Jan 5, 2010

Snowflake Toones

As we have been apt to do over the past few weeks, Gia and I spent the evening watching an old flick on Turner Classic Movies. It really is a great channel. Hardly any repeats of the films that they show at all. Just great old flicks.

The film we watched last night was from 1936, a classic called Come and Get It starring Frances Farmer in dual roles. I guess it was the presence of Ms. Farmer in the movie that caught our eye.  Her troubled personal life was the subject of a number of books and an Academy Award nominated performance by Jessica Lange in Frances back in 1982.  So we were interested in seeing her perform back when she was at the top of her game and before all of her troubles started.  She was great in the film, by the way.

But the movie itself was even more batshit crazy than she was*.  Holy fuck!

It's about this lumberjack who comes into town with a bunch of his workers and meets and falls in love with a saloon girl during a night of drinking, gambling and fisticuffs.  He woos her and takes her back to his cabin for the making of the love.  But he soon receives a letter from a rich young lady that he intends to marry so he flat leaves the saloon girl with his Swedish sidekick.  She, of course, is devastated.  So she marries the Swedish sidekick who appears to be old enough to be her grandfather.

Then the film moves forward 20, 25 or maybe 30 years.  Hard to tell because none of the actors have really aged all that much since the opening act.  The lumberjack is now a lumber baron and the richest man in the town of Chicago.  He and his boring wife have a boring son and a vivacious young daughter.  He's happy...but not THAT happy, if ya know what I mean. 

The saloon girl has since passed away, but not before having a daughter with the Swedish sidekick who somehow is still alive at the ripe age of 175 or so.  His former boss goes to see him back in the old lumber town and damn if doesn't fall head over heels in love with the saloon girl's daughter.  Who looks just like her mother, by the way.  Makes sense since Frances Farmer played both characters.  Yeah...he falls in love with his Swedish sidekick's daughter who looks just like her momma.


So he brings his Swedish sidekick, the saloon girl's daughter and her cousin back to Chicago with him.  He doesn't try very hard to hide his feelings for the young girl, but she almost immediately falls in love with the lumber baron's boring son.  Phew.  Lots of creepy, creepy stuff goes on including the father punching his son out when he catches him kissing the saloon girl's daughter.  I can't even begin to tell you how creepy this film was.

But it was the jaw-dropping racism that pervaded the film that had us watching most of the movie with our heads in our hands.  And not just Walter Brennan's portrayal of the Swedish sidekick.  No sirree Bob.

The waiter on the train ride to Chicago was a black fellow named Snowflake.  As in "Hey Snowflake, bring some food from the kitchen car for the ladies."  "Sho, boss" Snowflake replies.  I'm just gonna let that scene speak for itself. 

Wow.  I mean, I know this was 1936 and the film was portraying race relations from an even earlier period.  But wow.  And it didn't end there.  There was this charming little line delivered about by the lumber baron about his boring son:

"He goes on that way all the time.  Like a negro preacher!"

Anyway, after it was all over I, of course, had to immediately look up the actor who played Snowflake.  Turns out he was a character actor named Fred "Snowflake" Toones.  I shit you not.  He generally played butlers, porters, slaves and waiters in his career.  And many of his characters were named...you guessed it...Snowflake!

Turns out he ran the shoe-shine box at Republic studios from the early 1930's to the late 1940's and filmmakers just kept on using him in stereotypical walk-on roles.  Most of the time he wasn't even credited. I can't even imagine the logistics of how this all happened.  But it was Hollywood in the so-called "Golden Age".

What an odd little piece of our country's sad history this all turned out to be.

*I know it's not nice to make fun of the mentally ill by calling them crazy, but it made a nice segue.  Besides, it turns out that she wasn't nearly as "crazy" as she was portrayed in those biographies.  The guy who wrote the most famous one admitted in court to fabricating many of the incidents he wrote about. 


Note: Remember to play the Bug-Eyed Trivia Challenge every day. Snowflake?  Really?


Slyde said...

And your nickname around the bath houses is "Snowball".

What a coincidence!

RW said...

The blackface scenes in Holiday Inn blow my Christmases all to shit. It's like a tradition.

Verdant Earl said...

Slyde - did you take my name and number off the bathroom wall yet?

RW - I haven't seen that in years. But there are plenty more examples to go around.

Bruce Johnson said...

I wasn't going to really 'read' this entry, but as I started to skim through it, a nerve lite up regarding this whole issue of political correctness and media accuracy. I have blogged about this in the past.

Now, first off, let me state that racism is bad and we have come a long way and still have a long way to go. However, ignoring that it ever happened is almost as bad as the act of racism itself. We need to remember how bad it was to have the reasons why we shouldn't do it.

I recently watched my LaserDisc copy of "Holiday Inn" with Bing Crosby and Fred Astire. You know, the movie where Der Bingle sings "White Christmas" for the first time? What most folks don't realize anymore, is that there is a dance number that is edited out of this film everytime it has ever been shown on Television. It is the Lincoln's Birthday routine where Bing and his leading lady do a tribute to Honest Abe......in Black Face.

The number is Charming and very well done....and soooo polictically incorrect it hurts, by todays standards. Back in 1940, it was a STANDARD to have a Black Face number in almost every musical.

This is our history folks, it made us who we are. It wasn't pretty, but saying it never existed is like saying Aushwitz was a very 'bad' place, without giving the reasons why.

(kicking my soap box back underneither that table)

RW said...

Well I think we should find the stupid bastard who said racism never existed and shove him in a deep, dark hole.

Poindexter said...

I don't know much about the history of Hollywood film, but I am under the impression that it was just this huge assembly line machine churning out motion pictures. Although some films may be weak in terms of entertainment-value or even intellectual value content, they do indeed serve as a reminder of our social history through the 20th century. While we live with far greater awareness of racial bias today, it is indeed difficult to fathom a day in 1940s America when such flagrant racial bias was so completely part of the social norm. Thanks for the commentary.

Verdant Earl said...

Bruce - are you in the habit of merely skimming what I write here on a daily basis? How dare you! :)

RW - Or we can just point out that it still exists today in the hearts of many of us. But I like the idea of putting them in a deep, dark hole much better.

Poindexter - Heya! Yeah, the movie industry (especially certain studios like Republic) often churned out movies like putting together a car on an assembly line. Stock footage re-used over and over again was the norm. As was the use of stock characters. This one just snuck up on me because it seemed so out of place with the rest of the film. It was a truly odd piece of film-making.

Barlinnie said...

Turner Classic Movies.... at last we are both on the same page. I watched Cool Hand Luke last night... for the 54th time.

A real classic.

Verdant Earl said...

Jimmy - I have some catching up to do. I've only seen Cool Hand Luke about 20 times. ;) It's hands-down one of my favorite films of all time.

sybil law said...

I once watched a silent film with... well, I don't remember the famous actress, but there was some white guy playing a Chinese guy (I guess), and I will never forget the line, "Oh, Chinky, why are you so good to me?", because it was both hysterical and inane.
(I was in high school when I saw it, what can I say?!)
I always think about movies like, "Blazing Saddles", and how hard it would be to even make that movie today.

Mrs. Hall said...

@Bruce: i have actually watched that show.

@Earl: That was a crazy film. huh. well. BTW thank you for mentioning Final Girl over and over in your blog. I finnally got off my lazy behind and checked out her blog.


And I am starting to reconsider my very narrowminded view of horror films. Cause DANG Final Girl's quite the writer and she has begun to sell me on the genre ;)

hee hee hee

Verdant Earl said...

Sybil - Blazing Saddles was co-written by Richard Pryor and he was supposed to play the Sheriff, but the studio wouldn't allow it as he was too controversial. Can you imagine that? I mean, Cleavon Little was great. But Richard Pryor in that film? Man! And maybe you are thinking of Mickey Rooney as an Asian man in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" with Audrey Hepburn?

Holly - Stacie Ponder is a good egg and a better writer. I've got plenty of love for her too!