Sunday, December 19, 2010

THE CENSORING OF HOLIDAY INN

I love this time of the year for the sheer amount you see and hear Bing Crosby. You hear him on the radio. You hear him at the malls, and you see him on television. At least once a week in December, one channel is showing either HOLIDAY INN or WHITE CHRISTMAS. It is a great time to be a Bing Crosby fan.

This is the second year that the cable channel AMC (American Movie Classics) is showing HOLDAY INN. However, it is also the second year that a musical number has been cut and censored from the movie. The number is called "Abraham" and it marks Abraham Lincoln's birthday. The number is in blackface, which is of course an outdated type of performing. It can be offensive as well, however it is altering and censoring the movie.

A little history on blackface...Blackface is theatrical makeup used in minstrel shows, and later vaudeville. The practice gained popularity during the 19th century. In 1848, blackface minstrel shows were the national art of the time, translating formal art such as opera into popular terms for a general audience. Early in the 20th century, blackface branched off from the minstrel show and became a form in its own right, until it ended in the United States with the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Blackface was an important performance tradition in the American theater for roughly 100 years beginning around 1830. It quickly became popular overseas, particularly so in Britain, where the tradition lasted longer than in the US, occurring on primetime TV as late as 1978 and 1981.

In both the United States and Britain, blackface was most commonly used in the minstrel performance tradition, but it predates that tradition, and it survived long past the heyday of the minstrel show. White blackface performers in the past used burnt cork and later greasepaint or shoe polish to blacken their skin and exaggerate their lips, often wearing woolly wigs, gloves, tailcoats, or ragged clothes to complete the transformation. Later, black artists also performed in blackface. Stereotypes embodied in the stock characters of blackface minstrels not only played a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide, but also in popularizing black culture.[citation needed] In some quarters, the caricatures that were the legacy of blackface persist to the present day and are a cause of ongoing controversy. One view is that blackface is a form of cross-dressing.

By the mid-20th century, changing attitudes about race and racism effectively ended the prominence of blackface makeup used in performance in the U.S. and elsewhere. It remains in relatively limited use as a theatrical device, mostly outside the U.S., and is more commonly used today as social commentary or satire. Perhaps the most enduring effect of blackface is the precedent it established in the introduction of African American culture to an international audience, albeit through a distorted lens. Blackface's groundbreaking appropriation,exploitation, and assimilation of African-American culture—as well as the inter-ethnic artistic collaborations that stemmed from it—were but a prologue to the lucrative packaging, marketing, and dissemination of African-American cultural expression and its myriad derivative forms in today's world popular culture.

Getting back to Bing Crosby wearing blackface, he only did it in three of his movies. Bing was far from a racist, having helped many black jazz artists and singers throughout his career. I had one person tell me that they did not want their child to see the blackface scenes, because it was hard to explain it to them. I feel that is what is wrong with society today...erase it and it never happened. Just as slavery, and the slaughter of the American-Indian happened, so did blackface. If we do not discuss the mistakes of our past, how can we teach our children to be better people in the future? That is why I think it is wrong to cut out the "Abraham" scene from HOLIDAY INN. It was entertainment in 1942, but I believe 68 years later it can be a valuble teaching tool. American Movie Classics did not return our request for comments for this article.

42 comments:

  1. An interesting article, David.

    Personally I feel torn between two schools of thought.

    I can understand the considerable offence that many see in this sort of material. I also think material like this if created in the present day should be seen as especially offensive, the climate having changed, it could only be created deliberately to offend.

    But at the same time this film - made in 1942 - was not intended to offend in any way. It was portraying a part of entertainment that was then still current and enjoyed by many. Moreover it was good natured.
    Clumsy - yes - and even callous to a high degree of the potential to offend - yes; - but not intentionally to offend.

    To censor it removes a source of social history from which many can now learn. It is a snapshot on the time. An argument has been put to me that this point of view falls down because the film was made to entertain and, because it is entertainment, it should not be regarded in the same light as a documentary. But why is entertainment itself to be shielded from the social history spotlight?

    A third strand in my thinking is that a modern audience should not see this as white men characterising black as simpletons and comic but is showing themselves up for their own insensitive behaviour.

    So clumsy, arrogant, and offensive - yes, but it was always unconsciously so. To censor protects people from the realities of history. Rather like a war film without any blood.

    ReplyDelete
  2. They should not have censored it. Heck one verse in the song is sang completely by the black maid servant and her kids. They sang about how 'Abraham freed the slaves'. It was actually very touching and surprised me it was in the movie. Political Correctness is going to be the death of all of us.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I saw this in your list of popular posts and had to take a look. I did a piece on my blog a while back about this very issue in Holiday Inn. I understand that it is offensive to black Americans, but I also feel strongly that censorship is a dangerous method to try to make everything match up with modern thinking. My God, that could apply to just about anything! Anyway, I thought it was interesting that you and I wrote about this very thing!

    ReplyDelete
  4. I don't think information should be hidden from current generations. Just like those who want to ban Uncle Tom's Cabin (written by a white abolitionist), Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, they reflect the times in which they were written and give us a glimpse of how the forces of social change were taking place through the written word. To us now, those days seem backward. But, to those readers then, those were images into a new way of thinking about class and color in society. We need to maintain these works.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I believe that it is a terrible mistake to discourage the reading of Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn among young people. I still remember, 60 years later, reading H. Finn and seeing the blatantly racist attitudes, inculcated into Huck's thinking almost since birth, gradually and sensitively evolve as he realizes that Jim is his truest friend, and that he is indeed a man whose love of family and sense of responsibility far surpasses that of Huck's only immediate family -- the drunken, abusive lout his father has become.

    This aspect of the story had a profound effect on me, at about 9 yrs old, and very much influenced my thinking about race and simple human decency.

    ReplyDelete
  6. It was entertainment, plain and simple. Let's get over this PC BS and enjoy a good movie.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Makes me uncomfortable, but so does the mocking of the Italian family in "It's a Wonderful Life."

    ReplyDelete
  8. There is another good old movie that the PC police have taken from us. 'Song of the South'. This was a very entertaining movie which portrayed the main character, Uncle Remus, as the type of man that any child would like as a friend. He told some great stories and sang some excellent songs.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agree. Recently I was able to purchase a copy on DVD. Pure entertainment, that's the way I saw it.

      Delete
  9. I haven't seen the AMC showing of "Holiday Inn", but this is the second year one of the Hallmark channels on cable showed the same version with the Abraham Lincoln scene cut out. At least now I know Hallmark didn't make the decision. I am glad I've got my own DVD with the whole movie intact.

    ReplyDelete
  10. It was pure entertainment, no more no less. That being the case they should censor all movies where a drunk is Irish, a gangster is Italian, red skinned person is an American Indian, etc.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Given today's political climate where all whites are the devils, does that mean that all movies portraying whites as decent people should also be expunged from the record?

      Delete
  11. Stereotypes continue. This generation of film makers isn't innocent of making the same (just different) "artistic" choices. Let's learn to embrace our hummanity, warts and all.

    ReplyDelete
  12. The scene is removed from an otherwise good movie for the same reason The Wizard of Oz might be have been similarly edited if the original turn-of-the-century book had included a passage at the end where Dorothy, a minor, virgin child, became the blushing, pregnant wife of the very adult Professor Marvel/the Wizard. In much of society, adult-child marriages were legal and acceptable.

    Much of what was the norm and taught as acceptable to children in 1900 or 1940 is not the norm today.

    If the purpose is to teach children about degrading racial stereotyping, then of course the scene would be included. But if the purpose is to entertain children with a nostalgic portrait of Christmas entertainment during World War Two, it is impossible to explain to a child how any black soldier would enjoy seeing his or her race mocked and denigrated as the scene in Holiday Inn so obviously belittles black intelligence and identity.

    We do not censor these movies to erase history. Obviously, the scene survives, as many other passages from films and books also survive that society has excluded from children's versions of the pieces. No one is wishing these disturbing scenes away from our literary history. Again, though, if a person wants to have a discussion with a child about the perverted social history that let cruel racial stereotypes go into a movie claiming to celebrate Christ and the Christian spirit, the uncut version of Holiday Inn is certainly the go-to flick for that discussion.

    But if you expect a child of today to enjoy the nostalgia and cheer of the film with the uncritical eyes of children of 60 or 70 years ago, you will be sorely disappointed. The best you might do to maintain the facade of Christmas cheer is to tell them the lie that black Americans enjoyed being treated as servile simpletons. You won't get away with it, and love you or hate you, the child will remember that you lied.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Kindly tell us WHO the censors will be. Are they elected, or self-appointed? Must we create a Board Of Correct Thoughts?

      Delete
  13. To me this entire thing is out of proportion. These scenes were pure entertainment, plain and simple. How do we explain that the Afro American was held in slavery if we do not portray them that way in these films. In this film they portray the actors praising Lincoln for free the slaves. Do we also want to re write history. I am Italian American, should we not edit all films made in the 30's, 40's etc that portrayed us as gangsters and members of the Mafia. Let's get real, the purpose of movies was to entertain, at least this one was.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I missed the Bing Crosby movie where he dressed in a caricatured Italian dunce costume and acted mentally retarded. I don't believe an Italian caricature exists that presumes that all Italians are as simple-minded as the one being portrayed, but blackface in Vaudeville did exactly that in the minds of white racists who gained their false sense of white supremacy from the stage characters.

    I would not hide the blackface part from children, but as I said, in its time and place.

    The mores of Americans who accepted despotic segregation and disenfranchisement as a part of good old America are alien to today's children. If you can incorporate the social studies lesson in the viewing, go for it. If you just want that warm fuzzy Christmas movie with the little ones, better stick with the clean version. It isn't censoring to ban outright.

    There is no comparison to Huck Finn and the runaway slave Jim, who was imbued with real human emotions and feelings. I disagree with the censoring of Huck Finn, because slavery and social norms are central to the drama. Blackface is nothing but a mocking, degrading, white supremacist freak show. It adds absolutely nothing to the story of Holiday Inn that a black child could respect.

    ReplyDelete
  15. The sentiments expressed above are understandable in this day and age. But it is simply incorrect to say that blackface was invariably meant to mock or insult black people; on the contrary, it was actually meant as an act of appreciation and solidarity in the hands of performers like Jolson and, in this case, Crosby.
    Al Jolson, who is mainly remembered for performing in blackface now -- to his detriment -- was anyhing but a racist, and in fact was known for insisting that black performers have equal bllling and salaries.
    He was also one of the few stars in Hollywood who socialized with black people on an equal basis. And he was very popular in the black community; The Jazz Singer was a big hit with black audiences. I don't think we today have the right to say that those audiences who were there, on the spot, when this took place were too stupid to understand what it really meant. I think they knew what it meant better than we do.
    And surely no one could ascribe racist motives to Crosby, who did so much for black performers via his universally popular radio programs.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Well TCM is showing it uncensored. The host who introduced it explained that some channels cut the scene, but TCM doesn’t alter movies. They just chose to warn that it was there.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Good for TCM. I did watch it last night and totally agree. I usually watch it on Christmas eve but decided that it would not do any harm to watch it more than once. I would like to add that I don't really think that there was no reason to make excuses for the film or any film that contained black faced performers. This was a form of entertainment just as portraying Italians as being in the Mafia or the Irish as saloon owners. They could have mentioned that Bing sort of broke the color barrier, any time that he could fit Louis Armstrong into a movie he would. Also Bing had no problems performing with other black singers.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Unfortunately, you can't convince most modern people, who have little or no knowledge of social history, that performers wearing blackface was not intended to be denegrating or racist. In fact, frequently the opposite was true; wearing blacface makeup wss often a signal of solidarity and respect. Jolson's performances were not critical of black people, but demonstrations of admiration for them. He was very popular with the black community, and The Jazz Singer packed in enthusiastic crowds in African-American neighborhoods. You couldn't be less racist than Bing Crosby. Louis Armstrong was not just his musical hero, but one of his closest friends. Blackface could be a way of expressing solidarity with the underdog. Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, and Eleanor Powell all wore blackface in specific tribute to specific black performers.
    No one is going to believe this, however.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I totally agree with you. The PC group will destroy anything that made this country great. We had the ability to laugh at ourselves as well as with others.

      Delete
    2. Unfortunately, the sympathies of the wealthiest performers in Hollywood were not shared by the vast majority of blackface "entertainers" or their audiences. I hate to use the term 'whitewash,' but let's call a spade a spade. It was racist entertainment for white audiences, reducing the character of blacks as always flawed, lazy, licentious, dishonest. Please don't candy-coat lower life amusements.

      https://youtu.be/ezyQdqBETVs

      https://youtu.be/-_swtbIi2F0

      https://youtu.be/h-1mo9j7it8

      Delete
    3. First, I don't see what wealth has to do with it Bing Crosby wasn't a racist when he was poor, and he still wasn't a racist after he had earned a lot of money.
      If what you assert above was the simple truth, how do you explain the fact that Al Jolson was very popular with black audiences, and The Jazz Singer packed in enthusiastic crowds in black neighborhoods?
      Social change is complex. Thee underdog can and often does become a subject for admiration, not derision.

      Delete
    4. With all due respect, intention is very different from impact. Just because blackface was never intended to be disrespectful or hurtful, doesn't mean it wasn't hurtful. I'm not saying the movie should be censored (it's actually one of my favorites, though I am uncomfortable with that scene)... I think this can be a useful conversation about how different groups of people have been portrayed in film and entertainment, and how we have grown as a society. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I doubt any African-Americans were involved in producing or creating this film, so how do we know it actually "demonstrates admiration" if only white people were involved in the process?

      Delete
    5. Thanks Linda. As an old Crosby fan it annoys me to see some of these comments. That entire generation, both black and white gave more to this country than the current one.

      Delete
  19. The conversation surrounding censorship is a very difficult conversation to had, and I agree it needs to be done. However, what a scene featuring blackface means to a white American v. what it means to a person of color (particularly black Americans) is completely different. Before deciding what the right answer is, why dont' we consider asking the black community what they want? How can the white community possibly understand the significance and potential alienation these scenes can make people feel?

    To your point that Bing Crosby was "far from racist." Stupid is as stupid does. Regardless of whether or not he had black friends and helped his black musician friends succeed, he can still and did behave as a racist. Can we accept that the times were different? I guess, but you still have to call it like it is and be able to discuss why what he did was not okay.

    To find out if Bing Crosby was truly anti-racist, my question would be this: "Was he willing to give up his idea of art to uplift the black community? Was he willing to step-aside and provide a platform for black voices?"

    Judging how he chose to wear blackface instead of giving/sharing the stage to black performers, I am going to say that he was racist.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Quite a lengthy bit. The person that wrote this seems to have an ax to grind. Bing always played with black musicians as well as vocalist. Louis Armstrong was among his best friends. I don't know how you can call him a racist since you don't seem to have anything to base it on except your bias.

      Delete
  20. I don't understand it. Something that was taken a pure entertainment has been turned into something ugly and racist. It amazes me how some one today can place themselves into some ones mind of, let's say, 90 to 100 years ago and say that that person was a racist. Let's appreciate these entertainers for the joy that they gave us and not look to criticize them. I have seen many movies when I have seen Italians portrayed as gangers should I be upset. Also Jewish people as pawn brokers or Irish as drunks. These are simply forms of entertainment. Should we band Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice for its portrayal of racism. I believe that we have gone to far with PC business. It is now also effecting our music and cartoons.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Bobo, there is much that you do not understand, and common human decency seems to be one of those things.

    You like to chortle at caricatures of human beings who were bred in pens like dogs, worked like livestock from birth to death, and raped whenever the despots wanted to descend into abominable bestiality. When you can understand that, when you don't hide that fact from whatever sense of self respect you have, you will be enlightened. You will understand.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Bill, let's take it for what it was, entertainment. You like to stir the pot but seem to forget that all through history, unfortunately, the things that you describe have occurred. Every once in a while we have to put bitterness and hate behind us and appreciate the life that we have. As I have mentioned many times the Italians have been portrayed as Mafia, Irish as drunks, Jews as money hoarders in films. Do we accept as entertainment or should we band the films. Read a little Irish history and see how they were treated.

      Delete
  22. Let's be clear. Louis Armstrong was financially secure by the end of the Roaring 20s. His rise to super-stardom in the 1930s gave him a soapbox that no one could have taken from him-had he chosen to take a stand.

    Armstrong and Crosby may have been tacitly breaking down color barriers on a personal , do-as-I-do level, but they both rode the popular rails on that journey. When did either actually take a public stand against lynching laws and despotic segregation in the 1920s, the 1930s, and the 1940s?

    No one suggested "banning" movies, burning the prints. A racist scene was excised from a movie billed as family entertainment. The 'why' of that is not rocket science.

    This is 2018, not 1935. If any person still enjoys watching degrading racist caricatures, maybe that person is simply too callous to understand that the only "message" blackface conveys is that white people believe black theatrical roles should be limited to white people in roles portraying black American adults and children as being lazy, thieving, amoral, alcoholic, and licentious.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Bill,
      I agree with a lot of what you are saying until the end though about blackface depicts African American adults lazy, thieving, amoral, alcoholic, and licentious. If you watch the blackface number Bing did in "Holiday Inn", it does not show any of that.

      I do not equate blackface as showing African Americans as lazy, thieving, amoral, alcoholic, and licentious. If you can pull that from the "Abraham" then those are your own thoughts.

      I do agree that blackface is outdated, and I do not like it, but leave old films alone - they are a product of their time.

      Delete
  23. I figured I'd chime in. I am surprised to be getting comments 8 years after I published it. AMC does not even show old movies anymore. Blackface is a difficult topic. While I feel it is an outdated and a racist thing in 2018, I do feel there was nothing derogatory in what film makers did in 1942. Yes, I feel uneasey when I see it now, but as for editing the movie I disagree. Leave the scene it to show what was accepted in 1942. If we edit that movie then we should also ban the Charlie Chan movies, and all movies that show different views of people then as to what it is now.

    Blackface is wrong, but it is also wrong to censor or ban a movie for it.

    ReplyDelete
  24. If anyone here doesn't know when Louis Armstrong stood up against racism, here is a link to an article about his protest against segregation and the events in Little Rock in 1957. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/23/opinion/23margolick.html
    Between them, Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby did more to change popular attitudes toward race than most politicians, Armstrong through his transformative genius, and Crosby through his own example, as probably the most popular entertainer in the country, of honest love and respect for Armstrong himself and other black artists, who were always addressed with courtesy on his radio show. Its easy to be dismissive of this (and probably it's inevitable that modern day people will be) but it was a statement, and was received as one.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well said Linda. Also I think of Bing's records made with the Mills Brothers in the 30's. Can't get any better than that.

      Delete
  25. I am as guilty as the next person. This site should be a site to discuss Bing's films, whether you enjoyed them or not. Was his singing up to par, was he a good entertainer. In stead we are getting involved in political nonsense that we can indulge in other sites. Why can't we in leave things alone and enjoy. My thought for the day is Fred Astaire should have been in White Christmas instead of Danny Kaye.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Bob,
      Well said! Even though this site is to celebrate the memory of Bing Crosby, the blackface he did in a few movies is a hot button issue, and I wrote the article to share my beliefs. As long as the comments remain cordial, I think the back and forth is useful.

      Other than that, let's celebrate Bing! I agree with your comment on Fred Astaire instead of Danny Kaye. Astaire was sent the script and Bing wanted him, but Astaire's wife had just died and he took some time off.

      Delete
    2. Thanks for the Fred A. Note. I had read that he was involved but backed out at some point, was not sure why. Just my opinion but it would have been a great picture instead of just excellent. Perhaps in the future when they develop character replacement in films we will see how it would have turned out.

      Delete