With the end of 2009 marking the first full year of Barack Obama’s term as US President, it may seem a little odd to bring on the new year by turning back 67 years to 1943, to hear what a couple of white guys pretending to be a couple of black guys have to say.
Amos ‘n’ Andy is a tough sell these days, and I suspect it won’t be experiencing a revival any time soon. How much of the show’s controversial reputation is deserved isn’t something that’s going to be solved here. The show lingers in that weird twilight zone of larger cultural contexts: it was hardly demonstrably racist in its specific content or intent—indeed, it had many black listeners and more or less fits the standard radio sitcom mould of the time—but it nevertheless presented a stereotypically limiting image, presented by white actors, in a time when there were almost no varied or positive representations of non-white characters in the mainstream media.
It’s easy to dismiss this kind of thing as simply being ‘of its time’. True to an extent perhaps, but this point of view seems to imply that cultural wrongs and inequalities take place simply because we’re unaware of them and are fixed as soon as they become apparent, rather than being a fundamental and conveniently/willfully overlooked part of the social structure. There’s really no reason to believe that cultural stasis is ever merely a result of simple naiveté when the voices fighting against it are rarely silent by choice.
Perhaps we can take the Mark Twain approach and suggest that Amos ‘n’ Andy‘s real mistake was simply drawing attention to itself; after all, is any media of the time (or our time) any less racially limiting than Amos ‘n’ Andy just because it doesn’t involve characters in ‘vocal blackface’? Do we make a scapegoat of the overt example, while ignoring the marginalisation-through-invisibility that the rest of seemingly-benign culture continually provides?
Or does its racial subject matter automatically push it into a realm beyond mere passive conservatism, even if its intentions were honest? As Henry Thoreau wrote in Civil Disobedience, “It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong… but it is his duty, at least… not to give it practically his support.”
We’re not going to come up with an answer just yet (personally, I’d never accuse any individual who enjoys an episode of Amos ‘n’ Andy of having racist motivations, but I also can’t understand why many of its defenders refuse to acknowledge the sincere social and racial problems the show is mired in). But accepting that the show is still plagued with cultural difficulties from a not-distant-enough history doesn’t mean we can’t go in for a closer look. Good or bad, there’s no doubt that Amos ‘n’ Andy were and are a big part of US culture.
And when it comes to picking a definitive piece of the New Year’s culture, I find it hard to turn past ‘Mister 1943’, an Amos ‘n’ Andy radio broadcast from New Year’s Eve, 1943.
The year 1943 actually brought a big change for Amos ‘n’ Andy, after having been on the airwaves for almost 20 years at that point. The radio sitcom of the late-‘40s is now perhaps overshadowed by the TV sitcom, which hit the screens in 1951. Unlike the radio show, the television versions of Amos ‘n’ Andy were actually played by black actors, but it’s otherwise mostly indistinguishable from any other mainstream network sitcom then or now. The radio sitcom version was essentially the same thing, but had the benefit of a quicker pace and Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll’s polished characterisations.
Less-remembered than either sitcom version is the nightly semi-comic soap opera style serial that launched it all, spinning out casually-paced stories that sometimes veered into more dramatic territory—Amos being framed for robbery or a controversial story involving police brutality, for example. Incidentally, at this point, the show also featured black characters who were respectable, upright, and nowhere near as dopey as the two leads (this was also true of the later sitcoms, but less pronounced in their overtly comic environment). Gosden and Correll provided all, or most, of the voices at this point and, aside from the racial concern of black stereotypes voiced by white actors, the serial version remains widely admired for its production quality and dramatic sensitivity.
So the radio sitcom that the show changed into in October 1943, complete with appreciative studio audience, was quite a change. Radio historians often downplay the radio sitcom in favor of the earlier serial; but the sitcom, if fairly standard stuff, is still consistently funny enough and certainly no worse than most mainstream TV sitcoms today (and, like most sitcoms then or now, is probably more consistently offensive to women than just about any other group of people).
With such a broad swing into dopey laughs (the character of the sensible Amos gradually began to disappear from the spotlight to be replaced by the more comic, and resolutely corrupt, Kingfish Stevens), the 1943 New Year’s Eve episode comes as a bit of a surprise.
It all starts typically enough: Andy has a New Year’s Eve date but can’t go unless he finds a tuxedo. As usual, The Kingfish spots an opportunity to make some money from Andy’s perpetual stupidity and promises to find a rental tux for him (his own, charged by the hour, natch). But that standard story takes a sudden break when Andy promptly decides to take a snooze…
Suddenly, in storms a tough guy waving a gun, looking for a place to lie low. He’s an escaped convict who’s scheduled to be executed at midnight, the numbers 1-9-4-3 are stamped on the front of his death-house uniform.
It’s a hokey device and nothing new even in 1943: the personification of the old year turns up and then is replaced by the new year (no doubt some nauseatingly cute kid or something). But, oddly, this sitcom draws one hell of a punch out of this strained metaphor.
A lot of this is due to Mister 1943 being played by none other than Edward G. Robinson, legendary screen gangster, louse and all-round tough guy, not to mention an outstanding actor (and noted Hollywood liberal, if that adds anything to the sense of the show’s broad appeal at the time).
Robinson doesn’t hold back; he snarls and spits in that way only he can and makes sure we know that 1-9-4-3 is tough, desperate, violent, and as bad as it gets. This ain’t no kindly old man bidding the world farewell and making way for a new start.
When Andy asks 1-9-4-3 what he’s about to be executed for, he replies: ‘Plenty of things. Plenty. But mostly murders. They thought 1-9-1-7 was tough, and they thought 1-9-2-9 was pretty bad.’ Slowly, dim-witted Andy figures out that he’s talking to a year, not a man, and can only flatly agree: “I can see what you mean by murders. You been bad alright… I was just thinking about all the floods, and the shooting, bombings and stuff like that… You is leaving things in a mess, mister.”
Not surprisingly, the studio audience is oddly quiet all the while; there’s just the occasional uncomfortable chuckle when something that’s maybe funny and maybe isn’t pops up between the unexpected reality-check. Tuning in half-way, it’d be tough to pick Edward G. Robinson’s vicious disgust and resentment as 1-9-4-3 describes the year he’s been, and the withdrawn emotionless responses he receives from the regular cast, as part of any kind of generic sitcom. This isn’t some ‘very special episode’ with a clumsy focus on a social issue—this is an emotional and intense cry from some real tough times.
When Amos turns up, always the sensible one, he evaluates 1943 with cold sobriety:
“1943, oh, yeah, he’s a tough guy, Andy… 1943 has been bad, full of suffering, crime and heart-aches and everything else.”
“Alright, alright,” 1943 spits back, “Don’t pull your punches. I can take it. Tell ‘em how I killed six-million people, set fire to churches, and put swastikas where crosses used to be.”
“That’s right, 1943, the world will never forget your sins.”
But Robinson’s 1943 is no mere strawman villain or some simple excuse for a wartime pep rally. What gives the episode so much strength is the year’s self-awareness of its own depths of horror and despair, its realisation of its mistakes and missed potential, and the attempt to find something good among the mess: “Yeah, I been tough and I ain’t making no bones about it… I don’t expect history to list me with the heroes - I’m no 1776 and I know it. Still, I tried, and I’d give anything in the world if I could try again.”
The weird mix of defiance and despair expressed in this odd exchange between a fading 1943 portrayed as a doomed gangster and a couple of guys in verbal-blackface, combined with Robinson’s nuanced skill with tough-guy introspection and the regular cast’s subdued responses, creates an odd counter-intuitive authenticity that’s too strong to be simply derailed when the talk turns towards hope and an attempt to engage with the good things the year may have also brought. Along with the disgust at Hitler and Mussolini, we’re also reminded of the mass production of penicillin that will save so many lives.
Through it all, Amos is sober and stoic, with a sense of hope that doesn’t turn away from the harsh realities. And listening today, one can still feel the necessity of that tone; it doesn’t seem like cheap sentiment in the face of a flimsy gimmick.
It’s a weird time capsule, with its strange and morbid sense of doom for the year that had been, and also with its resonance with our own years of war.
Perhaps it’s a useful way to remind ourselves that there were times when things may have been worse: even when the episode starts, Andy’s concerned with having to do without so many basic things like eggs and butter.
Perhaps it also highlights, for those of us with such luxury, our own disengagement with the troubles around us and reminds us that there might have been a time when we could act like we cared more and war carried an immediacy of personal sacrifice. Mark Shields puts today’s wars in a totally different context (on the PBS Newshour, 3 July 2009 ): “The country violated one of its great principles in [the Iraq] war, and that is that war demands equality of sacrifice. And this war, all the sacrifice has been borne by less than one percent of Americans, those who wear the uniform and their loved ones. And the rest of us pay no price, bear no burden. It’s been a terrible war. The one burden we’ve been asked to take, a tax cut so that we didn’t have to pay for the war.” (Not that we should limit this to disengagement only with Western troops. There’s an unnumbered mountain of dead beneath a US occupying force, and we still act surprised when an Iraqi journalist throws a shoe at George W. Bush.)
Is 2-0-0-9 just another 1-9-4-3? We’re often told to look at the past as a time of simplicity and naiveté—but here we can also see it as capable of an engagement that we seem to have forgotten. Somehow it feels oddly new.
‘Mister 1943’ ends with the usual promise of the future, but it’s not without introspection. And even with those glimmers of hope, the real memorable kick of the episode is in Robinson’s bow-out as the old year delivers his farewell:
“There’s just one bullet left in this gun that has killed so many. I saved that one for myself.”
He ain’t foolin’. He makes a nice little speech about hope for the future, wishes everyone a happy new year, and then blows his brains out right there in front of them.
Geez. Happy New Year… I guess.
// Channel Surfing
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