Sunday, June 1, 2014
The Tramp and the Black Boxer
Film critic Matthew Dessem recently wrote that Buster Keaton's The Playhouse (1921) is "not particularly beloved today" because it features Keaton performing in blackface for a minstrel act. Click here for the full article. A reader, who calls himself Mr. Neutron, expressed doubt about this statement. He wrote, "[The Playhouse is] still widely regarded as one of Keaton's most dazzling and creative shorts. Yes, the blackface act is disconcerting for a modern audience, but Keaton isn't using it for racist purposes. Keaton's playhouse is full of the sort of acts one would expect to find in an old-time playhouse, and the blackface is just one of them. Keaton's reliance on racist stereotypes in films like College is more objectionable, as is the anti-miscegenation gag in Seven Chances, though such material would have raised no eyebrows at the time." I discuss the race issues of College and Seven Chances in my book The Funny Parts, but it never occurred to me that the minstrel scene in The Playhouse could qualify as racial humor. It is Keaton using innovative camera tricks so that he can play all nine performers in a traditional minstrel act. Nothing about the scene directly addresses race.
Of all the silent film comedians, Charlie Chaplin is one who usually falls under the radar in discussions of black stereotypes in silent comedy films. Chaplin was well known for his left-wing political views. He made it clear in his films that he opposed the idea of bullies, whether a street tough, a fascist government or an unfeeling capitalist, victimizing the little guy. So, then, what did he think about the civil rights of blacks in the United States? I am sure that, if he was ever asked, he would have expressed his wholehearted support of blacks and other minorities. The comedian appears to have been respectful of other races in that he didn't generally trade in ethnic humor. But the fact was that blacks were generally absent from his films. This sort of exclusion could be considered unfriendly to the black community. Is it better to have black characters share in the pratfalls and other buffoonery or to render them virtually invisible?
I can think of only two instances in which a black character turned up in a Chaplin film. The first time occurred in one of Chaplin's early Keystone comedies, His Favorite Pastime (1914). It must be taken into consideration that the film was made before the comedian had control of his films. The film largely represents the Keystone style of the day. Let's go to the scenes in question. While visiting a bar, Chaplin has an encounter in the bathroom with a black shoeshine boy. The role is played by Billy Gilbert, a white actor in blackface. It wasn't uncommon in 1914 to see a comedian in blackface in a film. It should be noted, though, that, during this period, blackface entertainers were far more prevalent on the vaudeville stage than the movie screen. Theater owners gave blackface singers and comedians prominent billing in newspaper ads because, for whatever reason, this was a form of entertainment that their patrons enjoyed. By comparison, Hollywood went lightly on this form of entertainment. In His Favorite Pastime, Gilbert manages in his portrayal of the shoeshine boy to slouch and shuffle, which is meant to indicate that the character is lazy. He is dim-witted, too, based on his dull, slack-jawed expression. We know that Chaplin's character has drank too much by the fact that he is stumbling around the bar. In the bathroom, he bumps into a swinging door and loses his hat. The shoeshine boy retrieves the hat for Chaplin and then grins unctuously in the hope of receiving a tip. Chaplin glowers blearily at the shoeshine boy, who then makes his interest in a tip more obvious by holding out his hand. Chaplin becomes so annoyed by this vulgar solicitation that he puts out a match in the shoeshine boy's hand. Humor can be derived from a service worker annoyingly soliciting a tip without bringing race into it. The use of this black character is, without question, gratuitous and tasteless.
Later in the film, Chaplin performs an old stock routine in which a comedian comes up behind a shapely young woman and is shocked to discover that the woman is black. The woman is played in blackface by a white actress, Helen Carruthers. This is a more harmless routine, which I have discussed at length in The Funny Parts and previous blog posts.
To my knowledge, many years passed before another black character appeared in a Chaplin film. That character was a boxer portrayed by an actual black actor, Victor Alexander, in City Lights (1931). His appearance is brief. Chaplin observes Alexander kissing his lucky rabbit's foot before a fight. Chaplin is respectful towards the man and asks to borrow his rabbit's foot to bring himself luck. The perception of black people as superstitious was stubborn, lingering in the minds of Hollywood screenwriters long after most other perceptions had been abandoned. It isn't something that was necessarily wrong or evil. The idea, simply, was that the black people were spiritual and that spiritual people are more likely to put trust in unseen forces. The boxer is ready for his fight. He is vigorous and focused. He is a much better representative of the black community than the blackface clown who shuffled around the bar bathroom 17 years earlier. But the payoff of the scene is that the black boxer is dragged back into the locker room unconscious. Maybe, a lucky rabbit's foot is not all that it's cut out to be.
I do not find the lucky rabbit's foot gag to be disconcerting or offensive. Am I wrong? My family comes from Naples, Italy, and Napolitanos have long had a reputation for being superstitious. Would it offend me if Chaplin had made the boxer Italian? No. Of course, I have to admit that, if the Italian boxer was greasy and was waving around a lucky clove of garlic, I would have a different opinion. But Chaplin is not out to make the boxer a grotesque figure. The boxer is just man trying to bring some good luck his way. I freely admit that I, myself, sometimes pray for good luck. I prayed today because I learned that one of my Facebook friends had surgery. Can a rabbit's foot be someone's prayer? It's a hard question to answer. The Civil Rights Movement was led by a spiritual man, Martin Luther King, Jr., who believed in the power of prayer. I don't see him as a superstitious fool, but he might not be held in high esteem today if he brandished a rabbit's foot while he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and made his "I Have a Dream" speech. Of course, King wasn't trying to get laughs. Comedy is meant to be self-depreciating.
My point is that a person should not be quick to dismiss a gag as racist and vile without stopping to consider if the gag unfairly degrades an entire race of people. Examine the context of the gag before you condemn it. What is the message? What is the filmmaker's objective? The minstrel act in Keaton's The Playhouse is a wonderful example of filmmaking. It is clear in my mind that it is not racist.