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 The number is in blackface, which is of course an outdated type of performing.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.

18 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.

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  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.

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  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!

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  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.

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  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.

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

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

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  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.

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

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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