Saturday, December 7, 2019
The Beulah Show (1950-1953)
Americans are a strange bunch. If you meet someone named Jemima in England, or here in Australia, people will go "Oh, what a lovely name!", or "Awww, like Jemima Puddleduck!". In America, however, they treat it like it's poison. "Jemima?" they'll gasp, "That name's racist!". If you press them on why, they'll be forced to admit it's just because a friggin pancake mascot is named that. Flimsy reason to declare a name permanently racist for everyone, without exception! [And you know how Americans are like. What goes for them automatically goes for the rest of the world as far as they're concerned, and so they express outrage when other countries don't share these views.] The same goes for the name Beulah. It has [extremely] negative connotations in the U.S., but even if they know why, it's another unsatisfactory answer. Let's explain why as we take a look at unsung TV classic The Beulah Show!...
Beulah is an easygoing and good-natured housekeeper for the Henderson family. They're often getting into trouble, and whether it's their own fault, or a product of one of Beulah's schemes to help out, she always rescues them from any fixes, and saves the day as only she can...
The Beulah Show is a great example of 1950s sitcoms. All the tropes are there, with enough fresh paint on them to not come across stale. You've got the sweet but sometimes meddling housemaid, the [overworked] father, the doting mother who often goes out to female clubs, the misbehaving son, etc.
The stories are based around your typical shenanigans, misunderstandings, or obstacles. These are always amusing, and often hilarious! My favourites were The Waltz, and The Babysitter. The former has a great climax with an amusing and unexpected dynamic, while The Babysitter contains a diabolically evil child who gets up to all kinds of trouble. She's scary!
What surprised me is how densely packed each episode can be! With a lot of sitcoms, be they from the 50s or 90s, they tend to use as few locations as possible, with as few events happening as possible. Some could even just have two long 10 minute scenes, or 20 minute bottle episodes. Here however, episodes can range from smaller scale stories to running the whole gamut! The Waltz is a great example of this. It's got lots of scenes, a bunch of sets/locations that all look different, and plenty of things happening. Not so much that it's confusing or too much, but enough to make things packed and enjoyable energetic.
The show teaches very good lessons, surprisingly for the 50s! It never talks down to kids either. It encourages them to challenge bad teachers, as well as to get out of their comfort zone by doing new things the way they want to. It must've also been educational for kids watching to see authority figures give lectures on the importance of truthfulness, then go and fib his heart out for a scheme!
Perhaps The Beulah Show's best quality is its portrayal of race. Being from the 1950s, racism was still a big thing, and while black entertainers were making some headway, it was difficult with all the opposition and restrictions they faced. Slowly but surely they managed to turn the tide, with things starting to explode in their favour in the next decade. Beulah is notable for being one of the very first primetime TV shows to star not only a black lead, but a predominately/sizeable black cast.
Not only is the show a trailblazer in that sense, there's chiefly/also its handling of these people. This it does fantastically! No-one is stereotypical, and never degraded, with everyone getting the chance to shine. There is never once a point where Beulah is anything less than family. The Hendersons never even say the slightest nasty things to Bill and Oriole, [despite their more lacking qualities/traits as employees]. We also see Beulah having plenty of other white friends like it's no big deal, who never once balk at the idea of a black woman/person being a pal. And lastly, the black characters are also allowed put-downs against white folk at times! If this were a racist show, you can totally imagine how different it'd be. None of those positives I mentioned would be there, and it'd be a truly uncomfortable sit.
While this is a fantastically inclusive and pioneering show, it's been left with a [tarnished] legacy due to the way modern day Americans perceive it, and even some contemporary reactions. Why? Buggered if I know, but let's
Firstly, while there are some things one does have to be a citizen of the country in question to understand, an outside perspective is also just as important at times, and people sometimes need an outside source to whap them with a rolled up newspaper when they're being unreasonable. When I see a racially tolerant show from the 50s and I see modern Americans [pissing all over it] like it's hateful trash, you better believe that'll incense me to do/say something about it!
The big complaint people have with this show is that Beulah 'is a Mammy stereotype'. I totally refute that. She's not, but let's explore that a little more. To me, the mammy stereotype honestly isn't much of a stereotype. Grumpy and sassy is pretty darn vague! That could mean anyone could point at a random black character and go "She's this or that, so that kind of portrayal is out!...And so's that. And that. And that.". Curtailing black actors and forcing them to work on eggshells is never good. As for this character though, Beulah is not grumpy in the slightest, nor is she uneducated or slow.
Another complaint is the silly supposition that this show portrays African-Americans as 'safe and docile, subservient to the white man'. For a start, any black character being kind, and friendly with white people automatically makes them a 'docile slave' in the eyes of these people? Ridiculous! I'm sure the makes of this were intending to do a positive job. Even if this was made by 'The Man' to perpetuate negative stereotypes and curtail black entertainers, well they obviously failed! These are brilliant depictions of [nice] and varied roles for African-American actors, and paved the way for so much more to come.
[I've seen comments from some that try and say "Oh, these earlier episodes aren't terrible, but the later ones with Louise Beavers are dreadfully offensive!". Having seen a chunk of them, I'm not only in a position to debunk that directly, but also, unless these people have privileged access to incredibly specific and hard-to-access archives, they must be relying from 60 year memories build these accusations, which is frankly ridiculous.]
Bless the NAACP for all the good they did and still do, but they could be real assholes at times! Case in point, their blatantly disrespectful treatment of shows like this and Amos and Andy. Both highly influential shows starring black actors on television for the first time, in positive portrayals, and they destroyed these shows and tried ruining the legacy of these great actors.
Now, let's get back to the show proper!
The characters here are a great bunch. Beulah is a great mix of wise and humanly fallible. She can see solutions to a dilemma from a mile away, but isn't quite as gifted as Jeeves, so her plans sometimes go awry. She can always be counted on to see things through to the end though!
Harry and Alice are your typical all-American couple, and are sweet. There's enough banter between the two for them to feel alive, without coming across like they absolutely hate each-other. That's a trap a lot of sitcoms from this period fall into. You wonder why they're even together if they detest the other so much! Here though they may have their issues at times, but they always come through and are happy in the end.
Donny is a likeable addition to the family. He's mischievous but never bratty or obnoxious. He's surprisingly endearing!
Hattie McDaniels was my first experience with the character, and she's superb, acting as the quintessential Beulah. This is immediately equaled by Louise Beavers, who does just as good a job! Have fun telling the two apart though! They musta been clones! Or failing that, long lost sisters.
Ethel Waters also tried her hand at the role, and she slips right into it like a glove. I have no complaints with her take on the character, although I do feel she was perhaps too old for the role. She was even starting to go grey. Besides that, she still does fine.
The actor who played Bill in the first season was reportedly unsatisfied with the 'Uncle Tom' way his character was portrayed. I can't imagine why, because the character is great, and not at all negatively handled! Dooley Wilson would later get the role, doing a fine job, but it's Ernest Whitman who's the most well-known in the part, and for good reason.
The casting shake-ups weren't limited to just the one guy. We get three different Beulah's, four Bill's, and at least two of everyone else. That is too much! Keep it consistent, please! Thankfully while the and the quality of writing never drops, even if some of the characters feel different to how they did before (or after, since I watched these episodes totally out of order).
Ruby Dandridge is great as Oriole. Since she's a screechy/high-pitched type, some might find her annoying, but I felt she toes the line well, and never bothered me. She's adorable! Also surprisingly hulking despite her diminutive voice. It's quite against type too having the 'tiny waif' role filled by a [bigger] actress! Butterfly McQueen also took on the role, and while she imitates Dandridge's squeaky voice perfectly, she's hamstrung a bit by her Oriole not being as nice.
I don't pretend to know which of the half dozen actors playing the family members I saw, but I liked them all. They make the characters their own, and never feel superfluous.
In the space of just a few days I went from knowing nothing to Beulah to being a big fan and devouring as many episodes I could find, and with 87, there's certainly plenty to enjoy! This is a wonderful tv show period, and also a great milestone in black entertainment. It should be remembered highly for both achievements, and I highly recommend it...