July 4, 2008

Check and Double Check (1930)
Grade: 34/100

Director: Melville W. Brown
Stars: Freeman F. Gosden, Charles J. Correll, Russ Powell

What it's about. Check and Double Check is a mundane early talkie that remains of interest for two reasons. First, it is the only feature film Amos and Andy made, although they also made two cartoon shorts and had a brief bit in The Big Broadcast (1936). Principally, they were radio stars. Their show aired until 1955, shortly after a television series based on their characters ended a two-year run. It must be stated that the actors behind Amos and Andy, Freeman F. Gosden and Charles J. Cornell respectively, were white. In their single RKO feature, they appear blackface. This was a necessity, since their voices were familiar to millions by 1930, much more so than their faces.

The other reason why anyone would want to see Check and Double Check is that it marks the feature debut of legendary jazz composer Duke Ellington and his band. They only play for a few minutes, but jazz enthusiasts will be engrossed nonetheless. But the band doesn't sing the featured song, "Three Little Words." It is sung off-camera by a white trio led by a young Bing Crosby.

The racial implications of Amos and Andy will be discussed in due time. The plot must be dispensed with first, although it is a mere trifle. Delicious brunette Sue Carol is the daughter of a wealthy businessman. She has two suitors, heroic nice guy Charles S. Morton and a nearly hissable villain, Ralf Harolde.

Anyone who's seen a movie before knows that Carol will end up with Morton and live happily ever after, but first comes the inevitable test of their true love. This contrivance involves Harolde securing the deed of a deserted old house, kept somewhere in the drafty mansion. Harolde gets wind of this and decides to break into the house and steal the deed. In a coincidence so remarkable that it could only happen in a movie, Amos and Andy are dispatched to the same house at the same time to retrieve a different (and worthless) document to fulfill a ritual of their lodge, The Mystic Knights of the Sea. Harolde's evil scheme is foiled when the papers get crossed.

Amos and Andy have other adventures. They run a taxi service, try to keep a date with their unseen girlfriends (perhaps women in blackface were considered either unconvincing or unfunny), and have run-ins with Kingfish (Russ Powell), who is something of a grifter. Amos is the dumbest, although he's the one who figures out how to fix the flat tire, and also determines that the deed is valuable. He has a raspy voice reminiscent of Rochester from the Jack Benny programs. Andy is a heavyset man with a deep voice and occasional delusions of grandeur. Both are well-intentioned, proven by their eagerness to deliver the valuable deed to its rightful owner, Morton.

How I felt about it. But perhaps their real motive is to please Morton, the son of the owner of the same Georgia plantation that Amos and Andy toiled over prior to their move to Harlem. Deference to white authority figures is also demonstrated by Andy's obsequious "Yassur" behavior when confronted by a traffic cop.

Then again, when I am stopped by a policeman, I'm deferential as well, simply because it reduces the chance I will get a ticket. This is the typical conundrum of the Amos and Andy characters. If you look for racism, you will find it. Sometimes, they appear lazy, or ignorant, or incompetent, or pompous. The question is, does that make them caricatures, or characters? It can be debated successfully either way. The case remains open, but it has to be said that many blacks enjoyed the radio show. It would also be nice if any of the black characters were able to master the pronunciation of any word of four or more syllables.