Friday, May 9, 2014

'KING OF BURLESQUE'


When I was growing up my first musical hero was the great Thomas 'Fats' Waller. I had all of the LP reissues of his Victor recordings of the 1930s as well as some other, odder no-name label LPs which were probably semi-legal compilations at best. One was a strangely packaged blank, cream-colored album cover which simply listed the songs in black bold-face type with no accompanying graphics. The record itself was transparent blue. Hm. Among other scraps of the Waller canon it contained a long-ish cut of Fats singing "I've Got My Fingers Crossed." Now, what was odd about this recording to my young ears was the sound of a thousand tap-dancing feet that accompanied Waller at one point. The album notes indicated that the cut was taken from the soundtrack of "King Of Burlesque" but gave no other information. Somehow, my brave and intrepid nine year old soul bothered to track down the year of the film--1936--and that it starred Warner Baxter, Jack Oakie and Alice Faye (probably via Leonard Maltin's early edition of Movies On TV...how else, in those pre-internet days?) I used to listen to the recording and envision the accompanying movie in my head, never dreaming that it would ever appear on our black and white Zenith TV. One early AM, though, it did. I got up in the middle of the night and watched it, mesmerized. The idea of having created a movie of the song in my head--which is what I effectively did by listening to it over and over--and then seeing it born out in reality was a deeply thrilling experience.  Below is that number. It is unusually good and interesting for a variety of reasons.

The director, Sidney Lanfield's covereage of the number is extensive, varied and inventive. (If indeed Lanfield shot this--the dance director was the great and forgotten Sammy Lee who choreographed many early musicals and later became a director--this could very well be his work as it was common, in the studio era, to use multiple directors on a movie, all charged with different tasks). Whoever is responsible, clearly much craft went into the creation of this particular production number. The dancer is Dixie Dunbar--later the dancing legs covered by the giant cigarette box in the early commercials for Old Gold.

But it's the year of the film's making that is especially intriguing. "King Of Burlesque" was released in 1936, which means it could have been shot in '35. You'll notice that this production number contains both black and white people performing in it, was was atypical to say the least. Indeed, 1935 was the year when Benny Goodman started touring with Teddy Wilson, as bold a defiance of the 'color line' as had yet been seen. White people and black people performing together was by no means something that was certain to be acceptable to movie audiences. Was "King Of Burlesque"--and this number in particular--the first time ever? And how did Hollywood, never known for its chance-taking, wind up crossing the color-line so quickly?

The answer, alas, is probably hidden in the subtle distinction that, although whites and blacks are sharing the stage, they are not technically performing together. The band is all black, the dancers are all white. Now of course they ARE all performing together--but, in a racist mindset, it's possible that they didn't have to rehearse with each other. Believe it or not, this may have made all the difference in the sorry attitude of the time. Still, there they all are on stage together, Fats resplendent in his vast white suit. Whoever allowed this to go forward is to be no doubt posthumously complimented. Perhaps they just had their fingers crossed...



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2 comments:

russellgibson said...

Dixie Dunbar the picture of excellence.

ivy-eileen said...

The awakening of my brother's artistic soul. What a thrilling tale.Your son and I "shot" a movie last week in the same house.
sis xo