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Sunday, July 05, 2009

Someone Ought to Wave the Flag - George M Cohan and Bob Dylan

Above a <1-minute audio clip of Bob Dylan and the Cowboy Band playing a snippet from George M. Cohan's Yankee Doodle Boy (more popularly known as Yankee Doodle Dandy) yesterday, July 4, in the Year of Our Lord 2000 and 9, which I will suspect will be grist for a blog post by our friend over at RightWingBob.

And below, a fascinating, if politically incorrect, 9-minute clip from the little-known The Phantom President of 19 and 32. What makes this film especially unique is that it features the original song-and-dance man and Yankee Doodle Boy born on the 4th of July - George M. Cohan - who was trying to move from a sagging theater career into film with The Phantom President.

Watch Cohan's blackface routine in this clip and it's easy to see where Jimmy Cagney got his spot-on phrasing and moves for Yankee Doodle Dandy, the movie.

Cohan would make but one more movie in 1934 (Gambling), that - like Phantom President - would meet with indifferent public reaction. He'd return to Broadway and revive his career in his last successful show, the Rodgers & Hart hit of 19 and 37, I'd Rather be Right, where he'd play a dancing FDR. Yankee Doodle Dandy, the movie, by the way, re-creates a scene from I'd Rather be Right in its opening sequence.

Stick around through the entire 9-minute clip, and you'll also catch appearances by Jimmy Durante and Sidney Toler. Toler is probably best-known for playing the lead in the equally politically incorrect Charlie Chan series. An entire generation has grown up without knowing anything about Jimmy Durante, which is their loss. The Ol' Schnozzola was a Runyonesque one-of-a-kind who for a period of time was one of the most popular performers in the U.S. I'm old enough to remember his TV show, and was always delighted as a kid when an old movie would air on one of the UHF stations and feature Durante. These days you'll still occasionally see/hear a Durante cartoon impersonation on The Simpsons or Family Guy, although I suspect most of the audience doesn't have a clue that it even is an impersonation.

Outside of not being that good - Cohan plays a surprisingly unsympathetic character - one of the reasons that The Phantom President is seldom seen anymore is the blackface, of course. As regular readers of Dreamtime know, I'm fascinated by the medicine and minstrel show genres, which have a history stretching from the 19th century to Spike Lee's Bamboozled. Blackface routines in movies of the `30s and `40s, and even somewhat unbelievably into the `50s, were more common than you might expect.

Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland would appear in blackface in 1939's Babes in Arms and 19 and 41's Babes on Broadway. Jimmy Stewart in 1939 for It's a Wonderful World. Shirley Temple in 1935's The Littlest Rebel. Fred Astaire put on the cork in 1936's Swing Time. Bing Crosby appeared in blackface in 1942's Holiday Inn, the precursor to the better-known White Christmas, released in 1954, and which also included a minstrel show number, but which, happily, was not done in blackface. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin donned blackface for the original Ocean's 11, released in 19 and 60. The Black and White Minstrel Show was a popular British television series with a 20-year run into the `70s that presented traditional American "Deep South" songs - often performed in blackface.

Among Jefferson Airplane fans there's a story that Grace Slick deliberately put on blackface in 1968 for a Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour appearance, fueled by the fact that Slick closed her performance with the Black Power salute, and occasionally appeared on stage wearing a Hitler mustache. But video of the Smothers Brothers segment shows Slick looking more like she had had a very bad session at the tanning salon rather than doing a deliberate blackface turn. Slick later noted in an interview that the makeup hadn't meant to be political, more of a statement antithetical to her white-bread appearance after she had been given unsupervised access to the makeup table, but she did regret not doing the full "Al Jolson with the lips."

For obvious reasons most of the films I noted above aren't broadcast widely anymore. You can occasionally find a bootleg edition of The Phantom President on eBay. If you share my fascination in the old time minstrel shows and the very strange - and very racially insensitive, it should be noted - art of blackface, you may also be interested in a film I've mentioned before: Yes Sir, Mr. Bones, a 54-minute movie from 19 and 51, which contains the only known footage of the legendary blackface singer and comedian Emmett Miller in action.

The movie is available as 1/2 of Showtime USA, a DVD that also contains Square Dance Jubilee, featuring Spade Cooley. As a commenter noted on the Amazon page, Yes Sir, Mr. Bones is probably as close as we're likely to get to a reconstruction of an actual minstrel show, from the opening "end man" comedy routines, featuring Miller, to the "olio" including sentimental ballads performed by an "Irish Thrush," to an amazing softshoe on sand routine, to the closing burlesque numbers. The movie supposedly takes place in a show biz retirement home; a young boy wanders in and the residents - thanks to the magic of imagination - recreate a minstrel show.

If you're offended by blackface material - some of it very crude, by the way - you don't want to watch Yes Sir, Mr. Bones, as one of the audio commentaries puts it right at the beginning. If you're interested in it as a historical document - especially of Emmett Miller - you do.


Unknown said...

In the last paragraph you said "some of it very crude" where it should read "some of it _IS_ very crude".

Thank you. I will not be offended if you delete this comment.

James Mahoney said...

Sorry, Bambizzoozled, Mr. Bals's construction is correct. "some of it very crude" is an adjectivial clause modifying "blackface material, and as such, does not take a verb.