We love William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man series and are always pleased when we run across an episode on TCM. As Mr. K has recently started to enjoy the work of William Powell, we thought we would introduce him to the series as well, inviting him to join us for Shadow of the Thin Man. It was mere seconds in when we lost him. All it took to ruin Mr. K’s rare interest in a classic film was the appearance of Louise Beavers as the Charles’ maid, wide eyed with open mouth as she struggles to pronounce the word telepathy. This is a frequent routine for us in our efforts to bring Mr. K into our love for classic film. Mr. K starts off open, is soon offended with the appearance of a black actor in a subservient role, and closes the door on TCM until we slowly, weeks or months later can lure him back with the proper star, story or action, preferably along the lines of Bullitt.
A few days after Mr. K sulked through The Thin Man, we saw Barry Cunningham question with disgust why TCM (the Turner Classic Movie Channel) continues to broadcast films depicting blackface. Mr. K understood the question – he would just as soon scrub a number of titles from TCM’s lineup and not just those showing blackface. We no more enjoy Louise Beavers’ eyes popping out of her head than Mr. K does. We just finally experienced an exquisite moment of elegance with Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle, an image of a black woman still so rare in media, some 80 years after The Thin Man. We too would prefer to not, each time we turn to TCM, be confronted with only the most racist, unflattering imagery of black men and women, or feel the greatest regret that the 1930s and 40s had no black Gene Tierney, Carol Lombard, or Bette Davis.
Barry Cunningham offers that TCM at least start with a warning label to films depicting blackface, allowing parents, for instance, to determine if such imagery is something they would allow their children to see. We second that, but also wonder if this label would not be appropriate for just about every film with a black cast member say, pre-1970? Let’s look at In The Heat Of The Night. How hard is it to stomach the gallant, debonair, gem that is Sidney Poitier being called “boy” throughout the film? Would a warning label be placed on that? And if Mr. K had his way and we scrubbed TCM’s lineup clean of such offending films, would In The Heat Of The Night, an important film in the history of Black Hollywood, not be one to be edited out?
We have previously written about the difficulty of loving the early 20th century and the disappointments that come with that for a black woman. But we persist in these films because after we close our eyes for the humiliation of actresses like Louise Beavers, we are left with film that is beautiful, that is art, that shows Myrna Loy making 3 outfit changes within a day, that tells of the social norms of that time, the language, the mannerisms. We get a view of history. We saw Barry Cunningham scoff at this concept a bit, and we do not blame him. But as an immigrant we truly appreciate the opportunity to look back.
We want to know even the unpleasant parts of America. Fortunately on TCM they are served with a side of refinement and style we wished had better endured. We want to know that in 1929 Nina Mae McKinney starred in Hallelujah, the first sound film with an all black cast. We can see for ourselves that despite all efforts to deglamourize her, Nina Mae would have outDietriched Dietrich, outlgamoured Lombard, outposed Garbo.
We would certainly have appreciated a warning for Showboat, letting us know Irene Dunne, who we had just enjoyed in several films including A Guy Named Joe, was going to appear in blackface. Shame on Irene Dunne, but thank you TCM for airing the film and her dirty laundry in effect. Had it not been for TCM, we might not have known and would foolishly have given her a place not deserved. The upside was not missing the opportunity to enjoy the voice of Paul Robeson.
Old Hollywood was for black actors an unbearable time and continuing to show these films is a reminder of a great shame that should not be forgotten. In a small way we feel that not suppressing these works also honors those who had this shame to bear. We quietly do so every time we tune in…