Thursday, July 10, 2014

Kazan and the Conventions of Ethnic Casting

A bit of a followup on that last, only tangentially familial.  Main point: I'm amused to note that the family in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is named "Nolan," and  if I heard right, they are identified as "Irish."  I also I think I once heard mama say "dhrink," as in "the dhrink," supposed to kill so many Irishmen.  But if so, that was the only bit of Irish dialect among the main characters in the whole show. There was a bit of an Irish accent on the cop and the bartender--as in, I guess, how could a cop or a bartender in early-1900s New York not be Irish?

But meanwhile--if they are so Irish, how come Grandma has a German accent?  Did they bring the wrong person home from Eldercare?  I haven't any idea because, so far as I can tell, neither cast nor director ever troubled to wonder.

I know I know--we're going back to a world where, e.g., two white guys could surf through their careers  as the showpiece of a family comedy about black folks?  And Mrs. Nussbaum ("Pansy")  in "Allen's Alley" could regale her host with stories about  "meine husband Pierre"?  I loved Mrs. Nussbaum when I was young but as I guess I've said, and I had only the dimmest notion of what might be funny about such an absurdist name--heck, I scarcely knew what a Jew was.

Which brings me to another example from my mothers library.  My mother was a great fan of Angela Thirkell, the author (though I'll bet she preferred to be called "authoress") of half a dozen potboilers
 novels about life in her beloved Barsetshire--any comparison to Trollope's original is actionable.  In adulthood I read one, mainly because I was curious to get acquaint with my mother's taste and for all my smart mouth remarks, I suppose they are okay a what they are, but not to my taste.  Might just be a generational thing.

In the one I read--it must have been Cheerfulness Breaks In (
1940)--our protagonist takes in a bunch of refugees from pre-war (or early-war) Europe.   The refugees turn out to be prickly, contentious, demanding, all round a damn nuisance.  In response to which our protagonist maintains a stoic British decorum.

The modern reader will be excused for saying "right, Jewish."  I mean, who else would have  irritated a proper Englishwoman at just this time in just this way?  Fine.  but the  question is: did Thirkell know and want to conceal her knowledge from the readers, and if so, for what reason?  Bad for business?  Active malice?  Just doesn't give a damn?  Or was Thirkell simply ignorant of what she was saying, as I suspect my mother, as one of Thirkell's readers, would have been ignorant herself?

Afterthought: I suppose this kind of blindness never ends.  In 1982, producer-director Wayne Wang served up the film Chan is Missing, supposed to provide a liberated view of San Francisco's Chinatown. The lead actor was Japanese.

1 comment:

Paul Gottlieb said...

All those lovely British Authoresses were not so discreet, Some of the really early Agatha Christie books seemed pretty racist to me, but then I read that the American editions had been edited to remove a lot of the most offensive racial and ethnic slurs, so the British editions must have really been something!