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Hollywood's African American Films: The Transition to Sound

Ryan Jay Friedman
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 264
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5hjfk0
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    Hollywood's African American Films
    Book Description:

    In 1929 and 1930, during the Hollywood studios' conversion to synchronized-sound film production, white-controlled trade magazines and African American newspapers celebrated a "vogue" for "Negro films." "Hollywood's African American Films" argues that the movie business turned to black musical performance to both resolve technological and aesthetic problems introduced by the medium of "talking pictures" and, at the same time, to appeal to the white "Broadway" audience that patronized their most lucrative first-run theaters. Capitalizing on highbrow associations with white "slumming" in African American cabarets and on the cultural linkage between popular black musical styles and "natural" acoustics, studios produced a series of African American-cast and white-cast films featuring African American sequences. Ryan Jay Friedman asserts that these transitional films reflect contradictions within prevailing racial ideologies--arising most clearly in the movies' treatment of African American characters' decisions to migrate. Regardless of how the films represent these choices, they all prompt elaborate visual and narrative structures of containment that tend to highlight rather than suppress historical tensions surrounding African American social mobility, Jim Crow codes, and white exploitation of black labor.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-5080-0
    Subjects: Film Studies, Sociology, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction: NEGRO TALKING PICTURES
    (pp. 1-27)

    Speaking outside the Lafayette Theater on 20 August 1929, Congressman Oscar DePriest announced: “We are standing on the threshold of civil and cultural emancipation in America. Tonight we have seen how far our race has progressed culturally and artistically since the Emancipation Proclamation.”¹ With these remarks, DePriest bore witness to an unprecedented event: the premier screening ofHallelujah, an African American–cast feature film by a Hollywood studio (MGM), at a race theater in Harlem.² Representing the First Congressional District of Illinois, which covered Chicago’s predominantly African American South Side, DePriest himself had recently achieved the unprecedented. In March 1929,...

  5. CHAPTER 1 “Black Became the Fad”: WHITE HIGHBROW CULTURE AND NEGRO FILMS
    (pp. 28-56)

    “Dorothy Mackail Is ‘Blues’ Enthusiast” reads the headline for an item in the First National studio’s pressbook forSafe in Hell, a 1931 melodrama starring the white, English-born actress. One of several brief star profiles presented to exhibitors for use in advance promotional materials, this pressbook item reveals Mackail’s musical tastes. She is “not only an admirer of the blues, but an expert at singin’ ’em.” The text goes on to point out that, while Mackail herself does not sing “blues” inSafe in Hell, the film contains “moments made melodious by the crooning of negro blues singers.” The description...

  6. CHAPTER 2 “The Negro Invades Hollywood”: THE GREAT MIGRATION, THE STUDIOS, AND THE PERFORMANCE OF AFRICAN AMERICAN SOCIAL MOBILITY
    (pp. 57-87)

    Generally regarded as the first of Hollywood’s “all-black-cast musicals,”Hearts in Dixie(Fox, 1929), in fact, features a white actor in a crucial role.¹ When Chloe (Bernice Pilot) and her baby, Truelove (Richard Brooks), fall seriously ill, her father, the kindly widower Nappus (Clarence Muse), expresses a desire to call in the local white physician, Doc Shelby (Richard Carlyle). Respected figures in the community, the Deacon (Zack Williams) and his wife, Emmy (Gertrude Howard), however, oppose Nappus’s plan, trusting only the healing arts practiced by the Hoodoo Woman (A.C.H. Billibrew). Despite the Hoodoo Woman’s attempts to drive out the “swamp...

  7. CHAPTER 3 On (With the) Show: RACE AND FEMALE BODILY SPECTACLE IN EARLY HOLLYWOOD SOUND FILM
    (pp. 88-126)

    In “Entertainment and Utopia,” Richard Dyer argues that the Busby Berkeley–choreographed spectacles ofGold Diggers of 1933(Warner Bros., 1933) expound the same bleak “lessons of the narrative—above all, that women’s only capital is their bodies as objects,” although in a very different way.¹ On the one hand, the narrative is sympathetic to the struggles of its “showgirl” protagonists. Lacking financial resources, the film’s four single, straight, white women seek steady work in a theatrical industry where men control capital and the means of production. With the Depression crippling this industry, two of the women, Carol (Joan Blondell)...

  8. CHAPTER 4 The Unhomely Plantation: RACIAL PHANTASMAGORIA IN HALLELUJAH
    (pp. 127-152)

    In his 1952 memoir,A Tree Is a Tree, the white director King Vidor recalls his inspiration for makingHallelujah, an all-black-cast feature film that MGM released in 1929: “For several years I had nurtured a secret hope. I wanted to make a film about Negroes, using only Negroes in the cast. The sincerity and fervor of their religious expression intrigued me, as did the honest simplicity of their sexual drives. In many instances the intermingling of these two activities seemed to offer strikingly dramatic content.”¹ My purpose in this chapter is to illustrate howHallelujahexceeds and defies this...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Blackness without African Americans: CHECK AND DOUBLE CHECK AND THE DIALECTICS OF CINEMATIC BLACKFACE
    (pp. 153-179)

    In 1930, RKO’s top-grossing film wasCheck and Double Check, a feature adapted from the country’s most popular radio program,Amos ’n’ Andy. Airing in six fifteen-minute installments each week on NBC’s Blue network,Amos ’n’ Andywas a comic serial about two poor black men, recently migrated from the rural South, trying to succeed in Harlem. Voiced by white performers Freeman Gosden (Amos) and Charles Correll (Andy), the characters were peculiar by-products of the blackface minstrel show. While Gosden and Correll fashioned their “blackvoice” technique while working in theatrical minstrelsy, the medium of radio enabled them to suppress the...

  10. Conclusion: “THE REQUIRED NEGRO MOTIF” AFTER THE TRANSITION TO SOUND
    (pp. 180-202)

    Having established a reputation in Hollywood for his highly atmospheric pictorial style, Austrian émigré director Josef von Sternberg met the arrival of synchronized-sound technology with more than the usual trepidation. Whereas other artists working in the studio system saw an imperfect, challenging apparatus that could be mastered over time, von Sternberg saw an alien technology with no obvious cinematic function. Because the microphone, unlike the camera, had no “viewpoint,” it could merely “reproduce” sound.¹ At best, the microphone enabled the filmmaker to include a redundant layer of information in the film. At worst, it confined the camera by forcing the...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 203-240)
  12. Index
    (pp. 241-248)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 249-250)