Entertainment + Leisure | 1930 | Sound | B/W
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A short 1930s musical film, with an entirely Afro-American cast but still remains patronising at best and racist - it imagines a black man as President…Imagine !!!
A storyline riddled with absurd racist stereotypes (implying an obsession with pork chops, chickens, water melons, gambling, dancing, drug taking, ignorance and sex); it depicts a mother's dream of her son as President and a meeting of the Senate resembling a Harlem revue. It is memorable for two spirited performances by a seven-year-old Sammy Davis Junior, who plays the son, and a powerful rendition by Ethel Waters, playing the mother, of 'Underneath a Harlem Moon', although the song is itself a catalogue of racial stereotypes. A truly appalling film of racism.
Ethel Waters (EW) finishes putting out washing on a line and leans on a rather rickety wooden fence in front of it, as she hears an argument off-screen and calls over her sons Rufus and Henry. A closer shot of EW, in white headscarf, paisley shirt and checked skirt, as she leans on the fence and demands that neighbour Sinbad Johnson give Rufus his cake; we hear Johnson say 'Well, there it is', followed by a sudden sound, which causes EW to look horrified. A more distant view of the porch, as Sammy Davis Jnr (SD), wearing a wide-brimmed hat and with his face smeared with cake, appears, followed by an older boy, SD running crying to his mother, who steps to the left of the fence to meet him; as she comforts him, the other boy, Henry, says that he is going 'to lick that Sinbad Johnson'.
A close shot of EW bending down to SD. She sits down on a rocking chair to the left of the fence and lifts her son onto her lap; she tells him that Sinbad Johnson will be sorry when he realises what 'a great man' Rufus is going to be; when her son asks exactly how great he will be, EW replies 'President', adding 'They have kings your age, I don't see no reason why they can't have presidents. Besides, the book says anybody born here can be President'. A closer shot of her cradling SD as she rocks in the chair, beginning to sing a lullaby. An even closer, head-and-shoulders shot of them, with SD now asleep. The previous view again, EW still singing. The closer shot, as EW finishes and adds 'Yes, honey, you sure is gonna be President, I can see you now'.
A procession of people singing and carrying a banner saying 'Vote First and Last for Rufus Jones' appears from the top of the picture. The procession moves towards us across the screen. Two women in large bonnets look out at the procession from behind a window. A closer shot of the participants, showing two men carrying their hats on umbrellas and more women in extravagant bonnets. A view of the procession from above. Still on their front porch, SD looks on at the left of the picture, dancing with his hat in his hand, while EW sits to the right, and Henry stands to the right of her. The procession passes across the screen. Another view from above, as the procession encircles two trombonists, a bass drum player and other musicians, all in military-style uniforms.
As they finish singing 'Rufus Jones for President', EW rocks in her chair, side-on to us, while the procession can be seen in the background. EW, facing us, with SD to the left and Henry to the right, asks what all the fuss is about. Two men in formal dress face us, with an indistinct crowd of people behind, and the one on the left replies 'We want Rufus for the President'. EW points to SD, delighted that her prediction has come true, with Henry also looking across at him, grinning. We see EW from the back stand up and usher SD into the procession, both of them joining it as it moves across and the song starts up again. A slightly aerial view of the procession moving towards us, led by SD, EW and Henry, swinging their arms. A close view of them, as they pass beyond the right of the screen, followed by the musicians. A view from above of the banner moving towards us, with more of the procession behind.
Introducing the first of a number of racial stereotypes, we see a sign saying 'Vote Here for Rufus Jones. Two Pork Chops Every Time You Vote'; the camera moves out and down to show a stream of people moving towards us through a polling booth (a ballot box is visible to the right), collecting their pork chops or chicken pieces from a woman to the left of the picture. A man in formal dress and a top hat says to the woman, who stands to the left of the picture, 'Well, I wonder how the election's coming?', to which she replies, laughing, 'You can tell that from the way this chicken is going'; a number of voters pass across in the foreground. The camera swings rightwards up to what looks like a speaker, beneath which hangs a sign saying 'For President Rufus Jones', as a voice is heard saying that he needs 100 more votes to become President; almost immediately the voice is heard saying 'Rufus Jones wins', and the camera swings down again to the supporters below.
A group of men and women celebrate, dancing. We follow a man moving rightwards, as he puts down his umbrella and top hat on a table behind and steps up to the microphone to announce: 'I am happy to announce that Rufus Jones has been elected the President'; he adds 'Where is that new President?' and looks all around him. As the speaker and the crowd look down, suddenly, to a shout of 'Here he is', SD is led on by a man in a white hat; SD himself is dressed in a double-breasted suit and a cream peaked cap worn at a jaunty angle.
SD stands in the foreground, with the man who found him to the left and the speaker to the right behind him, as the speaker tells him to 'say something to your constituency'; the camera moves down a little to focus on SD putting his face up to a low microphone and starting to sing 'You Rascal You', still clutching a half-eaten sandwich in his right hand; SD moves his head away from the microphone after each line. A more distant view, showing people dancing behind SD, also eating sandwiches. The previous view, showing SD stepping away from the microphone more as he sings. The more distant view again, as SD breaks into a dance routine, eventually moving leftwards across the stage and then behind the microphone again. The close shot, as SD begins to sing again, finally ending the song with a 'Yeah', before he sinks his teeth into his sandwich.
A group of people stand at the top of some steps, with the edge of one column visible at the far left and the base of another at the right; EW, among the crowd on the left calls out for Rufus, who appears from among their legs and raises his top hat. A closer shot of SD, with EW standing in a white dress to the left, an official in a mortar board and formal dress to the right, and Henry in military dress applauding in the background. We see the official leading SD and EW down a couple of steps, then back up a few steps further along to the right.
A closer view of SD raising his right hand, following a request from the official. An even closer shot, as a song begins, in which the official asks SD to swear to a number of absurd proposals (for example, 'Swear to me that you will choose / For the national anthem the Memphis Blues'), and places the boy's hand on what looks like a telephone directory, while SD chimes in with 'I do, I do'. A more distant shot of SD in front of the column, while EW and Henry can be seen to the left of the picture. A close shot of SD's hand on the book, as he sings. SD dances to the left of the picture, while the official is on the right, with four men in top hats behind. A close shot of the step on which SD stands, as he sings his chorus of 'I do, I do' and then dances a little. The previous view, as SD again sings his chorus, swearing on the book. A more distant shot of the group as they all sing and finally SD shakes hands with the official.
A close-up of a sign on a stand saying 'Senate'; the camera follows a man in a top hat who walks leftwards, in front of a group of men gambling with dice on the black-and-white tiled floor. The man in the top hat stands to the right of a counter beneath a sign saying 'Check Your Razors', while across the counter a man in a white jacket and black bow tie opens a razor and passes it to him; he tests it on his face, then passes it back to the attendant, who closes it.
A man in a uniform, raising a kind of sceptre, looks down the aisle between two sections of occupied seats and desks, and announces 'Gentlemen, the President'. SD, in a comically large top hat, walks towards us down the aisle, EW behind him to the left and Henry to the right. They walk away from us towards the platform at the end. The senators, sitting down at their desks, face us, singing and swinging their arms, with a man in uniform guarding the doors in the background. Two consecutive close shots of different senators standing and saying some words. The view of them all at their desks, raising their hands in cries of 'Hallelujah' at certain points in the song, then finally standing to shout 'Hooray'.
EW approaches from the left of the picture, while SD sits on his raised chair to the right, behind a high desk. A close shot of EW saying to the senators, 'I don't want my child coming home with no headaches from running this government, so I've nominated myself to the office of the Presidente'. The previous shot, as EW says that she will be prepared to take up with them 'matters of the most inconspicuous importance', while SD can be seen at top right gesturing in discussion with someone off-screen. A close-up of EW explaining that a 'Commissioner of Poultry' will be added to 'our official family'. A senator stands up in front of his colleagues and enquires about the duties of the post. EW replies that they are 'to see that all the padlocks is first removed from the coops'. The senator agrees, saying ''cos when a chicken is in a hurry, he don't want to be bothered with no padlocks', before sitting down.
A close-up of EW explaining that 'a water melon investigator' has been created, his duty being 'to plant the water melon vines near the fence instead of in the middle of the patch'. Another senator stands in front of his colleagues and asks what they should do while this long process is taking place. EW replies 'Remove the fencing', and collapses into laughter. A senator on the left of the picture stands and questions her authority, then cowers behind his desk; the previous speaker stands and upbraids him. A shot of EW asleep in her chair, as we hear the same senator say 'Just look at the Presidente'. The previous view, as the senator makes his colleague think about what his 'hard words' have done to her. A close shot of SD at his chair, a large volume open before him, as he leans to the left of the picture and says 'What's the matter, Mammy, are you blue?'
A view over the heads of the senators, who start to applaud, as EW steps to the front of the platform in front of SD's high desk and chair. A close-up of EW, with SD visible to the right behind, as she begins to sing 'Am I Blue?' A close shot of her alone singing. A brief clip of a senator with his eyes closed. The view of her with SD behind. A sequence of three head-and-shoulders close-ups of senators, all with different expressions on their faces. The close-up of EW alone singing. A head-and-shoulders shot of a bespectacled senator. Back to the close shot of EW, as she finishes the song.
A senator stands up in front of his colleagues to complain that they are all falling asleep and that they need something to wake them all up. EW, with SD visible to the right, begins singing Harry Revel and Mack Gordon's recent song 'Underneath a Harlem Moon': the song imagines Harlem as a refuge from the Deep South for black Americans, a place where they can be themselves, but it unfortunately relies on exactly the kind of stereotypes that underpin the film as a whole; however, in EW's impassioned performance, some of the lyrics at least seem to suggest a defiant pride (for example, it begins, 'There's no fields of cotton, picking cotton is taboo, / We don't live in cabins like our old folks used to do, / Our cabin now is a penthouse on St Nicholas Avenue, / Underneath a Harlem Moon').
A close view of EW as she sings. A wide shot of the senators swaying side-to-side in time to the music. A closer, but more side-on view of the senators. EW again, with SD visible to the right in the background. The wide view of the senators, as they contribute a 'Right' in unison. The close view of EW. The view of EW with SD behind, now seen clapping along. The close shot again. Back to the previous view. The wide view of the senators, as they shout 'Aha' and continue to sway along. EW singing, with SD visible behind, bending down as she sings about picking cotton. The close shot of her. EW, with SD visible behind, as she rotates her hips to the words 'We just thrive on dancing'. A view over the heads of the senators, showing the whole platform. A closer view of senators nodding from side to side. The close view of EW, as she sings 'We also drink our gin, pass our reefers, / When we're feeling low …'. (Great early reference to drugs and smoking weed/dope/pot). A close shot of the senators shouting 'Yeah'. The close-up of EW. The view of the whole platform, as she brings the song to its conclusion, and sits down in her chair to the left, to the sound of applause.
A senator at the left of the picture stands and raises the question of 'dice', in particular the fact that there are 'too many loaded dice'; he calls on his colleague on the right of the picture to stand and asks, 'Senator, does you know anything about dice?'; to which he replies, 'Have you got any money?' The first senator, now in the middle of the picture, names his friend 'the dice president'. Another stands up and complains that they elected the President to do something: 'This President just sits in the chair and don't do nothing'.
A close-up of SD putting on his top hat, saying that he'll 'do something'. A view of the whole platform, as SD steps forward and EW stands. A close shot of SD tap-dancing in front of his high desk, with EW sitting back in her chair to the left behind and the uniformed man with the sceptre seated to the right. A close shot of SD dancing. EW sits back with pride. The previous view, as the camera follows SD to the left in front of EW, then back to his original position, where he begins to dance on tiptoe; the camera follows him to the right, where he dances in front of the uniformed man, before returning to his original spot again. The view of the whole platform, as SD dances round to the left of his official chair, climbs up, and finally sets his top hat down beside him.
A close shot of EW seated, saying 'You ain't never had a President what could do that!' A senator complains that there are ambassadors and diplomats waiting to come in, but they are being distracted. Over the heads of some of the senators, we see EW standing and leaning against the President's desk, while a female dancer in a white silk mini-skirt and white top hat comes on from the left and dances in front of the platform. A closer view of the dancer, as she sings 'They're Puttin' It On' and dances, with EW seated to the left behind, and SD just visible in his seat at the top. A closer shot of the dancer alone. Back to the previous view.
A view down the central aisle between the two sections of senators, as about nine other dancers, identically dressed, come on and take her place. A head-and-shoulders shot of a senator looking ecstatic. A long, side-on view, over some senators. Some senators in the foreground enjoy the music, while behind them three diplomats walk across to the left, a man in a triangular hat, followed by two men in Chinese-style hats; a uniformed attendant is seen saluting in the background. A more direct view of the dancers over the heads of the senators. The long, side-on view again, as the diplomats are seen walking across to the presidential desk in the distance. Three more diplomats in foreign costumes dance on from the left and are followed across.
A close, side-on shot of a new couple of dancers, a man and a woman, who perform in front of the chorus line of dancers. A bespectacled senator with bushy sideburns looks on in some excitement. A direct view, down the central aisle, of the two dancers in front of the chorus line. The close, side-on shot, as the woman dances with one knee on the ground and the other leg outstretched. A senator clicks his fingers in delight. The previous shot again, as the female dancer leans back horizontally on the man's arm. A close, ground-level shot of them dancing, the woman spinning round at one point and permitting a glimpse of undergarments. A senator looks on in approval. The long, side-on view again, as another couple appear at the front of the platform.
Consecutive shots of each of the two groups of diplomats dancing. A view over the senators' desks, where they are now standing to dance, towards the area in front of the platform now crowded with dancers. A close, ground-level view of them all. Close shots of a diplomat, two senators, another diplomat and a senator all looking on with pleasure, some clicking their fingers. The previous view of the dancers. An attendant approaches a cameraman, whose camera points towards the left of the picture, as he tries to take a picture of the President, with a row of diplomats standing in the background.
EW shakes SD and tells him to wake up, as they pose for a photograph. A puff of smoke clears to show EW still sitting in the rocking chair on her porch, holding SD. As she says 'Wake up, wake up, Mr President, my pork chops have burned', we see a pan full of charred pork chops. EW dismisses them and cuddles SD, as she finishes singing the lullaby that she began earlier. The End.
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