Anna May Wong and Cross-Racial Masquerade

The Chinese-American star, Anna May Wong, regularly appeared in films in roles that were non-Asian but always racialized. I am currently obsessed with how often imagery linked her with blackness, as in this Paramount Studio photograph by Eugene Robert Richee:

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Picturing Americans…Insights come from everywhere!

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to participate in a convo, “Picturing Americans,” about Thomas Hart Benton as part of the opening festivities for “American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood” at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.

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Opening Reception (one of several!)

Thinking about Benton’s relationship to Hollywood and parallels with my research on Carl Van Vechten revealed an interesting thread via the director King Vidor. Benton went to Hollywood in 1937 on assignment for LIFE magazine. Van Vechten had gone a decade earlier in 1927 to write a series of articles for Vanity Fair. Both of them found Hollywoodland fascinating and at times repulsive.

Thomas Hart Benton by Carl Van Vechten
Thomas Hart Benton in 1935 by Carl Van Vechten

Van Vechten helped to catalyze the production of all-black cast musicals in the late 1920s. His infamous 1926 novel, Nigger Heaven, was considered for adaptation but this never came to pass. Talks with Vidor eventually led to his making the 1929 film, Hallelujah!, one of the first all-black cast feature films. Vidor admired Benton’s work and later purchased one of his paintings, The Negro and Alligator (1927) in the 1940s.

All three held complex views of African Americans that ranged from egregious stereotype to genuine admiration and empathy. All, of course, were the product of their times where the black vogue and jazz craze coexisted with the second heyday of the Klan, lynchings, and race riots. (Doesn’t sound much different from 2015, does it!?)

“American Epics” is a great exhibition and I had the chance to look at my research from a new angle. Win-win!

Ready for my Close Up: Theda Bara

Shadows take on a life of their own in the jazz age

Anyone trying to study the role of shadow in visual representation will not find much. Victor Stoichita and Michael Baxandall have written books on the topic, plus a few articles exist. That is why I am eagerly anticipating the publication of a new book called The Cinema and Its Shadow by Alice Maurice. Not only does it deal with shadows and race, it focuses on light-based media and its formal qualities:

Moving beyond analyzing race in purely thematic or ideological terms, Maurice traces how it shaped the formal and technological means of the cinema.

This is how I approach the photographic medium. The inherent nature of the medium and its means of formal expression relies upon a race for its coherence.

I am still working on my presentation for CAA. I came across this interesting photograph of Ruby Keeler, a dancer, and one-time wife of Al Jolson, with a dance partner:

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Note how the shadows operate independently of the people they are meant to reflect as in Fred Astaire’s “Bojangles in Harlem” number in Swing Time (1935) that I have mentioned in an earlier post.