The Siren’s dearest wish for the summer holidays of her patient readers is that they will bring along a book so good that they are utterly absorbed, and they sit by the pool or beach or lake or whatever and forget to get into the water, unless dragged there by a trio of urchins (ahem). Such was her experience on vacation in Lebanon with Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.
The great migration Wilkerson refers to is the move made by about six million black Americans, from the South where they were concentrated at the beginning of the 20th century, to cities in the North and West. The exodus took decades, from 1915 to 1970, and Wilkerson argues that the changes it wrought were as profound as those brought about by the immigrants who came through Ellis Island.
To bring her narrative down to scale, she focuses on three who made the move: Ida Mae Gladney, who went from picking cotton in Mississippi to a home in Chicago; George Starling, who left brutal oppression in Florida for Harlem; and Robert Foster, a doctor who moved from Louisiana to success in California. This trio gives The Warmth of Other Suns the emotion and sweep of a great novel. It is not a perfect book; the author has a couple of style tics, and Wilkerson’s faith in the historical importance of her story (and she sure convinced the Siren) also leads her to the journalist’s habit of repeating her points. But those are quibbles. The Siren loved these people and finished the book deeply sorry that she could not ever meet them herself.
“Their migration was a response to an economic and social structure not of their making,” writes Wilkerson. “They did what humans have done for centuries when life became untenable...They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left.” A large part of The Warmth of Other Suns is given to showing what they left--the violent, pitiless racial caste system of the South. A native Southerner herself, the Siren is well versed in that history. It’s one thing to have the general knowledge, though, and quite another to be hit with Wilkerson’s accretion of detail. Story by story, she shows the cold horror of what African-Americans endured, from the ghastly beatings and lynchings, down to the endless petty humiliations.
And so we come to a passage that has stayed with the Siren well past finishing the book. The Siren’s deepest cinematic love is for Hollywood films made before the mid-’60s. This story of Robert Foster (then called by his middle name, Pershing) attending the Paramount theater in Monroe, La., in the 1930s, shows what some Americans went through just to see those movies.
He could see the double glass doors in front and a crowd forming outside. He knew to ignore the front entrance. It was off-limits to people like him.
He went to get his ticket. It was a more complicated affair than it had to be, owing to the whims and peculiarities of how Jim Crow played out in a particular town or establishment. For a time, there was a single ticket agent working both booths--the window for the colored and the one for the white. The agent swiveled between the two openings to sell the movie tickets, a roll to the white line and then a pivot to the colored. It created unnecessary confusion and waiting time for one line or the other, the waiting borne more likely by the colored moviegoers than the white, as waiting to be served after colored people would have been unacceptable to the white clientele. By the time Pershing was nearly grown, the swiveling ticket agent was dispensed with in favor of altogether separate windows and ticket sellers, which would cost a little more but would move the white and colored lines along more quickly and more in keeping with the usual protocols of Jim Crow.
The Paramount fancied itself like one of the great opera houses of Europe with its crimson velvet curtains and pipe organ rising from the orchestra pit. A double-wide staircase ushered theatergoers to its box seats. But Pershing would not be permitted near them. He followed the colored crowd to the little door at the side entrance, while the white people passed through the heavy glass doors...
The side door opened onto a dark stairway. Pershing mounted the steps, anxious to get a seat before the lights went dim. He went up one flight, two flights, three, four, five flights of stairs. The scent of urine told him he was getting closer to the colored seats.
At the top of the stairs, there was Bennie Anderson, the colored ticket taker, ready to take his stub. The urine aroma was thick and heavy now. The toilet was stopped up most of the time, and the people did what they had to. Some relieved themselves on the way up. Pershing thought they did it on purpose--a protest maybe for the condition of the place, not registering that it was other colored people who had to suffer for it. He could understand it, but he didn’t much approve.
Pershing sat hard in the wooden seat and tried not to notice the stuffed upholstery on the main floor below. Sometimes the kids would rain popcorn and soda pop on the white people. At last, the place went dark, and Pershing left Monroe. He was on a bright veranda with Myrna Loy and Tyrone Power out in California. It was a perfect world, and he could see himself in it.
Now the Siren admits that many, if not most, of Wilkerson’s readers do not encounter that story and wonder afterward which movie Foster was seeing, but around these parts that reaction is perfectly understandable. The passage is in a section dated 1933, a year the Siren’s readers will immediately identify as off. Myrna Loy made one movie with Tyrone Power, and it was 1939’s The Rains Came. The material comes from Wilkerson’s interviews with Foster, conducted in 1996 and 1997 when he was almost 80 years old, and it’s possible his memory telescoped the movies he saw as a teen. Still, it’s intriguing that Foster’s mind lit on an image from that particular film, so please excuse the Siren for a moment as she riffs on it.
The verandas were shot in California, but the setting is colonial India. The Rains Came depicts an interracial romance between Tyrone Power’s aristocratic Indian, a doctor like Foster, and Myrna Loy’s adulterous Englishwoman. In the banner year of 1939 it can’t be said to stand out as a masterpiece, but the movie holds up as good entertainment via the talented Clarence Brown. It’s a handsome picture, shot by Bert Glennon and Arthur C. Miller, two cinematographers whose genius with black-and-white could take anyone out of Monroe, La., or anywhere else.
The Siren hasn’t been able to track down exactly how The Rains Came made it past the Production Code’s miscegenation clause. This grimly simple statement (“Miscegenation (sex relationship between the black and white races) is forbidden”) was long interpreted as barring interracial love affairs whether they came via script or casting. (The rule cost Anna May Wong the lead in The Good Earth, scuttled Lena Horne’s chances for Show Boat, and was no doubt a big reason for Merle Oberon’s silence on her own Indian roots.) Thomas Doherty’s biography of Joseph Breen offers no help, and if anyone has information, please share. It’s possible that the story’s origin, in a bestselling novel by Louis Bromfield, and the star power of the white leads for once rendered it a moot point. Ronald Bergan, reviewing a book on images of India in the movies at Bright Lights Film Journal, also points out that Loy’s character “has to die in the end to avoid breaking the taboo.”
Still, anything Foster saw in a cinema in the 1930s would have had to clear not only the Hays Office, but the network of local censors crisscrossing the country, people like Lloyd T. Binford, whose father wrote the Jim Crow laws for Tennessee and who, as head of the Memphis censorship board, banned the 1947 comedy Curley for showing a white teacher with a racially diverse class. Doherty quotes Binford: “I am sorry to have to inform you that the Memphis Board of Censors was unable to approve your Curley picture with the little Negroes as the South does not permit Negroes in white schools nor recognize equality between the races, even children.” This piece of madness caused embarrassment even at the time, and enabled Breen to pose as the broadminded defender of art, saying that “we are opposed to political censorship from outside the industry” and pursuing a lawsuit against the Memphis board, which Doherty says the MPAA lost on a technicality. You see the Siren’s point; a segregated theater was far from the only obstacle facing a black movie-lover (and Foster did love movies) seventy years ago.
The Rains Came’s most celebrated moments are a series of natural disasters. The special effects used to create an earthquake, torrential rains and a dam bursting won an Oscar, and they still look great. The Siren thinks CGI has only the slightest edge, if any, over certain movies shot with miniatures and, in this case, sets that were destroyed one by one using a 50,000-gallon water tank. (She would think that, wouldn’t she, although others agree.)
But no matter how they’re filmed, disasters serve but one, and I do mean one, purpose in Hollywood movies, new or old: They're a conspicuously flashy way for the characters to reassess their lives. (Here the Siren casts a sidelong glance at the much-discussed Contagion trailer, and wonders whether Steven Soderbergh will break this rule. The movie looks good, but judging by Matt Damon’s tormented demeanor out in the woods, she’s gonna go with no.) Rama Safti (Power) is torn between his calling as a doctor and his position as heir to the Maharajah; Lady Edwina Esketh (Loy, in a role she beat out numerous other actresses for) is married to a rich, but boring old duffer (Nigel Bruce, bien sur) and cheating on him as blatantly as the Code will permit. By the time the dam breaks, Lady Esketh is in love with Safti. And the plague (yes, plague, because an earthquake, flood and a busted dam aren’t enough to get these two to shape up) that follows the other calamities prompts Lady E. to don a nurse’s uniform and minister to the sick, a job that also lets her be close to the man she loves. Witnessing suffering alters Lady Esketh's selfish nature, and Safti falls in love with her at last. Lady Esketh’s death from the plague, and the death of the Maharajah, show Safti he must accept his responsibilities.
Unlike the other two people profiled in The Warmth of Other Suns, Foster came from a prominent family, and he was expected to make a name for himself. The treatment meted out to him in the South, however, always galled this proud man, and in 1953 he left for California. There his highly successful practice eventually grew to include Ray Charles; it was Dr. Foster who sewed up Charles’ hand after the singer put it through a glass coffee table, thereby preserving Charles’ piano-playing. We all owe the doctor for that.
So there is Foster in a segregated movie theater, watching a story that was daring for the time, about an Indian doctor with distinguished roots, who makes it through hardship and loss to claim his rightful legacy.
It fits, doesn’t it.