Friday, October 5, 2007

THIS CONTINUING HARM: As I noted on Wednesday, the radio version of Amos 'n' Andy dominated the airwaves in the 1920s and 1930s, attracting tens of millions of listeners every night. Yet not all listeners liked what they heard. A leading black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, editorialized against the show's stereotyped insults of African Americans and initiated a petition drive to get the program cancelled. The drive failed, but it cast a shadow over the show's runaway success.

Moreover, when Amos 'n' Andy's creators, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, tried to expand their franchise to other media, they ran into more popular resistance. In 1930, RKO produced a full-length Amos and Andy film, Check and Double Check, in which Gosden and Correll played their creations, in blackface makeup and with their usual heavy dialact. Watching the movie today, one shudders at the actors' appearance, which is made even more ludicrous by the presence of several real African Americans, including Duke Ellington and his band. Apparently, fans and critics in 1930 felt a similar discomfort, for there would be no more Amos and Andy movies. In 1934, Gosden and Correll lent their voices to a pair of Amos and Andy cartoons, Rassling Match and The Lion Tamer, but these, too, sank into well-deserved obscurity (in fact, they're not even mentioned in Melvin Patrick Ely's history of the A 'n' A phenomenon).

Although Amos 'n' Andy still thrived on radio through the 1940s, as television began to catch on after World War II, Gosden and Correll decided to adapt their characters for the small screen -- but this time with African-American actors, recruited during a highly publicized two-year search. In this fascinating clip from 1951, Gosden and Correll introduce the new cast to a studio audience, commenting on how well the black actors embody the characters they'd created decades before. Some of those performers, however, did not appreciate getting acting lessons from Gosden and Correll; Alvin Childress (who played Amos) reportedly complained about the absurdity of "a white man teaching a Negro how to act like a white man acting like a Negro." Still, Amos 'n' Andy boasted the first all-black cast in TV history, providing unprecedented opportunities to African-American performers, and Gosden and Correll fully expected that black and white viewers alike would welcome this chance to follow their old friends into a new medium.

But within weeks of the show's premiere, the NAACP was demanding its cancellation, arguing that the program "tends to strengthen the conclusion among uninformed and prejudiced people that Negroes are inferior, lazy, dumb, and dishonest." Critics especially detested the prominence of George "Kingfish" Stevens (played by stage and film comedian Tim Moore), a longtime supporting character who became far more central on TV, and whose defining traits were constant malapropisms, shameless greed, and an abiding eagerness to fleece the gullible Andy (as seen in the episode "Kingfish Sells a Lot," YouTubed here, here, and here). Although CBS kept the show on the air for two years, the protests eventually took their toll; by 1953, Amos 'n' Andy had been cancelled, and by the 1960s, with the civil rights movement in full swing, it had even been withdrawn from syndication.

Today, many fans, both black and white, insist that the TV version of Amos 'n' Andy was unfairly maligned, and DVDs of the programs are easily available, even on Amazon. Check out some of the YouTubed clips for yourself. Was Amos 'n' Andy funny or offensive (or both)? Was it any worse in its portrayal of African Americans than, say, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, or Good Times? Are there still elements of its characterizations and stereotypes in any TV shows today?

Next week: detectives and gangsters, jazz and swing, and Mickey and Bugs.

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