This hasn’t aged well
HBO Max recently announced plans to make Gone with the Wind available to stream with an accompanying advisory about the film’s historical context. Considering recent outcry about that film’s content, HBO Max seems to have settled on a decent solution. But what about other films of the classic era, most of which don’t take place during the Civil War? Sometimes an innocuous movie can contain unexpectedly jarring moments, such as the blackface musical number in the otherwise delightful Astaire-Rogers musical Swing Time.
Watch enough films from classic Hollywood and you’re bound to encounter moments that seem shockingly racist to audiences now. (Make no mistake, they were racist at the time, too, just more broadly accepted then.) Here are a few examples of classic movies that could also benefit from a “racist content disclaimer.”
Louise Beavers helps white people: Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House (1948) and Imitation of Life (1934)
In the Cary Grant comedy Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, a New York City ad man decides to move his family into a new house in the Connecticut countryside, encountering every possible mishap along the way. And as the construction costs climb, Blandings’ is also under pressure at work, struggling to create an ad campaign for Wham brand hams. Black actress Louise Beavers plays Gussie, the Blandings’ live-in housekeeper. For most of the movie Gussie has few appearances and little dialogue, however, the film ends with Gussie inadvertently giving Blandings the idea for his Wham ad when she says, “If you ain’t eatin Wham, you ain’t eatin ham!” Cut to a cringe-inducing ad featuring a grinning Gussie holding a platter of ham. Oh, and Gussie gets a $10 raise. It’s an unfortunate racist button to an, until then, amusing film.
But this wasn’t the first time Beavers naively inspired her white employer. The 1934 melodrama Imitation of Life concerns two single mothers, one white (Claudette Colbert) and one black (Beavers), and their conflicts with their daughters. At the start of the film both women are struggling; however, Colbert soon builds a successful business on the strength of Beavers’ pancake recipe. While Beavers’ cooking skills and image are what sell the pancakes, she smilingly dismisses any interest in the financial benefits.
Content to be of help to her white friend, Beavers stays on as Colbert’s cook, living in the basement of Colbert’s mansion, until her own death. Imitation of Life was a rare film that gave any attention to problems faced by the black characters and also treated them with a modicum of dignity; and it is significant for that reason. However, the film falls back on unflattering stereotypes too often to sit entirely comfortably with a modern audience.
The 1959 remake of Imitation of Life excises the pancake business and the white character becomes a successful actress, with the black character purely offering support as her housekeeper, rather than having a stake in the financial reward. However, the black mother-daughter relationship receives a more nuanced treatment in the later film and near equal screen time to the white counterpart.
Problematic Holiday Faves: White Christmas (1954) and Holiday Inn (1942)
In White Christmas, two Broadway stars (Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye), team up with a sister act (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen) to put on a show and save a friend’s Vermont inn. The lead foursome are all quite charming and the film features wonderful Irving Berlin songs, including Sisters, The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing, and the title song. Sounds wholesome enough, right? Then the movie stops dead for a jaw-droppingly racist production number in tribute to minstrel shows.
Yes, “that” minstrel show in which performers wore blackface and portrayed black caricatures. The same minstrel show that reportedly died out in the 1910s, yet apparently still had fans decades later, including Irving Berlin. Clooney, Crosby, and Kaye sing about how they would “rather see a minstrel show than any other show I know” while dancers in watermelon-themed costumes tap tambourines. Once you notice the design on the costumes, you cannot un-see it.
In White Christmas they had enough sense not to actually put performers in blackface; however, a decade earlier in Holiday Inn, blackface was used as a plot device. Basically, Bing Crosby’s character does not want his friend to recognize Linda, the actress in Crosby’s holiday-themed stage show. So, for the performance on Lincoln’s birthday, Crosby decides they should all wear blackface and perform in the style of a minstrel show. What better way to honor the signer of the Emancipation Proclamation? Made up as a grotesque pickaninny, Linda complains about not looking pretty onstage. During the song, Crosby’s black maid (Louise Beavers again) and her children appear singing happily along in the kitchen. Unsurprisingly, when Holiday Inn was adapted into a stage musical in 2014, the story was changed substantially, including the elimination of the blackface song.
Mixed messages: A Majority of One (1962)
In the classic era, many well-known white actors wore “yellowface” to portray Asian characters, among them Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, John Wayne, Boris Karloff, and, most infamously, Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Then, as now, people considered Rooney’s performance especially offensive due to his buck-toothed makeup, broad accent, and over-the-top characterization. Such wrong-headed casting decisions are especially galling when they happen in films that preach compassion.
A Majority of One tells a quietly affecting story of cross-cultural romance late in life. Rosalind Russell plays a Jewish-American widow who harbors hatred toward Japan after her son is killed in World War II. An unexpected friendship with a Japanese widower, played by white actor Alec Guinness, alters her mindset, despite her family’s resistance to the relationship. Both actors give good performances, but that’s not the point.
Casting Guinness undercuts the anti-bigotry message of the film, regardless of its good intentions, and instead exemplifies the bigotry present in Hollywood at the time. Incidentally, the successful play on which they based the film starred white actor Cedric Hardwicke; apparently it never occurred to anyone behind the scenes to cast an actual Japanese actor. Guinness portrayed a variety of nationalities and ethnicities during his career. While the industry once saw this as evidence of an actor’s range, today this kind of casting just feels inappropriate.
It didn’t have to be racist: The Party (1968)
As in the example of A Majority of One, sometimes the wrong match of actor and role casts a pall over the entire movie. In the quirky comedy, The Party, Peter Sellers portrays Hrundi Bakshi, a shy, accident-prone actor from New Delhi, who finds himself mistakenly invited to a stuffy Hollywood party. As Bakshi quietly creates havoc throughout the evening, he also makes a human connection with an empathetic French ingenue (Claudine Longet). The Party highlights Sellers’ immense talent for physical comedy, recalling the classic slapstick of Buster Keaton and the creative sight gags of Jacques Tati. Nothing in the story is overtly offensive. However, there is literally no reason for Sellers’ character to be from India in the first place. The film was devised as a showcase for Sellers and they chose to make the character Indian.
The premise could work just as well if the character were a white British actor, like Sellers himself–and with the added bonus of no racist undertones! Today, any recommendation of The Party as a comedic showcase has to come with the caveat “if you can ignore the brownface.” Consequently, you don’t hear it recommended often.