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Birth of An Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation

Nicholas Sammond, Author

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Vaudeville and the Movies

Although some popular film histories have suggested that the movies killed vaudeville, the two not only shared the stage but traded performative conventions and practices as well.

In cinema’s early silent period, motion pictures often appeared on vaudeville bills as a “dumb” acts, occupying a slot also held by animal acts and acrobats during the opening and closing of an evening’s slate. The films themselves were rarely the attraction. Instead, audiences came for the novelty of witnessing a new technology and the thrill of seeing pictures move. Although many film historians have asserted that films were used as "chasers" to clear the theatre to make room for the next audience, some evidence suggests that moving pictures also occupied middle slots in the program, attesting to their growing popularity. This was especially true for topical "actualities" such as newsreels about the Spanish-American War, speeches by President McKinley or championship boxing matches such as the Corbett/Fitzsimmons fight.  

Motion pictures began to gain popularity during the nickelodeon period (1906-1912), and soon after, with the advent of longer, narrative feature films, these roles became reversed and vaudeville acts found themselves sharing the stage in "combination shows," serving as attractions to the feature films. Despite criticism by the trade journals who saw the combination show as a dilution of motion pictures’ potential, combination houses quickly supplanted nickelodeons in bigger cities and even became common in suburban neighbourhoods by the mid-teens.

By the 1920s and the arrival of lavishly appointed picture palaces, elaborate stage shows and musical features were routinely presented with first-run feature films. These "presentation shows" were often thematically linked to the feature film. Some of the lavish picture palaces of the 1920s, such as The Roxy in New York, boasted symphony orchestras of over a hundred musicians and massive organs capable of elaborate sound effects as well as music. The arrival of synchronized sound films and the advent of the Depression in the late 1920s spelled the end of elaborate live stage shows. Studios found it cheaper to film stage shows and vaudeville acts and present them to audiences as part of the bill with the feature film.

In the 1920s, vaudeville and the movie industry had a relationship that was sometimes collaborative and sometimes competitive, and in which conventions and traditions of the stage sometimes migrated to the screen. With the coming of sound film and radio, vaudeville hastened its own demise by providing the onscreen and on-air talent and variety format that would help to make more costly live performances undesirable to Depression-era exhibitors. By the end of the 1920s, major movie producers used vaudeville and "legitimate" theatre stars to promote the new technology—as in this 1923 film promoting Lee DeForest's "Phonofilm" technology with Eddie Cantor. Later films integrated popular vaudeville entertainers and their routines into the narratives of films. At first they made little effort to locate these bits of business cohesively within the narrative. Soon, however, the conventions of synchronized sound over took the vaudeville aesthetics for those that favored narrative cohesion. For example, compare the anarchic, freewheeling comedy of early Marx Brothers films such as The Cocoanuts with the more constrained, narrative driven humour of their later films, such as A Night at the Opera.  

Moving pictures may have displaced vaudeville as the dominant form of American mass culture, but some vaudeville performers were able to make a successful transition to the new medium by translating their signature material and schtick from the stage to the screen. Often these vaudeville routines built on the structure and dynamics of minstrelsy. While minstrelsy had begun to fade as a popular entertainment, it could be found in vaudeville in the form of the two-man vaudeville acts featuring the comic interplay between a ‘straight’ man and a ‘funny’ man. These acts, which relied on rapid verbal interplay, condensed the dynamic of the minstrel act of the interlocutor and his end men, Tambo and Bones, into the running vaudeville gag of the seemingly more intelligent partner who tries vainly to get his dimmer partner to see common sense, as in the acts of Laurel and Hardy, Burns and Allen, or Abbot and Costello

On the stage, vaudeville acts routinely featured ethnic humor, trading in stock characters and ethnic and racial stereotypes. Vaudeville shorts of the early sound period tended to shun ethnic acts in favor of more generically white acts. Later, in feature films, characters would lose their ethnicity almost entirely. For example, the costuming and dialogue of the Marx Brothers would have easily identified them by their ethnic stock character on the stage (Groucho-Dutch, Harpo-Irish and Chico-Italian), but in their movie incarnations, those ethnicities were absent or downplayed. However, in the case of African-American performers, this move towards a generic ethnicity (or whiteness) could not occur, and successful African-American stage and vaudeville stars such as Nina Mae McKinney or the Nicholas Brothers often had to trade in racial stereotypes to gain exposure.

Vaudeville did not survive the Depression. By 1932, Martin Beck’s Palace Theatre had become a moving picture house, and the Keith-Allen-Orpheum empire, once vaudeville’s largest circuit, had become the “KO” in RKO, which converted remaining vaudeville houses into motion picture venues.

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