Week 6: Young and Innocent (1937), Nova Pilbeam, and Blackface

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Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!

After last week’s struggle with Marnie, I wanted to pick something a little easier this go-around. Something lighter, more fun! So I went with the first movie that popped into my head, 1937’s Young and Innocent. Call it Hitchcock-lite, a wrong man picture with little suspense and lots of charm. Easy, breezy, and fun.

And of course, I forgot that the end of the film has an extended sequence with a character in blackface. Sigh. But let’s dig into the film itself first.

I don’t imagine Young and Innocent is anyone’s favorite Hitchcock film, but I really love it. According to Hitchcock himself, it was an attempt to make one of his thriller films with a young cast to appeal to a younger audience. Yes, even in 1937, filmmakers felt pressured by producers to create work that skewed younger. Ironically, while the lead actress was eighteen years old at the time of filming, her love interest was nearly thirty-one.

YOUNG & INNOCENT

Young and Innocent (a rather saucy title, replaced in America by the outrageously generic The Girl Was Young) starts with high drama that I suspect is Hitchcock’s skewering of the overwrought melodramas of the time. A man and a woman argue and the man storms out of her house, eyes twitching with fury. In the next scene, the woman washes up dead on a beach, and is discovered by Robert (Derrick de Marney), a young man who knew the victim and is presumed to have killed her through a flimsy coincidence (she was strangled with a belt from a raincoat, but he can’t produce his coat because it was stolen). He meets the daughter of a local constable (Nova Pilbeam, and yes that’s really her name and it’s amazing), and somehow persuades her to help him when he escapes to prove his innocence. The rest of the film is a wrong-man-on-the-lam story of the type that Hitchcock perfected in 1935 with the brilliant The 39 Steps, a film where all the parts fit together like a swiss watch.

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Hitchcock’s cameo as a flustered photographer outside a courthouse.

This is not the case with Young and Innocent. More than any of Hitchcock’s films, Young and Innocent is full of gigantic implausibilities and things that simply make no sense. It’s established that Robert knew the murdered woman, but their relationship is never clear (were they having an affair? Did he mention meeting her in Hollywood or did I mishear that). And when I mentioned above that he somehow persuades the constable’s daughter to help him, that’s exactly what I mean. She isn’t convinced of his innocence, she just thinks he’s cute and decides to throw away her entire upbringing for this charming dope.

The secret is that I don’t think Hitchcock cares about these type of things; he’s interested in moving from one set-piece to another while still holding the audience’s interest. He doesn’t have time for them to slowly start to trust each other or develop a plot that makes sense. It’s why his movies are rarely great drama, but they’re always entertaining. In his later films, like North by Northwest, Hitchcock would take this plotlessness to absurd levels, reveling in the glory of pure cinema and audience manipulation. The difference is that in Young and Innocent, he’s not as skilled at covering up the plotholes in a flimsy script.

But this is still a lovely, light-hearted film full of quintessentially British humor. The film delights in long sequences with country villagers and winking nods to that these two lovers are meant to be together (particularly clever is a joke with a construction crew and a “Road Closed” sign). British characters actors pack every frame, many of them men and women that Hitchcock would use again, such as the excellent Mary Claire and bumbling Basil Radford (more on both of these two when I discuss the excellent The Lady Vanishes from 1938). 

And Hitchcock is always a genius at individual sequences. There’s a clever game of blindman’s bluff at a children’s party, where the couple are trying to escape from the clutches of a suspicious aunt without being caught, as well as some interesting work with miniatures to create a hair-raising automobile and train chase. My favorite is a remarkably innovative sequence where a mine collapses and swallows an entire car, with heroine Nova caught inside.

Nova Pilbeam
Nova Pilbeam. That’s actually her name, and she’s terrific.

Yet this is one of the few times where Nova Pilbeam (can you imagine if that was your name? Amazing) needs to be rescued. Pilbeam previously acted in Hitchcock’s breakthrough The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) as a teenager, and here she rules the screen with a light yet commanding presence. In a classic case of “what-if,” Pilbeam campaigned to be cast in Hitchcock’s first American picture, Rebecca, yet lost out to Joan Fontaine who, for my money, is a fine but limited actress. I would have loved to see “Rebecca starring Lawrence Olivier and Nova Pilbeam.” Instead she acted in a few British films before retiring, which is a shame.

More importantly, her character in Young and Innocent is clearly the most capable person in the entire cast. Her resolve never falters, she drives a cantankerous old car that only she can start, and repeatedly places herself in danger to help this dummy who’s chasing his raincoat. Lightyears from the tormented Tippi Hedren of The Birds and Marnie, Pilbeam’s character is an intelligent young woman who thinks and acts for herself.

Perhaps Alma Reville, Alfred Hitchcock’s wife, is the key to so many strong women in these earlier films. Reville was a widely respected story editor who wrote and consulted on all of Hitchcock’s films (credited or uncredited) for most of his career, although she was a less active participant in their later years. She’s credited for continuity on Young and Innocent, but I suspect that her contributions were vital to these early films, perhaps helping to create and flesh out many of these independent, vital female characters.

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Nova taking care of business.

The most famous sequence in Young and Innocent, however, is one shot at the end of the film, where Pilbeam and a tramp dressed up as a gentleman (it’s complicated) are searching for the man with the twitching eyes, whom they suspect as the murderer. This is a classic Hitchcock scenario, the impossible search, where the camera moves from the macro to the micro. In this case, the camera is mounted on a crane and starts on a tall wide shot of a hotel ballroom filled with dancing couples and a full band. Slowly the camera pans around the room then travels across the dance floor, moving towards the band, pushing closer and closer until it’s in an extreme close-up of the drummer’s eyes as they start to twitch. Not only is this an impossibly difficult shot (lighting an entire room with no visible lights, coordinating the complicated camera movement and dancing extras, all combined with the changing focal length is nothing short of show-stopping), it works as narrative, communicating to us, the audience, that the man is right there but our characters haven’t found him. It’s the kind of brilliance that I love in Hitchcock, this ceaseless desire to prove himself, to do better, to create something no one has ever seen. There’s just one problem, and one reason why this shot isn’t included in many career retrospectives or shown in film school; the entire band is in blackface.

In my naivete, I assumed that maybe this was an anachronism; the film takes place in 1937 and weren’t minstrel bands out of fashion by then? Sadly, a brief search turned up a whole host of blackface performers in Britain well into the 20th century, including The Black and White Minstrel Show, a BBC program featuring blackface performances that ran on the BBC from 1958 to 1978! Good lord.

Some critics will go to great lengths to defend blackface. Nick Tosches wrote a whole book, Where Dead Voices Gather, defending the artistry of blackface yodeler Emmett Miller. Many also cite history & tradition as a reason for the practice, even as recently as 2014 when Will Straw, a Labour party candidate in Britain insisted that the 150 year-old blackface performance of the Britannia Coconut Dancers of Bacup wasn’t racist (Straw lost the race).

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Hattie McDaniel, first African-American to win an Oscar, certified bad-ass, and daughter of a slave who escaped to the North, joined the Union Army, and went back to fight his captors.

Jill Watts, in Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood, her excellent biography of the African-American actress, describes the origins of blackface:

“White Americans, who originated and dominated minstrelsy, based their performances on blackface imitations of song and dances appropriated from African-Americans. The result was extremely derogatory, depicting blacks as happy, lazy, and dimwitted, or dangerous, violent, and sex-crazed. In the antebellum era, blackface minstrelsy, perpetuated by traveling companies of white male entertainers, effectively promoted racism through the powerful venue of the American stage.”

Watts and many others make the argument that blackface was always a cultural act of appropriation and denigration. It’s a vile tradition not worth defending in any context, yet also one inextricably woven into both American and British cultures. The Jazz Singer was the first “talkie” film with sound, and it features Al Jolson singing “Mammy” in blackface.

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Al Jolson in NOPE

“But it was historically appropriate,” people will say. “And some African-American and black British performers wore blackface themselves!”  Which is true, although not in the way people imagine. Performers of color were forced to accept this travesty to get work, but filtered it through their own critical sensibilities in ways their audience would understand Let’s go back to Jill Watts:

“Originating during slavery, signifying in the black community was the act of creating as well as expressing double and often contradictory messages…By using parody, satire, pastiche, and almost every other rhetorical or visual technique at hand, African Americans created two voices — one that placated white society and another that communicated a somber rejection of oppression.”

Hattie McDaniel wore blackface in her early variety days, but acted in such an outsize, satirical manner, that African-American audiences immediately understood she was making fun of this white concept. Writer & poet Paul Laurence Dunbar described this idea in his poem We Wear the Mask:

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

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Go ahead, tell Paul Laurence Dunbar that blackface isn’t racist.

When the art form only exists out of appropriation and when African-Americans in America developed their own coded set of signals to enact the ritual of blackface while simultaneously mocking white people who enjoyed this racist spectacle, it’s clear that no amount of leaning on tradition or history justifies this so-called “art.”

***

In 2002 I was working at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, managing the BAMcinématek repertory film program. We were screening a new documentary by Stephanie Black called Life and Debt, which looked at how the white tourist and business culture of Jamaica have conspired to keep actual Jamaicans in a state of third world poverty. It’s a grim, powerful film that was perfect for Fort Greene, Brooklyn which at the time boasted a large population of Caribbean descent (sadly I think it’s all condos now).

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Life and Debt, 2001 directed by Stephanie Black

Working with Tammy, our manager of community relations, we tried to put together a panel discussion after the film. This was a part of my job that I really enjoyed, but for whatever reason, this one was really difficult to book. The film’s director initially planned to come, but then couldn’t make it. I booked my old documentary film professor, George Stoney, to discuss the film production angle (Stoney was a brilliant, amazing figure who made documentaries in the 1930s to show black midwives how to avoid infections. He was like if your film professor was played by a socialist Jimmy Stewart, only even more lovable). For other guests, I tried to get people form the Jamaican consulate and other community groups, but it just didn’t work out. I landed a Jamaican professor of economics who now lived in New York, a reporter, and one expert on Third World debt from Nigeria who told me that he’d be running late but would try to be there for the last half of the discussion.

Whatever. I tried, and the important thing was to get some discussion going about the film itself. I felt good about it.

The film screened and it went over well with the audience. After the film and the applause ended, I introduced the panelists and the moderator, then ran back up to my office, leaving Tammy to watch the Q&A. My job was done.

A few minutes later I got a call from Tammy in the lobby. “You’d better get back down here.”

“Why, what’s going on?”

“Just get down here.”

I came running down to find the audience of mainly African-Jamaican and African-American patrons in full, vocal disapproval of the panel. I entered the theater and made my way down to the stage, where the moderator was struggling. People were asking who booked this event, and I admitted that I did. The thing I hadn’t realized until we started, is that everyone on the panel was white.

On the surface, I did everything right. Everyone on that panel was, on paper, qualified to talk about the issues the film presented. But in practice, what I was doing was slapping this audience and this neighborhood in the face. It’s not always about the specifics, but about the attrition. When this happens over and over, time and time again, it builds up and became too much. This was a Caribbean neighborhood and a film about issues that many audience members had firsthand experience with, and I gave them a bunch of white people to tell them things they already knew.

So what could I do? I stood there numbly and took their criticism, and tried to apologize. Later, after the event was over, I had more luck talking to and apologizing to people one-on-one. But the point was made. It’s not about being technically correct, in the same way that it’s not about finding ways to defend minstrelsy. It’s about admitting that I don’t know what it feels like to see your entire being assaulted and insulted because of the color of your skin. And then being told by a white person that you don’t have a right to be upset. White privilege is a real thing, and the best I can do is admit that I benefit from it, that I can’t relate to being a person of color, and try to learn when people correct or criticize me. That Q&A was one of the most uncomfortable moments of my life, and that’s exactly what it should have been. I wish everyone could go through this type of experience to help you realize where you really stand.

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Which is why anyone defending blackface as an artistic choice, whether today or a hundred years ago, feels full of shit. Even in Young and Innocent, where I can’t accuse Hitchcock of using it anachronistically; it seems perfectly appropriate for a British seaside resort in the 1930s. When confronted with some historic indignity like this (usually the treatment of women or people of color), there’s this idea that a modern audience should be accepting of this sexist or racist behavior because “it was a different time.” It always reminds me a joke by comedian Eric Ohlsen:

“My grandma is racist. Does that mean she is a bad person? It was a different time!” Really? Is she older than…Abraham Lincoln?

It’s right to be mad about racist moments in movies. It doesn’t mean you have to stop watching, but it does mean that you need to be aware that it’s happening.

Because on paper there was nothing wrong with that panel I put together; every speaker was qualified to talk about these issues. And on paper, the blackface in Young and Innocent is part of a long musical tradition in Britain and America. But sometimes being right on paper isn’t enough, and this is one of those times. We shouldn’t have to be told that blackface was okay historically, or that it was ever okay. This is a tradition that started as a mockery of darker-skinned peoples; how could it ever be okay? Blackface wasn’t okay in 1840, it wasn’t okay in 1940, and it’s not okay now. Period.

The sad part is that Young and Innocent, aside from this blackface ending, is otherwise a delightful film, and one of my favorite underrated Hitchcock movies. It’s clearly inspired by Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, where a brashly independent young woman and a lovable rogue find love on a cross-country road trip. As I talked about last week with rape in Marnie, I don’t want to let this one moment define Hitchcock for me.

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Ironically, Hitchcock has a lot fewer black stereotypes in his films than Frank Capra.

So watch Young and Innocent and enjoy it. It’s streaming online for free and it’s a lot of fun. Marvel at just how wonderful Nova Pilbeam is, and wish that she’d had a longer career. Just brace yourself for that ending.

Watch It: Young and Innocent is streaming on YouTube and Amazon Prime and because it’s in the public domain, can also be downloaded in full at Archive.org.

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