In response to my earlier observations on COLLEGE, David Desser writes:
I'm not sure what the "message about race" is in Keaton's COLLEGE.
Instead, it seems to me that Keaton, as much as any American filmmaker (but
not alone among American filmmakers) reproduced some of the standard
racialist, and perhaps racist, stereotypes of his era. He finds race a
source of humor throughout the entirety of SEVEN CHANCES, one of his most
sublime feature films in terms of structure and surrealism, but one of his
most troubling in terms of race . . .
It's been quite a while since my one viewing of SEVEN CHANCES so I can't
comment on that, but obviously Keaton does reproduce "racialist" (oh what
the hell--it is racist!) stereotypes in at least some films. I'd also note
his short film THE PLAYHOUSE, which is a marvel of technical achievement--
Keaton plays every role in the film via multiple exposures, but it is a
comic version of a minstrel show with blackface, Mr. Bones, and all the rest.
What intrigues me about the scene in COLLEGE is that Keaton's character is
portrayed as transgressing a racial boundary--that is, by working in blackface
he is not only insulting the black waiters and cooks at the restaurant but
he is also taking a position that is one of the few good livelihoods avail-
able at the time to blacks. Thus they react with anger and chase him out of
the restaurant. (But as David implies, angry blacks with meat cleavers, etc.
are just another side of the racist coin that usually depicts blacks as
bumbling fools, like the servant in SEVEN CHANCES). In any case, it seems
to me that the majority of racist portrayals, from Griffith on, are of blacks
overreaching themselves, pretending to positions of service, authority, or
intellect that white society has not believed to be possible or appropriate.
In this case, Keaton is the one who pretends to a position that is not his
due--a case that strikes me as somewhat different from Eddie Cantor or Bob
Hope cavorting around in blackface.
2 other observations--one on race and one on COLLEGE:
1. After BOAN, how many portrayals of the violent black character are to be
seen in mainstream films of the classical Hollywood era (i.e., up to about
1960)? While one can find evil Asians and Hispanics in many films, I don't
recall too many depictions of blacks as violent or overtly evil. I can think
of several reasons for that, including the Production Code, but that's another
thread. I ask because not too long ago on late-night tv (perhaps WGN), I taped
HI-DEE-HO (sp?) starring of all people, Cab Calloway, as a musician whose
woman does him wrong, but to whom he reacts with a surprisingly casual
brutality. The film appears to be a cheapo production "race" film, which
raises a number of questions about the kinds of transgression that such
minority productions allowed or encouraged.
2. A last thought on COLLEGE:
This film has the weirdest ending of any comedy I've seen, yet critics seem
to scant it. At the end of the film, Keaton rescues the heroine from the
campus jock and the two walk to the campus chapel to get married. Normally,
that's where one would expect the film to end. But then there's a dissolve
and we see the two in a kitchen surrounded by children; then another dissolve
and we see two old people in rocking chairs speaking sharply to each other;
then a dissolve and we see two gravestones. Moral: They didn't live happily
and they sure didn't live ever after!