Armstrong’s film career began in the 30s, made possible by his well-known music of the last decade. He had not yet achieved star status simply for being Louis Armstrong: his first few pictures depict him in a musical context and nothing else, although his trumpet is always at least by his side in his later work. But it is Armstrong the jazz musician who is featured in the early 30s. His first two appearances (excepting the 1931 film Ex-Flame, which has been lost) do not have any scripted lines, and the only glimpses the audience gets of his character must be interpreted either by his playing style or highly personalized utterances he makes in between verses.
The cast of "Rhapsody in Black and Blue."
The lazy husband finds himself in a military uniform, sitting in a throne surrounded with servants and palm trees. An advisor informs him that he is the king of “Jazzmania” and that Louis Armstrong has been summoned for his entertainment. Armstrong and his band have been playing throughout the dream sequence, but Armstrong himself is hardly recognizable, as he is wearing a sort of faux-leopard skin costume and is growling in an almost pre-verbal manner. He is an intriguing mix of savage and modern minstrel type (amidst the animalistic noises is the line “when you’re down under six feet, no more fried chicken will you eat...oh, that’ll break your heart!”), and his facial “mugging” vacillates between 19th and 15th century stereotypes. If only because of his costume, he more closely resembles the Birth of a Nation African-American charicature, for his nonsense speaking and bulging eyes are not only savage, but frighteningly so.
His second early “role” was part of a 1932 Betty Boop cartoon, in which he sings the title song “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You” (view the clip in modem format or ethernet format). As two animated protagonists flee a jungle scene, a spear-wielding native pursues them before inflating into a gigantic floating head. It begins singing, and its big painted lips combined with the many hums and spooky noises Armstrong adds in between lines of the song make for a frankly apelike effect. In fairness, most cartoon characters of this period (Betty Boop excluded) often had primitive airs in their grinning faces and swinging arms, but audiences never looked at such characters as representations of anything real. After a few seconds, however, the animated head becomes the real floating head of Armstrong, grinning away as usual. It may be wrong to read too much into a childlike cartoon, but this explicit connection between a human and a drawn savage is too unusual to be ignored.
The 1936 Pennies from Heaven shows Armstrong taking a new stereotypical direction. No longer the savage, he plays a hired musician in the “Haunted House Cafe.” New stereotypes abound as Armstrong speaks such lines as “I told them cats you’d do the right thing,” steals chickens, and is frightened by a dancer in a skeleton costume (Gabbard notes in Jammin’ at the Margins that the “timorous black, easily terrified by graveyard images” was another favorite source of comedy for early film audiences). The shift of character matches the shift in film subjects this project discussed earlier, as the film industry produced more movies that were familiar affirmations of American values. Armstrong’s racial roles in later 30s movies do not portray him as a threatening or frightening savage, but rather as the amiable black servant type that audiences hoped still existed in a society whose racial makeup was rapidly shifting.
Armstrong’s largest role was as a racehorse groom named Gabriel in the 1938 film Going Places (view the clip in modem format or ethernet format) . He is stripped of all sexual or racial menace and is confined to singing to the horse. Gabbard speculates that the film was based on earlier animal films, for the driving point of Going Places is that the horse, named Jeepers Creepers, can only be calmed down and ridden when Gabriel sings the song of the same name. The film’s dramatic conclusion even includes Armstrong with his whole band driving in a buggy down the racetrack as Jeepers Creepers competes for a title. The most unsettling aspect of Armstrong’s role, however, is its unremitting demands for servility from the actor. He endlessly completes his sentences with “yessuh,” clowns around with animals in the most childlike way imaginable, and wears shabby clothing. Modern audiences must even endure the indignity of hearing him referred to as “Uncle Tom” instead of his actual name.
Gabbard notes that “the racial imagery in these films has not aged well. Joe Glaser [Armstrong’s trusted manager] seized any opportunity to find work for Armstrong, and if Glaser made no effort to ask if the movies were good for the Negro people, neither did Armstrong” (Gabbard 216). There is no disagreement that these films are insulting, and are not even particularly good. Why, then, did Armstrong persist in making them? The debate began as early as 1943, when James Agee gave the newest Armstrong film Cabin in the Sky a negative review and objected to the demeaning portrayal of African-Americans. Endless psychoanalysis and speculation follow in Armstrong’s wake, and any attempt to sort out what the critics say and find a middle ground results in even more confusion than before.