Saturday, February 16, 2019

The All-Negro Hour, Radio's First Black Variety Show

November 3 1929 would be a historic date in radio history. It was on that date that The All-Colored Hour, very quickly renamed The All-Negro Hour, debuted on Chicago radio station WSBC. It was not the first African American radio show by any means. The first appears to have been The Pittsburgh Courier Hour, which debuted in 1927 on New York radio station WGBS. It wasn't even the second, which was The Negro Achievement Hour, which debuted in 1928 on New York radio station WABC. That having been said, both The Pittsburgh Courier Hour and The Negro Achievement Hour could best be described as public affairs programmes. In contrast, The All-Negro Hour was the first African American variety show.

The All-Negro Hour was hosted by Jack L. Cooper, a former boxer, semi-professional baseball player, and vaudevillian. Like other variety shows, The All-Negro Hour featured a mixture of music and comedy sketches. Through the years it featured some notable performers, including jazz musician W. E. "Buddy" Burton, blues musician "Big Boy" Teddy Edwards, blues musician Ezra Howlett Shelton, and others.

Aside from featuring significant black performers in the late Twenties and Thirties, The All-Negro Hour is also significant in that its comedy sketches do not appear to have featured the sort of stereotypes and characters speaking in dialect that occurred on so many radio shows of the era. Sadly, stereotypes were part and parcel of Old Time Radio, with such programs as Amos 'n' Andy and still later Beulah.

The All-Negro Hour proved successful, so much so that it would run until 1936. Its success would also provide Jack L. Cooper with a prosperous career in radio. Indeed, by the late Forties, Mr. Cooper produced around 40 hours worth of radio programming for four different stations in Chicago. He produced a wide variety of programming, from music shows to public affairs shows to religious programmes to Negro League Baseball Games.

Sadly, no recordings of The All-Negro Hour are known to exist. That having been said, the show was historic as the first black variety show. It was also historic in launching Jack L. Cooper on a career in radio that would span thirty years.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Stormy Weather (1943)

For most of the Golden Age of Hollywood, the major studios largely ignored African Americans. When they appeared in Hollywood films at all, it was usually in stereotypical roles, such as servants or mammies. There were films featuring all-black casts produced primarily for African American audiences, but these films were produced by independent production companies such as Million Dollar Productions and Oscar Micheaux's Micheaux Film Corporation on budgets that were relatively small compared to the major studios' films. That is why Stormy Weather (1943) is so special. It was produced by a major studio (20th Century Fox) with a good budget, and featured an all-black cast in non-stereotypical roles.  What is more, it featured entertainers who are still big names today.

Stormy Weather stars Bill "Bojangles" Robinson as entertainer Bill Williamson and was very loosely based on Mr. Robinson's own life. Like many musicals of the time, the plot of Stormy Weather is paper-thin, serving primarily as a means of connecting some incredible performances by some of the greatest black entertainers of the day. Indeed, the cast of Stormy Weather is filled with names that are now legends. Lena Horne plays Bill Williamson's love interest, singer Selina Rogers. Dooley Wilson plays Bill's best friend Gabe. As to the various musical numbers that fill up much of the running time of Stormy Weather, they feature some of the greatest entertainers of all time.

Indeed, I  have to suspect that it is the musical numbers that most viewers will enjoy the most. Stormy Weather features one of the greatest musical numbers to appear in any film. "Jumpin' Jive" is performed by Cab Calloway and His Orchestra and features the footwork of the greatest dancers ever to appear on the silver screen, the legendary Nicholas Brothers. Another standout sequence is "Ain't Misbehavin'" performed by Fats Waller himself. For the song "That Ain't Right", Fats Waller is joined by vocalist Ada Brown. And, of course, there is the title song performed by Lena Horne. There is no shortage of great musical numbers in Stormy Weather despite its 78 minute running time.

With its focus on various musical performances, Stormy Weather is clearly escapist entertainment. It largely ignores the racism and segregation that African Americans faced in the mid-20th Century. That having been said, in its own way Stormy Weather was a revolutionary movie. It presented an all-black cast in roles that were not stereotypes. In the Forties, at a time when most African American characters in films were stereotypical servants and blackface still appeared on the big screen, this was revolutionary in its own way.

Sadly, while Stormy Weather largely ignores the reality of being black in mid-20th Century America, the cast of the film had to face it on a daily basis. The Nicholas Brothers had done considerable work for MGM, where performers and other MGM employees of all races ate in the same commissary. They found a very different atmosphere at 20th Century Fox. Fayard Nicholas has said that 20th Century Fox did not want him and his brother Harold to eat in the commissary, but instead in "a special little restaurant" that wasn't even on the same floor as the Fox commissary. As might be expected, the Nicholas Brothers refused to eat in Fox's "a special little restaurant".

Perhaps because of its all-black cast, Stormy Weather faced problems regarding its release. Following the Zoot Suit Riots that unfolded in Los Angles from June 3 to June 8 1943 and similar riots that occurred in other parts of the country that same summer, 20th Century Fox seriously considered pulling Stormy Weather from release. While Stormy Weather would be released on July 21 1943, less than half of Fox's theatres booked the movie. Despite this, Stormy Weather proved to be a hit at the box office.

Stormy Weather may not be socially relevant in the way that many dramas produced in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies were, but, as noted earlier, in its own way it was revolutionary. It was only the second major studio film with an all-black cast (the first being Cabin in the Sky, released earlier in 1943). What is more, it featured that all-black cast in non-stereotypical roles and showcased some of the greatest entertainers of all time. While Stormy Weather might not tackle issues of concern to black audiences in the 1940s, its very existence was an act of empowerment for African Americans.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Happy Valentine's Day 2019

For reasons that should be all too obvious to those who know me, I am not much in the mood for Valentine's Day this year. I don't know that I ever will be again. For that reason I won't be posting my usual Valentine's Day pinups of classic actresses and models this year. I will simply leave you with a picture of the one person who will always be my valentine, my beloved Vanessa Marquez. I will also wish all of you who celebrate it a happy Valentine's Day!

Vanessa Rosalia Marquez, 1968-2018
Happy Valentine's Day!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Why the Academy Has Angered Film Buffs and the Film Industry

Yesterday the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that the Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Live-Action Short, and Best Make-up and Hair Styling will be presented during commercial breaks during the Oscars telecast. The winners' speeches will be edited, removing their walks from their seats to the stage, and then aired later in the broadcast. This is being done in an effort to shorten the length of the Academy Awards ceremony telecast. To say that people both inside and outside the industry are angry would be an understatement.

Indeed, Guillermo del Toro, whose film The Shape of Water won Best Picture last year, tweeted his displeasure over the Oscars for Cinematography and Editing being handed out during commercial breaks. He was followed by Alfonso Cuaron, whose film Gravity (2013) won Best Director and whose film Roma (2018) is nominated for several Oscars this year,who  also weighed in on the issue. Today the American Society of Cinematographers, the cinematographers' union itself, posted a response to the Academy referring to it as "a most unfortunate decision." Several others in the industry have also expressed their displeasure at the Academy's decision not to air the winners of the Oscars for Cinematography, Editing, Live-Action Short, and Make-up and Hari Styling live.

Of course, here I have to point out that it is not only individuals in the film industry who are unhappy with the Academy's decision, but film buffs as well. I know I am not pleased with the Academy's decision, nor are any of the film buffs I know. We would rather see every single Oscar presented live than have a shorter telecast. Talking about it with one of my friends, I compared the Academy's choice not to broadcast the winners for these four categories in order to shorten the Oscars broadcast to the NFL seeking to shorten the Super Bowl by cutting out the game itself.

Ultimately, I can only see this decision on the part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as nothing more than folly. In not broadcasting the winners of certain awards live, they run the risk of alienating their core audience--film buffs who watch the Academy Awards not for the celebrities or the fashions, but the awards themselves. These are the people who still support cinemas and prefer to watch movies in a theatre to watching movies on Netflix. These are the people who watch every single Academy Awards ceremony and have done so since childhood. Lose that core audience and they have lost everything.

Worse yet, there is no evidence to suggest that a shorter broadcast will receive higher Nielsen ratings. Indeed, one need look no further than the aforementioned Super Bowl for evidence of that. The Super Bowl usually lasts between three and four hours. The longest Super Bowl ever, Super Bowl XLII, lasted four hours and 14 minutes. Despite its length the Super Bowl remains one of the most watched events of the year. Even taking into account many people watch it for the commercials, that is still impressive. Given this, I have to suspect that most viewers will tune into the Oscars ceremony whether it is 2 hours or four hours.

Indeed, in a fine article entitled "Sorry Academy, Oscars Ratings and Running Time Don’t Correlate" in today's Variety, journalist Brent Lang used the numbers to prove that a shorter Oscars ceremony running time does not always equal Nielsen ratings. He points out that the most watched Academy Awards ceremony of all time, the 70th Annual Academy Awards in 1997, ran three hours 47 minutes, only six minutes shorter than last year's broadcast. He goes on to examine more recent Oscars broadcasts and uncovers the fact that a shorter ceremony does not mean higher ratings. It would then seem that the Academy, in thinking a shorter ceremony will bring in more viewers, may well be deluding themselves.

Of course, above and beyond any of this is the fact that airing every single category live is simply the right thing to do. Film is a collaborative medium. It takes directors, writers, editors, actors, and many more to even make a short film. While directors and actors receive a good deal of attention from the public throughout the year, many of the craftsmen in film only receive attention at the various awards ceremonies. And there is no bigger awards ceremony than the Oscars. In relegating the Oscars for certain categories to commercial breaks, the Academy is in effect denying recognition to those fine craftsmen without whom movies could not be made. Indeed, it must be pointed out that the very medium of film would be impossible without cinematography and editing.

In the end I have to think that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences must already be regretting their decision. Many in the film industry have expressed their displeasure at the Academy's decision, some of them Oscars winners. Many film buffs have expressed their displeasure as well, a situation that might be more of a threat to the Academy than having individuals in the film industry angry at them. After all, if they do not air every single category live, the film buffs who are the most loyal viewers of the Oscars, might well tune out. And I seriously doubt that there will be any new viewers to replace them.