“Island in the sun,” Hollywood’s recent “miscegenation film,” was picketed in Jacksonville, Florida, by the Ku Klux Klan, but business was good at the box office. In Charlotte, North Carolina, the pickets were in mufti and less resolute. They challenged a member of the audience: “Do you think this picture is detrimental to the Southern way of life?” He replied “No. In fact, I think it is a pro-segregation picture.” The pickets went in to see the picture and picketed no more.
The incident in Charlotte conveniently dramatizes the faot that the new “miscegenation films”—Island in the Sun and Band of Angels—are all things to all men. They are intended to be. They must capitalize on the current-events interest in racial issues and they must attract the Negro and Asian audiences, but, at the same time, they must not alienate the South. The makers of Island in the Sun announced some months ago that they were going to risk the loss of the South. But now that the film is out and the Southern box-office returns are in, we know that racial relations were handled gingerly enough for no one to be offended. Band of Angels raised even fewer such problems.
Why should anyone picket Clark Gable because he offers his heart to Yvonne De Carlo? If it were Dorothy Dandridge (as in Island in the Sun), that might be another story, but a colored slave played by a white actress has certain natural advantages. Both films reflect genuine interest in the dramatic possibilities of miscegenation, tempered by the need to play it safe. This balance between liberal principles and shrewd business sense is the real subject, the real center of both pictures.
Hollywood has for a long time been dealing with miscegenation in a backhanded way, and we must therefore consider the box-office appeal of this topic to be well established. In the past, miscegenation had to be bootlegged into films. Treatment of it was discouraged by popular prejudice and was expressly forbidden by the Production Code; more recently, a revised Production Code has made its presentation a matter of taste for the individual producer. But before and after the period of the ban, film-makers continually returned, fascinated, to the forbidden subject; no doubt, the legend of the dark races’ sexual potency helped to make the idea of a dark-skinned lover exciting in itself. Of course, the typical films that toyed with miscegenation showed the white hero eventually deserting the lovelorn Japanese, Polynesian, or Indian girl. “Poor little Butterfly. What could she do but die?” says the old song; David Belasco’s Madame Butterfly (without songs) was, twenty-five years ago, the basis of one of the many movies with this theme. Never the Twain Shall Meet is the title of two such films (silent and talkie), and it furnishes a motto for all the rest. The alternative variation on the theme required a last-minute discovery in the worst tradition of melodrama: wedding bells could ring at last because the dark-skinned boy or girl had turned out to be white and not really Chinese or Indian or mulatto.
Negroes did not figure in any of these interracial romances; in the movies of those days, they were comic caricatures who could not be taken seriously, let alone romantically. Even in Imitation of Life, an early film about “passing,” no one hints that the colored girl who passes for white might eventually find a white lover; before that crisis occurs—but it could never have occurred—the girl returns, remorseful, to her mother’s funeral.
The pro-Negro “tolerance” films that followed World War II steered away from the subject of miscegenation; one of the two movies about “passing,” Pinky, seemed to oppose intermarriage, and Lost Boundaries was ambiguous. In each film, the girl of mixed blood is involved romantically with a white man. (“Boy” might be more exact for Lost Boundaries.) Nothing comes of either romance, but an extra margin of safety is provided by the use of white actresses—Jeanne Crain and Susan Douglas. This tradition of casting is continued by Band of Angels and violated only by Island in the Sun.
However, a number of contemporary movies endorsed miscegenation, especially when it involved American Indians. James Stewart married an Indian maiden in Broken Arrow, and other grizzled pioneers followed suit in many more films. Zane Grey’s The Vanishing American was remade with a happy ending that had appeared neither in the novel nor in the silent film—the marriage of an Indian and a white girl. Other movies showed white men marrying Japanese girls and Eurasians. Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing took a sympathetic view of an ill-fated love affair between a half-Chinese girl and an American. The film version of Bhowani Junction married a Eurasian girl to a British colonial; in the novel she marries another Eurasian.
In all these pictures, nothing is clearer or more emphatic than the film-makers’ liberal attitude toward intermarriage—so long as it does not involve Negroes or people with Negro blood. Negro miscegenation was the last to appear on the screen because it is the real issue, the most meaningful one to Americans, and, surely, the one that the film-makers had in mind in all those epics about American Indians and Eurasians.
A prospering Negro community at home and millions of non-white moviegoers abroad made some franker films about miscegenation the obvious next step in “tolerance” pictures. Darryl F. Zanuck, who was responsible for Pinky and Gentleman’s Agreement, was the logical man to produce the franker of the two recent films, Island in the Sun. Mr. Zanuck’s good intentions cannot be questioned. It is equally clear that he knows the box-office value of a current issue. If the liveliest racial issue right now happens to be desegregation in the schools, Mr. Zanuck can hardly be blamed for preferring the somewhat allied but much more appealing question of racial intermarriage. The preference is inevitable, for the popular arts have traditionally put sex ahead of politics (as I tried to demonstrate in the February COMMENTARY).
Island in the Sun carries on an old Hollywood tradition which compels the use of camouflage for hot issues. Consequently, this current-events film about the Negro takes place on a mythical island in the West Indies; the island of Santa Marta is a safe substitute for the United States. In both the film and in Alec Waugh’s novel, the main question is miscegenation.
What is really wrong, what is most wrong with Island in the Sun is its unrelenting emphasis on problems of color in themselves. Color is the only issue we hear of. Asked by a visiting journalist what is the most important problem on the island, Boyeur, the colored leader, replies: “Color, Mr. Bradshaw, color.” He says substantially the same in the novel, but there Waugh is fortunately not quite as good as his word. He makes Boyeur a man with political ambitions, a labor leader who calls a strike. In the film he just leads the colored people—where he leads them, is impossible to say. Neither Boyeur nor anyone else ever tells us how the colored people of the island want to be represented or what they want to be represented about. One might suspect that they are interested in such matters as schooling, housing, wages, job discrimination, segregation, working conditions, none of which is mentioned. The film never sounds more hollow than when Boyeur and Fleury (a rich white planter) exchange a few hot words on the relations of white and black. Fleury speaks of his family’s generous treatment of Negroes; Boyeur answers: “That was charity; what we want is equality.” Actually it wasn’t charity. It was payment for labor—perhaps inadequate, but payment nevertheless. As for equality, the Negroes have already gained the vote; we are never told what other kind of equality they might want, except the right to intermarry. Invariably, intermarriage eclipses everything else.
Boyeur’s girl, a white woman who has been living on the island all her life, is played by Joan Fontaine; Boyeur is Harry Belafonte, the first Negro matinee idol. The obvious difference in their ages helps to render their romance innocuous. There is a strong implication that they are lovers, supported mainly by the amount of time they spend together, but this implication is optional. The film is more forthright about the sexual activities of a pair of white lovers. Boyeur and the white girl never embrace, but at the end Boyeur is telling her why they cannot marry, adding the possibility of her racial prejudice to the social pressures that separate them in the novel. The atmosphere of fantasy, Mass Fontaine’s greater years, her invincibly ladylike manner, the respectful distance the lovers keep—all combine to turn this into a thoroughly antiseptic love affair. Its conclusion surely helped to make the film acceptable to the pickets in Charlotte, North Carolina.
One turn of the plot briefly brings into focus the whole problem of racial relations. Fleury finds that he has some Negro blood. Such an incident—the discovery that a prejudiced person is himself a member of the race he despises—has always been effective, whether in the old film in which a Nazi learns his mother was Jewish or in the B-picture in which an Indian-hater is revealed to have Indian blood. But in Island in the Sun the incident is ambiguous and ultimately irrelevant.
The ghost of miscegenation haunts Fleury’s sister when she hears of their colored ancestry. She is engaged to marry a titled Englishman, and she shudders at the thought of a colored man, their son, sitting in the House of Lords. Fortunately, her mother is able to tell her that she is illegitimate and therefore entirely white. This secret will be kept from the bridegroom. He may still gallantly offer to compromise his family’s fame, but we wild know that the indispensable point has been gained: the House of Lords is safe. For all their friendliness to racial intermixture, the creators of Island in the Sun still say, like Gilbert’s Pirates of Penzance: “With all our faults, we love our House of Lords.”
However, yet another parallel plot, carefully detached from everything else in the film, provides some encouragement for intermarriage. The Governor’s aide secretly marries a colored girl, resigns when the Governor finds out, and leaves for London with her. They live in no social world, they have almost nothing to do with the other people of the island, and they go off at last to live in the special, self-segregated world of London’s literary Bohemia. We can guess none of the man’s thoughts as he pursues his courtship. Is he deliberately, knowingly spurning the life he has led? We haven’t a clue. The girl (played by Dorothy Dandridge) just looks surprised and sometimes expresses her surprise in a voice of narrow range. Devoid of characterization and social relationship, vacuously interpreted by Miss Dandridge in particular, this story becomes no more than an instructive parable of intermarriage. It can happen, for it has happened to these ciphers. Island in the Sun’s attitudes toward miscegenation seem, in short, to be inconsistent, haphazard, and aimless, even for an imaginary island.
“Band of Angels” has, at least, the advantage of not resembling a parable. It does not primarily belong to the genre of “tolerance” films; it is not designed to be good for us. It is a conventional Civil War picture, with the story told, as usual, from the Southern point of view. We see two Southern plantations; on both the slaves are forever jumping with joy, and they always burst into song when they see old massa. We do see a bad slave master, but we have a less powerful impression of him because we do not visit his plantation. For once we are spared the sight of the chivalrous boys in gray, but we do encounter some dastardly (what else?) Union soldiers. The last twist of the plot (not in Robert Penn Warren’s novel) has an especially free-minded ex-slave, Rau-Ru, forgiving his old master, Hamish Bond, and outwitting a stupid, greedy Union officer to save Bond’s life. The ex-slave, incidentally, is a Union lieutenant in Warren’s novel but only a sergeant in the film.
But 1957 is rather late for a mere remake of Gone with the Wind or So Red the Rose (in which Margaret Sullavan quells a slave rebellion in five minutes by appealing to the slaves’ nobler, that is, more servile, feelings). Band of Angels is modern; it has a touch of the “tolerance” theme. It shares an archetypal plot with Gentleman’s Agreement, Island in the Sun, Lost Boundaries, Arthur Miller’s novel Focus, and many other movies and books: a member of the white Protestant dominant group becomes, whether by choice or unwilling discovery, a member of the despised outcast group. In Gentleman’s Agreement, a reporter pretends to be a Jew; he suffers, but we are comforted by the knowledge that he can cast off his Jewish identity. In Island in the Sun, the Fleurys, brother and sister, learn that they have colored blood; Fleury is overcome by this information, but his sister survives because she finds that she is really white.
The same is essentially true for Amantha Starr, heiress to a plantation in Band of Angels. She learns she has colored blood, but she keeps insisting she is white, and somehow that has the effect of keeping her white. To start with, she has, as we are told, only a “drop” of Negro blood. Of course, she is played by a white actress, Yvonne De Carlo. Rau-Ru, the principal Negro character, is played by the very dark Sidney Poitier, as if to show us how different a real Negro is. He is always telling her she is colored, but the physical difference between them robs his statements of much of their force. When, in the last scene, he permits her to run off with Hamish Bond (Clark Gable), he seems to be acknowledging that she was right all the time. Also, Rau-Ru is the only important male character in the film who is not sexually interested in her. Five white men pursue her, but Rau-Ru lays a hand on her only when he knocks her down for saying she is white. In the novel, he is sexually drawn to her—but not in the film, because that would be real miscegenation, which is quite a different thing from the union of two such high-powered gods of the market place as Clark Gable and Yvonne De Carlo.
All of Amantha’s associations are white. While in Love is a Many-Splendored Thing and Bhowani Junction, the “colored” heroines are seen with their “colored” relatives, Amantha is only the child of her white father who raised her as a white girl. In spite of a good deal of talk about putting her with the slaves, she spends remarkably little time with them. Little is heard of the racial barrier where it might most be expected to count, as an obstacle to Amantha’s marriage to Hamish Bond. Perhaps he is less prejudiced because he is a Yankee, but, in fact, the problem of prejudice is neatly reversed. When Amantha voices the fear that Bond would not want to marry her, he tells her that, on the contrary, she ought to despise him, since he used to be a slave-trader. Amantha forgives him, but the only obstacle, if it can so be regarded, has been her prejudice.
Both Band of Angels and Island in the Sun can plead the same special excuse—as pioneering movies about miscegenation they are historical landmarks, and landmarks are not necessarily good films. They belong to a cycle of “tolerance” films that got its start a decade ago. They clearly indicate the direction of the next films in this series—films on the same subject, but probably made a bit more casually. More movies on miscegenation are promised. Eartha Kitt is said to be planning one that shows an interracial marriage, and a Hollywood columnist has reported a scheme to remake Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy with Harry Belafonte as the fighter and Lana Turner as the girl. Perhaps in time some of the discomfort and anguish will wear away; I mean especially the discomfort and anguish of the films’ makers, which are so highly visible in Band of Angels and Island in the Sun.