Salute! (1929)

27 02 2010

A sweet, simple, warmhearted early talkie from Ford. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but it doesn’t really try to be. If anything, I’m glad that Ford kept everything low-key and simplistic (I’m fearing the latter adjective will be used a lot to describe this film) but still managed to add some visual flair to the otherwise predictable proceedings. Maybe I managed to watch it at the right point in time, but I think I got as much out of this as I possibly could. It’s easy to see where it’s going (once you get a grasp on who is who and what is going on) very early on, but still, it is very fun.

A timid Paul Randall is about to be sent out to the Naval Academy, and it is the first true opportunity he’ll get to escape from the shadows of his older brother and West Point cadet, John Randall. John is the outgoing, good-looking, and athletic member of the family and Paul is the antithesis. While in Annapolis, Paul becomes fond of Nancy, but his inexperience with women does anything but work to his advantage. He remains oblivious to her advances and instead, spends most of his time lamenting the upcoming Army-Navy football game.

There’s several selling points here, even if you aren’t a die hard Ford fan. Depending on one’s opinion of Stepin Fetchit, this film is either a great opportunity or an embarrassing showing. I know there’s the issue of racial stereotyping that many hold against Fetchit, but in the eyes of a modern viewer, I think his performances are subversive, arguably brilliant but frustrating reminders of our not so flattering past. It creates this almost unbearable tension between the film and the audience, especially when Fetchit is given as many lines as he is here.

The other great curiosity is the newsreel footage of the Army-Navy game. Unfortunately, I have yet to discover what year it is from, but it is still fascinating to watch. Ford struggles to blend the newsreel footage with his own football footage. It’s probably most evident by the sound, the crowd is ear-piercing during the real footage, but no attempt is made to recreate their cheering during the fictional footage. It probably requires some interest in the history of (American) football to be impressed, but it is one of the earliest examples of Ford providing historical relevance to his art. There’s also a great “pre-code” tone to Ford’s style here, perhaps more in the vein of William A. Wellman than Ford himself. The shaky, free-to-roam handheld camera movements are fun to watch, even as they are capturing events that could be considered mundane. It’s fun movie, though definitely for people who are already familiar with Ford.

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One response

3 03 2010
superbmac

I think calling Stepin Fetchit subversive is simply a case of presentism. Sure, maybe there was some sort of intention with his character to play dumb so he didn’t have to do any work but if that’s the case it’s intention vs. perception. Let’s be honest, most if not all of the films he was in were made by groups of white people, for white audiences to be played in whites-only theaters. It’s a harmful caricature in that it perpetuated a stereotype that most whites of the time already believed: that African Americans were slow, dumb and lazy. That was the heart of his comedy at the time. “Look at the silly stupid negro, that’s funny.” That was the draw of Fetchit. It’s typecasting of the most disgusting kind.

I think Lincoln Perry was talented and it’s a shame that talented was wasted just because he lived in a time that didn’t understand and wasn’t friendly to black people. I hope, as a modern viewer, no one is watching his performances with a blind eye to the past. I like watching the films he’s in because the character he plays says so much, but I can’t say I appreciate it. Subversive? It’s the opposite of subversive. A faithful and unsurprising representation of the sad state of thought in the early 20th century. I just don’t see how it can be viewed any other way.

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