Katherine Fusco visited the BFC/A as a research fellow in October 2018. As Associate Professor of English at the University of Nevada she writes about the way different media forms shape identity and encourage us to be either cruel or kind to one another. She teaches courses on film, theory, and 19th and 20th century American literature. In this guest blog post, Fusco reflects on the research she conducted during her visit and the research and creative possibilities waiting in our archives.

For a week, under the gaze of Madame Sul-Te-Wan [an oil painting of her donated by Mary Perry Smith], and with the support of the BFC/A, I sought evidence of Black music on film that would challenge the stale ideas presented by Hollywood in the 1930s and contribute to the body of work by scholars including Donald Bogle, Cara Caddoo, Anna Everett, Ryan Jay Friedman, Arthur Knight, and Alice Maurice. If you work on classical Hollywood and race long enough, you get pretty tired of “Dixie.” And it’s easy to imagine that for Black performers, movie goers, and directors, this exhaustion in the era was both painful and political. In widely accessible films aimed at white audiences like Imitation of Life, Gone with the Wind, and Judge Priest, moments of Black musical performance are the backdrop to the emotional lives of the white characters or part of the scenery that offers an authentic “flavor” to the films, especially those set in the antebellum and reconstruction U.S. South.

clip from Judge Priest (1934), directed by John Ford

At BFC/A, the films gathered, posters preserved, and interviews transcribed tell a richer, more varied life of Black song on film, though we understand the coming of sound as fairly devastating to Black independent studios. The expense of recording and wiring for sound made the transition particularly challenging, and Hollywood’s fascination for and legends about the superior sound of Black recorded voices pulled talent into mainstream roles.

White-audienced and -authored films tended to feature Black singing as atmospheric and/or an innate and spontaneous part of the racial expression to be uncovered by a white anthropological gaze (Judge Priest representing an example of the first; Hallelujah representing an instance of the second); in either case, Black song was also often accompanied by many performers crowded into the frame as a kind of spectacle, whether in Hallelujah or Imitation of Life. In contrast, the Black-authored-or-audienced films at the BFC/A offer a showcase of musical performance in the service of a number of different functions, including emphasizing labor and professionalism, character interiority, and a showcasing of celebrity cultures.

For example, The Negro in Entertainment Program (1940) features singers and dancers in clearly delineated performance spaces, framing soprano Camilla Williams in front of a stage curtain and a tap dancing Bill Robinson next to a grand piano. Even in distinctively less glamorous settings, films focused on displaying talent emphasize staginess and a framing of the performer that demarcates the musical number from other aspects of daily life. This is the case in the 1929 sound short Radia-tors (Jasper Ewing Brady), which though opening on a set of run-down country store that would not be out of place in racist white films, makes interesting use of competing sonic forms to distinguish itself.

still from Radia-tors

The film features the The Utica Jubilee Singers but begins with the assembled characters listening to a radio playing “Swanee River” before switching it off with a character announcing he has something better than “radia-tors,” and, one assumes, better than “Swanee River.” A harmonizing quartet of the Utica Jubilee Singers forms, using the store porch as their stage, and attracting passersby to become an improvised audience to their song. The Roy Mack shorts, including Hi De Ho (1937) and Pie Pie Blackbird (1932) offer similarly thin narrative setups to frame an important performer or performers, often using the conceit of a dream or other such fantasy sequence to demarcate moments of song and dance from regular life.

Longer narrative films that incorporate scenes of rehearsal and stage performance operate more along the lines of the backstage musical, an important difference from the more background nightclub scenes that often featured Black performers in predominately white films. The backstage focus of these films also offers an important counter to the sometimes “anthropological” nature of white plantation films or films like Vidor’s Hallelujah, which feature joyous musical performances as natural, rather than professional aspects of Black life and as innate rather than evidence of individual talent. Instead, in films like Micheaux’s Swing! (1938) and Moon Over Harlem (Ulmer 1939), or even the Herbert Jeffries’s Bronze Buckaroo pictures, there’s a reason given for moments of song, and the reason is often professional, whether because a Broadway or Harlem nightclub show is being mounted or because, in Jeffries’s case, he’s a partaking in the tradition of the cowboy troubadour.

clip from Bronze Buckaroo

One of the particular pleasures of the Herbert Jeffries’s pictures is their attention to regional specificity. In particular, the musical life of the films draws from outside the south. With songs about “prairie dog burrows,” Jeffries’s repertoire is specifically not Dixie-derived. Along with the cowboy outfits, gun slinging, and western landscapes, the films establish a sonic insistence upon imagining other Black lives. Two Gun Man from Harlem (Kahn 1938) is particularly excellent along these lines. Like the other Jeffries’s films, this one opens in song, a paean to cowboy life: “With my rope and my saddle and my horse and my gun, I’m a happy cowboy.” After being framed for a murder, however, Jeffries’s Bob Blake is forced to leave his beloved West to clear his name, travelling eastward to Harlem. As the film shifts settings, it also offers new musical styles, including a street busker set up with a kazoo and drum kit, and then an island-inspired nightclub number. Moving through different spaces in the 1930s, Two Gun Man from Harlem insists on cultural and artistic difference within the Black American experience.

Highlighting interiority, difference, political meaning, regional particularity, professionalism, celebrity and glamour, the films collected at the BFC/A bear witness to what was largely missing from mainstream American cinema in the 1930s–even as classical Hollywood increasingly used Black talent to populate its nightclub scenes and plantation sets. Perhaps more importantly, the BFC/A’s holdings represent the seedbed for so many essays, books, and dissertations that will change our conceptions of film history.  Many of the studios and film cycles preserved here would lend themselves well to institutional histories. Many of the short films lend themselves to analyses of dance on film, especially those capturing the fabulous Nicholas Brothers’ flash dancing. A scholar with interests in the musical could likely make much of the relationship between narrative and number in the Roy Mack shorts. The interviews, especially the conversation between Phil Moore (voice coach to Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Marilyn Monroe, and many others) and Lillian Cumber (the first African American talent agent) would also make for a fascinating, dishy sociological study of Black Hollywood. And whoever writes these or the many other projects waiting to be discovered at the BFC/A will be lucky enough to do so in the good company of Madame Sul-Te-Wan.

Portrait of Nellie Conley, known as Madame-Sul-Te-Wan

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