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From "I Break-A Da Stones" to "We Are All Americans": Ethnic Images in Film Posters and Songsheet Covers

From "I Break-A Da Stones" to "We Are All Americans": Ethnic Images in Film Posters and Songsheet Covers

By Charles Hardy

Songsheet cover, 1933
Figure 6
Songsheet cover

Poster, 1936
Figure 7

Poster, c. 1935
Figure 8
c. 1935

Songsheet cover, 1935
Figure 9
Songsheet cover

Songsheet ocver, 1927
Figure 10
Songsheet cover

All immigrants to the United States have had to make cultural adjustments to their new environment. Part of these adjustments have involved the complex and endless redefinition of their relationship to Anglo-American society. A great deal of this reworking of images and relationships took place in the popular arts: movies, songs, literature and the rest. In a never-ending flow of stories and songs a whole array of statements about the nature of the immigrants and the attitudes that the host society could, or should, adopt towards them, were played out.

The film posters and songsheet covers presented in this exhibit were advertisements for their products. They represented, in a single, rich arrangement of words, colors, and images, the stories within. Each piece presented a story that could be read at a glance by the prospective consumer, and that today can be "decoded" by the social historian. These pieces reflect not only the products they advertise, but also convey a point of view; and represent a particular understanding of social relationships and attitudes. The world of ethnicity in the popular arts has always been a vast ocean of competing, often contradictory images.

The image of the Italian laborer on the songsheet cover, "I Break-A Da Stones," (figure 6), is comical, alien, and childlike. He is a cartoon character: short, stocky, arched eyebrows, pointed moustache, floppy hat and patched, baggy trousers; his tools thrown jauntily over one shoulder. The lyrics, in "pidgin" English, tell of a humorously nonsensical way of life. The circularity of his reason,--"I break-a da stones, to make-a da mon', to break-a da stones -" in a sense expresses his inability to become an American, for a "real" American's social logic is one of self-improvement and upward mobility. All the visual elements indicate not only the inability, but also the lack of desire of the Italian laborer to escape his inferior economic and social position. This image of the immigrant as a comical unthreatening, and contented alien, in a way then, explained and condoned his situation.

In contrast is the image in figure 7, a poster for "Laughing Irish Eyes," an archetypal image of the permeability of class and ethnic barriers in America. Though most of the action in the movie, and in the scene depicted, takes place in Ireland, the story represented in the poster is all American. Front and near centerstage is our protagonist. Tall, handsome, strong arms bared above his apron--incongruously well-groomed for a blacksmith--he has all the markings of the ethnic, working-class hero. His eyes direct us to the object of his obvious admiration: a pretty, haughty, upperclass belle. Though everything in her appearance indicates her social superiority and disdain, it is clear that she will soon fall for our hero. The third figure, lurking in the background, his role in the plot unclear, is the more stereotypical Irishman of American popular culture; an object of affection, humor, and derision. Short and stocky, clad in a rumpled green suit, he is altogether and inescapably lower class and Irish. The plot is self-evident from the poster: handsome working-class boy, with pluck and intelligence, wins the heart of the supercilious but good-hearted middle, or perhaps upper-class beauty. The poster indicates a story of upward mobility and social integration. Through the marriage of the ethnic hero and the Anglo belle, both the lowly immigrant (represented by the figure on the right) and the native gentry are redeemed. Anglo-Americans will profit from an infusion of the natural, vital qualities of the Irish, while the Irish will be uplifted and improved through their integration with Anglo-Americans. One way to read the poster then, is as a happy resolution of the immigrant's problematical relationship to America.

But how did the immigrant greenhorn of "I Break-A Da Stones" become the ethnic-American hero of "Laughing Irish Eyes?" Perhaps "My Yiddisha Colleen,", a song representative of a whole cycle of "Cohen & Kelly" (Irish/Jewish) romances popular in the first four decades of the twentieth century, gives a clue. In this song cover the gross caricatures in many earlier depictions of Jews--and Irish--are replaced by Colleen's attractive and appealing, though still distinctly ethnic, features. By the early twentieth century, the Irish, culturally closer to Anglo-Americans than the new immigrants of southern and eastern Europe, had, after their own long period of "weathering," already planted one foot in the door of cultural acceptance. By romantically linking with the Irish the new immigrants (in this case the Jews) could move one step closer to social acceptance and eventual assimilation.

A different resolution to the immigrant's dilemma in America is told in the tale of gangster Al Capone. The Italian Capone does not "break-a da stones to make-a da mon' to break-a da stones." His story, already an American classic by the time of its appearance in this film version of 1957, told the gripping tale of how a man, excluded from society, struggled for personal advancement through a distorted vision of the American dream. The poster tells it all: "His TRUE, SHOCKING Story ... Filmed with BULLET FORCE." Here are the leering countenance, aggressively phallic cigar and jutting thumbs. Capone (his name emblazoned in bold red letters across his chest) is framed by the agents and victims of his rise to power. To lend a further aura of historical authenticity to the film, two photo inserts, of the real and dramatic Capone, are set side by side. And in the background looms the skyline of the city: the modern, uniquely American jungle of social decay and disorder which created the Capone monster. The poster, in a terse, stark and dramatic fashion, tells what lies within. Here we may view the consequences of the excluded immigrant's violent expropriation of the American dream.

Excluded from any hope of integration through romance or violence into the Anglo-American world, black Americans were represented in songs and films sometimes affectionately, often insultingly, and almost inevitably as social inferiors. The stock images of the comical "coon" or colored mammy, so many years a staple of American popular culture, are shown elsewhere in this exhibition. The next two pieces presented alternative images. One response available to Afro-Americans wanting to present positive images of their group was to co-opt, at times almost intact, the Anglo-American social order and ideals--its plot structures, manners, and morals--but replacing all white with all black faces. This they did in many of the "race" films of the 1920's and '30's. In the poster for "The Lure of A Woman," (figure 8), circa 1935, the leading characters are well dressed, handsomely featured, altogether "normal." Playing almost exclusively to black audiences, these films, like other ethnic movies of the same period, were products of the extensive ethnic subcultures then coexisting in the United States.

During times of national crisis the generally intractable racism reflected in the black stereotypes present in the popular arts was toned down in the effort to bond the allegiance of blacks to the nation. During the two World Wars and the Great Depression, positive images of blacks became more common in the popular arts. "We Are Americans Too," (figure 9) published in 1935, emphasized the contributions Afro-Americans had made militarily during the nation's wars. Here the Distinguished Service medal shines down like a brilliant sun in the night upon tall, erect, dignified black soldiers marching proudly into the future. The song's social agenda is clear. It utilizes the contributions blacks had made to the nation's struggles for liberty at home and abroad to present a positive, heroic image of black men.

Another important strand in this rich cultural dialogue about ethnicity has been the appreciation of the rich diversity and variety of America's peoples. "We Americans, " (figure 10) is a good example of that delight in variety. Published in the late 1920's, it is perhaps no coincidence that it appeared over a decade after the outbreak of the First World War had severely curtailed the flow of European immigration to the United States--a flow also restricted by the anti-immigration legislation of the early 1920's. By the late '20's, enough time had passed to permit some romanticizing of those most recent of the nation's immigrants. In the past few decades a new model of cultural pluralism has come to compete with the older, Anglo-American ideal of the melting pot. The challenge, the threat, and the promise of new groups entering the United States today--Haitians, Indo-Chinese, Mexicans and others--is a guarantee that the popular arts and their advertisements will for years to come continue to reflect the collective dreamwork of a culture endlessly reevaluating the meaning of ethnicity in America.

Charles Hardy is an independent radio producer and social historian. He was producer of The Popular Culture Show, a series of programs broadcast on WHYY-FM Public Radio in Philadelphia, from 1980-1983.