Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Swanee River

Swanee River (1939; dir. Sidney Lanfield) gives a sentimental and largely fictional account of Stephen Foster, the American composer famous for his ballads about life in the antebellum South. The movie follows Foster’s life from his courtship of his future wife, to his struggle to make a success of his songwriting, to his work with the Christy Minstrels, and finally to his death in New York City. Although Foster visited the South only once in his lifetime, the film suggests he was there often. It shows Foster composing songs off the top of his head after listening to slaves singing spirituals or attending traveling music shows. Don Ameche plays Foster. The other notable actor in the film is Al Jolson, who plays Edwin P. Christy of the Christy Minstrels. Jolson certainly didn’t have much range—loud is his normal style. He sings and dances as one would expect , and through much of the film he and his entire troupe are in black face. He often sings out of time with the music.

The Christy Minstels popularized the music of minstrelsy and singing in black face. The Minstrels are white men made up to look like slaves, including black face paint. Their performances of Foster’s songs made him famous. Today, the tradition of white men in black face singing minstrel songs seems preposterously racist, though it was accepted in much of the 19th century and even in the era that produced this film.

Foster’s songs, many of them still quite listenable, extoll the virtues of the Old South, of slavery, of “the old folks at home.” Their basic theme is nostalgia for a lost past, one in which Foster, his audience, and certainly the makers of this film largely believed. The film certainly doesn’t ever look critically at this aspect of Foster’s music.

Film biographies are problematic. Most of them mythologize their subjects. This one is no exception, though it suggests that love of fame, money, and success were perhaps too important to Foster, and that alcohol and alcoholism, which the film clearly refers to though never quite using the name, were the cause of his downfall personally and professionally.

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