Friday, January 26, 2018

Feet of Clay

I try to avoid idolising public figure, particularly from the world of entertainment.  They inevitably let you down.  Just look at recent events with Kevin Spacey, for instance, revealed as some kind of predatory serial groper (he's pretty much as good as admitted that the allegations against him are true), or Johnny Depp exposed for alleged domestic violence.  Both seemed relatively decent characters as Hollywood superstars went, yet both turned out to be the regular type of tinsel town douche bags after all.  But it isn't just revelations of sex and violence in the past of a star whose work you have respected which can lead to your completely reassessing them.  Now, I always knew that James Stewart was politically to the right, with hawkish views on things like the Vietnam War.  But I still enjoyed many of his performances, usually playing those small town family men with a social conscience, I always just assumed that on social issues, like many Republicans, he was relatively moderate.  But the other day I was disturbed to read about how, in the early seventies, he had a black actor fired from a guest role on his TV show.

Now, the first issue to address here is the fact that James Stewart once had a TV show - back in the day, stars of his magnitude rarely, if ever, did regular TV shows.  Yet, in the very early seventies, for one season only, James Stewart appeared in an eponymous sitcom, in which he played a lecturer in a small town college.  It's short duration was largely down to the fact that, even by the standards of the time, it was considered incredibly old fashioned and out of touch with contemporary audiences.  But, to get back to the point, one episode featured Stewart's character being ordered around by a guest character in a position of authority over him.  The actor originally cast in the role happened to be black.  The role was recast at Stewart's insistence, because he felt that it would be wrong for family audiences to see a white man being subordinated to a black man!  Bearing in mind the then still recent history of the civil rights movement in the US, such an attitude, particularly from someone as prominent as Stewart, seems incredible.  It has certainly left me feeling hugely disappointed in some whose film appearances I had generally admired and respected.

At around the same time I found this out about James Stewart, I learned that silent comedy pioneer Harold Lloyd had also been involved in a race controversy. Lloyd is a somewhat lesser remembered contemporary of Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy.  His films were notable for the incredible stunts he performed in them, climbing up the sides of buildings, hanging off of the arms of the clocks at their summits and so on.  Along with Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd was one of only a handful of silent comedy stars to successfully transition to sound, with a string of successful talkies in the thirties.  Anyway, he lived in an exclusive part of Beverly Hills, which had originally barred the likes of black people and Jews from owning property there.  As the thirties progressed, however, wealthy black actors, musicians and businessmen increasingly tried to move there.  Lloyd joined other residents in petitioning the local authorities to enforce the relevant ordinances to ensure that the area remained exclusively white.  The case went all the way to a Federal judge, who ruled against the residents.  Again, I've been left disturbed by the fact that someone whose work I'd respected was some kind of racist.  Sure, I know that it could be argued that his views in this matter were commonplace at the time and that, like modern day Daily Mail readers, he just wanted to protect local property prices. Nevertheless, it suggests a highly unsavoury side to the character of a truly great film comedian.

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