Kirk Douglas in Young Man with A Horn with Hoagy Carmichael and Doris Day. I did notice that my previous choices were all in moments when Henry Fonda or the others were anguished or troubled or in pain, as if that was somehow the necessary factor to ‘queer’ them. So this time I took moments of pleasure and blissed them. It must be said however, that Kirk’s thin lips and macho stance made this much more difficult than some of the others
I’ve often wondered why Lauren Bacall was a film star for so long. She’s often stiff, mannered, and really not very good. Of course she’s very beautiful. But, as we can see in later films like Written on the Wind (Sirk, 1956), she didn’t photograph that well in colour. I suppose that her performances for Hawks in To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946) sparked a life-time’s interest from several generations of heterosexual men. And I know from personal experience that a certain generation of lesbians became devoted to her on the basis of her performance as Amy North in Young Man with A Horn (1950).
The film is loosely based on the story of Bix Beiderbecke with Harry James dubbing the trumpet. It’s narrated by Hoagy Carmichael as piano-player Willie Willoughby. Nobody does tortured artists like Kirk Douglas, who’s great here as Rick Martin. The film has a wonderful father/son relationship between Rick Martin and black trumpet player Art Hazzard (Juano Herandez). Doris Day sings. And there is great work from Michael Curtiz and cinematographer Ted McCord: there isn’t an image that isn’t worth looking at. The first half-hour of the film charting the background of Rick Martin, how he grew up and how he learned to be a trumpet player must count amongst Curtiz’s best post-war work.
Lauren Bacall only appears 47 minutes into the film but gets a star entrance and definitely makes an impression, the ‘duality’ in her nature rendered visible and contrasted to the ‘normality’ of Joe Jordan, the character played by Doris Day, already being edged out of the frame here and shortly to disappear from the rest of the picture until the end, once Amy/Bacall disappears from view .
We know from the beginning that she’s not ‘normal’ because, as we can see in the clip below, she’s rich, highly educated, ‘always talks like a book and likes to analyse everything,’ and speaks of jazz and mass culture like she does here:’there’s something about jazz that releases inhibitions; it’s a cheap mass-produced narcotic’: probably exactly the thing Amy needs. By the terms of American cinema of the period (and now), she’s already a weirdo.
Bacall’s thoughts on Doris are a favourite moment in the film. Bacall’s lit so only half her face is showing: ‘Jo’s interesting isn’t she? So simple and uncomplicated. It must be wonderful to wake up in the morning and know just which door you’re going to go through’. Amy/Bacall is constantly contrasted with Jo/Doris: Amy’s not so simple, her identity is at least dual, and yet to be discovered by Ricky and maybe herself.
When Kirk/ Ricky starts to get involved with Bacall/Amy, Doris/ Jo comes to warn him, ‘She’s a strange girl, and you’ve never known anyone like her before…inside, way inside, she’s all mixed up’; ‘precisely what I told him myself but he wouldn’t take no for an answer’ says Bacall/Amy as she enters the picture. It’s too late they’re married (see below):
But it’s not just the contrast to Jo/Day, or all that the characters speak about her being ‘mixed up’ and ‘strange’. There’s her apartment, even, actually especially, after Kirk/Ricky marries Bacall/Amy. We’re shown how female-centric the house is, and not just because her florid cockatoo is called Louise. Look at the number of statues that are female Grecian figures, the painting inside and outside her bathroom door that are naked women bathing, even her paintings are of women.
Rachel Mosely pointed out to me something I hadn’t noticed: If you click to a closer look on the image of Bacall playing the piano above, you’ll see that the ancient goddess who is the base of the lamp has an extended broken arm that looks more than a little like an extended phallus, as if to indicate that women provide the only sex and power she needs and Kirk can go blow his own trumpet.
Bacall/Amy doesn’t really like men. We can see it in the clip here below where they embrace. She doesn’t like the kiss, it’s the last time she’ll be honest with him. It ends with him saying ‘call you what?’. I think lesbian audiences knew the answer to that one.
‘How do you know about anything until you try it?’ she tells Kirk/Ricky, presumably about heterosexuality:
At the end, she finds a girlfriend, an artist. She loves her sketches and they’re going to go to Paris together. Kirk finally clocks it and calls her as ‘filth’, ‘dirty’ a ‘sick girl who needs help and better see her doctor’; you can also read the bit about him almost ‘forgetting about his trumpet’ but now ‘getting it back’ metaphorically:
When Bacall disappears from the picture, the film starts getting sanctimonious and goes downhill and for a phoney happy ending with Jo/Doris.
Movies of the time couldn’t represent lesbianism directly; and Young Man with a Horn certainly offers mixed messages that could be disavowed to the Hays Office. But it offered enough so that a generation of lesbians clocked and treasured it. The representation is laced with the typical homophobic language and perspective of the period but, as embodied by Bacall, it also evoked beauty in looks, intelligence, and attitude.
I always get sad and embarrassed when I see the great stars of the Hollywood musical don blackface, even when, as Fred Astaire does in Swing Time, it’s done as an homage to a black performer, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. I thought Doris Day might have escaped this blight merely by becoming a star a generation later than Astaire or Garland or so many others. But no, here she is in I’ll See You In My Dreams .(Curtiz, 1951) .and one feels ‘poor everybody’.
The image and the number condenses a concatenation of meanings that evoke both the push and pull, the inclusiveness and hierarchisation of American identity. The number is set in a WW1 camp where Gus and Grace Kahn are entertaining the troops. The film makes much of Kahn’s family having emigrated to America and of Kahn writing the songbook to the lives of several generations of Americans (‘Making Whoopee’, ‘Ain’t We Got Fun’, ‘My Buddy’, ‘It Had To Be You’, ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’ etc). The film in a way charts a journey of assimilation and inclusiveness. Danny Thomas, gives a great performance as Gus: wide-eyed, wide-open emotionally, overly focussed to the point of autism, very endearing in expressing love of wife and children the character he plays can’t express except through song. Danny Thomas himself was famously of Lebanese origin. So Danny, Danny as Gus, Doris, Doris as Grace, Grace married to Gus, her blondness, his darkness, all speak assimilation and inclusiveness.
Except we have this number, which in spite of the flag and in spite of narrative speaks a hierarchy of exclusions. Doris is not just donning blackface. She’s donning blackface (and drag!) to imitate Al Jolson singing ‘Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye’, so a blond female Kapplehoff, Day’s real name, is summoning and superseding a male jew, Al Jolson (Asa Yoelson), who himself poked fun, embodied, reproduced and made himself superior to a derogatory stereotype of a black man.
So the image speaks of Doris Day (Doris Ma Anne Kapplehoff) and Danny Thomas (born Amos Muzyad Yakhoob Kairouz) coming together under a flag, just like the characters they play, speaks of assimilation and inclusiveness. But the blackface itself belts out the limits to that inclusiveness, a hierarchy of race and ethnicity, a hierarchy of power which is both gendered and racialised, differential access to belonging and a colour barrier to inclusiveness tout court.
We’ve heard of Edith Head, Travis Banton, Orry-Kelly, Irene, even the dreaded Helen Rose. But who is Milo Anderson? I had to look him up. He doesn’t even get a wiki entry in English. Luckily the French and Germans are more thorough. It turns out he worked at Warners from the early 30s to the late 50s and designed the clothes for many films you’ve probably seen (To Have and Have Not, Mildred Pierce). The reason you’ve probably never heard of him is that he designed clothes like these for Doris Day’s first film, Romance on the High Seas. Her charm and the positivity she exudes — plus that great voice on hit songs like ‘It’s Magic’ and ‘Im in Love’ -meant she survived the clothes and became a film star anyway. But she really did have to survive them. Janis Paige wasn’t so lucky.
As you can see below, sometimes, when he doesn’t allow himself to get too matchy-matchy, a feel for colour can be detected: but the design, cut and fit are atrocious. Though they do make a ‘statement’:
Janis Paige didn’t escape either:
Particularly when she wears what looks like a small ottoman on her head
Joe Hadley is credited with the make-up in My Dream is Yours and, if so, he should have been fired. Doris Day is saved from the worst excesses because her look, even when fully made-up and in evening-war, was meant to evoke a ‘regular’ sporty girl. But poor Eve Arden walks around with her pronouncedly crimson lips two inches in front of her face, as if with a will of their own and making their way into another dimension.
The stills don’t do justice to how the lipstick seems so pronounced in motion. I saw Romance on the High Seas afterwards, with the make-up credited to Perc Westmore (he ran the whole department and approved the make-up tests but it was surely done by someone else?), and, as you can see in part of the trailer below, though the lipstick is a very loud shade of red, it’s not as bad. The crimson lips were clearly the fashion of the time. I did also wonder if my digital HD TV does not make it seem worse than it might have been to audiences of the time, highlighting and making vibrate certain colours. I did check the settings but they seemed alright. Perhaps we’ll never know. What we do know, is that the Warners DVD played on HD turns the lipstick into a Brechtian distanciation effect.
It’s a famous fact that Eve Arden is one of the great treasures of Hollywood cinema. From Stage Door(Gregory La Cava, 1937), through Mildred Pearce (Michel Curtiz, 1945) to Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978) on film, and as our ever sharp and sardonic Miss Brooks on radio and television, she delights with her wise-cracks, her intelligence, a slightly knowing caparace of cynicism protecting a too-sensitive heart. I loved seeing her in this bit of My Dream is Yours where Jack Carson, who’s already conned her into allowing Doris Day to stay, adds first Doris’ child and then her dog. With regards to children, only W.C.Fields and Clifton Webb expressed the unsayable as well as Eve Arden does here:
One of the delights of watching Classic Hollywood Cinema is catching sight of character actors, often even more beloved than the stars. My Dream is Yours (Michael Curtiz, Warners, 1949) showcases a host of my favourites — Eve Arden, S.Z Sakall, and above all, and even though he only appears for five minutes, Franklin Pangborn. I’ve written on him several times in this blog in relation to Only Yesterday and Pre-Code Cinema, in William Wellman’s A Star is Born, a compilation of his best bits from Easy Living, how he and other ‘effeminate’ character actors were deployed to butch up Fred Astaire in his films, in relation to a consideration of whether Preston Sturges was homophobic, and as one of the joys of watching Mitchell Liesen’s Easy Livingor Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. It was a delight to see this brief clip below in My Dream is Yours:
I loved it so much I made a gif, even though one loses his lovely and expressive voice and line readings, one gets his priceless facial expressions on a loop: we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!
According to Thomas Schatz in Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s, ‘While musicals made up a fairly limited proportion of Hollywood’s overall output, they generated a sizeable share of its income. Twenty-five of the Seventy wartime releases earning $3 million or more at the box office were musicals, including three of the top ten (This Is The Army, Meet Me in St. Louis and Yankee Doodle Dandy)’(p.225).
Of these Michael Curtiz directed the first and the third. Indeed Curtiz directed many musicals, several with Doris Day, including her first, Romance on the High Seas (1948), huge hits such as White Christmas (1954, and arguably Elvis Presley’s best film, King Creole(1958). But he is not considered one of the great directors of the genre and seeing Irving Berlin’s This is the Army one easily understands why.
Irving Berlin’s This is the Army (1943) was the highest-grossing musical of WWII. It was part of a cycle of all-star musicals — Thank Your Lucky Stars (David Butler, 1943); Hollywood Canteen (Delmer Daves, 1944) are other examples from Warner Brothers — designed to raise morale and aid the war effort. Seen today, its popularity is understandable: It’s propaganda everyone at the time must have supported and with a cause — propping-up the war effort –most everyone would have wanted to contribute to. But it’s a dreary musical. Even the hit numbers, such as Kate Smith singing ‘God Bless America,’ seem drab and insipid, particularly if one isn’t an American. The flag-waving fervour of others rarely comes across as anything but scary or dull and distancing. This falls into the latter category.
My favourite number is Irving Berlin himself singing ‘Oh how I hate to get up in the morning’ with that weak but engaging voice of his. It’s supposed to be all-star but none of the stars are known to us today except Ronald Reagan and perhaps George Murphy. Certainly all the stage stars imitated in one of the drag number — Jane Cowl, Lynn Fontanne — will be remembered only by Broadway enthusiasts. There are in fact many numbers in drag which are meant to be funny but now come across as the equivalent of blackface, a combination of desire for and condescension to that which they are imitating. Straight drag — unlike most gay drag –seems to poke fun and laugh at femininity. The film does have a pleasing inclusiveness of ethnicity and race; the former one of the most recurrent and attractive traits of American cinema; the latter relatively rare, indeed almost a structuring absence, a stain and limit to the much-vaunted claims of democracy in America. I found it all a bore, underlining how emotionally crude Curtiz could be — note how mothers pack off their sons to war — but also once again demonstrating his eye for visuals and his skill with a camera.
As you can see in the clip above in the short clip, which is just an announcement that the President and high officials are arriving to see the show. There are 19 shots, each with a different and striking composition, shot from a variety of angles but with a certain rhyming quality: if a the characters in a shot look to the right for example, in the next cut they will look to the left (the four images above after the clip are from consecutive shots). There are high angles looking down and low angles looking up. There are crowd shots and there’s individual inserts with bits of dialogue from the audience. The shots are put together rhythmically, in line with the music, but also with cuts on action. It all culminates with the camera dollying in to the character announcing the President’s in the audience. The technique on display is dazzling; the use it’s put to is not. This seems a recurring curse for Curtiz.
I grew up in Montreal, where Elvis was King en français.The local commercial French station, TVA Canal Dix, showed Elvis films regularly: the dialogue was in French but Elvis rocked in English. I must have seen all of them and had firm favourites: Viva Las Vegas (George Sidney, 1964) with Ann-Margaret, Blue Hawaii (Norman Taurog, 1961), and this one, King Creole. I now see that it’s perhaps significant that these were all directed by old-timers of the studio system who knew their craft.
Some fans prefer Jailhouse Rock (Richard Thorpe, 1957), and certainly its famous and eponymous number is a delight. But King Creole is arguably Elvis’ best film. And it’s part of the tragedy of his film career that even his best film is but a derivative and pulpy melodrama. Themes of teenage rebellion, the relationships of fathers and sons, and children looking on pityingly at what they see as the emasculation of their fathers by society and societal institutions, are all themes that are better dealt with, in this very same period, by Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
As a teenager, I’d read and enjoyed the Harold Robbins novel the film is based on, A Stone for Danny Fisher. And Curtiz’ film follows the plot quite closely, if exchanging Brooklyn for New Orleans, the boxing world for that of the nightclub scene on Bourbon Street and the 1930 Depression setting for the film’s present.
Presley’s Danny Fisher, a talented singer, is busing tables at a nightclub whilst trying to graduate from high school. The money he brings in is needed to keep the family afloat. His father’s given up. He’s been a prominent pharmacist but lost it all when his wife’s death led to a spiral of depression and drink. They lost their house and now live in a slum tenement next to a brothel. Fisher keeps failing High School’s cause he’s just got too much to do. In the meantime the streets offer lots of opportunity for easy money. Danny’s father is willing to lower himself so that his son can get a diploma but Danny can’t bear to see his father so bullied and humiliated. Also, he can make easy money singing. The tangles of family, show-business and the underworld lead to tragedy. King Creole is a mix of teen film, musical, and noir. There are few musical performers more exiting to watch in this period than Elvis. And almost no one in the Hollywood of this time is better at using the camera than Michael Curtiz. Elvis performing and how Michael Cutiz films him performing are what propel this otherwise pulpy melodrama into something great.
King Creole is one of the few Presley films, the only one I remember, where he’s presented as a real film star. He gets a great star entrance with the ‘Crawfish’ number, a duet with rhythm and blues singer Kitty White, written by songwriters Ben Weisman and Fred Wise as a street vendor’s cry, that starts off in the pre-credit sequence, continues on Kitty White post-credits, then cranes up and dissolves to introduce us to Elvis, who is framed behind lace curtains, in turn framed by the window, in turn framed by the shutters, in turn framed by balcony railings.
Elvis opens up the curtains, and comes out, to us, like a fancy chocolate in a box within a box within a box and next to flowers. As the song continues, Elvis is intercut with Kitty passing by on her cart, finally we get a reverse shot that shows us the other side of the street, with the ‘hostesses’ on the balcony on the nightclub next door soliciting Elvis. In the shot when he responds, ‘No you don’t, ya gotta pay me’, his sister appears on the right hand side to offer him breakfast. Curtiz masterfully presents what people have paid to see — Elvis — makes us wait for what he’s got to offer, frames him, teases us, and reveals his talent, desirability, family relations and a context in which the drama can unfold all in one scene. It’s a brilliant mise-en-scene of stardom. Something Curtiz is so expert at and that so few other directors ever offered to Elvis.
What Elvis was famous for in 1958 was conveying sex to teenagers. The Los Angeles Mirror-News entertainment editor wrote that ‘what Elvis offers is not basically music but a sex show’ (cited on p. 438 in Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis (438). Guralnick writes that Leber and Stoller’s ‘Trouble’, a Muddy Waters-styled blues was intended somewhat tongue in cheek but was delivered by Elvis with untempered ferocity. ‘It sounded sort of comical to us, but strangely enough to the mass market it wasn’t. It was somewhat generational and somewhat cultural, but they bought it’. (p.449).
In the film, Curtiz stages that sexy ferocity as a challenge to the gangster played by Walter Matthau, as something to entice the gangster’s moll played by Carolyn Jones, and as a source of conflict between the two nightclub owners. That talent, sex and ferocity are once more put in the scene in the context of different narrative threads where his very power and desirability originate the source of the tragedy to come. It’s a lesson in how to mobilise a star persona in narrative and how to narrativise stardom.
Julie Lobalzo-Wright in Crossover Stardom’ writes that there can be no doubt that Presley represented the rebellious image of the 1950s, both within America and worldwide, and his cultural impact cannot be overstated. (p.59)…Presley’s early live performances on The Milton Berle Sow, The Steve Allen Sow, and The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956) created a stir displaying Presley’s overt sexuality that consistently presented his sexualized body as an object of desire. Thomas. C. Carlos has described his early television performances as ‘so sexy, not white sexy, not coy sexy, but so humping swaggering black r&b sexy” that they led to a national uproar’.
I’d also like to comment on the quieter ‘Young Dreams’ number (see above). This is such a joyful performance, the dip in his shoulder, the shake of his head during ‘kiss you morning, noon and night’ then again dipping his shoulders and opening his mouth in the pause as if to say, “‘wow’ isn’t this naughty and marvellous’. Presley conveys the saucy and the tender filtered through a joyful amazement, sex combined with feeling in gleeful wonderment. No wonder his girlfriend in the audience is on the verge of tears with longing. Seeing him, we understand her, and understand why Elvis was so appealing to both men and women for so long. It’s a quiet number in the film, but powerful. And made more so by Presley being at the centre of a pool of light amidst the shadows and darkness of the nightclub, a light also highlighted by wearing a shirt that photographs white. Thus in a longer shot he’s the focus bathed in light, and then of course, there are the close-ups, when it’s his singing, his sensuality, and the effect that these things are having on his girlfriend that Curtiz draws our attention to.
As we can see in King Creole Crutiz constructs a mise-en-scene of and around Presley’s stardom, both as a musical performer, a sensation really, and as a movie star. I’ve commented on some of the numbers above. But let me just draw your eye to other aspects:
See, for example, how in the scene where he takes his girlfriend to see his old home, the focus is on him even when she’s doing all the talking; and note how he’s lit (see below):
See also how Curtiz present Presley to us in and through through light. Lighting is accentuating his features, his feelings, his very presence. He’s often shown coming in and out of the light. See some of the pictures below but further down you can also see how he’s lit as a kind of noir hero/film star in the scene were he watches his father get attacked.
Ultimately, the story is hackneyed but professionally told. Curtiz knows how to make his stars shine and how to use what they represent to create context, plot and convey feeling. Elvis’ stardom is part of the mise-en-scene of King Creole. It’s the same kind of care others took to present Judy Garland, Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire; it’s the same kind of care Curtiz used in his musicals with James Cagney and Doris Day; it’s the kind of care Elvis rarely got from any of his other directors.
There’s a lot of lore written about Doris Day, her presence and her performance in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. In Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, Patrick McGilligan writes that, ‘According to songwriter Jay Livingston, who wrote the theme song for The Man Who Knew Too Much, Day wouldn’t have appeared in the remake if not for the pressure from MCA, which represented Hitchcock and the actress. “His agent, MCA, said he couldn’t have [James] Stewart unless he took Doris Day,’ recalled Livingston. ” He told us he didn’t want Doris Day but he had to take her. He was very happy with her later’ (p. 517).
Indeed he was, and with reason: Doris gives a great performance in the film. She’s particularly wonderful in the scenes where she’s most hysterical, suppressing and on the verge of failing to contain emotion, the ones that demand most of her as an actress: when Stewart sedates her in Marrakesh, the Albert Hall scene, the scene where she sings Que sera sera again at the embassy knowing her son is upstairs. It’s a Doris Day audiences had barely had a glimpse of to then, though Hitchcock himself saw something of this in Day’s performance in Storm Warning, a KKK drama where she’d co-starred opposite Ginger Rogers and Ronald Reagan.
What caught my eye in the scene above is the tension between narrative and spectacle, between Doris Day as a singer/performer and as an actress, between what I take to be Hitchcock’s awareness of pleasing the audience, of film as a commercial enterprise, and his attempts at depth, of film as art. When I first saw this scene I thought Day was not good, that she was too much, that she was exceeding the bounds of her character in order to entertain the audience.
Hitchcock does odd and interesting things in this scene. The scene is prefaced by an image of a Crescent moon over over the minarets of Marrakesh, evoking strangeness, exoticism, a dash of danger. The film then dissolves into an image of Benjamin McKenna (James Stewart) looking in the mirror and dressing for dinner whilst Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin), the man Jo (Doris Day) is so suspicious of, smokes by the balcony. We hear Jo beginning to sing ‘Que Sera Sera’ on the soundtrack. The camera then kind of creeps into the room, evoking a sense of portent. Then just as the camera crosses the threshold, it pans onto a mid-shot of Jo, also dressing for dinner and as the image of Doris Day appears, the son joins her in her singing. It’s a domestic scene but with an undertow of, not quite danger, more like potential disturbance. Everything is not quite right, and it’s not just because Louis Bernard is there.
On the word mother, as the boy sings, ‘I asked my mother, what will I be?’ Jo glances at Ben, who looks back, knowingly and lovingly before saying, ‘he’ll make a fine doctor’. Jo was a star of song and stage. Does she regret giving it up? Has it been an issue? Again, the choices in the mise-en-scène present but also raise questions doing so. And yet the focus remains on the boy and his future, particularly pertinent to the tension that is yet to reach its peak in the film but of which the mise-en-scène already makes us feel.
The next shot picks up on Jo, where the cut-reverse-cut with her husband started. She admires herself in the mirror, likes what she sees. As she enters the boy’s room to put him to bed, she swings her hips as if she’s on stage, and when she sings ‘Que Sera, Sera’ she sings ‘out’ as if to an audience, rather than to her son. Doris was never quite a belter. She’s one of the Twentieth Century’s great vocalists, a nuanced singer, with exquisite phrasing, and a tone that could seem hushed, caressing. She’s a singer who learned her trade on radio. But she’s singing ‘out’, as if to us in the audience rather than to her her child in the story, and she does this throughout the rest of the scene. She gives big broad smiles, make big broad gestures, sings the song as if she were in front of a band. It’s true that there are two men in the other room and that perhaps she’s singing to them as well as to her son. Certainly, Hitchcock always makes a point of returning to the child and the story. But the gestures are as broad as the singing. Doris is ostensibly putting her child to bed but she’s acting, and she’s being filmed, as if she’s performing at the Albert Hall. It’s a scene that feels disjunctive, where the spectacle of Doris Day singing seem to exceed the narrative of Jo putting her son to bed.
One of the beautiful aspects of Hitchcock’s filmmaking is how this will all make sense the next time Jo sings ‘Que Sera Sera’, when in fact she is ostensibly singing to an audience but really singing to her son, almost the obverse of the scene here.
Moments of ‘excess’ in Hitchock rarely are; here what may be initially observed as a moment of spectacle becomes the conveyor of a particular kind of feeling and meaning as well as the basis of later narrative cohesion, what’s planted at the beginning is brought marvellously to harvest at the end, including the guest in the room and the significance of the knock on the door that ends this little scene. It’s very beautifully done. And Doris is a joy to behold.
I thought I Am Not Your Negro was about James Baldwinbut I wasn’t quite right. The film is more about race relations in America, using Baldwin’s analysis, mainly as articulated in Remember This House — an unfinished manuscript on the theme — that serves as the basis of the screenplay. The manuscript offered an analysis of race structured around the significance of the lives of Medger Evers, Malcolm Luther King and Malcolm X — what they represented – but also what was signified by their assassinations. It’s a structure the film borrows.
Baldwin’s analysis of race remains amongst the most cogent and potent – to me the most moral and unassailable. Here Samuel L. Jackson gives understated voice to Baldwin’s first-person narrative. I Am Not Your Negro is a historical account, and an argument, but also feels personal, like a confidential conversation on past horrors that becomes a realisation that those horrors of the past are still with us now. The music is as expected blues, jazz and soul, but largely on a lower key, a mournful one that lends the film an intimate tone with which to express sorrow and pain.
The film uses lots of visuals — photographs, newsreels, old TV footage — but cinema plays a central role in how the film articulates its case. There are clips of Joan Crawford in Dance Fool Dance, Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon, clips from silent films, John Wayne westerns, the films of Sidney Poitier and Doris Day in The Pyjama Game and Pillow Talk.
The image of Doris Day in Pillow Talk, all bright and beautiful longing in Techicolor, the colours that for François Truffaut signified America but are nowhere found in nature — the utopian ideal she represented, the price paid for it, and the erasure of the knowledge that there was a price – is powerfully conveyed through a clip from Pillow Talk juxtaposed with images of lynchings. What Ray Charles represented — art, truth, vitality, sexuality and feeling in all its varieties and with all its complexities — is what Baldwin posited against what Doris Day signified, at least to him.
The film argues that history is also now and makes a convincing case. I had never seen the Rodney King beating in such brutal and relentless detail, the power and the cruelty in a society the film evokes as still a police state fifty years after the legal abolishment of segregation. The credits give the impression that the film has money from various countries – with Arte in France given a prominent credit. I thought no American company was credited, giving the impression that such a critique cannot be rendered or made possible in the US now in spite of all we’ve seen that led to the Black Lives Matter Movement. However, I see from imdb that I was wrong to think that.