A fascinating, if politically incorrect, clip from the seldom-seen The Phantom President of 19 and 32. What makes this film especially unique is that it features George M. Cohan, who was trying to move from a sagging theater career into film. Cohan would make but one more movie in 1934 (Gambling), that - like Phantom President - would meet with indifferent public reaction before returning to Broadway in his last successful show, the Rodgers & Hart hit of 19 and 37 I'd Rather be Right, where he'd play a dancing FDR. Watch Cohan's blackface routine and it's easy to see where Jimmy Cagney got his spot-on phrasing and moves for Yankee Doodle Dandy, which by the way, re-creates a scene from I'd Rather be Right in its opening sequence.
You'll also see Jimmy Durante and Sidney Toler in this 9-minute clip. Toler is probably best-known for playing the lead in the equally politically incorrect Charlie Chan series. As someone recently tweeted on Twitter, an entire generation has grown up without knowing anything about Jimmy Durante, which is a shame. The Ol' Schnozzola was a Runyonesque one-of-a-kind who for a period of time was probably one of the most popular performers in the U.S.
As readers of Dreamtime know, I'm fascinated by the medicine and minstrel show genres, which have a history stretching from the 19th century to Spike Lee's Bamboozled. Blackface routines in movies of the `30s and `40s, and even somewhat unbelievably into the `50s were more common than you might expect.
Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland would appear in blackface in 1939's Babes in Arms. Fred Astaire put on the cork in 1936's Swing Time. Bing Crosby appeared in blackface in 1942's Holiday Inn, the precursor to the better-known White Christmas, released in 1954, and which also included a minstrel show number, but which, happily, was not done in blackface. The Black and White Minstrel Show was a popular British television series with a 20-year run into the `70s that presented traditional American "Deep South" songs - usually performed in blackface.
For obvious reasons most of these films aren't broadcast widely anymore. You can occasionally find The Phantom President on eBay. If you share my fascination in the old time minstrel shows and the very strange - and very racially insensitive, it should be noted - art of blackface, you may also be interested in Yes Sir, Mr. Bones, a 54-minute movie from 19 and 51, which contains the only known footage of the legendary blackface singer and comedian Emmett Miller in action.
The movie is available as 1/2 of Showtime USA, a DVD that also contains Square Dance Jubilee, featuring Spade Cooley. As a commenter noted on the Amazon page, Yes Sir, Mr. Bones is probably as close as we're likely to get to a reconstruction of an actual minstrel show, from the opening "end man" comedy routines, featuring Miller, to the "olio" including sentimental ballads performed by an "Irish Thrush," to an amazing softshoe on sand routine, to the closing burlesque numbers. The movie supposedly takes place in a show biz retirement home; a young boy wanders in and the residents - thanks to the magic of imagination - recreate a minstrel show.
If you're offended by blackface material - some of it very crude, by the way - you don't want to watch Yes Sir, Mr. Bones, as one of the audio commentaries puts it right at the beginning. If you're interested in it as a historical document - especially of Emmett Miller - you do.