In my classes and extracurricular activities at Winthrop University, I try to incorporate old movies as much as possible. Recently in my Media Ethics (MCOM 410) class, we were required to write a 10 to 12 page paper on an issue in diversity in the media. It could be movies, television, newspaper articles or etc.
Of course I wanted to write about movies. Instead of taking the route of how certain minority groups are stereotyped in films, I decided to write about how white actors played minority roles in films-and this happened a lot in films. White actors and actresses would don heavy make-up, false noses and over-exaggerated gestures to play different ethnic roles such as Asians, American Indians or Hispanics.
Here are movies I talked about in my paper:
Actors playing Asians:
-Richard Barthelmess playing the Asian man “Chinky” opposite Lillian Gish in “Broken Blossoms: The Yellow Man and the Girl” (1919)
-“ (D.W) Griffith’s caricature notions about Chinese posture perhaps have something to do with the hunched torso he (Barthlemess) uses throughout the film.” from Star Acting: Gish, Garbo, Davis by Charles Affron
-Danish Nils Asther as Chinese General Yen in “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” (1933)
-Helen Hayes playing a Chinese girl in “The Son-Daughter” (1932)
-“Anna Mae Wong was dropped in favor of Helen Hayes, whose casting then necessitated the firing of all other Chinese in the cast ‘with the exception of some Chinese as extras in long shot, because white actors looked freakish set against the faces of authentic Asian players.” Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema; 1930-1934 by Thomas Doherty
-Luise Rainer and Paul Muni in “The Good Earth” (1936)
-“I’m about as Chinese as Herbert Hoover. I won’t look Chinese, no matter how much makeup I use, and I won’t sound it.” Paul Muni said in biographyActor: The Life & Times of Paul Muni by Jerome Lawrence
-Jennifer Jones as Eurasian Han Suin in “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” (1955)
Whites playing light-skinned African Americans “passing for white”:
-Ava Gardner as Julie Laverine in “Show Boat” (1951)
-“My own personal choice would have been Lena Horne (for the role of Julie),” Gardner said. “She was really born for this part. She would have been perfect for it…George Sidney however wanted me.” Ava: My Story by Ava Gardner
-Jeanne Craine as Pinky in “Pinky” (1949)
Actors playing American Indians:
-Mary Pickford playing Indians/Spanish women in “Ramona” and “Song of the Wild Wood Flute” (both 1910)
-Mary Pickford in Sunshine and Shadow: “I noticed rather early that Mr. Griffith seemed to favor me in the roles of Mexican and Indian women. Perhaps it was because I was the only leading girl in Biography (the studio) with eyes that photographed dark…Whatever reason, I portrayed them all-Indian Maidens and squaws and Mexican senoras and senoritas. I learned to apply thick applications of red clay mixed with water to my arms and legs with a sponge…don a black horse hair wig and a beaded dress”
-Donna Reed as Sacagawea (or obnoxiously nicknamed Janie) in “The Far Horizons” (1955)
-J. Carroll Nash as Chief Sitting Bull in “Annie Get Your Gun” (1950)
-Rock Hudson as Young Bull in “Winchester ’73” (1950)
Actors playing Hispanics:
-Hedy Lamarr, Spencer Tracy, John Garfield in “Tortilla Flat” (1942)
-Stereotypical sexy señoritas like Linda Darnell in “My Darling Clementine” (1946)
-Esther Williams playing Ricardo Montalbon’s twin sister in “Fiesta” (1947) and how she thought this was ridiculous.
-“Ricardo (Montalbon) came from Torrejon, Mexico. His accent was still very heavy at the time and, of course, I didn’t have one at all. Since we were supposed to be twins, this marked difference in accents was something that troubled me, and I was sure it would bother audiences a great deal as well” The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography by Esther Williams
-John Garfield (again) and Jennifer Jones in “We Were Strangers” (1949)
-Natalie Wood as Maria in “West Side Story” (1961)
From my research and information I have gotten from Robert Osborne on TCM, whites played minority roles like these in films for a couple of reasons.
1. White audiences did not care to see authentic minority roles due to racism. It seems they preferred to see a white playing the role stereotypically.
2. If there happened to be a romance between a white and a minority (“Bitter Tea of General Yen”) white audiences would shun an authentic interracial relationship. Interracial romances were banned by the Hayes Code.
On a side note, 70 year old professor, Dr. Click, seemed to enjoy my paper and said he was informed on a new topic.
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My favorite was Joel Grey as an arrogant Korean martial artist in Remo Williams (1985). That and Khigh Dhiegh, the most famous evil Chinese agent who wasn’t.
I tried to do the same thing when I was in college. I managed to reference The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in a paper about the Ajivikas–a dead Indian religion.
Really, really interesting post, Jessica. A different twist to be sure. Curious how you deduced the age of you know who…That’s pretty much a top secret; no one has been able to find out. Oh well. Keep on bloggin!
Thanks Dr. Timbs I’m glad you enjoyed it. I guess I was just guessing an “approximate” age for you know who.
Let’s not forget the many Asian roles played by Myrna Loy in the late ’20s and early ’30s. I wrote an entry about it a few years ago:
Oooh yes you’re right! I’m pretty sure they talked about her role in one of the Fu Manchu movies in “Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex Immorality and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934.”
Only reason I didn’t mention her-and several others-was because I was thinking of so many more actors who played Asians and wanted to make sure I had Hispanics and Native Americans in there too.
It’s funny how easily you can think of whites who played non-whites. Alot of my classmates were shocked and a bit disgusted, but for us classic film lovers it almost seems…normal though very wrong lol.
Thanks for sharing your interesting blog post-I really enjoyed it. I love reading old articles like that. As a journalism student- its funny to see how much articles have changed. I really enjoyed your notes after the article, as well.
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