This week’s Vintage post is an ugly one. But it’s irresponsible to talk about the performing arts in the 1920s and not at some point talk about blackface, the practice of whites donning make-up them look like stereotyped caricatures of blacks. What follows is an ad for a film called “Topsy and Eva,” a musical comedy based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The ad itself contains racially insensitive material.
Topsy and Eva was a stage act that launched the careers of the Duncan Sisters, Rosetta and Vivian, who performed as a musical comedy duo sporadically from 1917 to 1959. There work was mostly on the stage and later in nightclubs, but they appeared on film occasionally, particularly in this 1927 film based on their stage act. But enough about them; I really want to talk more generally about blackface.
Wikipedia’s article on the subject is extensive, and I’ll refer you there for a more detailed history. In summary, it was a major part of entertainment in America for roughly a century. It caught on as early as the 1820s in the form of travelling ministrel shows, where white males would dress up as black males and females and act out musical comedy acts that were versions of black culture, music, and speech patterns skewed by caricature and stereotyping. The stereotypes were grotesquely negative, as were the portrayals of other peoples as well, from other common targets of prejudice (e.g., Jews) to the not-so oppressed (rich white southerners). While negative stereotyping can hardly be excused, it’s also important to understand that the culture of the day was not as quick to consider stereotyping offensive. And the some ministrel shows were less derogatory than others. Wikipedia notes, “The songs of northern composer Stephen Foster figured prominently in blackface minstrel shows of the period. Though written in dialect and certainly politically incorrect by today’s standards, his later songs were free of the ridicule and blatantly racist caricatures that typified other songs of the genre.”
The popularity of blackface lead to the bizarre phenomenon of black performers donning blackface. Wikipedia again: “Frederick Douglass wrote in 1849 about one such troupe . . . ‘It is something to be gained when the colored man in any form can appear before a white audience.’ Nonetheless, Douglass generally abhorred blackface . . . condemning it as racist in nature, with inauthentic, northern, white origins.” In fact, “all-black” ministrel shows, despite lower production values and appearing in smaller venues, came to rival the popularity of ministrel shows by whites. The marketing value of the word “authentic” became compelling for audiences of the day. Wikipedia once more: “Some minstrel shows, particularly when performing outside the South, also managed subtly to poke fun at the racist attitudes and double standards of white society or champion the abolitionist cause. It was through blackface performers, white and black, that the richness and exuberance of African-American music, humor, and dance first reached mainstream, white audiences in the U.S. and abroad.”
The dawn of film was the dusk of blackface. Society was changing, and blackface fell out of favor. It is rare to see blackface in films as of the 1930s, and what can be seen in the 1920s tends to be substantially watered down. When Al Jolson appeared in blackface in the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, the stereotyping in the performance is significantly watered down. For the most part, he might as well have left the makeup off.
Black stereotypes, however, persisted through the 1940s. For all the ruckus the Charlie Chan films cause today with their portrayal of Chinese-Americans, Charlie Chan is an accomplished detective, a loving father, and a good man. Less admirable is his black chaffeur (introduced to the series long after the Charlie Chan series had lost its charm anyway), played by the black actor Mantan Moreland as a fearful and unfathomably stupid buffoon. Moreland was an incredibly gifted comic; it’s unfortunate that his role in the Chan series is what is most remembered from his much broader career.
Wrapping back to Topsy and Eva, nothing in the ad suggests that blackface is on its way out of the American entertainment scene. Besides the illustrations of blackface, I am darkly amused by the pull quote in the lower right, “A female Charlie Chaplin in blackface.” I heard an annoying person in a blog somewhere (and what more authoritative source could you ask for?) call this practice “name-checking.” We do it a lot today. “From the Academy Award winning director of American Beauty….” or, my favorite, “From 2 of the 5 writers of Scary Movie….” It’s a logical marketing idea. Maybe you don’t even recognize the name Sam Mendes, but if you liked the movie American Beauty, there’s a good chance you’ll like the movie he’s got coming out now.
You most certainly did, however, know the name “Charlie Chaplin” in 1927. You probably loved his movies. Well, Charlie Chaplin + blackface + girls = Topsy and Eva, so be sure to see it.
There’s just one thing I can’t figure out. Let’s make it an exercise for the reader. What on earth did “debbies” mean in 1920s slang?