Saturday, May 16, 2009

Lift That Bale

After writing that last post, I realize I want to talk some more about the various versions of Show Boat. Full disclosure: I've never read the book and never seen either movie all the way through. I've recently attended two public discussions of the Broadway show; and last night I sang in the chorus of a concert version of Jerome Kern's Broadway version of Show Boat.

In the second public discussion, the Oakland East Bay Symphony's forum on Race Relations in Art, the presenters showed several film clips: the introduction to the 1951 movie, Paul Robeson singing Old Man River from the 1936 movie, a 1940-something clip from a Hollywood medley with Lena Horne singing Can't Help Loving That Man, a clip from the 1951 movie with Ava Gardner singing Can't Help Loving That Man.

Let's start with the 1951 movie. This is a Disney plantation (although MGM made the movie), in technicolor of course. The slaves all have clean clothes with no visible rips or patches, they have nice straw hats, and they all smile, all the time. It kinda made me shudder. It might as well have been a cartoon; anybody else remember Song of the South? The introduction here is Song of the South with real actors.

Then, they showed the clip from the 1936 movie, which you can not rent from Netflix, with Paul Robeson. First, what a voice that man had. If you've never heard a recording of his, get one. Second, this movie is (of course) in black and white; and frankly, this looks like a real plantation. The slaves' clothes are not nice and clean and mended, and they don't smile. The line of men carrying bales of cotton up the ramp can barely carry them - the camera stays on one man who staggers so that I was sure he would fall. The dock workers gather behind Robeson (as Joe) to back him in the chorus, and they look grim. I don't know how much Robeson had to do with the staging; he was a well-known agitator. If the 1951 version is a too-sweet mint julep, this movie is a splash of cold water in the face. I'd love to see all of it.

Now let's talk about Can't Help Loving That Man, sung by the character Julie LaVerne, who turns out (in a major plot twist) to be "passing as white." Having heard Lena Horne sing that, any time anyone else sings it (and last night it was Debbie de Coudreaux, a brilliant mezzo, who sings at the Moulin Rouge in Paris), the voice I hear belongs to Lena, the interpretation is Lena's. Wow. I must get more of her recordings. So with her available, why did Ava Gardner sing the part in 1951? (She couldn't sing, by the way - they dubbed the voice. Lena Horne's interpretation of the song was better, too.) Because Lena Horne was mixed race - and the astounding reasoning of the mid-century world said that a mixed-race actress could not be allowed to play the part of a mixed-race character. Don't ask me. I don't understand any of it. I understand that it was a problem; hell, I grew up in the 1950s and didn't meet a black person until I was around 10. I've just known too many brilliant, capable black people since, musicians and non-musicians, for any of this to make any sense to me any more.

And it was clear from the discussion at the forum that we still have a problem. In 1999 at Indiana University, a very fine black tenor named Lawrence Brownlee sang Tamino in the Magic Flute, and some local Neanderthal wrote a letter to the editor complaining that it was "an abomination" for him to be kissing a white Pamina on stage. For a broader discussion of race in classical music, I recommend the San Francisco Classical Voice's review of the OEBS Forum.

We've come a long way - just think about those happy darkies in the 1951 movie - but we haven't come far enough yet.

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