June 23, 2021
MY CORNER by Boyd Cathey
The Film “Dixie,” Bing Crosby, and the Story of an American Treasure
In past columns I have written about some classic films, some of which have been effectively banned or “cancelled” by our contemporary cultural gatekeepers.
The case of the immortal Disney hit, “Song of the South,” is perhaps the most egregious. I wrote about it back in July 2019 in an essay published by The Abbeville Institute, also describing a seller who made it available privately to purchasers in an excellent, pristine Technicolor copy. Alas, since then apparently Disney, now part of a progressivist “woke” conglomerate which includes the ABC broadcast network, has insured that the seller cease and desist offering copies to the public. Yet, just recently another superb copy showed up for sale, this time marketed by Amazon.com. The seller is listed as Brian’s Retro Collection. Fearing the same thing which happened to the earlier release, I quickly ordered a copy. It’s also excellent. And as of this writing it is still available, reasonably priced.
But “Song of the South” is just the tip of the iceberg. Potentially hundreds of politically-incorrect films that compose the rich history of American filmography may come under the “woke” microscope. At present the fanatical social justice warriors, intent on imposing their anti-Western, anti-white philosophy, have in their crosshairs mainly the more noteworthy cinema productions associated with our history and heritage, or what they term “systemic white supremacy” and racism--thus films like “Gone With the Wind” or “Song of the South.”
But as the impotent opposition to their cultural ravages—establishment Conservatism, Fox News and most Republicans—daily cedes more ground to them, the more their unquenchable search for targets expands. For their object is, in fact, the complete and total extirpation of Western culture, including its cinematic history.
Just the other day combing through the catalogues of several private film sellers I came across a title that was unfamiliar to me. The movie is “Dixie,” a 1943 Technicolor musical released by Paramount and starring Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, and Crosby’s first major color musical. It appeared just as his “Road to” series with Lamour and Bob Hope was becoming very popular with moviegoers. And, despite mixed press reviews at the time, it ranked 15th in audience popularity in 1943.
The film recounts the story of Dan Emmett and his composition of the song “Dixie,” and it does so spotlighting Crosby’s notable vocal talent. Presently the movie is owned by Universal Pictures, a division of NBC Universal, and was last screened on television back in the early 1980s by American Movie Classics, but don’t look for it being aired any time soon.
As an account of the creation of what has been one of the nation’s most popular songs, “Dixie” combines historical fact, with a pinch or two of Hollywood magic. Dan Emmett, of course, was not originally from the South. Born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, in 1815, he was soon attracted to American folk melody and traditional popular tunes, joined a traveling circus, and by the 1840s had organized America’s first troupe of blackface minstrels, “The Virginia Minstrels.”
The film begins with Emmett (Crosby) singing his major hit “Sunday, Monday or Always” to his beloved Jean Mason (Marjorie Reynolds), whose father tells him that he cannot marry her, as he had just left his lighted pipe in the Mason home, which caught the house on fire. Only when he would return a success would that be possible. Emmett then assembles a minstrel troupe and travels, and finally arrives in New York continuing his composition and singing. Variously we hear Crosby in superb renderings of traditional favorites: “”Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Old Dan Tucker,” “Buffalo Gals,” and “She’s from Missouri.”
Historically “Dixie”—published as “I Wish I was in Dixie’s Land”—was first performed in New York on April 4, 1859, with Emmett in blackface. After its phenomenal success Emmett related several different versions of when he composed it, ranging from a couple of days before the initial performance to a period of over years prior (the version adopted by the film).
It was apparently “Dixie’s” performance at the French Opera House in New Orleans in March 1860 that soon made it the national hymn of the South and the soon-to-be-born Confederacy. Recounting the event, the film shows cinematically how that came to be.
For the French-descended aristocrats of New Orleans and the Louisiana planters, the French Opera House was a renowned cultural and artistic treasure. In truth it was the first major opera house in America, presenting premieres (in French) of such classics as Flotow’s “Martha,” Thomas’s “Mignon,” and Saint-Saens’s “Samson et Dalila.” But the theater also hosted grand carnival balls, concerts, and other types of entertainment. The film rightfully illustrates that there would have been a hesitancy by some of its patrons to a musical variety show…all in blackface. But their qualms put aside, “Dixie” reaches its climax as Crosby, in blackface with around forty others equally in blackface, begins to sing the song that made Dan Emmett famous.
At first he intones it very slowly, having insisted that he wanted to sing it that way. But noticing a small fire in a side dressing room, the orchestra speeds up to a much more rapid pace. Crosby shouts: “What are you, just a bunch of Yankees?” The elite audience, at first unenthusiastic, now joins in with gusto. An audience member stands and gives what would become in a couple of years a classic “rebel yell,” and soon the entire audience is possessed by the magic and patriotic delight and erupts in singing the song.
And Emmett wins his bride, as the film ends with the triumphant strains of “Dixie” echoing over the credits.
In addition to Crosby and Lamour, the cast includes the inimitable Raymond Walburn (who also adds delightful humor to the story), classic vaudevillians Eddie Foy Jr. and Lynne Overman, and some of Paramount’s capable character actors, including Olin Howland, Billy de Wolfe, Stanley Andrews (later of “Death Valley Days” fame), and Willie Best, a fine black actor who performed comic roles in the 1940s and ‘50s.
As the last scene unfolded and Crosby began singing “Dixie,” joined in by the chorus and then the audience, and the music swells, emotion came over me, and I wanted to stand and join in, as well.
That has been—and continues to be—the power of this song, this part of our history, an indication of the power of music to evoke the most sublime of emotions: the love of country, of family, of heritage. And the film “Dixie” does it justice that will warm the heart of any Southerner or patriotic American.
The movie “Dixie” is available, in a very good Technicolor print (online orders) from the Vermont Movie Store. But, like in the case of “Song of the South,” my advice is to act soon. The Woke Monsters never sleep. As St. Peter warns us (I Peter 5:8): “Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil walketh about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.”