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Listening to the tune ‘Slap that Bass’ on the radio, I recognised it as being from the film Shall we Dance, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Rather than play my DVD copy of the film, I viewed a video for ‘Slap that Bass’ on the internet and have embedded it below. There is a comment that the opening sequence of ‘Slap that Bass’ made one viewer feel ‘uncomfortable’. Discomfort, I assume, at the all black troupe and the inference drawn that they were crew members in the engine room.
‘Shall we Dance’ was produced in 1937 by a film industry strictly censored under the oppressive dead hand of the state. The United States had endured The Great Depression for nearly a decade and there was no sign of it ending. While segregation was still the norm, especially in theatres, government and state administrations were preoccupied with the plight of impoverished whites. The nation’s angst was in turn alleviated and enraged by two novels of the period depicting the lives of white families during The Great Depression.
Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (1932), portrayed the plight of poor hapless white share croppers as a comedic tragedy. Its popular dramatisation on Broadway making the portrayal entertainment, giving rise to more parody than empathy. By contrast, the later grittier portrayal of poor helpless white tenant farmers in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939), was seen as socialist propaganda. Publicly censored and burnt by citizens for depicting the harsh conditions endured by impoverished whites and an uncaring society.
Much could be said about the number ‘Slap that Bass’, the fantastic art-Deco stylised set, its lighting, the machinery simulation, Astaire’s routine, but especially the about the influence of black American culture on George Gershwin. Gershwin had been engaged to write the score for the film having been drawn to Hollywood, with his brother Ira, by the commercial failure of Porgy and Bess (1935) his American folk opera. When researching the musical genre for his folk opera ‘Porgy and Bess’, he had immersed himself in black American culture. The routine ‘Slap that Bass’, like ‘Porgy and Bess’, drew on this for Gershwin’s fusion of musical genres.
‘The Great Depression’ was a period of great hardship for blacks and whites in the United States, so perhaps Dudley Dickerson deserves a comment. He had a brief solo opening routine in ‘Slap that Bass’ and went on to have a successful career in Hollywood. Nevertheless, the opportunities afforded black performers like Dudley Dickerson, the troupe in ‘Slap that Bass’ and the Broadway cast of ‘Porgy and Bess‘, were severely limited. Despite this, any inferences drawn from the following video are more cause for reflection than the discomfort of a dead hand.
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