Thursday, November 20, 2008

Stepin Fetchit (I)

There's a lot to say about Stepin Fetchit, and as this entry is #1, you can be sure that I plan to come back to High-Steppin' Sir Stepin in the future. Specifically, I plan to write in more detail about his fascinating career, one as full of highs and lows as any imaginable. But for now, let's talk about Stepin Fetchit himself and allow me to mount something like a defense for him. For while not I (nor anyone) can defend the roles he played, I can say that Stepin Fetchit was a uniquely gifted performer who earned both his fame and his infamy.

The very name, Stepin Fetchit, has come to signify everything that is disgraceful about portrayals of African-Americans in Hollywood. Everyone from the NAACP to Bill Cosby has decried Fetchit and his performances in the 1930s. On he is described as the most controversial actor in American motion picture history, and I'd say that's about right. He is often cut out of films when they appear on television, so he's become one of those figures where people know his name, but don't know much about him. Let's plunge right in: In the short below from 1948, he is appearing in a sort of prototypical music video for the enormously popular song "Open the Door, Richard."

The first thing you notice is that he is basically unintelligible. Fetchit (real name Lincoln Perry) did this on purpose, as part of his act. He claimed that he only needed the audience to understand every third or fourth word to get across the point, and that the rest was supposed to be gibberish. It's jarring, but if you give yourself to it, it's also pretty funny. Fetchit was famous for improvising dialogue long before this was accepted in Hollywood, and he used the script merely as a guideline for his performances. As he became more famous, filmmakers and studios allowed him plenty of creative latitude, which was both a blessing and a curse. 

Left almost entirely to his own devices, Fetchit created his World's Laziest Man persona in the late 1920s and 30s and in his numerous onscreen appearances, deviated from it only once or twice. His attitude was that he had created a unique character and he played it well, so why change? And audiences did clamor for Fetchit, to the point where he appeared in as many films as possible in the 1930s. Will Rogers was a big fan and worked with him on "David Harum," "Judge Priest" and Steamboat Round the Bend." These films provide some of the best glimpses of Fetchit's work, as he fits in more comfortably in the southern settings of the films. Here he is seen with Rogers and Berton Churchill in "Judge Priest," as a chicken thief whom Rogers takes an interest in:

Setting was crucial to the perception of Fetchit; in the few all-black films he appeared in (such as 1929's "Hearts in Dixie"), his performance is much less offensive because it can be seen clearly for what it is: a send-up of white America's perceptions of "the lazy negro." But when viewed in the context of a film with white actors, there were two problems. The first is that the only roles allowed for black actors at the time were subservient: either as slaves in Southern epics, or some kind of bellboy, maid, chauffeur, or service type. So Fetchit was always playing a yes man, no matter how slow and garbled his yes might be. Second is that his drawling, stooped manner is so incongruous and different from everyone else, that it seems like he's acting in another film altogether. 

Video footage of Fetchit is scarce, because of his controversial nature. He's lampooned in this startlingly racist cartoon from 1937, which also features vocals from Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters, and many more. Yet the song itself is a lot of fun, and the cartoon illustrates the ability of black performers to make the best of a situation, despite the restrictions placed upon them. I can't find any information to confirm if Fetchit is doing his own voice or if it's one of his many imitators, but you get the general flavor of how he was perceived (he shows up at 3:18).

Fetchit's career was troubled from the start; in the 1930s and 40s he went through dry spells of work where he couldn't get a job in Hollywood. On the one hand, he legitimately earned a reputation as a difficult actor by showing up late, being abusive, and unreliable. There are plenty of documented cases of this behavior, especially in the early 1930s. Yet even in the late 1930s when he got his act together, Fetchit continued to be dogged by this perception. 

In a more complicated vein, Fetchit was unafraid to show off his wealth. He was driven around town in a cadillac with his name in neon lights on the side, he threw lavish parties, and was seen at all the best spots in town. Newspaper reports from the time (in both white and black papers) decry him for acting out and being flamboyant. The implication is that Fetchit didn't know his place. Like Jack Johnson, the heavyweight champ with whom Fetchit was friends, the actor refused to stoop and bow once off the screen. Ironically, the same papers that damned Fetchit drooled over the decadent lifestyles of white stars like Rudolph Valentino, Errol Flynn, and Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, praising them as America's new royalty.

Eventually Fetchit began to fall from favor as his refusal to alter his performing style meant that he was out of touch with a new racial pride demonstrated by actors like Hattie McDaniel.
As the years passed and he found no work, he would becoming the rallying point for criticism of Hollywood's portrayals of African-Americans.

Yet the protests against him personally are more than a bit unfair. Fetchit had his share of problems, absolutely, but he doesn't deserve to be used as an example of everything wrong with his race either. Fetchit wanted to be a movie star and that's just what he did, becoming the first full-fledged African-American star. He accomplished it through hard work, talent, and the only way open to him at that time; taking demeaning roles that are almost unwatchable today. Yet don't forget, this was the only option at the time. Theaters in the South would not allow positive portrayals of African-Americans onscreen and studio bosses capitulated to them. Stepin Fetchit was a brilliant performer who opened the doors for black actors and actresses. And African-American audiences of the day were in on the joke. They could see the sly smile behind the mask and the mocking of racial attitudes, even when that subtlety is all but vanished today.

Suggested Viewing:
-Hearts in Dixie
-David Harum
-Judge Priest
-Steamboat Round the Bend

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