Friday, January 7, 2011

The Yunioshi Problem

Werth: Hey, Wise.

Wise: Hey, Werth.

Werth: I’ve been thinking lately about something serious—

Wise: Your Jesse Tyler Ferguson scrapbook?

Werth: No—I mean, yes, that too—but I was thinking of something else. Maybe there's some racial zeitgeist in the air with the publishing of the new edition of Huckleberry Finn sans the 'n' word because a friend of mine posted something on Facebook recently that made me want to address a similar controversial topic in film history.

Wise: I’m hot for controversial. Please address.

Werth: Well, this posting started off by asserting that the casting of Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was racist.

Wise: I'd probably agree with that.

Werth: I know. It was 1961. The Civil Rights Act hadn’t even passed yet, so it’s no surprise that Hollywood was still selling racial stereotypes. But what really interested me about the posting was some of the responses to it. One person said Rooney’s performance made it impossible to watch the film at all.

Wise: But Breakfast at Tiffany’s is so wonderful! Wouldn't it be better to just close your eyes and plug your ears whenever Rooney appears on screen?

Werth: Like what I do whenever there’s a snake in a movie.

Wise: I’ve had to be your snake alert system so many times.

Werth: Due to the unfortunate parts of this country‘s history and culture, there are some really good movies out there that have some less than flattering depictions of minorities—or even worse, blatant black- or yellow-face performances.

Wise: I think the question becomes even more complicated when the portrayal isn’t intended to be comic.  Something like Broken Blossoms, a Lillian Gish film from 1919—

Werth: —directed by the always racially sensitive D.W. Griffith—

Wise: —where Gish plays the abused daughter of a prize fighter who finds temporary haven in the home of a Chinese immigrant.  Clearly this film was intended to address racism and yet it feels offensive to modern audiences because of actor Richard Barthelmess playing the hero Chen Huan. 

Werth: To quote a racial stereotype, “Ah so.”

Wise: Or look at  The Good Earth based on Pearl S. Buck’s wildly popular novel from 1931.  Buck grew up in China as the child of missionaries and was deeply interested in portraying that culture accurately.  When MGM made the film, of course a lot of the “Orientalisms” were emphasized, but the core of the picture is about one family’s struggle out of poverty and the treacherous blessings that prosperity can bring.  There are comic characters, yes, but the family’s plight is always treated with dignity and respect. 

Werth: Even though half of that family is played by white actors in slanty-eye make-up. 

Wise: That’s very true.  As you mentioned in a previous post, Anna Mae Wong lost the female lead to Luise Rainer because Hollywood wouldn’t allow a romantic scene between a white actor and an Asian one. But I have to say Rainer is fantastic as the self-sacrificing wife O-lan.  She doesn’t look anything like a Chinese peasant, but her performance is so heart-felt that by the end of the movie, at least for me, the preposterous make-up fades away and I find myself deeply moved.

Werth: I’m moved that Luise Rainer is still with us and will be turning 101 years old next week.

Wise: Happy Birthday, Luise!

Werth: But back on topic, with dramas like The Good Earth you have the time to develop characters so that these faux racial performances can grow on you. I think reactions to performances like Rooney’s in Tiffany’s are so intense because it comes out of nowhere. Here’s this modern-feeling, comic take on female sexual independence and then, Hello! Rooney in buckteeth and Coke bottle glasses.

Wise: Everything about those Rooney scenes feels out of place, the pacing, the humor, even the logic of the world they exist in.  It’s like they were imported from an entirely different film. 

Werth: One of my all-time favorite comedies has the same issue. Preston Sturges’ 1942 screw-ball classic The Palm Beach Story is a riotous adventure with a loose take on marriage and divorce. Vivid comic bombshell characters abound like The Weenie King and Toto, the unknown foreign language spouting ex-paramour of Princess Centemila (played with sheer joyous abandon by normally staid Mary Astor). Then all of a sudden there’s a scene in a train where the black bartender is all, “Yessuh” and “Nawssuh,” to a group of drunken hunters who force him to throw crackers into the air for their target practice, the buckshot narrowly missing him in the gun revelry.

Wise: To quote another racial stereotype, “Lawdy, lawdy!”

Werth: The pop-eyed antics and shimmying are right out of the “Colored Actors Playbook.” Even the actor’s screen-credited name smacks of a minstrel show—Snowflake.

Wise: Snowflake?  That’s like a ten-year-old’s name for her pony.

Werth: And this wasn’t the only time Sturges used African Americans in a similarly degrading way. The otherwise brilliant Sullivan’s Travels has a black cook thrown around the inside of a careening trailer until he winds up with his head in a bowl of batter, wearing white face. For a director whose themes always seemed to be so much ahead of their time, Sturges was still susceptible to the overriding culture’s “funny” stereotypical depictions.

Wise: But does it make you not want to watch these movies?

Werth: No. And to dispute one of the other post responses, it doesn’t make me want to edit the offensive scenes out either.

Wise: I think editing out a stereotype gives it more power than it deserves.  If past mistakes are hidden away, how can we confront them and avoid them in the future?  A sanitized version of history is a faulty one.

Werth: And to edit a work that was created outside of the current social setting is a slippery slope. What will be edited next? Is Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind  an editable stereotype? Is Carmen Ghia in The Producers too stereotypically gay a character to be seen? Will future obesity rights activists have us remove Martha Dumptruck from Heathers because she is the object of weight-obsessed ridicule?

Wise: And who will be deciding these edits?

Werth: Exactly. We’ve been there and done that. From 1934 to 1964, rabid Catholic Joseph I. Breen as head of the Production Code Administration had a say in almost every Hollywood picture made. It amounted to movies where characters didn’t use language that real people used and nobody could lie on a bed together without one foot touching the floor.

Wise: That’s how I’ve always done it.

Werth: Not to mention that films with black characters in them were made in such a way that when they played in the South, the characters could be cut out by the theater owners who didn't want black characters in their all-white cinemas. Do we really want to go back to a time where someone decides what we should and shouldn't see?

Wise: Not in my America.

Werth: I guess what I’m trying to say is, there are some awful stereotypes in these old movies. We must learn from them, not reject the entire movie or pretend the problem scenes aren’t there.

Wise: I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Werth: Thank you.

Wise: Now can next week’s posting be less serious?

Werth: Tune in next week for a return to our light-hearted and un-serious Film Gab!

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