Like Pop-Up Video--one of the many things the movie-industry left never anticipated--ancillary factoids keep imposing themselves on Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner's Radical Hollywood:
1. When the oft-dubbed "revolutionary" Lew Wasserman (longtime MCA mogul) died this past June 3, obit writers made the old archcapitalist sound like he'd been the happy end of a Bolshevik dream--the man who finally took the power away from the studios and gave it to the people (OK, very rich, well-placed people).
2. Wasn't it Ronald Reagan--"FBI collaborator," the man deemed "too dumb" for membership in Hollywood's CP of the 1930s and the star of the blacklisted screenwriter Val Burton's last movie (Bedtime for Bonzo)--who helped decontrol the studios' ownership of movie theaters, i.e., the means of distribution?
3. Showing that memory is fleeting even among the most progressive-minded people, the Stockholm International Film Festival of 1997 jumped the gun on the Academy Awards and hosted a retrospective of work by friendly witness Elia Kazan--its organizers claiming, quite convincingly, that they were completely unaware of the then-raging (sort of) Kazan Kontroversy.
4. Showing that memory is as tenacious as the ego it's attached to, Hollywood Ten member Ring Lardner Jr., honoree of the screenwriter-centric Nantucket Film Festival of 1998, still had the energy to rail against the system--although the preponderance of his outrage was not over his HUAC-imposed prison time but the liberties Joseph Mankiewicz and Louis B. Mayer had taken fifty-odd years before with his script for Woman of the Year.
If there are unwritten messages within Radical Hollywood, one might be that artistic vanity and general cupidity are neither exclusive nor native to a particular political persuasion, nor even the movie industry itself. And that nothing ever changes. Current cinephiles fear and loathe the fact that in today's movie business, "business" takes precedence over "movies." But by 1933, after the bankruptcies of Fox, Paramount and RKO, the money men had already taken over. (As the authors write, "Bankers were good at firing studio workers...but were notably untalented at making films." Make it "lawyers" and it might be 2002.) Back in 1919, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Mary Pickford organized the first independent-of-the-studios Hollywood movie company, United Artists--the DreamWorks of its time. Last year's threatened strike by the Writers Guild--which, together with the strike threat by the Screen Actors Guild, is still affecting studio production schedules--was largely about credits, because they translate into salaries; in 1933, meeting secretly, Hollywood's leading screenwriters (including such leftist lights as John Howard Lawson, John Bright, Samuel Ornitz and Lester Cole) gathered to organize, largely over the issue of credits, and for the same reason. Variety, Hollywood "bible" and noted mangler of the English language, played the game with the mobbed-up craft union IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) back in Depression-era Hollywood. It plays plenty of games today.
And then (sigh) there's that oh-so-predictable outcry over pop cinema's influence on/instigation of sociocriminal behavior--the knee-jerk finger-pointing at Hollywood every time a Columbine happens (but never, you may notice, a 9/11). This is hardly a newsflash either: The release of such hard-nosed gangster thrillers as The Public Enemy, Scarface and Little Caesar in the early 1930s helped lead to the establishment of the Legion of Decency, the Production Code, the Hays Office, the bluenosed rule of in-house censor Joseph Breen and decades-long cultural prosperity for those who preferred their movie sex infantilized and their view of America strained through fine mesh. How the Christian right does long for those thrilling days of yesteryear.
The story of the left in Hollywood, in other words, is the story of today in Hollywood; but if you're looking for correlations and parallels you won't find many in Radical Hollywood. Not that parallels are always what you need: As the blacklisted writer/director Abraham Polonsky (Force of Evil, Body and Soul, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here) told interviewer David Walsh a few months before his death in 1999, "In the old days, if something like this [the Kazan Oscar] was going on, you'd make a few telephone calls, you'd have a thousand people there. No more. Nobody believes in anything, except in the finance capitalist." Did anyone in the whole of Hollywood--or the entire United States Congress, for that matter--make a peep of support for the recent and quite reasonable California appellate court decision on the Pledge of Allegiance? If they did, it was drowned out by the sound of scuttling feet, heading for the political lifeboats.
This last episode was certainly too late for inclusion or comment in Radical Hollywood, but it points up both the stasis and mutation in what we have to recognize, however reluctantly, as the cultural capital of the country--and whose history is far more alive than this book would imply. Encyclopedic in the most frightening sense, RH is thorough and wide-ranging, and fairly exhaustive in ferreting out every possible leftist association in any vaguely relevant movie produced by Hollywood from the New Deal through the postwar Red Scare. But the authors are also straitjacketed by their own theses: One, that there was a leftist subtext imposed on many of the movies that the right held in fear and contempt. (Who knew?) And two, that the movies were simply superior during the more or less lefty days of Hollywood.
They may be right. "The content of films was better in 1943 than it is in 1953," Hollywood Ten-ster Dalton Trumbo is quoted as saying, and the authors contend that "any reasonable calculation" would confirm what Trumbo says. But reasonable calculation has nothing to do with the very subjective business of judging art. One might as well reduce the entire argument to a single question: What do you prefer? Movies with the left-leaning Humphrey Bogart? Or movies with Ronald Reagan? It may not seem to be a contest. But it wouldn't be an example of the scientific process, either.
Despite their tabloidy subtitle--"the untold story behind America's favorite movies"--Buhle and Wagner don't dabble much in the anecdote, gossip or movie-set story that would have lubricated their prose or perhaps even parted their sea of subordinate clauses. Still, famous names abound. "As FBI reports suggested," Lucille Ball, Katharine Hepburn, Olivia de Havilland, Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart, Danny Kaye, Fredric March, Bette Davis, Lloyd Bridges, John Garfield, Anne Revere, Larry Parks (The Jolson Story), the wives of March and Gene Kelly, and Gregory Peck's fiancée--to say nothing of the scores of writers Buhle and Wagner profile and analyze, or their more loosely affiliated or merely sympathetic directors and stars--were all in or close to the Communist Party. Why? For one thing, the authors say, because these were the people of 1930s and '40s Los Angeles who were smarter, consequently more liberal, and enjoying a more egalitarian and humanistic worldview than their constipatedly conservative counterparts. But it was, they point out, also a result of Hollywood's (and America's) bigotry and its effect on social life: The comically titled West Side Writing and Asthma Club, an ostensibly nonpolitical alternative for Jews barred from Los Angeles's beach clubs and marginalized in the better restaurants, became a hotbed of anti-Nazi sentiment (which, of course, made it politically suspect). Eventually, through the Asthma Club, even one of the world's leading, albeit largely apolitical, Marxists (Groucho) could channel donations to the Popular Front.
That the Communist Party in Hollywood was largely a "social agency," as the authors call it, was what helped make the McCarthy-era hearings and HUAC roundups so wide-ranging and terrifying, even if, after the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the LA branch of the party "had died...but simply not known it," as the exiled Carl Foreman (High Noon) put it. How such screenwriters, who are Buhle and Wagner's principal subjects, maintained their political principles while clawing their way up the studio ladders is something left amorphous. Lardner, ever aware of the contradictions in being a high-priced proletarian, said in his autobiography I'd Hate Myself in the Morning (his famous response to J. Parnell Thomas about why he wouldn't name names) that he picketed Warner Bros. when Mussolini's son came calling, and told David O. Selznick not to make Gone With the Wind because it was pro-Klan. But he was an artist, too, a hungry one, and a man who knew the siren song of fame and fortune never quite harmonized with "The Internationale."
The authors exhibit a weakness for locating leftist content and associations where they need to and and shoehorning certain movies into their theses (their view of Universal's horror catalogue as anti-Wall Street seems particularly windy). But by the time Radical Hollywood gets to the era of film noir--which they call "arguably the only fully realized American 'art film' genre"--it feels as if the rest of the book has been prologue. Clearly, the authors know and love the period and what it did to American cinema in the aftermath of World War II--countering the forced fairy tale of Hollywood with a new, frank, sexually liberated, sexually sophisticated, sexually metaphorical take on the dark view of postwar, postnuclear existence (although, strangely, Radical Hollywood never analyzes noir via the A-bomb, despite the celebrated apocalyptic imagery of such genre classics as Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly). That noir also refashioned the traditional portrayals of the sexes--at a time when, the authors point out, the country's postwar recovery and strength were being propagandized as dependent on the American male and his renewed sense of self--made it one of the most important cultural developments of the twentieth century, if not the nation's entire cultural history. No wonder it fell victim to the strangling effects of creeping McCarthyism.
Radical Hollywood, whether or not it's "the untold story behind America's favorite movies," certainly puts a new spin on those films, especially for those already familiar with them--readers who, unfortunately, will be those most distracted by the authors' rather habitual way with the errant fact. Some are trivial: Edward G. Robinson didn't say "Mother of God..." at the end of Little Caesar; he said "Mother of Mercy," as any schoolchild knows (any schoolchild, granted, with an unnatural obsession with movies). William Randolph Hearst may have "attributed the 'subversive' label to anything that smacked of egalitarian liberalism," but he didn't do it in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, because he never owned the Los Angeles Times. In assessing the populist perspective of Destry Rides Again, Buhle and Wagner seem oblivious to the fact that James Stewart's character is the son of the more famous Destry. The famously Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz (director of the leftist-written Casablanca, among many others) is identified at one point as a "German refugee." John Wayne's "first major screen role" wasn't in 1938's Pals of the Saddle, but Raoul Walsh's 1930 The Big Trail. Warner Bros.' "self-serving prologue" at the beginning of The Public Enemy may have been self-serving--it mentions the social impact of the studio's own PE and Little Caesar while omitting UA's Scarface--but it wasn't on the original 1931 print; it was added for a re-release several years later.
Jean Renoir's The Southerner marked William Faulkner's "only notable screenplay contribution"? How about The Big Sleep? Mildred Pierce? And let's not forget To Have and Have Not, in which he rewrote Hemingway, by all reports to their mutual delight. And Katharine Hepburn didn't lose the "box-office poison" appellation after Holiday but after The Philadelphia Story, whose film rights she bought because she knew it would remake her career.
But let's imagine this litany of errors is itself a metaphor for the intrinsic unreality of the left in Hollywood. It's a subject that Buhle and Wagner have attacked with energy and all the right intentions; the reader may wish that he or she were given a bit more reason to stick with the book through its thicker moments, but there's no denying the authors' enthusiasm, erudition and engaging way of summarizing plot lines and associations. Still, it's a weird tale they're telling. As they relate early on, Polonsky recounted in his later years that one of the oft-discussed issues among the Hollywood left wing was what, in fact, they were all doing there. Should they be in Hollywood, making pap and trying to inject it with a social conscience? Or secede from the union and create film art independently? As Polonsky put it, the answer was simple: "Filmmaking in the major studios is the prime way that film art exists." And so it was. And is. And unfortunately--thanks to an American indie movement that has lost its lure for youth, a dissipated market for the once-hip foreign film and a general tendency toward divorce between American art and American politics--so it is likely to remain.
A tidal wave is coming. Soon I am sure. It will sweep all of us away.
--The opening lines of Eureka
One of the more familiar works of Japanese art--particularly in the West, where it has shown up everywhere from ecocampaigns to the cover of the Metropolitan Museum of Art gift catalogue--is Hokusai's Shogun-era The Great Wave. Everybody knows the picture: a massive, percolating arch of water, dwarfing the far-off Mount Fuji and frozen at the instant of breaking. The wave has been hanging there, imperiling the painting's tiny fishermen, since the early part of the nineteenth century.
It would be hard to imagine that Aoyama Shinji, director of another epic and audacious Japanese import, Eureka, didn't have Hokusai's lurching wave somewhere in his mind while building his three-hour-and-forty-minute film. (In an era when Hollywood's current top stars seem constitutionally and/or contractually incapable of appearing in anything under two hours and fifteen minutes, it still seems necessary to mention Eureka's unorthodox length, if only because in this case it works.) Not only is the film poised, from murderous opening to rapturous conclusion, on an emotional precipice of imminent danger and delirium; it is, like The Great Wave, a work suspended between cultures: Hokusai created a supposedly classical Japanese painting by marrying Eastern imagery to Western artistic innovations. Aoyama's movie presumes on the surface a most Japanese serenity, while at its heart is soul-shaking psychological and spiritual violence, ignited by a very Western cinematic sensibility. No cars blow up, only souls.
Despite the opening weather forecast--voiced over by the film's delicate Kozue, who will be given such a moving and virtually mute performance by young Miyazaki Aoi--what comes closest to physically resembling a tidal wave in Eureka is a bus, cresting a hill in a heat-vapor haze and bearing a distinct air of menace. We've seen a woman in a bonnet waving goodbye from a hillside to her children en route to school; older brother, younger sister, they seem to adore/tolerate each other silently, routinely. They board that bus and what follows is a sequence of dispassionately considered horror: the entrance of an obviously disturbed character, his suit a careless attempt at white-collar respectability; the bus parked in an otherwise empty lot; bodies splayed on the gravel; one fleeing passenger shot dead in his tracks. The camera observing helplessly, possibly against its will.
The cops arrive, at last. And what adds to our rising sense of dismay is that we know so much more than they do. (What people know and when they know is essential to the fascination of Eureka.) They phone the madman, who has covered the inside of the bus windows with newspaper, shot several of its occupants and is clearly in that space where reason has evaporated and only more killing can diminish the sense of crime: The more bodies, the less each can mean. It's a sentiment that will haunt the survivors of this "incident" throughout the rest of the film. Meanwhile, the cops ring Busjack Man's cell phone. Kozue covers her ears.
Because he collapses in fear while being walked around the lot by Busjack Man, the driver--named Makoto, and played by veteran film star Yakusho Koji (Shall We Dance?, The Eel, Sleeping Man)--allows the sharpshooters an opening. But the shot's not clean: The wounded Busjack Man gets back on the bus, managing to kill everyone on board but the kids. It's not that he doesn't try to be thorough--his gun, and his eyes, are trained on the two at the moment the police shoot him dead. And it's not that he doesn't succeed, in his way: That he is himself finally killed prevents nothing, really, but an actual bullet leaving an actual chamber.
Eureka is not a film about a bus hijacking. (With more than three hours to go, how could it be?) Nor is it, exclusively, about the serial killings that punctuate the movie. It's a ghost story, about the almost-killed being viewed as if they were. Or worse--that they've become dangerous, walking time bombs whose experience has placed them beyond the common law of common experience, and rendered them entirely unpredictable.
But how can life possibly be lived once random murder has come so close and with such mad indiscretion? How can life be lived as a form of death? Having survived their ordeal, our characters become personae non grata, treated the way terminal cancer patients are often treated--like they're not quite there, or are stubbornly, inconveniently delaying the inevitable. Makoto, Kozue and Naoki (played by actress Aoi's real brother, Masaru) have their distinct postbus experiences: Makoto leaves home to wander, is eventually divorced by his wife and treated as an embarrassment by his family. The kids' mother abandons their unhappy household, their father subsequently dies in a car crash (we're pretty sure it's suicide), and the two wind up living alone, unspeaking, in their squalid house. But common pain proves a common bond: Only when Makoto seeks them out and they set up housekeeping--sleeping in the shape of a torii (if we're not reading too much into it), with the kids parallel to each other and Makoto serving as the bridge--does their dream state start to lift.
Aoyama alludes to François Truffaut's 400 Blows, employs Western music to make certain sometimes cloying points and eventually winds up adapting the road movie to his metaphysical survivors' tale. Despite the Ozu-inspired angles and distance of his film, his taste for sentiment is hardly an un-Western inspiration. But he's certainly indicting Japanese culture. Had this been a Western film, the Holocaust would likely have been an unavoidable issue (how differently its survivors are treated, for instance, and why). Grief counselors would have stopped the kids' story in its tracks. Tom Cruise would have been the lawyer fighting their damage suit against the bus company.
Instead, the culture of Eureka explodes the idea of Japanese family into something as twisted as Busjack Man's psyche. Kozue listens silently on the phone as her auntie says how much she has meant to visit, how much she really wanted her and her brother to live with her...and is the insurance money still coming in? The prodigal Makoto tells his family he's OK. "He said he's OK," his brother says, "now leave him alone." Naoki, the most damaged and silent and unapproachable, exhibits strange reactions to everything, including the extended visit of his cousin Akihiko (Saitoh Yohichiroh), a wack-job college student who is probably a family plant, but who provides much of the movie's much-needed humor. The secretary at the construction firm where Makoto works (his redemption is incremental; he rides a bicycle before he boards another bus) reveals that she too lost her parents as a child and was put into an orphanage by relatives who stole her insurance money. Makoto develops a mysterious cough.
Eureka is the most novelistic film to hit these shores since...well, at risk of revealing some kind of pro-Asian prejudice, Edward Yang's Yi Yi, another film with a seriously unhurried approach to construction. One of the most intriguing and seductive things about Aoyama's film, as was the case with Yi Yi, is how we're never so captivated by the obvious as we are by the painfully subtle. The serial killings that follow our quartet around (our suspicions flow like tides between the characters) seem almost incidental next to their inner lives. Likewise the pursuit of Makoto by the police inspector (Matsushige Yutaka) who killed Busjack Man, and who clearly wants to achieve absolution for the slaughter by proving Makoto's gone bad. "Your eyes were the same as the killer's," he tells Makoto. All we can remember is Makoto dissolving in shame and nerves.
No, the moments of Eureka that wring out your brain are more delicately devastating. Kozue--the movie's principal character when all is said and done, its conscience, its emotional bridge-builder, its selfless repository of pain--crosses a railroad track with her bicycle, stopping to consider the oncoming train, staring full-faced into the camera as if to ask our approval for whatever she does. Then, in an insidious bit of Joycean coincidence, unknowable by anyone but us, Makoto gets off that train. Krzysztof Kieslowski used to devise moments of such tantalizing realism of possibility, although they were usually a little less terrible than this particular moment of Eureka.
Aoyama's movie played at Cannes last year--one screening, no doubt because of its inconvenient length. It then played at the New York Film Festival. (For purposes of full disclosure, be advised that this writer was on the festival's selection committee.) It now opens courtesy of the invaluable Shooting Gallery Film Series, which has already made it possible for New Yorkers to see Marziyeh Meshkini's The Day I Became a Woman, among other otherwise unreleased films. And there's more good news: Aoyama returns to Cannes this year with a new film called Desert Moon. On the promise of Eureka, Aoyama makes it a very attractive prospect to head for the sunny French Riviera, to sit in the dark.
OK, no Lifelines, no 50-50s, no Audience Participation if you want to be a millionaire: Name the first great African-American sitcom of the New Millennium... Correct! The 2000 presidential election, as perpetrated in Palm Beach and Duval counties.
Imagine, black people actually thinking they could vote. Cue the laugh track. Go to commercial.
If you're already nostalgic for the kind of pure entertainment value offered by the perversely fascinating Florida (bamboozled, indeed), don't fret. There's always the WB (as opposed to the GWB) or the United Plantation Network, to sustain your sense of cultural (dis)equilibrium--as well as a Lester Maddoxian sense of race separation. Ever watch The Steve Harvey Show? Yes? Well, don't be shocked but you may be black: The number-one rated show among African-Americans, it's been all but unknown among the rest of the population.
If the accession of George W. Bush illustrated anything--other than the awesome power of television to stand by and do nothing--it was the cyclical nature of black access to power in this country, on TV or off. In 1876--as we all know now--a rigged election signaled the end of Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, the establishment of the hangman's noose as symbol of Southern recreation and, until the Scottsboro Boys case in 1931, a national coma as regards racial mending.
But only eight years after Scottsboro broke, Ethel Waters was asked to develop a show for a medium that was itself still in development. By the late 1960s, The Brady Bunch had taken the one institutionalized black figure on mainstream TV--the maid--and made her white. By 2001, Jerry Springer was refereeing an on-air fiasco that could only be described as a racist's dream, showcasing, as it does, the dregs of the population, black and white.
That so much of television's black content is currently in syndication--good or bad--is telling. Plenty could argue that Jim Crow is still alive and well on network TV, but it is hard to say that matters aren't better than they were: Many major programs have a major black character; Oprah Winfrey rules the waves. But it's also better than arguable that ever since lynch mobs became more or less unfashionable (except in Texas), television has exercised the kind of social/racial control over our culture that race laws once maintained, and via the same mechanism: Create an artificial universe, with artificial rules; give people little enough to keep them near-starved, but make enough noise about every crumb you do toss their way that the public will think you're a bomb-lobbing revolutionary.
The culture critic Donald Bogle doesn't ascribe so much power, or so much intelligence, to the medium he critiques in Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television. But he's certainly cognizant of the power of entertainment to skew one's perception. And oneself. Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, Bogle writes, he seldom saw black people he recognized on TV. Or situations, comedic or otherwise, that weren't filtered through a white consciousness. But he watched. And watched.
Early on, it was Beulah, with Waters--and Louise Beavers and Hattie McDaniel--refashioning for an all-new medium the near-mythic character of the wise and/or sardonic black servant. He watched the minstrelized antics of Amos 'n' Andy--which, to its credit, barely acknowledged the white world--as well as the caustic modernism of Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. Later, there were the "events" of Roots and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, programs reeking of network noblesse oblige. But it wasn't until The Cosby Show, he says, that he realized two things: a previously unknown familiarity with people he was watching, via a seemingly benign, but hugely influential--and successful--NBC sitcom. And an accompanying epiphany about the magnitude of network TV's failure to its black audience.
To no one's surprise, Bill Cosby emerges in Bogle's book as one of the three or four most influential black performers/entrepreneurs in the history of black television (along with Waters, the comedian Flip Wilson and the Wayans brothers, because In Living Color helped put Fox TV "on the map"). But Cosby also ties Bogle up. As a performer, Cosby has been averse to playing the race card for either laughs or points, and his silence has been eloquent. Bogle recognizes this, just as he recognizes that Amos 'n' Andy assumed an existential grandeur by existing in its own black world.
But in Primetime Blues--a companion to Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks (Continuum), his study of blacks in film--Bogle is torn: There's the sense that every opportunity given, majestically, African-Americans on TV (itself a repugnantly patriarchal concept) should be used to promote a positive image or political message. Conversely, there's the Realpolitik of mass entertainment. It's rather unclear whether he thinks Julia, the landmark series that debuted in turbulent 1968, starring Diahann Carroll as a widowed mother and nurse (working for the crusty-but-benevolent Lloyd Nolan), was rightfully criticized for not having more truthfully represented black people, whatever that means, or was a landmark nonetheless. When he says that the characters in a show like Sanford & Son might have portrayed real anger about their status and thus taken the show in a different and provocative direction, he doesn't say whether he thinks very many viewers would have bothered to follow along.
In this, Bogle skirts the two basic aspects of television's nature: First, that it is craven, soulless and bottom-line fixated. And second, that it is aimed at morons. Sure, Bogle can cite hundreds of examples of African-Americans being portrayed in a patronizing or demeaning fashion, but how many real white people ever show up on the tube? Shows like The Jeffersons and Good Times were cartoons, the latter perpetrating what Bogle dubs neo-"coonery" via comedian Jimmie Walker. But between The Honeymooners and Roseanne, how many regular series represented white America as other than upper-middle-class, Wonder Bread-eating humanoids? Television, in its democratic largesse, has smeared us all.
Some worse than others. If the only place you saw white people was on the evening news--the one slot where blacks were always assured better-than-equal representation--you'd have a pretty warped idea of white people, too. Which is why, Bogle makes plain, it's always been so important to get respectable blacks on network TV.
The history itself is fascinating. Waters, who acquires a quasi-Zelig-like presence in Bogle's account of TV's early age, personified the medium's ability to diminish whatever talent it sucked into its orbit. The original Ethel Waters Show included scenes from Waters's hit play Mamba's Daughters; eleven years later, she'd be back as Beulah. By 1957, she was destitute, dunned by the IRS and had offered herself up as poignant fodder for Edward R. Murrow's Person to Person, talking about Christian faith and a need for money. Finally, television, never sated, asked one more sacrifice and got it, when Waters tried to quiz-show her way out of debt via a show called Break the $250,000 Bank.
Waters remains a towering figure in twentieth-century American culture; after the fanfares of both Bogle and jazz critic Gary Giddins (whose Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams ranks her alongside Crosby and Louis Armstrong in her importance to American pop singing), she may be due for a full-fledged resurrection, replete with boxed sets and beatification by Ken Burns. But she isn't the only one the author resuscitates. In trying to achieve as complete as possible a history of the medium-in-black, Bogle also tells the unsung stories of other pioneering African-American performers--such people as Tim Moore, Ernestine Wade, Juano Hernandez, James Edwards--who more often than not had one hit show then went on hiatus, and from there to oblivion.
Among the encores given by Bogle (author of a first-rate biography of the actress Dorothy Dandridge) are Bob Howard, star of The Bob Howard Show, a fifteen-minute weeknight program of songs that went on the air in 1948 and was the first to feature a black man as host. It lasted only thirteen months. Howard doesn't seem to have stretched his material beyond renditions of "As Time Goes By" or "The Darktown Strutters' Ball." But the most interesting thing, besides his race, was that the network didn't seem to notice it--didn't seem to have a problem with bringing an African-American into white homes. Of course, the networks had yet to hear the five little words that have echoed down through the annals of black TV (and any other progressive programming, for that matter):
What about the Southern affiliates?
Hazel Scott was hardly the 1950s version of Lil' Kim: The elegant, educated and worldly host of the DuMont Network's Hazel Scott Show had already come under fire from both James Agee and Amiri Baraka for allegedly putting phony white airs on earthy black music--so, if anything, she should have been the darling of the powers of early television. But no. Allegations in the communist-watchdog publication Red Channels dried up sponsorship for her show. And even though Scott demanded and got a chance to plead her patriotism before the House Un-American Activities Committee, her show was canceled after just three months. Scott's fate indicated even at this early stage that television would flee from any sign of controversy, especially political controversy, writes Bogle, who is correct--except when money is involved.
Primetime Blues stands as a history of African-American television, but there's more than enough subject matter to fill two books--a sequel could deal solely with the current ghettoization of the evening airwaves--so Bogle steers mostly clear of analyzing white television (you wish he'd at least dug deeper into the influence of black TV on white TV). But he can't ignore All in the Family. Not only did it spin off one of the most successful black sitcoms ever--The Jeffersons--it had a stronger kinship, albeit an ironic one, to black sitcoms than it did to white. It might even have been a black sitcom, sort of the way Bill Clinton was a black President, by the nature and limits of its experience.
Bogle places himself in the rather illustrious camp (Laura Hobson, author of Gentleman's Agreement, was one critic of the show's "dishonesty") contending that Carroll O'Connor's bigoted Archie Bunker, who brought "hebe," "coon" and "spade" into prime time--and ended up one of TV Guide's Fifty Greatest Characters Ever--did nothing to break down racial barriers but in fact reinforced the very racist attitudes the buffoonish Bunker was supposed to make look ridiculous. Cosby hated it; Lucille Ball (who, it is left unsaid, had one of the top-rated Nielsen shows before AITF premiered) weighed in too, comparing Norman Lear's groundbreaking comedy to the days when "the Romans let human beings be eaten by lions, while they laughed and drank."
CBS pooh-bah William Paley, who originally thought the show offensive, became a big supporter once it became a smash--to the point of ordering that a study he'd commissioned, one that confirmed what critics of the show were saying, be destroyed: What can we do with it? Paley asked. If we release it, we'll have to cancel the show.
Bogle is good at comparing Amos 'n' Andy to In Living Color--shows whose humor would never be viewed the same way by black and white audiences. And he appreciates that while early performers like the Randolph sisters--Lillian (It's a Wonderful Life, Amos 'n' Andy, The Great Gildersleeve) and Amanda (The Laytons, Amos 'n' Andy, Make Room for Daddy)--could add nuance and dimension to otherwise cardboard domestic characters, their roles were mostly nonexistent outside the sphere of their white employers. But he misses what I think is the lasting point of All in the Family: Archie Bunker, a furious, frustrated vessel of negative energy, was defined solely by his hate, solely by his proximity to the people he considered inferior or worse. He existed in a parallel zone to the one that had been created as a ghetto for black performers for decades past--a zone that defined him not by what he was, but what he wasn't. America didn't get it, of course, and CBS didn't intend it, but what All in the Family turned out to be was a perverted version of Amos 'n' Andy.