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Stealing the Show

African American Performers and Audiences in 1930s Hollywood

Miriam J. Petty (Author)

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Stealing the Show is a study of African American actors in Hollywood during the 1930s, a decade that saw the consolidation of stardom as a potent cultural and industrial force. Petty focuses on five performers whose Hollywood film careers flourished during this period—Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington, Lincoln “Stepin Fetchit” Perry, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Hattie McDaniel—to reveal the “problematic stardom” and the enduring, interdependent patterns of performance and spectatorship for performers and audiences of color. She maps how these actors—though regularly cast in stereotyped and marginalized roles—employed various strategies of cinematic and extracinematic performance to negotiate their complex positions in Hollywood and to ultimately “steal the show.” Drawing on a variety of source materials, Petty explores these stars’ reception among Black audiences and theorizes African American viewership in the early twentieth century. Her book is an important and welcome contribution to the literature on the movies.
Miriam J. Petty is Assistant Professor in the Department of Film, Radio, and Television at Northwestern University.
"[Miriam Petty's] ambitious book places Stepin’ Fetchit (the persona of Lincoln Perry) in a new light, and all of her subjects in high relief... [a] fine book." —Carrie Rickey Film Quarterly
“This major work of film and cultural studies scholarship brilliantly unpacks what is at stake in the common expression ‘stealing the show’ in the context of African American tradition and performance. The detailed analyses of performance—of how Hattie McDaniel acts, how Bill Robinson dances, how Lincoln Perry’s Stepin Fetchit speaks and moves—manage to be at once evocative and rigorous. These are worked together with contextual moves that are at once surprising and yet, once made, made one wonder why they had not been pressed home before: McDaniel in relation to iconic earlier African American women activists, for instance; discourses and technologies of skin color in relation to the use of star images in Imitation of Life; children as spectators within and beyond the films of Bill Robinson. Beautifully written, Stealing the Show has found a way to analyze in detail and with precision the common perception of the remarkable achievements of African American performers in the face of the roles they were obliged to play, on and off screen. In the process, Miriam Petty has produced an important, engaging, and exemplary work of textually and historically sensitive cultural analysis.”—Richard Dyer, King's College London and St. Andrews University

“Hattie McDaniel, ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, Fredi Washington, Louise Beavers, and ‘Stepin Fetchit,’ who shine in so many movies from the ’30s and early ’40s—are they best understood as toms, coons, mammies, mulattoes, and bucks, as in Donald Bogle’s resonate formulation? Or as stars, as the black press and African American moviegoers of the time often felt? Miriam Petty’s energetic and detailed analysis of these performers, their films, and the varying discourses around them (press, critical, PR, and fan) lays out and explores the stakes and limits that inhered—and still inhere—in these questions and debates. Stealing the Show makes clear why and how these performers were so galvanizing, and how the filmmaking and sociocultural representational systems that could only see them as thieves still needs reform.”—Arthur Knight, author of Disintegrating the Musical: Black Performance and American Musical Film

Stealing the Show mines the complex position of African American performers in the Hollywood of the thirties from their treatment by studios and marketing departments to the ways in which they sought to control the construction of their own reputations both on and off the screen and within and outside of the Black community. Through extensive archival research and inviting prose, Miriam Petty seeks to understand the dynamics between star and audience, and the ways in which Black performers walked a delicate line between their onscreen roles and their off-screen personas. It provides an innovative look at Black stardom through the multifocal rubric of industry, performance, press, and audience and promises to change the way we think about how stardom reflects and refracts racial ideologies. There’s no doubt that Stealing the Show will be required reading for scholars of film history, star studies, and African American film.”—Paula Massood, Professor of Film Studies, Brooklyn College, CUNY

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