Since I was so grossly offended and disgusted by Birth of a Nation two or three days ago, I have seen three old American movies. For those who may have thought I was unkind to American movies in my previous piece, I can report that of the three, one was almost as disgustingly racist as D.W. Griffith’s so-called classic, and two were delightful comedies, both of which I have seen before several times.
So, just to take racism as the measure of judgment, that makes two out of four which were offensive, or 50 per cent, not a very good score. The second objectionable film was called Tarzan Escapes, with Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, from 1936, which seemed to indicate that as far as racist attitudes went, little if any progress had been made between the making of Griffith’s film in 1915, and the making of this Tarzan epic 21 years later. In addition, it was reported that the Tarzan movies were among the best-grossing films of their time, a barely credible fact (at least seen from this distance.)
In this particular epic, one of three made by the Weismuller-O’Sullivan combo, a wicked white hunter captures Tarzan and threatens to take him back to civilization where he would be put on show. He was aided in this by a group of African tribesmen who were portrayed as being entirely brainless, cowardly and incompetent, just as Griffith portrayed American blacks of the reconstruction period after the Civil War.
Enough of that --- except to say that Miss O’Sullivan, who was a long-standing Hollywood star mostly notable for having married the director John Farrow, and sired Mia Farrow, the longtime consort of Woody Allen, and a woman who became the grandmother of the many damaged children adopted my Mia from around the world, was, as a young girl, an extremely toothsome little piece, as the saying goes.
The two comedies put an altogether finer light on the United States. One of them was Born Yesterday, the classic comedy that brought to stardom Judy Holliday, as the dumb blonde whose ignorance concealed a shrewd cunning the moment it was scratched by the reporter hired by the girl’s brutal boss to teach her some manners. This role is played by William Holden, who, naturally, exposed to Miss Holliday’s bumbling charms, immediately falls for her, and conspires with her to bring about the overthrow of the man who has held her in virtual slavery for some eight years--- a socko performance by Broderick Crawford. He has been using her --- she is a former chorus girl --- to sign papers that she didn’t understand, but that allowed him to carry out all sorts of illegal skullduggery without putting his own neck on the chopping block. It all comes out well in the end.
The theme of the second comedy, Ball of Fire, is similar, except reversed. Barbara Stanwyck plays the part of a nightclub stripper with underworld connections, who, on the lam from the police, takes refuge in a house that is occupied by eight wonderfully eccentric professors engaged on a momentous research project of some kind. These professors and the thugs who arrive among them to rescue Miss Stanwyck comprise some of the most memorable actors from the golden years of Hollywood --- S.Z.Sakall, Henry Travers, Oscar Homolka, Dan Duryea, (always one of my favorite heavies) and Dana Andrews. Miss Stanwyck plays this unaccustomed role to the hilt, and of course not only captivates Gary Cooper, the best-looking and most articulate of the eccentrics, but also the whole bundle of them. This, too, comes out well, after some hectic moments involving the professors somehow or other getting guns and shooting it out, more or less, with the baddies.
So, so soon after having denounced the USA, as I love to do, I am forced to remind myself that it is the home of some of the greatest comedy ever produced, as well as the unique and marvelous popular music for which it is known and loved throughout the world. Can any nation be wholly bad that gave rise to Louis Armstrong?