Ethics Alarms Encore: “Justice For The Nicholas Brothers”

I last posted this 2012 article in 2015. I should post it every year, at least. This re-post was sparked the same way the last one was: a Nicholas Brothers admirer contacted me. Today, new commenter Geronde commented on the original,

Here, here! …I just watched “The Pirate.” The film is awful, but I perked up when I immediately recognized the brilliant Nicholas Brothers. Even in their bad clown makeup, their style was unmistakable. I sure wish there was a way to digitally insert their names into the original credits. There is some small consolation in knowing that the brothers were very famous in the African American community, and fortunately, You Tube and the internet has exposed them to new generations of dance fans….Perhaps fans should lobby the Academy or SAG for a highly publicized posthumous award. This calls for ACTION! This a also good time to do it because there’s a focus of BLM and African American culture. I’m going to start today..I have contacted both SAG and the Academy asking them if they have ever publicly bestowed a posthumous award on the Nicholas brothers, and strongly urging them to do so if they have not..

I promised put up the post one more time. It probably won’t be the last.

As I noted in one reply to Geronde, my now-defunct theater company showed the video above during a concert version of Rodgers and Hart’s “Babes in Arms” at the point in the show where the brothers has a specialty number in the Broadway production. The audience was stunned: most of them had never seen Fayard and Harold, or had forgotten just how amazing they were. (Cab Calloway wasn’t too bad himself!)

Here is the post…

***

At the Sun Valley Lodge, there is a television station devoted to playing the 1941 film “Sun Valley Serenade” on a loop. It is a genuinely awful movie, starring John Payne of “Miracle on 34th Street” fame, Norwegian ice skater Sonia Henie, and Milton Berle, although it does show the famous ski resort in the days when guests used to be towed around the slopes on their skis by horses. Last time I was in Sun Valley to give a presentation, I watched about half the film in disconnected bites, since I never can sleep on such trips. This time I finally saw the whole thing. At about 3 AM, as Glenn Miller was leading his band in the longest version of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” in history, Fayard and Harold Nicholas suddenly flipped onto the screen, and “Sun Valley Serenade” briefly went from fatuous to immortal.

Continue reading

Ethics Addendum: Bill Robinson, Fred Astaire, And The Good “Blackface,” The John Bubbles Connection

The post about Fred Astaire’s dark-make-up-assisted homage to tap-dancing legend Bill Robinson in “Swing Time” was incomplete, both historically and ethically. This post should remedy that.

The dance number in question, “Bojangles of Harlem,” was, as I wrote in the introduction, Fred’s homage to two great black tap dancers who were teachers and inspirations for him, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and John Bubbles.  The post explained why the salute to Robinson was important, but did not elaborate more on Bubbles. He was not as big a star as Robinson nor as well known, either at the time of the film or ever, and is less remembered today. Nevertheless he was an important cultural figure, and it can be argued that Astaire’s number was really more of a tribute to Bubbles than Robinson, not that many noticed.

First, you need to know about Bubbles. Born John Sublett (1902-1986), he teamed at the age of ten  with the six-year-old Ford Lee “Buck” Washington in a decades-lasting act, “Buck and Bubbles.” in which Buck stood and played piano and Bubbles sang and danced.  As adults, “Buck and Bubbles” ultimately  played at New York’s Palace Theatre, the London Palladium, the Ziegfeld Follies, the Cotton Club, the Apollo, and became the first blacks to perform at Radio City Music Hall. Their popularity allowed them to break the color barriers in theaters across the country. Continue reading

Bill Robinson, Fred Astaire, And The Good “Blackface”

We recently came through the usual Halloween bag of “blackface” controversies, and Ethics Alarms, as it has before, tried to guide the discussion to the material distinctions that social justice warriors, who strategically deal in absolutes when seeking power through real and contrived offense, refuse to acknowledge or are intellectually incapable of doing so. The short version of the Ethics Alarms message: make-up for legitimate theatrical purposes isn’t “blackface,” isn’t “racist,” and shouldn’t be object of knee jerk condemnation based on emotion or ignorance.

Today Turner Movie Classics showed “Swing Time,” the 1936 musical that is probably the high water mark in the Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire canon. It has the best song (“The Way You Look Tonight”), the best novelty scene (Astaire pretending to be a klutz in a dance lesson with Ginger, then shocking her and her boss—and saving her job— by showing “what a great teacher she is” by dancing, well, like Fred Astaire) and arguably two of the best dances by the two, “Never Gonna Dance” and “Waltz in Swing Time.” The film also contains a controversial “blackface” number, “Bojangles of Harlem,” in which Fred pays homage to two great black tap dancers who were teachers and inspirations for him, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and John Bubbles. Local TV stations have long been reluctant to show “Swingtime” because of guaranteed complaints that the number is racist, or, if they cut the number (which is unconscionable), complaints pour in from film and Astaire fans that they have defaced a classic out of misplaced political correctness.

If one argues that the number is “racist” because of Fred’s make-up, then one is necessarily arguing that no white performer can ever offer an admiring  salute to an African-American great by emulating him. Astaire’s choreography (by Hermes Pan) contained specific references to trademark steps and gestures by both Bubbles and Robinson, though more of the former than the latter. (Some would say, maybe even Fred, that this was because he didn’t dare set himself up to be compared to Robinson, whom many regard as the greatest tap-dancer of them all.) Blackface, as typified by minstrel shows, was a burlesque of negative black stereotypes. There isn’t a hint of this in Astaire’s number: he wears dark make-up because he is honoring two contemporary black dance stars who he knew, learned from, and respected. The make-up is the epitome of a legitimate theatrical device, and racially demeaning neither in intent nor effect. Those who see it as such are either deliberately misconstruing the number, or don’t know what they are talking about. (There is an unfortunate racially demeaning set piece that appears for a couple of seconds at the start, a large caricature of exaggerated black features. You can take the film out of 1936, but you can’t take 1936 out of the film.)

The ironic part of the effort to quarantine “Bojangles of Harlem” is that the number is one of the few reminders in our culture of who Bill Robinson was, and—here’s Jack on his “duty to remember” and cultural literacy soapbox again–he was an important figure in American theatrical, cultural and civil rights history that should be remembered.  Instead, Robinson is almost completely forgotten: I bet most of the NAACP members who get up in arms when TMC shows “Swing Time” have no idea how significant Robinson was, and the contributions he made to art and society. Continue reading

“Justice for the Nicholas Brothers”…Again

Sometimes it all seems worth it.

Yesterday, late at night, I received an e-mail from a music teacher at a Catholic elementary school in Connecticut. He had introduced his young students to great musicians of the past, such as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, and arouse their admiration and excitement when he showed them videos of The Nicholas Brothers. Recently he came upon my post on Fayard and Harold from 2012, and felt compelled to write me agreeing with my lament that such miraculous performers could be so forgotten today because of their marginalization by the film industry and society. He wrote…

“We have most definitely talked of racism but I now want to read the class your article and get the feedback. Your article is succinct and eloquent.  Your article assessment is sadly true. My goal is not necessarily to revive the Nicholas Brothers:  it is to kindle in each of the kids in the class the spirit of excellence that each of us has and to let nothing stop us from reaching the top.”
To be honest, I had forgotten about my post about remembering the Nicholas Brothers. I checked: the post has only been read by about a thousand visitors since I wrote it; if my objective is to keep the legacy of these amazing dancers alive, it’s probably time for a re-post.

At the Sun Valley Lodge, there is a television station devoted to playing the 1941 film “Sun Valley Serenade” on a loop. It is a genuinely awful movie, starring John Payne of “Miracle on 34th Street” fame, Norwegian ice skater Sonia Henie, and Milton Berle, although it does show the famous ski resort in the days when guests used to be towed around the slopes on their skis by horses. Last time I was in Sun Valley to give a presentation, I watched about half the film in disconnected bites, since I never can sleep on such trips. This time I finally saw the whole thing. At about 3 AM, as Glenn Miller was leading his band in the longest version of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” in history, Fayard and Harold Nicholas suddenly flipped onto the screen, and “Sun Valley Serenade” briefly went from fatuous to immortal.

If your reflex response to that last sentence was “WHO??,” you are part of the reason for this post, and also in the vast and deprived majority of Americans. As I circulated among my future audience of lawyers and their spouses yesterday morning, happily informing them that the terrible movie playing around the clock in their rooms included the dance team called “the unforgettable Nicholas Brothers” in more than one tribute, I learned that none of them had any idea what I was talking about, and many of these individuals were old enough to have been able to see Fayard and Harold in a theater. The Nicholas Brothers were, you see, the greatest tap-dancers who ever lived, and the most amazing dance team that ever will be. Continue reading

Justice for the Nicholas Brothers

At the Sun Valley Lodge, there is a television station devoted to playing the 1941 film “Sun Valley Serenade” on a loop. It is a genuinely awful movie, starring John Payne of “Miracle on 34th Street” fame, Norwegian ice skater Sonia Henie, and Milton Berle, although it does show the famous ski resort in the days when guests used to be towed around the slopes on their skis by horses. Last time I was in Sun Valley to give a presentation, I watched about half the film in disconnected bites, since I never can sleep on such trips. This time I finally saw the whole thing. At about 3 AM, as Glenn Miller was leading his band in the longest version of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” in history, Fayard and Harold Nicholas suddenly flipped onto the screen, and Sun Valley Serenade briefly went from fatuous to immortal.

If your reflex response to that last sentence was “WHO??“, you are part of the reason for this post, and also in the vast and deprived majority of Americans. As I went among my future audience of lawyers and their spouses yesterday morning, happily informing them that the terrible movie playing around the clock in their rooms included the dance team called “the unforgettable Nicholas Brothers” in more than one tribute, I learned that none of them had any idea what I was talking about, and many of these individuals were old enough to have been able to see Fayard and Harold in a theater. The Nicholas Brothers were, you see, the greatest tap-dancers who ever lived, and the most amazing dance team that ever will be. Continue reading