Type Characters and Tap Dance

In doing research about tap dancing in film, I can across a little article titled “Topical Types… in Filmland”, which appeared on page four of The Plaindealer on May 24, 1935.1 Although initially attracted by the mention of the Nicholas Brothers and Bill Robinson, the article’s subheadings kept me hooked:

Title and subheadings from article in The Plaindealer (Kansas City, Kansas), 1935.

Not only did it connect to the question of authenticity, which is another theme we’ve heavily discussed in class, but it also connected to another article I had recently read about Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson and the persistence of stereotyping roles in Hollywood film.

Jackson, a correspondent for the Associated Negro Press Hollywood begins by remarking about how “Negro film critics and fans” are often deemed too “squeamish” to discuss “what is and what is not an authentic portrayal of the Negro”, specifically in Hollywood film. So, Jackson states that she has decided to conduct a “symposium” with well-known white critics instead. In this article, she recounts her conversation with W. E. Oliver who was the Los Angeles Herald Express’s dramatic editor and screen reviewer.

Throughout the interview, Oliver makes several interesting claims about the silver screen’s portrayal of black people, but the most interesting of Oliver’s insights come in the form of the examples he draws upon. Oliver praises the Nicholas Brothers’ performances with Eddie Cantor in “Kid Millions”. This illustrates his claim that the trend in Hollywood seems to be using black performers as talent rather than “type”. An advertisement for the movie in the New York times in 1934 makes no mention of the brothers, even in its cast list.2 In fact, the Nicholas Brothers really don’t play roles in the plot line, they really only serve as dancers in one scene.

Poster for the film “Kid Millions” mentioning the Nicholas Brothers and depicting them with Eddie Cantor in blackface.

Additionally, especially from a modern standpoint, the content of their performance is very problematic. The scene that the brother appear in is the scene where the characters are putting on a minstrel show for the entertainment of the passengers on a cruise. Opening the scene is Harold, the younger of the brothers, sings “Minstrel Night”, which begins with the phrase “I want to be a minstrel man”. Furthermore, when both brothers dance, it is only with Cantor in blackface, which is interesting and problematic because this is essentially the only time when the brothers interact with any of the main characters on screen.3

But the Nicholas Brothers are praised for their work in the film which “brought them to the fore in that picture”. This was their first screen appearance and their exceptional dancing got them noticed. During the song “Mandy”, they effectively tap circles around Cantor and the other film stars who can’t seem to execute the steps together or in time. Ultimately, the scene seems to demonstrate that while Cantor may be able to appropriate blackness by putting on his face paint, he cannot match “black artistry”.4

The second example that Oliver provides is Bill Robinson’s performance in the “Little Colonel”. This is “one of the latest films featuring a Negro character” and it provides an example of the black “type” characters. Robinson plays a butler in the romanticized post-Civil War south and fulfills the archetypal role as a sort of “other” adult for the young Shirley Temple’s character.5

Although the type-character is bemoaned, Robinson’s performance itself is praised. Jackson writes that “his dancing made up for whatever lacks on may find with his characterization”. Notably, this is the film in which Robinson performs one of his most famous stair dances, effortlessly leaping up and down a flight of stairs while tapping.

Again, while the actual role and subject matter may be troublesome, the actual performance of tap is regarded as a redeeming factor. In this way, the black dancers demonstrate agency even within the confines of their roles. Hollywood may be trying to keep them in their place, but they are tap dancing on the boundary.

1Jackson, Fay M. “Topical Types… in Filmland”. Plaindealer (Kansas City, KS), May 24, 1935.

2 Sennwald, Andre. “‘Kid Millions,’ Mr. Goldwyn’s New Screen Comedy, With Eddie Cantor, at the Rivoli.” New York Times, Nov. 12, 1934.

3 Hill, Constance Valis. Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers. New York: University Press, 2000. 86-87.

4 Ibid, pg 90-91.

5 Vered, Karen Orr. “White and Black in Black and White: Management of Race and Sexuality in the Coupling of Child-Star Shirley Temple and Bill Robinson.” The Velvet Light Trap – A Critical Journal of Film and Television (Spring, 1997): 52-65. 

“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”–how should we feel about it?

In our readings and listenings on minstrelsy, we have come across the minstrel song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” a sentimental tune seeming to long for simpler slave life back in the South. In an address to the State Legislature of Missouri, Dr. Joseph McDowell mentions this song as “the song of the old African,” arguing that it holds such a special place in the hearts and minds of former slaves because “no negro over left her soil but carried in his bosom a desire to return, and a vivid recollection of her hospitality and kindess”.1 The lyrics, pictured below, begin “Carry me back to old Virginny, There’s where the cotton and the corn and tatoes grow…. There’s where the old darkey’s heart am long’d to go.”

“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” notated music, composed by James Bland. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas. 200000735/

“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” notated music, composed by James Bland. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas. 200000735/

Written in 1878, the song was a “longtime staple” of minstrel shows2, a renowned favorite, bearing what we would deem now to be controversial lyrics. It was performed by many minstrel troupes, notably by the Georgia Minstrels, the “first successful all-black minstrel company,” of which the composer of this song was a prolific member.3 Furthermore, in 1940, the song was adopted by the state of Virginia as the official state song, and remained as such until 1997 when it was withdrawn due to complaints that the lyrics were racist, and was instead made the state song emeritus (an honorary state song).4

James Bland’s 3 Great Songs
http://www.blackpast.org/files/ blackpast_images/James_A__Bland __public_domain_.jpg

The element of this that I find most intriguing and complex is that the song was written by a black man, James Bland, to be performed in blackface minstrelsy. As we discussed in class, white people performing in blackface is an inappropriate and, quite frankly, a disgusting practice, but the morals get a bit trickier when it comes to black people performing in blackface. Bland used minstrel shows to his professional and financial benefit, using the stage as a platform to broadcast his musical compositions.5 In light of this, should we reconsider his song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”? Is this a racist song? Or could it be a satire, “illustrating Southern white slaveholders’ longing for the past when they were masters and African Americans were under their subjugation”?6 Either way, is it wrong to discount a song that was a prominent feature of a man’s career that likely would not have come to fruition if it wasn’t for the popularity of minstrel shows, for better or for worse, blurring the color line and giving blacks the opportunity to participate in American popular culture?