Swingali Images, page 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

Generally speaking, the worse the hatas hate, the more determined I am to love.  Of relevance here particularly, there seems to be an automatic wall of hostility by the supposedly enlightened to seemingly nearly all appearances of black folk on film before, what, Sidney Poitier? 

So I'm digging on Glenn Mitchell's excellent Marx fan must own The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia, and checking out the entry for the 1939 At the Circus.  It has recently given me some fair delight, in part based on five original songs by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg.  This was the same year they wrote the Wizard of Oz songs.  Nothing here will make you forget "Over the Frickin' Rainbow".  However this does introduce Groucho's best and best known song, "Lydia the Tatooed Lady".

It also features a hot jam nominally by a band of young black kids who have declared Harpo "Swingali" because he tamed a cage of mad lions with a trombone lullabye.  The adults join in.  Harpo parties with the black folk and digs their song, then they put Swingali behind his harp to play variations on Rodgers and Hart's "Blue Moon."

But I guess I'm suffering from false consciousness or some damn thing, as I was clued up to by the Mitchells book, which says:

The other [racially controversial] scenes concern Harpo's Pied Piper-like influence upon black communities in A Day at the Races and At the Circus, embarrassing today but acceptable when first screened.  Though undoubtedly patronizing, they are at least not in the category of direct racial gags found in some pre-war comedies.  It is said that some American TV screenings omit the relevant section of the earlier film.

Patronizing how?  We'll come back to that.  Also what is wrong with direct racial gags?  But nevermind.  It took me about five minutes on the net to find a half dozen different bitches about this Swingali segment.  My methodology was that I went to "external reviews" on the IMDB site and checked ten reviews at random, which is about half of what they had listed.  Fully half of those had hateful comments on this segment. Let's see if we can expand our racial consciousness:

climbing on the bandwagon

*And speaking of terrible songs, you'd think the last thing they'd want to repeat from A Day at the Races is that horrible Gabriel bullshit, but lo and behold, here's another number with Harpo leading the ghetto kids to the promised land (it may not be more enlightened than its predecessor, but at least it's shorter). -Jason Bailey dvdtalk.com

Seriously now, that's just willfully reading stuff into it that simply isn't there.  The kids are impressed with his ability to soothe the savage beast, and four of them follow him a couple dozen yards to the bandstand where the other kids are setting up to play a song.  The most Messianic part of the Yip Harberg lyric would be, "Why be melancholy, when we got Swingali?" 

*Harpo Marx has a great scene playing the harp. Unfortunately, it happens during the excrutiating "Swingali," where dozens of black children follow him around a circus tent, occasionally breaking into the chorus of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot."  -Charles Tatum at efilmcritic.com

First off, Mr. Tatum makes up his own alternate reality version of what's on the screen in order to have something to bitch about.  Exactly four black children follow Harpo maybe 30 feet as he heads over to the bandstand where some other kids are scrambling to get their instruments and rock the bells.  Harpo dances and plays with the gathering crowd.  As they finish the song, some brothers set Swingali behind the harp with instructions to make it a "Blue Moon."  The black folk provide some understated background vocal  harmonies, including five seconds, just one quick invocation of the title of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" to set the vaguely gospel-y tone.  Apparently Mr. Tatum has a severe allergic reaction to the least hint of black people singing gospel.  [If that's not enough to prove that Harpo was leader of the Klan, he once recorded a whole album of spirituals with Mahalia Jackson!]  But I'm not sure what's "excruciating."  Is it the sight of a bunch of black kids or just the sight of black kids playing with the Jew?

*This is also one of the Marx Brothers movies that features a regrettable "black folks sure is musical people" segment, as usual centered around Harpo and featuring anonymous stereotypical characterizations enough to populate a small town.  -Neil Dorsett at www.dvdverdict.com

Seriously now, there's no winning with the likes of Mr. Dorsett.  This pretty much means that black people aren't allowed to sing in movies, or else it's a racist stereotype.  Are the Marx brothers making some demeaning stereotype of Jews by singing and playing in all their movies?

I most adamantly object here to "anonymous stereotypical characterizations enough to populate small town."  For starters, if you have enough different stereotypes to populate a small town, it starts to sound like you've got a bunch of individual characters.  The adult who sings the main lead of the "Swingali" song was afraid of a cage of mad lions for a few seconds.  I guess that's racist cause a black man ain't scared of nothing.  Should have had a whitey to be scared of the lions and set up the lion taming scene.  I'll give you the point there.

But I'd like Mr. Dorsett to tell me which of these people pictured on this page are "anonymous stereotypical characterizations."  If this darling little "ASC" above is still alive, she would be maybe 75 or 80ish.  I'd hate to think of ol' girl seeing people marking her special moment in the movies playing with Harpo Marx dismissed as some kind of disgrace. I see at least a half dozen distinctly different and seemingly unscripted reactions just in this shot below. They're certainly not all dressed alike.  Exactly which ones of them represent what demeaning "stereotype"?

*There are a few bits that might make contemporary audiences cringe, such as the out-of-nowhere musical number where Harpo boogies down with a gaggle of slow-witted, happy-footed African-Americans (led by Dudley Dickerson) who refer to him in song as “Swingali.” It brings to mind the unfortunate “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” hullabaloo from A Day at the Races, but at least this time we don’t have to watch the brothers debase themselves by prancing around in blackface. I don’t know which idiot at MGM thought Harpo might become more endearing to audiences if he played Pied Piper to a breadline of marble-mouthed Afro-Sheeners, but even the least urbane moviegoer is going to be put off by these racist high jinks.  -Edward Larsen Terkelsen, 2009   www.thefilmpalace.com

Hold the phone. A "slow-witted...breadline of marble-mouthed Afro-Sheeners"?  Really?  I don't even know what an "Afro-Sheener" is - which is surprising for an insensitive hillbilly like me, but I'm sure it's nothing nice.  Which ones of these people appear to be slow-witted?  And the "breadline" part seems to be an assumption that Mr. Terkelsen makes simply because they're black.  Do the people in these photographs look like they're starving or unkempt?  Wait a minute now.  This Terkelsen is talking this smack, and it's HARPO who was racist?

Let us bring this all back to the Mitchell book, whose author is at least not intending to be a sanctimonious ass.  Mitchell seems to have named what would appear to be the most central beef all around here by describing the scene as "patronizing."  There seem to be a couple of relevant definitions. 1)Treat with an apparent kindness that betrays a feeling of superiority. or 2)to adopt an air of condescension toward : treat haughtily or coolly.  I do not see how that applies at all to Harpo here.  Haughty isn't even in his repertoire, and he's obviously very warm playing with the little kids. I fail to see any way in which he betrays a feeling of superiority.

That "apparent kindness that betrays a feeling of superiority" would certainly seem descriptive of the Terkelsen remarks denouncing the racism of including people he presumes to be slow witted ghetto dwellers simply on the basis of being black.  The other critics aren't nearly so purely hateful of black people, but just as condescending or, in the best reading, paternalistic.  Whereas paternalistic, condescending or patronizing would not be words I'd ever associate with any Marx brother.

The good part of all this foolishness is that it prompted me to re-examine this number much more closely than before, and I'm sure glad of it.  The song is pretty good, and the musical performance (presumably not actually by that bunch of young kids) is slammin' good.  Plus the steppin' and especially the faces of those four main kids are just priceless.  And I'll be wondering for awhile about whatever might have happened to this charismatic little child.

Thank God for the Marx brothers and beautiful little girls.

Swingali Images, page 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12


PS Don't miss out on the free download of 7 year old Sammy Davis Jr as the first black president in "Rufus Jones for President"


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