(5/10) In a nutshell: A bonkers short subject by master director Jean Renoir from 1927 shows an African explorer in a spacecraft discovering a white native woman in a post-apocalyptic Paris, and they dance the Charleston for ten minutes.
Charleston Parade (Sur un air de Charleston). 1927, France. Directed by Jean Renoir. Written by André Cerf, Pierre Lestringuez, Starring: Catherine Hessling, Johnny Hudgins. Produced by Pierre Braunberger for Neo-Film. IMDb score: 6.0
Considering his experimental streak, it is a bit odd that the French film innovator Jean Renoir didn’t lend his talents to science fiction more often. The only time he ventured into the territory was in 1926, when he filmed the 17 minutes long experimental film Charleston Parade (Sur un air de Charleston), which was released the year after.
The intertitles tell us that in 2028 the world has been ravaged by an apocalyptic war, and the pinnacle of civilisation is now Africa, whereas Europe is known as ”the unknown area”. An African explorer (Johnny Hudgins) sets out towards this savage and unexplored urban wilderness in his spherical spacecraft, and lands on top of a Morris column (advertising column) in the middle of Paris. Here he encounters a scantily clad white native girl (Catherine Hessling), along with her pet ape (uncredited, but wearing one of the worst ape suits in the history of cinema). Despite the sexy native’s alluring gestures, she brushes off the black explorer’s advances, and instead opts to teach him the local custom, the Charleston dance.
Amused, the explorer asks for a phone whereby the native goes into her column (her home) and draws a phone on the wall, which then materialises. She calls up the heavenly operator, and gets a bunch of angels (including Renoir) on the line. The explorer informs the angels that he has rediscovered the ancient custom of the Charleston, and would very much like to learn it. The angels give him permission. This then leads to 10 minutes of footage, a lot of it in slow motion, of the native and the explorer dancing the Charleston, until the exhausted explorer can take it no longer and heads back to the spacecraft. He is delighted when the girl agrees to come along back to Africa. But first she calls upon her attires of civilisation, a fur coat and an umbrella, who eagerly come crawling out of a storm drain and take their places on her body. She blows a kiss to the crying ape, and off they go to civilised Africa. The End.
This was one of very few short films that Jean Renoir made, and because of Hessling’s minuscule costume and the focus on her dancing body, it is sometimes labelled as an erotic film. It was filmed in only three days, using left over film stock from Renoir’s previous film Nana, in which Hessling – Renoir’s wife at the time – also played the lead. The film is interesting inasmuch as it is probably the first European film in which a black man plays the male lead. The idea for the film was thought up by André Cerf, assistant director on Nana, after seeing the famous Parisien Revue Negre, a Paris-based African-American performing group, that also included a young Josephine Baker, the world’s first black entertainment superstar and noted civil rights activist. One of the stars of the show was Johnny Hudgins, a well-known African-American dancer, comedian and pantomime, known in the States as The Wah Wah Man, for his famous act where he would lend his voice to a trombone, and hailed in France as “the black Charlie Chaplin”.
The film puts many of the prevailing racial stereotypes on their head. The apocalyptic scenes of Paris and the highly evolved African seems to envision a future where Western ”civilisation” has been brought to its natural conclusion, but Renoir is also turning the looking glass on our ”exotic” view of the savage African and their uncivilised continent – portraying the white savage girl and her tribal dance in much the same way as Africans and other non-white people where portrayed (and still are!) in Western films and culture. Another seemingly strange twist is that Hudgins is dressed up as a minstrel from so-called minstrel shows, with blackface, painted white lips, a frock and a top hat, despite the fact that minstrel shows were all but extinct in 1926. The minstrel shows were originally performed mainly by white performers in blackface in the early 19th century, portraying black Americans as slow and stupid people. After the American civil war, black performers took up the routine and adapted the look. But because of their perceived racism, the shows declined rapidly in the beginning of the 20th century.
But: The decision to dress Hudgins in the minstrel costume and blackface wasn’t Renoir’s, in fact Hudgins had developed the archaic blackface as part of his stage routine. Hudgins was one of a few black vaudeville performers who continued to use blackface as a ploy even after its use had become politically incorrect. For some of these performers the use of blackface was a sarcastic way of giving a voice to a cultural history, owning an insult by way of embracing it – much in the way some black people in use “nigger” as an affectionate word when talking to another black person, but still take insult if a white person uses it. Hudgins eventually dropped the blackface routine in the thirties (although there is some evidence that he took it up again during WWII, while performing in France). It’s worth noting that even Josephine Baker, who refused to perform for segregated audiences in the States, also occasionally performed in blackface.
But aside from the racial connotations, the film is also a declaration of love to movement and the beauty of the human body – and few bodies are more apt for this purpose that Catherine Hessling’s. The wordless dance routine becomes a bridge between cultures and people, connecting the two alienated individuals from two different words. The joy of movement and the physicality of the dance become a common language, a bond between to alien species, and in the end creates a bond between them. Furthermore the film conveys something of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s idea of the film as a medium of playfulness and experimentation, a tumbleplace for testing and mixing ideas. The ten-minute dance sequence serves no narrative purpose, and to be honest, Hessling’s dance it not very graceful. But nevertheless, the scene is hypnotic in all its strangeness, in a way that only film can portray. As a stage act it would be awful.
The film came at the height of the first wave of French avantgarde and surrealism in film, that also gave rise to the occasional sci-fi, like Marcel L’Herbier’s The Inhuman Woman (1924, review) and René Clair’s The Crazy Ray (1924, review). Renoir regarded the film as an experiment in jazz, but unfortunately the original music by Clement Doucet has been lost over the years. André Cerf, the originator of the idea, would very much later, in 1980, appear as an actor in the French sci-fi film Malevil.
Charleston Parade (Sur un air de Charleston). 1927, France. Directed by Jean Renoir. Written by André Cerf, Pierre Lestringuez, Starring: Catherine Hessling, Johnny Hudgins, Jean Renoir, André Cerf, Pierre Lestringuez, Pierre Braunberger. Cinematography: Jean Bachelet. Music: Clement Doucet. Produced by Pierre Braunberger for Neo-Film.