Outside the Mainstream
16Independent Race Talkies
Outside the Mainstream
Hollywood Goes Ethnic
The Talkie Melting Pot
Sound opened new possibilities for bringing previously unheard voices and languages to Hollywood. The precursor was definitely radio, which was broadcasting regional songs (for example, mountain and western music on shows like The Grand Ole Opry) and ethnic humor (in exaggerated Jewish, Mexican, Italian, and Irish accents) to widely scattered homes where such entertainment had never before been heard. The transition to sound in film coincided with a wave of enthusiasm among white audiences for entertainment performed by African Americans. Many listeners liked traditional spirituals and minstrel acts, but the Jazz Age took its name from the most popular music of all. The motives for this admiration, the subject of considerable speculation, are far from clear. Was this interest driven by curiosity and respect for black culture—as in Rouben Mamoulian's successful Broadway staging of Porgy? Or was it an effort to contain or exclude minorities by erecting boundaries of representation? In his description of the melting-pot ethos of the 1920s as a "racial cross-dressing," Michael Rogin argues that it was an effort to construct a myth of American origins.1 Whatever the stimulus, motion pictures were unarguably part of the process.
The industry commentator Arthur W. Eddy observed in 1929, "Negro sketches, which were almost an unknown quantity before this talking picture business, are now finding more and more spots on Eastern programs."2 It is not surprising that all-talking, all-singing films would exploit these extremely popular artists, capitalize on the interest in African-American music, and perpetuate racist stereotypes and black caricatures.
Most of the filmed appearances by established African-American performers were in musical shorts. Christie Comedies, releasing through Paramount, produced a series of sketches adapted from short stories by Octavus Roy Cohen, a white southerner who for a quarter-century had specialized in stories of plantation life for Saturday Evening Post readers. Melancholy Dame (1929) was a typical ten-minute reel. The cast included the singers and dancers Florian Slappey, Webster Dill, Ed Thomson, Roberta Hyson, Charles Olden, Evelyn Preer (who had starred in Oscar Micheaux's The Homesteader ), and Spencer Williams (the veteran actor and future director). Film Daily thought that "the principals all deserve mention for excellent work." Other films in the series were Music Hath Charms (1929), with Slappey, Roscoe Griggers, Bud Peagler, Professor Aleck Champagne, Sam Gin, and Willie Trout, and The Framing of the Shrew (1929), featuring Privacy Robson, Slappey, and Lawyer Evans Chew.3 These entertainers would already have been known to patrons of urban theater and the touring black vaudeville circuits, but not necessarily to white film audiences. Al Christie said, condescendingly,
We discovered very early that the usual colored screen actor was practically useless because it was next to impossible for him—or her—to memorize long speeches. Of course there were exceptions, but very few of them. We went to the legitimate stage for most of our principals—the colored legiti-mate stage. One of our principals in the first colored talkie, The Melancholy Dame, is Evelyn Preer, of the Lafayette Players, a splendid actress…. The colored stage players are remarkably quick "studies" and sel dom "go up" in their lines. (Al Cohn, "How Talking Pictures Are Made," Photoplay, December 1928, p. 110)
Other African Americans who had leading roles included George Reed, who played in Magnolia (1929), adapted from Booth Tarkington's play. George Dewey Washington, a bass-baritone with a long vaudeville career, recorded at least five one-reel performances for MGM in 1928 and 1929 and appeared in two of the four Metro Movietone Revues. He performed as a "gentleman tramp" character. "Washington has oodles of personality, and is remarkable for his clear tonal quality that makes every syllable perfectly understandable."4 Duke Ellington, who at the time was a draw at the Cotton Club and on RKO theater tours, appeared in Black and Tan (dir. Dudley Murphy, 1929). ST. Louis Blues (dir. Murphy, 1929) proved to be the only screen appearance of the legendary singer Bessie Smith.5
RKO was aggressively putting black performers under contract. "Marguerite Robinson, Negro singer," according to a press release, "is the first of her race to be signed to a long-term contract." Hall's Chorus, consisting of forty-one singers, was also signed by RKO. Their first appearance was supposed to be in Dixiana.6 One of the highlights of this musical is the long tap dance by Bill Robinson. Typically, it is narratively gratuitous, an encapsulated element of spectacle inserted to delight those audiences who would appreciate a performance by "Bojangles." The segment was also easily excisable for audiences who did not welcome his presence.
Jules Bledsoe was featured in Old Man Trouble, in the Columbia-Victor "Singing-Talking Gem" series. In the seven-minute film directed by Basis Smith, he talks to his "mammy" and sings two numbers from the Broadway version of Show Boat, in which he starred as Joe in 1927. The opera baritone had performed in roles ranging from The Emperor Jones to Aida. "One of the best things in its class that has yet been presented in sound shorts," wrote Film Daily. "Bledsoe's voice registers beautifully and has an appealing quality that is bound to get over with any type of audience."7
Many mainstream musicals relied on black entertainers. On with the Show (1929) is typical. Many of the musical numbers feature African Americans, including some spectacular, but uncredited, tap dancers. The film begins with fans entering the theater saying that they can't wait to hear Ethel Waters sing "Am I Blue?" As promised, Waters performs onstage, but we never see her or the other black performers offstage or mingling with the other players. It is as though they existed only as pure entertainment.
Three 1929 Hollywood feature releases showcased black players. Hearts in Dixie (dir. Paul Sloane) advertised: "Negro spirituals … sung by a magnificent chorus—stevedores and roust-abouts croon thrilling melodies as the 'Nellie Bly' pulls into [the] wharf—cake-walks, folk dances, native jazz orchestras, the birth of the blues … in a breathlessly beautiful and realistic panorama of life along the levees and in the cotton fields with a cast of 200 Native Entertainers."8 This cliché-ridden melodrama stars Clarence Muse as Nappus, a lazy, middle-aged sharecropper. Muse was a well-educated (LL.B. from Dickerson University) writer and producer of plays, as well as an accomplished actor. He was one of the founders of the Lafayette Players of Harlem. Nappus's stepson is shuffling Gummy, played by Stepin Fetchit. Both would soon become important black character actors. Paul Sloane also directed a low-budget feature, North of Dixie (1929), "in which Charles Gilpin, Negro star is at work as his initial talking picture." This feature, also with an all-black cast, was taken from Walter Weems's play Lonesome Road.9
The third and boldest project was Hallelujah! (1929), directed by King Vidor for MGM. Its African-American cast and interesting (though slender) plot were regarded by many as a sign of Hollywood's racial tolerance. The story (credited to Vidor), however, showed how difficult it was even for well-intentioned liberals to break away from stereotypes. Zeke (Daniel L. Haynes, Bledsoe's understudy in Show Boat) is a no-account cotton picker who accidentally kills his brother during a crap game. He finds redemption from his iniquities by becoming a preacher. His woman Chick (Nina Mae McKinney) dies in an accident, and Zeke hunts down and kills her lover, Hot Shot (William Fountaine), whom Zeke holds responsible. He returns home after serving on the chain gang and is reunited with his family.
MGM arranged for a Western Electric Kearny truck to meet the crew in Memphis, but when it was delayed, Vidor proceeded to shoot the exterior scenes silent, assuming he could postdub dialogue. (The interiors were shot later in Hollywood with standard recording procedures.) Without Moviolas or other precision sound-editing gear, postproduction on the location scenes dragged on for six months. The interludes of hymns and spirituals are moving, and the long sequence in which Zeke chases Hot Shot through the swamp is a magnificent sound montage (all post-synched). Vidor symbolically premiered the film at Broadway and Harlem theaters simultaneously in August 1929.10 Kann lauded the experiment as artistically engrossing:
The narrative and its background concern a world far removed from the standards and understanding of the white man. As you read this in impersonal type, it may seem far-fetched to comprehend how the desires and emotions of a set of black men and women can hit so closely home. When you realize, however, that those motivations are kin of all humans no matter what the color pigment of their skin may be, this reaction becomes far more clear. (Film Daily, 21 August 1929, p. 1)
Kann congratulated MGM for its Hallelujah! experiment but predicted that most audiences would not like it. His liberal comment is all the more remarkable in light of Film Daily's frequently racist jokes and reviews laced with demeaning epithets." Like the films themselves, the trade press simultaneously praised the performers and confined them inside a racial stereotype. Film Daily's reviewer was impressed that Hallelujah! had been created by a southerner: "King Vidor, a Texan, here has attempted to film a cross-section of the life and mentality of the Southern Negro. As a general thing, he has succeeded admirably. His insight at all time seems to bear the stamp of authenticity. Never is the spectator inclined to doubt the directors treatment." He complained, however, that at the end the story lost its dramatic effect.12
The film went on to lose money at the box office. Because of the race subject, MGM had difficulty distributing it. Although it received critical praise, Hallelujah! apparently caused discomfort in smaller towns and was not booked at all in southern white
theaters. In cities, black audiences frequently had to wait to see the film until it played at neighborhood houses. Then they laughed at the country stereotypes.13
Inevitably there was a backlash from some exhibitors against the surge in African-American shorts and features. At their convention in Columbus, Georgia, southeastern exhibitors objected to Hallelujah! and expounded on the "reaction of audiences of this section to the number of films featuring Negroes which have been released in recent months." The delegates went "strongly on record against Negro pictures and call[ed] upon producers of the industry to 'severely restrict or entirely forego' the making of pictures exploiting the Negro race."14 What bothered southern exhibitors was that these films were leaving the segregated theater circuits and entering mainstream cinema. The big studio features and the entertainment shorts were probably aimed at the "Cotton Club" market—whites who were attracted to black music and (imagined) lifestyles. But this approach was not tolerated in the Jim Crow South.
All three of these features, Hearts in Dixie, North of Dixie, and Hallelujah!, were influenced by the minstrel tradition, which had been an American vernacular in the nineteenth century. By the end of the 1920s, however, it had become nearly extinct until the talkies came along. Variety's review of Mammy (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1930) leaves little doubt that the movies (with radio) revived the minstrel show.15 The characterizations of blacks as contented workers and amiable, talented singers in the first two features, and imbued with "natural" religion in Vidor's film, were probably not questioned by most white moviegoers of the time. From this background emerged the one true African-American star of the period, Stepin Fetchit. The talkies brought his unique vocal performance to millions, and he was featured in no fewer than nine films in 1929. He garnered the praise of critics in The Ghost Talks, in which he appeared with the respected stage stars Helen Twelvetrees and Charles Eaton. "Seasoned screen players like Stepin Fetchit in cast outdistance them,"Film Daily reported. "First two reels tedious with artificial dialogue…. Pepped up in final reels with good comedy work of Stepin Fetchit from the comedy lots. This darky gets over big."16 As Gummy in Hearts in Dixie, "Stepin Fetchit gives a fine characterization of a lazy Negro highlighted by great comedy work." Fox appreciated its star's entertainment potential and hired Walter Weems to write an original screenplay for Fetchit's first feature.17 Already in his earliest talkies Fetchit had adopted his permanent role as the dim-witted, drawling southern black man—far removed from the actors actual offscreen personality.18
Of course, much of the material heard in the talkies was adapted by white performers masquerading as blacks. Al Jolson's appearance in A Plantation Act and The Jazz Singer merely transposed to the screen brief glimpses of his famous stage act. The press book distributed to publicize The Jazz Singer gives an account of the genesis Jolson's makeup in his vaudeville days:
He was still a white face comedian at that time, and perhaps he would have been to this day if not for an old negro who sometimes helped him in dressing. He was not able to employ a regular dresser then.
"Boss, if you skin's black, they always laugh," the darkey said.
Jolson decided to try it. He blacked up with some burnt cork and rehearsed before the old negro.
"You's jus' as funny as me, Mistah Jolson," chuckled the old man. (Warner Bros., The Jazz Singer, Pressbook, 1927)
Whether or not it really happened, this explanation is a stunning attempt to justify the Jewish entertainer's minstrel stardom by tracing it to its "old" African-American origins.
On radio, whites starred in programs like The Gold Dust Twins, which featured "Negro dialect" humor and song, and Amos 'n' Andy. This program, which had been in distribution by disc transcription for about a year, went national on NBC in August 1929. The white comedians Freeman F. Gosden and Charles Correll played southern stereotypes transplanted to the urban working class. More than forty million listeners tuned in, many buying their first radios expressly for the purpose.19 RKO hired Gosden and Correll for Check and Double Check (dir. Melville Brown, 1930). The publicity claimed that they would receive $1 million for one month's work, a figure that was astronomical and apocryphal. The RKO account book gives the total cost of the production, which presumably included salaries, as $967,000.20 The white actors re-created their vocal roles in a hokey, uninspired comedy set in Harlem, which was represented by one establishing shot. They performed their caricature Negro dialect in blackface. Many viewers would have been surprised by an unbilled appearance by Duke Ellington, suppressed in the advertising because of the "southern angle." Check and Double Check packed in audiences and, in November 1930, was held over 125 theaters. Film Daily glowed, "This is another piece of proof that the business is there and can be corralled with the right stuff, plugged with the right kind and right amount of advertising.""Check and Double Check became one of RKO's most profitable films of the season. Yet remarkably, a sequel was never made. It has been said that the studio conducted a survey of patrons as they left the theaters, and few indicated that they would return for another film; they had just been curious about what "Amos 'n' Andy" would look like on the screen.22 That this is the whole story is very unlikely. As an April 1931 press release indicated, there were probably legal and content problems, for RKO was then negotiating with NBC for two more "Amos 'n' Andy" pictures "along different and classier lines than their first production."23
The economic risk to the studios was in possibly offending not blacks, but whites. Jolson's Big Boy (dir. Alan Crosland, 1930) presented a special problem. In the character of Gus, an African-American jockey, Jolson makes jokes at the expense of whites. According to Variety, the coda scene in which Jolson appears as himself and sings without blackface makeup was designed to make the film acceptable to white southern exhibitors.24
How African-American audiences viewed Check and Double Check, Jolson's films (especially Big Boy), and blackface comedies in general is difficult to know. The studios made these primarily for white audiences, welcoming any bookings from segregated black theaters as unplanned profit. But the extent of black attendance at these films is unknown. Though the representations of African Americans were frequently demeaning, Slide reports that Moran and Mack, the white radio actors who performed as "The Black Crows," for example, had many black fans. They starred in Why Bring That Up? (dir. George Abbott, 1929) and Anybody's War (dir. Richard Wallace, 1930). Similarly, Cripps has noted that while there was certainly divided opinion, most blacks seemed to enjoy the Amos 'n' Andy radio program. "But movies were different," he writes, "for on radio one could fancy them in the mind's eye as genuinely black rather than as greasepainted Dybbuks played by two whites."25
Audiences had many opportunities to see and hear black entertainers in feature film cameos and in entertainment shorts. But other dramatic roles were rare. One example is Yamakraw (1930), a Vitaphone short which used "expressionistic" sets and lighting to tell a Sunrise-like story of a young black farmer who leaves his girlfriend and journeys to the big city. Film Daily gave the short film a relatively long notice:
Fascinating Negro Rhapsody. Here is a musical novelty of such an unusual nature that it is bound to provoke comment both in the trade and among the public. It's an expressionistic rhapsody composed by James Johnston dealing with the Negro. Murray Roth, who directed it, has employed a wide variety of new camera angles and lighting technique, resulting in a most fascinating piece of dramatic and musical artistry. Swift flashes, mostly in gray silhouette, depict a jazz symphony of Negro life that is arresting in movement as well as dramatic in idea. The music is good and the acting and dancing are clearly descriptive. Besides being something that appreciative audiences will welcome with applause, this can be set down as a notable example of what the screen and its imaginative directors are able to do in the line of different entertainment.(Film Daily, 27 April 1930, p. 13)
Another example is the Cimarron character Isaiah, played by Eugene Jackson.26 Although he is typecast as a servant boy, he performs in a very natural style and is given conversational lines. He dies tragically in the crossfire between the hero and villain.
Conceived and directed by whites, these representations were intended to be respectful, even mythopoeic. Inevitably they repackaged patronizing stereotypes. As James Snead observed, "Film is never 'one person's story'—film is always typical, broadcasting certain codes about social status and interrelationships. Mythification can both elevate and degrade. Indeed, the two properties are interdependent."27 Dudley Murphy's films are excellent examples of this view from outside the culture. After making some experimental "Visual Symphonies," Murphy went to Paris in 1923, according to William Moritz, wishing to take advantage of the advances in film sound there. Murphy fit right in with the "lost generation" in Paris and collaborated with the Cubist painter Fernand Léger on Ballet mÉcanique (1924). Returning to New York, he tried to capture the feel of the Harlem Renaissance on film in the shorts Black and Tan(1929), ostensibly about "life in the black and tan section of Harlem," and ST. Louis Blues (1929), which centers on the question of how Bessie Smith got "the blues."28 These efforts by what Cripps calls "white Negrophiles" seldom emerged from the morass of ingrained conventions of blackness and misrepresentations of the African-American experience. The limitations of mainstream producers are illustrated by a Film Daily anecdote: "Albert Howson, Warner scenario editor, is all a-puzzled trying to figure out the mental ratiocination of the Chicago censors who ordered the word 'darky' cut from Al Jolson's Big Boy because Chicago negroes might be offended by it. And Howson always thought it was an affectionate word."29 Assuming that the last sentence was sincere, the anecdote shows that Hollywood was stuck in a plantation attitude toward blacks, far from the concerns and sensibilities of late-twenties urban African-American culture. The black voice in the Hollywood of 1930 was generally spoken in an entertainment dialect written, approved, and understood—and often performed—by whites.
Golden Dawn (dir. Ray Enright, 1930) is proof enough. Seen today, the film's political incorrectness careens between shocking and hilarious. But it was made as a straight-forward adaptation of Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II's stage musical, which Busby Berkeley had directed. The producers seem to have been oblivious to its humiliating racism, anti-Africanism, and implicit apartheid political message. Set during World War I in East Africa, British prisoners of war are distracted by blonde, alabaster-skinned Vivienne Segal, who has been chosen by her tribe to be a sacrificial offering.30 An English officer prisoner-of-war (Walter Wolff) suspects that Dawn may not be black, and he falls in love with her. His commander gives him leave to rescue her, but only if it can be proven that she has some white blood. A timely appearance by her down-and-out white father does the trick. The villain Shep, played by Noah Beery in blackbody, is the cruel overlord. He sings in operatic baritone, but when he speaks, his vocabulary is peppered with "Sho' nufs" and "Massas," as though he had been dropped off in Africa by some passing minstrel show. Beery's characterization utilizes sound to reinforce every cliché about black men: his repeated "Whip Song" symbolizes his sexual terrorism; his linguistic incompetence condemns him to the underclass; and his mewling in defeat reveals his true cowardice. Dawn's voice, on the other hand, is untainted by any Negro dialect, and she sings her love song in the Jeanette MacDonald aria style when she bursts forth with "For Him I Call My Bwana." Said the reviewer for the Herald-Tribune, "Reason totters at the thought that any one could have conceived in seriousness such a definitive catalogue of vulgarity, witlessness, and utterly pathetic and preposterous nonsense."31 Yet few white viewers seem to have been offended by the racism of this film. As in the blackface minstrel tradition, the transference of conventionalized black traits to white actors was seen as benign entertainment. The film seems to confirm Rogin's claim that "minstrelsy's successors, vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, motion pictures, and radio did not so much displace as incorporate blackface."32
Where black audiences would have seen these or any other films from the major producers is another question. There had been a struggling "race cinema" exhibition circuit all through the twenties—though scarcely acknowledged by the film trade press. Many of these segregated independent houses (about half of which were black-owned) could not afford to buy or take out loans for sound. The theaters which did convert were tardy. The Plaza, for example, "the principal Negro house in Little Rock," installed an off-brand Moviephone system in late summer 1929, the first reported sound installation in a race house in Arkansas. In Montgomery, Alabama, on the other hand, a top-flight ERPI system went into the Pekin Theater, described as "one of the finest in that city … 'of, by and for' negroes only." All personnel, including the projectionists, were African Americans. In Film Daily's national theater census, it was determined that 501 houses exhibited "pictures with all-colored casts to colored audiences." Segregated theaters existed in twenty-three states but were concentrated geographically: one-third east of the Mississippi, two-thirds south of St. Louis.33 If Dan Streible's study of exhibition in Austin, Texas, can be generalized, it would suggest that about one-third of these houses were destined to close without ever projecting a sound film.34 The vicious cycle here is apparent. Minority producers could not convert to sound filmmaking; exhibitors could not show sound prints. So silent films held on longer in these venues than elsewhere until eventually the owners gave up.
By early 1930 there were 455 "colored" houses, down about 10 percent in less than a year. These included 56 theaters in Texas, 42 in North Carolina, 38 in Ohio, 35 in Florida, 24 in California, 23 each in Illinois and Alabama, 21 in Georgia, and the rest dispersed among 22 states. African Americans' access to theaters in white urban areas was still restricted. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, for example, filed two suits against the Kenwood Theater in Chicago. The group alleged that race discrimination was practiced in at least 20 percent of the city's theaters.35
Sound brought difficulty for producers making movies outside industry channels. Like virtually all films produced in the twenties and early thirties, those destined for the race market were made by whites. A good example is the producer Lou Goldberg, a booking agent specializing in promoting African-American acts for stage shows. He also had supplied performers and scripts to Columbia for its musical shorts. In May 1929, he produced at least seven films in association with the RLA Talking Pictures Corporation. Typical releases were Harlem Revue, featuring Ralph Cooper and the Cooperettes, and Washboard Blues, the last of the series, with Mamie Smith.36
The marginal companies which supplied this market could only rarely afford to lease studio space. One special case was Oscar Micheaux, the flamboyant pioneer of race filmmaking. He announced two talkers in December 1929, one a tale of Harlem (which, presumably, became Easy Street) and the other, Daughter of the Congo; both were released with synchronized tracks in 1930. With the backing of his company's board members Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher, Micheaux leased the Metropolitan Sound Studios in Fort Lee to make talkies with ERPI disc-recording equipment. Among the first were The Exile, in 1931, and Veiled Aristocrats the following year.37 Micheaux also announced that he would direct an unusual project, A Soul in Pawn (1931). This was to be a sixteen-reel production which could be shown either as one or two films. "The pictures will include music, songs, cabaret shows and dancing."38 Avowedly oriented toward the urban black middle class, these films use the actors' diction and dialect to convey the characters' upward mobility. But Micheaux's silent films had always been crudely made by Hollywood standards, and his use of sound was technically atrocious. There is considerable controversy about whether his work, in Thomas Cripps's words, "was in a baffling husk that made it often inaccessible to the audiences for which it was made," or whether it represented a rejection or an alternative view of Hollywood narrative and style. Charlene Regester points out that "African American filmmakers were, in the pre-Civil Rights era, operating under a completely different set of circumstances and were part of a complex set of dynamics over which they had little or no control. Ultimately this had to affect the films they produced."39 Micheaux was hampered by his cavalier attitude toward quality, chronic lack of funds, and steadily decreasing outlets as the Depression decimated the race theaters. Recognizing the limitations of his market, Micheaux continued to release both sound and silent versions of his films throughout the decade of the thirties.40
Sound made possible the creation of films that addressed local audiences in their native languages. Like race cinema, these were primarily ultra-low-budget productions. The approximately fifty Yiddish-language films made in New York in the early 1930s are good examples.41 These filmmakers spurned the assimilation ethos of the Jewish Hollywood moguls and made films that addressed the niche market in which Yiddish, the language of Jews from Russia and Poland, was spoken. There was irony in the development of the entertainment industry in the 1920s. As Hoberman observes, "American show business was becoming more Yiddish, as well as vice versa. Jolson, Brice, Tucker, Cantor et al. represented America's first generation of openly Jewish popular entertainers."42
Yet respect for tradition was hard to find. Many of these immigrants preferred traditional tales and religious piety to the jazz antics of Al Jolson and stories lauding the American dream of rags-to-riches success and the benefits of intermarriage. Comedians like Benny Rubin, whose dialect shtick poked fun at Jews in Seven Minutes of Your Time (1928), Naughty Boy (1929), Marianne and It's a Great Life (1930), were especially offensive. Independent Yiddish filmmaking activity was centered in New York's thriving Jewish theater culture. The Maurice Schwartz Yiddish Talking Pictures Corporation signed a long-term contract with Vocafilm in October 1928 and announced plans for six features.43 Schwartz was the impresario of the Jewish Art Theater. (Its most famous graduate, Muni Weisenfreund, as Paul Muni, had just been signed by Fox to star in The Valiant.) The first releases were made by Sidney Goldin, an actor and film director with years of experience in the business. He had moved from New York to Vienna to establish Goldin-Film. The prospect of having talking-picture resources had drawn him back, and in May 1929, he premiered East Side Sadie, a silent with added dialogue scenes. Goldin found another ally in Max Cohen, a film producer at Metropolitan Sound Studios (where Micheaux's talkies were made.) Their first project was Ad Mosay(The Eternal Prayer, a.k.a. The Wailing Wall ), and they claimed that it was the "first talking picture in the Jewish language." Harry Alan Potamkin, critic for Close-Up, claimed it was "about the worst film ever made."44 There was supposed to be a story based on the Hebron riots of 1929, but descriptions indicate that it was mainly static long-takes of choirs and similar performances, with blank leader separating the shots. It featured Lucy Levin and the cast of the Jewish Art Theater.45
Judea Films was founded in December 1929 by Joseph Seiden, another veteran producer of silents (including at least one race film, Paradise in Harlem, and a Yiddish newsreel). His partners were Sam Berliner, Abe Leff, and Moe Goldman, all Bronx exhibitors. Their ambition was to produce twelve Jewish talking pictures to show in their three houses and to create a fledgling circuit in other metropolitan areas. They also used Goldin as their director and availed themselves of the RCA Photophone facility. The first releases were two-reel shorts. Style and Class (1930) was a filmed stage revue and Shuster Libe (A Shoemaker's Romance, 1930) was a comedy starring Joseph Buloff. Jennie Goldstein, known as the leading Jewish tragedienne, was signed for series of Yiddish and English talkies. She backed out, however, after disagreements with the producers.46 Judea's features were adaptations of the popular plays Eybike Naronim (Eternal Fools, 1930) and Mayne Yidishe Mams (My Yiddish Mama, 1930), and performances of great cantors in The Voice of Israel (1931). At this time, according to Erik Goldman, "Goldin could take credit for having directed every Yiddish narrative talking picture to date."47 Goldin died in 1936 in the midst of a filming, but limited Yiddish production continued through the end of the decade, owing in part to circulation of these films in Poland. With only a couple of dozen theaters, the Yiddish cinema producers suffered even worse economic constraints than the African-American independents, who had a few hundred outlets. Additionally, internal destructive forces were at work, such as opposition from the Hebrew Actors Union (which thought that movies degraded the profession), internecine religious tensions, and the decline of the Yiddish-speaking audience for such films in the United States. Another factor might have been competition from Hollywood as a few studios reached out for this specialty market.
Sound tempted the major studios to experiment with films with minority appeal. Paramount, for instance, tested Chicago with one of its Polish-language films made in Joinville, France. French- and Spanish-language films were natural applications of sound, for they could be exhibited in Quebec, Latin America, and ethnic enclaves in U.S. cities. Most of the major studios, especially Fox, made Spanish-language films intended for domestic and Latin American distribution (see chapter 17). As Brian Taves has observed, these U.S.-made foreign-language films were "the aesthetic successors to the multi-linguals made by the major studios at the beginning of the sound era for overseas audiences."48 Universal produced The Green Millionaire (1929) from Abraham S. Schomer's play of the same name. It was shot with Yiddish dialogue but also circulated in an English version.49 The ethnic performer George Sidney made a series of monologues for Universal, including Cohen on the Telephone (1929). His lines were in English, but his Yiddish dialect "will hand any audience a great kick," Film Daily believed.50 From 1927 to 1932, Sidney teamed with Charlie Murray in a series of "Cohen and Kelly" films. The transition to sound provided the opportunity to lay on thick their exaggerated accents. As with Amos 'n' Andy, the national distribution of these films coincided with an interest in ethnic material on radio. NBC, in November 1929, started airing The Rise of the Goldbergs, fifteen-minute monologues (in English) about everyday New York Jewish life related by the engaging Gertrude Berg.51
Though neither racial nor ethnic, another cinematic byway flourished briefly at this time. The female impersonator Julian Eltinge's film Maid to Order (dir. Elmer Clifton, 1929) was produced at Tec-Art. Nicknamed "Mr. Lillian Russell," Eltinge was a famous beauty and had appeared in dual roles in several silent films.52 His competitor Olyn Landick, another well-known vaudeville female impersonator, made All Stuck Up (dir. George Lemaire, 1929), a Pathé two-reel comedy. Anthony Slide has observed that female impersonation was indigenous to the popular stage. It was not until later in the 1930s that dressing in drag became identified with homosexuality and thereafter lost its appeal as popular entertainment.53
Actual representations of gay characters in early sound films invariably reduced them to stage clichés. A good example is the stage manager in The Broadway Melody (1929), who carries on an effeminate rave about lavender costumes. As with female impersonation, exploiting a man speaking in a woman's voice or with a stereotypical lisp was an easy way to arouse curiosity and elicit humor.
Hollywood promoted the melting-pot ethos with a vengeance. In films like The King of Jazz, we see Italians, Spaniards, Irish, Scots, Russians, Mexicans, Polish Jews, English, and Germans stirred into a literal pot to produce jazz. (African Americans were not ingredients in this mixture.) Eddie Cantor, in Whoopee!, shows the comic exploits of a Jew who goes to the Wild West. (The plot twist revolving around an Indian who turns out to have no Indian blood and can therefore marry the heroine is almost a burlesque of Golden Dawn.) The Marx Brothers, especially in Animal Crackers, squeeze laughs from the hardships and cultural dissonance of immigration.54 It is difficult to evaluate the effect of such films. On the one hand, they may have raised the audience's consciousness of its ethnic minority constituency, but on the other hand, they may have reinforced (perhaps even created) minority prejudices. On a general level, the tendency was to dilute these groups' separateness, either by showing the minority's inevitable assimilation or by making its resistance to assimilation into a joke. Hollywood's traditional response to ethnicity has been to wipe out difference under the guise of promoting its distinctiveness. Desser has commented on this propagandistic tendency in commercial film:
Melting Pot," in Lester D. Friedman, ed., Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and the American Cinema [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991], p. 383">
Whether [they] did so out of fear of outside censorship or control, or out of an inchoate sense of gratitude on the part of the major emerging film producers to their new American home, American movie-makers worked toward envisioning a unified society of white, middle-class citizens. One of the problems of this society, one of its contradictions, was between a vision of unified culture and the facts of difference, primarily ethnic difference. Ethnicity was a fact of American life, as was racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry and discrimination. (David Desser, "The Cinematic Melting Pot," in Lester D. Friedman, ed., Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and the American Cinema [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991], p. 383)
The talkies provided a handy means for exploiting this contradiction. Ethnic voices and musical traditions could readily be expropriated, transformed into entertainment, while both cordoning off and erasing the source.
The acoustic melting pot is caricatured brilliantly in Hurdy Gurdy (dir. Hal Roach, 1929). The Irish cop Edgar Kennedy just wants to escape the heat wave by taking a nap on his Delancey Street tenement fire escape. All around him, though, his neighbors carry on in a Babel of ethnic New Yorkese—Spanish, Italian, Yiddish, German, and generic Brooklyn. Kennedy, ironically of course, refers to them as "foreigners" in his strong Irish brogue. (Judging from the film, no African Americans lived on Delancey Street.) The film calls attention to New York's multi-ethnicity by foregrounding these various accents. But by identifying them as non-American, it also suggests that they should be (and probably will be) assimilated.
The sound film quickly became a showdown for ethnicity. During the introductory period, performers like Rubin, Sidney, Brice, Cantor, Jolson, Edgar Kennedy, Charlie Murray, and Stepin Fetchit were admired for their ethnically specific vocal characterizations. After 1930, though, many of these differences were effaced. (Cantors Palmy Days , in which the star's Jewishness was soft-pedaled, is a case in point.)55 In Hollywood, the coming of sound was a time of great opportunity for African Americans in show business, strictly in terms of employment prospects. But the roles were limited to a few categories: servant, jockey, country bumpkin, plantation worker. Characterization, expressed most often in speech, was highly conventional. Actors like Clarence Muse joked about having to learn how to speak in Hollywood Negro dialect. The producers tried (and succeeded) in molding screen blacks into their preconception (based on memories of minstrelsy) of how African Americans behaved and talked. Even when blacks were placed on pedestals as superhumanly gifted singers and dancers or shown to possess extraordinary spirituality and religion, these celebratory gestures just isolated them further as cinematic spectacle. The role of blacks on the screen during this period is analogous to the uses of jazz by society at large. The entertainers, like the musical form, were absorbed by white culture to serve its own purposes.56
Minority filmmaking and ethnic-language production could have continued indefinitely, with separate (but unequal) production the norm and with segregated exhibition continuing the patterns of silent film days. The Depression ended this possibility. Big studios honed their product to appeal to the largest common denominator. Minority filmmakers did not have the resources because their small markets could not support them. Both race cinema for blacks and Yiddish cinema avoided sensitive issues like whites' racism and anti-Semitism. They seldom if ever addressed external issues like segregation or discrimination. Rather, the filmmakers tended to be interested in stories that would teach and delight. Often the films were about the difficulty of coping with domestic hardships. These melodramas lend themselves to interpretation as symbolic discourses about minority culture, but it is necessary to read between the lines to see in the family crises they depict metaphors for larger and unmentionable themes of oppression.
These other voices faded after the mid-1930s. The saturation of American society by radio and the talkies undoubtedly had a leveling effect on the spread of ethnic sounds and images. At the time, social critics claimed that the media would eliminate regional differences in American speech. On a national level, that did not happen. But with ethnic minorities, assimilation gradually stirred "foreign" ways of speaking into the melting pot. Now the surviving fragments of this filmmaking are among the few artifacts of a distant era of cultural history.