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The Bootleg Files: Minstrel Days

BOOTLEG FILES 639: “Minstrel Days” (1941 musical short film starring Bud Jamison and Willie Best).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: This is one film that Warner Bros. is not eager to re-release.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Really?

Earlier this week, Starbucks closed down its U.S. cafés for an afternoon and gave its workforce a training session in racial tolerance. Several short films were shown to the Starbucks team that highlighted the insensitive treatment that many African-Americans experience in public spaces and retail settings.

But if Starbucks was serious about using a cinematic tool to highlight racial insensitivity, it could have dusted off a 1941 short from Warner Bros. called “Minstrel Days.” Even by the tin-eared standards of that distant era, “Minstrel Days” is astonishing in its jubilant celebration of racially insensitive entertainment.

“How many of you folks ever saw an old-time minstrel show?” the film’s narrator inquires. Well, there was an excellent chance that very few people did – if only because that form of entertainment flourished in the 19th century and waned with the coming of movies and radio and a more sophisticated vaudeville and theater environment in the 20th century. Nonetheless, the film takes the viewer back to the 1832 birth of minstrel entertainment in Louisville, Kentucky, when ham actor Thomas D. Rice gained inspiration from an oddball black man who expressed admiration for the thespian. Rice repaid the compliment by giving the man a coin, at which point the man inexplicably hollered for joy and began to twirl about while singing the folk tune “Jump Jim Crow.” Rice, according to the film, had a brainstorm: creating blackface make-up by burning a cork with a candle’s flame and borrowing the black man’s raggedy clothing, he went on stage to do his own version of “Jump Jim Crow.”

The black man who inspired Rice’s minstrel act was played by Willie Best, who made a career playing dim-witted domestic servants in many Hollywood films. Although he spent much of his career stuck in stereotypical roles that are cringe-worthy by today’s standards, Best was highly regarded by his contemporaries, with producer Hal Roach and comedy icon Bob Hope actively praising his talent. Best scored second billing in this film, the highest level he ever received.

From here, the film races quickly through the 19th century – conveniently skipping that nasty bit of business in the early 1860s – to recall how minstrel shows quickly became popular. An old advertisement promising a revue populated with “Hilarious African Characters” is flashed on the screen. The film offers a quick montage of the minstrel show superstars – or, at least, a line-up of impersonators doing pieces of their respective acts. While nearly all of the minstrel stars being impersonated where white men, the film does acknowledge the Bahamian-born Bert Williams, whom the narrator dubs “a credit to his people” and a “black Pagliacci.” Williams’ act is imitated by an uncredited Shelton Brooks, a Canadian-born black composer responsible for such standards as “The Darktown Strutters Ball” and “Some of the These Days.”

The film offers quick clips of Al Jolson in “The Singing Kid” and Eddie Cantor in “Roman Scandals” doing their respective blackface shtick. But to give the audience the full minstrel experience, the film recreates an extravagant minstrel revue with three rows of men in blackface make-up and the notorious minstrel comic characters of Tambo and Mr. Bones. Hosting the show in the role of The Interlocutor is the sole person not in blackface: roly-poly comic character actor Bud Jamison, best known for playing the foil to the Three Stooges. This was Jamison’s only starring-billed role and he rose to the occasion by displaying remarkable skills as a song-and-dance man. Indeed, everyone in the grand finale was marvelous wonderful when it came to singing and dancing. And for what was intended as a throwaway short subject, the studio placed a great deal of energy and planning into costuming, choreography and set design.

And that makes “Minstrel Days” all the more perplexing. No one was clamoring for 1830s entertainment in 1941, which makes the pretext of its production a fraud. Furthermore, it was baffling to amass so much musical talent and deny them proper on-screen credit as well as the opportunity to work without cumbersome blackface make-up. It is impossible to appreciate the genuine talent on display simply because the studio was in pursuit of a cheap racist joke.

Although the minstrel show as a theatrical endeavor was mostly gone into the mid-20th century, Hollywood strangely kept it alive well into the 1940s. Not only “Minstrel Days,” but feature films including “Babes on Broadway,” “Holiday Inn” and “This is the Army” had minstrel numbers. “This is the Army” is particularly bizarre since its minstrel number was followed by a song-and-dance offering with an all-black cast.

In the post-World War II years, when African-Americans began to agitate further for the civil liberties they were fighting for abroad but were denied at home, Warner Bros. felt that “Minstrel Days” needed to be seen often. The film was re-released in 1946 and then in 1953 – one can imagine the resentment from African-American audiences of that era, but many white moviegoers must have been stunned to see such antiquated nonsense up on the screen.

Today, of course, “Minstrel Days” is nowhere to be found in home entertainment release. One movie collector recently uploaded a battered print to YouTube – and how long that will be online is anyone’s guess. For those who need a reminder of the bad old days of race relations, “Minstrel Days” is right up your alley – and it will take several gallons of Starbucks coffee to wash the bad taste away.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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