Race and gender impersonations were a mainstay of vaudeville and are thus
fairly common in the vaudeville-inspired films of the early sound era. At the
risk of a shameless plug, I discuss a number of examples of these in my book,
Certain stars, most notably Eddie Cantor, made blackface a trademark. Cantor
works a blackface number into everyone of his films, sometimes where it is
comically in appropriate, as in ROMAN SCANDELS where he plays a Ethiopean
beauty specialist in ancient Rome, or in ALI BABA GOES TO TOWN, when he puts
on blackface in order to better communicate with Nubian slaves. In Cantor's
films, as in other early sound comedies, the line between what constitutes a
staged performance and diagetic reality is complex. Often, Cantor puts on
black face or drag (see PALMY DAYS) as a disguise but then circumstances force
him to perform. (See for example WHOOPEE). The same is true of Wheeler and
Woolsey who also do blackface or crossdressing numbers. The Peace Conference
sequence in DIPLOMANIACS has the boys addressing the delegates in blackface
after a bomb explodes but evolves into a minstrel number in which the
entire conference is in blackface. Wheeler was a skilled female-impersonator
as can be seen in several of their films, most notably PEACH O'RENO where
he appears in drag for much of the movie and does a sidespliting parody of
the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals being made at that same studio, RKO,
during the period. Cantor also impersonates native Americans (in WHOOPEE, where
he moves back and forth between Yidish and pseudo-tribal patter) and other
ethnic types (such as hispanics in KID FROM SPAIN). Winnie Lightner, a female
clown at Warner Brothers, also does blackface and male-impersonation (for comic
effect), most notably in SIDESHOW. (I have a long discussion of her various
strategies of masquerade in the book.) What I argue is that the vaudeville
aesthetic's focus on performance virtuosity meant that such layered-performances
 were common, helping to showcase the range of the performer's skills and to
allow them to slip fluidly in and out of multiple roles. The most extreme
example of this strategy might be El Brendel's one-man-show in JUST IMAGINE,
which perfectly records a long-standing stage tradition.
--Henry Jenkins