available about Hall Johnson himself, I've yet to find any information that named a single member of his choir other than himself. The performers who voiced the background crows are anonymous. While the choir appeared in live action films like Zenobia (with Oliver Hardy) and Tales of Manhattan, the performances that I've seen have emphasized the group, not singling out any of the singers.
How did the black back-up singers in Dumbo feel about the sequence? Did they see it as subversive? Did they resent being portrayed as crows and talking with those accents? Were they proud to tell their children and grandchildren about their participation in the film? If that information has survived, I'm not aware of it and it's a loss to our understanding of the making of the film.
There's more to say about the crows and how they function within the story, but it will have to wait for the next few sequences. I haven't even touched on the animation in this sequence, but as this has already gone on at some length, I'll do another entry on this sequence. You may be surprised to learn that my favorite animation here is by Don Towsley, not Kimball.