A musical set in antebellum Louisiana, Dixiana (RKO, 1930) opens with a sweet old plantation owner Cornelius Van Horn (Joseph Cawthorn) relaxing on the veranda of his mansion, delighted to hear "the slaves singing about the river." The old master says, "My slaves sing better than anyone around here" & is reassured by his son Carl (Everett Marshall), "That's because they love you."
The depth of racism this fantasy of the wonderful days of slave ownership simply drops the jaw with incredulity.
Could crass commercial filmmaking really have been this appallingly cavalier? Would the doting old slave owner eventually be tied to an anthill & slathered with honey as he so richly deserved? Don't hold your breath.
Putting the best face on it, making excuses for its age & what-not, really doesn't wash, as there were plenty of folks at RKO who would've known this film stepped over the margin of acceptible levels of racism, the horrors of slavery being well known internationally even before the Civil War.
Yet a viewer might even so note that the singin' slaves are actually the Emmanuel Hall Chorus, Hall having been a well-known baritone of the Harlem Rennaisance.
Carl heads for New Orleans & visits the Hippodrome, a combination pre-Civil War circus & vaudeville stage, whose singing star Dixiana (Bebe Daniels) Carl is in love with. A couple guys in ostritch costumes wheel out a giant egg, out of which hatches Dixiana singing the barely tolerable diddy "I Am Your Baby Now." It's so primitively staged that it is rather charming, but how far are we supposed to go to forgive & enjoy a film that opens with such deeply abiding ignorance & nostalgia for owning slaves?
Inside the big-bird costumes are Peewee & Ginger Dandy, played by the rightfully forgotten comedy team of Robert Woolsey & Bert Wheeler.
The characters they play are pretty close to their vaudeville characters, & there is some historical interest in seeing what passed for funny in the vaudeville circuit or during comedy interludes at stage productions of Ziegfield's Follies.
Woolsey always smoked a cigar & wore thick glasses & oiled down his hair; his character was imitated by George Burns. One of his vaudeville cigar routines is worked into the story. Wheeler was the dapper little dandy bordering on sissy.
They were active together for about ten years covering most of the 1930s. Their level of comedy is summed up in a scene where they seem to be talking about a thundermug or piss-pot under the bed -- how riske -- but it's actually a crawfish trap.
Woolsey & Wheeler also had an act with Dorothy Lee, who appeared with them on stage & in most of the same films. Bad as the music is throughout Dixiana, the closest thing to a good number comes when Lee & Wheeler get to do a bit of their act. As a singer Dorothy was more talented by Bebe & better looking to boot.
Dixiana likes Carl best, but she does have another suitor, who should probably be called Oil-can Harry he's such an antique sort of villain, but his name is Royal Montague (Ralf Harolde), a gambler & as it happens a murderer who the law never found out killed the former owner of the plantation Carl's father now owns.
Royal tells Carl his gentlemanly pretenses toward the queen of the Hippodrome are not so noble, for he hasn't introduced her to his parents nor asked her to marry him. Carl wants to have a duel over the implication that Dixiana is a whore, but Dixiana intercedes.
Being easily influenced by the opinions of the criminal class, Carl instantly asked Dixiana to marry him, & takes her right away to meet the folks on the plantation, where the darkies are still happy as larks & prominade about the mansion as though they have nothing to do. Ah, what an easy life, slavery!
Dear old dad would happily if a bit lasciviously have Dixiana as his daughter-in-law. But less dear old mom (Jobyna Howland) is horrified by the idea of her son marrying an entertainer & has her tossed off the plantation.
Royal's machinations get Dixiana fired from the Hippodrome so that she has to come work in his gambling joint. When Carl finds her, Royal gets him in a game of chance in which he will be so far indebted he'll even lose his dad's plantation & the human flesh the family owns & all claims on Dixiana.
He'd also like to get Carl in a duel since Carl is a duelling sort, Royal being so brave about it because the duelling pistols have been rigged.
We're also treated to a sword duel between Peewee & Ginger in which they wreck everything in their room at Carl's plantation home, physical comedy of the banana peel sort, but worse.
If it sounds marginally interesting, well it ain't. But when it's time for Mardis Gras, suddenly the black & white film is in two-strip technicolor, & the lousy song & dance bits we've seen up to now are displaced by a truly big Ziegfields Follies show which is actually pretty thrilling.
And here's the only real reason to watch this racist film: You'll get to see the real & only Mr. Bojangles (Bill Robinson) dance up & down a Follies staircase.
Clad as a house slave with feather duster, dusting the master's throne (& giving it a try), he procedes to perform for about three minutes, a long time in feature film terms, a simple elegant performance permitting him to dominate the screen with his talent.
We'll pretend we didn't know he had to dance alone because it wouldn't've been acceptible to white audiences if he joined with the many beautiful women otherwise in evidence. Most of us would rather not see them anyway.
There's some more plot crap going on as Dixiana goes down the kidnapped damsel in distress trail, but who the hell cares. And too damned bad the songs in this film are so fabulously abysmal.
The film nevertheless has a significant place in history as an early talkie musical, early technicolor process, & first appearance of Bojangles in a film.
The color final reel was for many years thought lost, with a truncated b/w reel substituted. But it has been recently restored. However, the second-rate restoration was "reformatted" for modern television screens & cut off a bit of Bojangles' feet. So even today assaultive honkies can't bring themselves to think twice about such crimes.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl