This video is from the 1934 Civil War film Operator 13, which features the Mills Brothers. As noted in Wikipedia, the Mills, from southwestern Ohio, were “an American jazz and pop vocal quartet of the 20th century who made more than 2,000 recordings that combined sold more than 50 million copies, and garnered at least three dozen gold records.” The Mills had phenomenal success in America and Europe, but sadly, are not well known today.
Set amidst a sea of black faces, the Mills perform the song Jungle Fever as part of a Civil War era minstrel show. The song is an ode to the African homeland, albeit with lyrics that some might say reinforce stereotypes of Africans as animalistic and primitive:
Jungle Fever lyrics:
Ever see the Congo when it’s steaming in the night?
Ever hear the jungle with the animals in fright?
Put me in the Congo in the jungle and I’m right.
(chorus)I got that fever that jungle fever
You know the reason that I long to go
Dusky maiden, dark haired siren
I’m comin’ back to you
Wild eyed woman, native dreamgirl
Jungle fever is in my blood for you
Every hear a kettle drum
Pounding out of beat
Ever fight the silence
And the madness and the heat
That’s the thrill I’m cravin’
And the music is so sweet
Oh, the congos callin’
And I’m longin’ to go
This clip is from the curious film Operator 13, starring Marion Davies and Gary Cooper. The movie is about a white woman (Davies) who, in a portion of the film, uses blackface to disguise herself as a slave in order to spy on the Confederates! I’m not making this up.
Marion Davies, at left, made-up as a slave in the movie “Operator 13”
As noted in the Wikipedia description of the film,
Operator 13 is a 1934 American romance film directed by Richard Boleslawski and starring Marion Davies, Gary Cooper, and Jean Parker. Based on stories written by Robert W. Chambers, the film is about a Union spy who impersonates a black maid in the early days of the Civil War, but complications arise when she falls in love with a Confederate officer.The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography.
PLOT: Shortly after the Battle of Bull Run, the Union forces are in retreat. In a US Military Hospital, the Pauline Cushman Players are performing for wounded soldiers. Pauline the spy who works for Allen Pinkerton persuades Gail (Marion Davies) to become a spy for the Union cause, under the code name Operator 13. (Allen Pinkerton headed the Union Intelligence Service and was in charge of spying and other activities for the United States during the Civil War.)
Gail, in blackface as a disguise, accompanies Pauline as her African American maid (so-called “octaroon” the out-of-date term for a person of 1/8th African ancestry) and while washing General Stuart’s clothes, hears he will attend a ball that night. At the ball, Captain Gailliard suspects that Pauline is a spy and finds evidence in her room. Pauline, trying to flee is arrested and is to be a witness against Gail who is later sentenced to death. Both women manage to escape to the Union lines.
After the women escape, the Gail character eschew her blackface role and gets romantic with Gary Cooper, who plays a Confederate officer.
Marion Davies as a blond with Gary Cooper, from the movie “Operator 13.” It seems like – dare I say it? – blonds do have more fun.
You can see blackface Davies briefly in the Mills Brother video above. She appears at the 1:12 mark for several seconds, and also at the very end of the video. One can only wonder how all the black extras in the scene felt about this movie in which a white woman was disguised as a black one.
Marion Davies in blackface, with actor Sam McDanial, in the film “Operator 13”
The website Moderntimes.com says that “Marion Davies (was) convincing in Blackface playing a Union spy. (The film studio) MGM owned the franchise on Blackface, threatened only by Warner Brothers, and Al Jolson.”
Here’s one more more, random Mills Brothers performance – I Ain’t Got Nobody.