“A woman is like a tea bag — only in hot water do you realize how strong she is.” — Nancy Reagan (1921-2016), former First Lady and wife of the 40th U.S. President
Watching vintage movies on television often carries me back to Saturday afternoons when my mother, sister and I would board a local bus and head for one of the theaters in downtown Los Angeles. The movie was often followed by lunch or dinner at the Pig ‘n’ Whistle or Clifton’s Cafeteria.
Pig ‘n’ Whistle still maintains a location in Hollywood, while Clifton’s was recently restored to its retro charm and reopened. With the exception of a couple of the downtown theaters, most have been converted to retail space or sit empty except for an occasional film shoot.
But memories can become sanitized over time. Amid the recollections of Cinemascope musicals and cushy theater seats, I was mostly oblivious to the stares we received — our blonde, white mom with her two half-Japanese children. Buried beneath recollections of great movies like “The Ten Commandments,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Sound of Music,” and “West Side Story” was the subtle tension that surrounded us each time we stepped out together.
We were leaving the Pig ‘n’ Whistle and were about to board the bus when a white man cut in front of us when my mother’s Italian-accented voice pierced the silence. “No you don’t!” she admonished the guy. “Let the children go first! What’s-a-matter with you?”
The man stepped back meekly. “Sorry,” he said.
“Why couldn’t my mother just let him get on the bus the way he wanted?” I thought. Instead of feeling empowered, I was embarrassed.
Recently one of those old movies, “Can Can,” played on television. It starred Frank Sinatra, Louis Jourdan, and Shirley MacLaine. Looking at it today through more discerning eyes, I realize that the story of the outlawed can-can dance in a Parisian nightclub lacks credibility and substance. At the time, however, I was captivated by the singing and dancing. “I Love Paris,” “You Do Something to Me,” and “Just One of Those Things” were just some of the numbers in the movie.
Then, Sinatra sang “Let’s Do It” to MacLaine, and everything changed. Every pleasant childhood memory of Hollywood movie musicals degraded into disappointment. Old Blue Eyes, the Chairman of the Board, croons the following:
In old Japan, Japs do it.
Up in Lapland, little Laps do it.
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.
“Can-Can” was released in 1960, an era when the producers should have known better. Not only did the offensive lyric remain in the final cut of the movie, it was included in the wide-release trailer. The song was originally written in 1928. And if you think that Sinatra’s rendition was offensive, the original first line of the lyrics were even worse:
Chinks do it, Japs do it.
The line can be heard in early recordings made by the Dorsey Brothers and their orchestra, featuring vocals by Rudy Vallee and a young Bing Crosby. In 1941, Billie Holiday recorded the song with the offending lyrics and so did Peggy Lee, accompanied by the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Broadway star Mary Martin recorded the song in 1944.
When he learned that the lyrics were offensive, songwriter Cole Porter changed the lyrics. Finally in 1956, Ella Fitzgerald recorded Porter’s revised lyrics, **Birds do it. Bees do it,** which was intended to be a non-offensive version of the song, unless you are a bird or a bee.
“Can-Can” director Walter Lang must have liked the original version because four years after Porter cleaned up the lyrics, Sinatra reverted to the racially insensitive version. If it makes anyone feel better, the people in Lapland didn’t appreciate the reference as “Laps” either.
This channel that carried the movie routinely bleeps questionable dialog, including the F-word, the S-word, the A-word, and even the B-word. No one caught the offensive lyric nor cared if it bothered anyone of Japanese descent.
Long ago, I stopped feeling embarrassed by what my mother did 50 years ago. She was right to scold the rude man. I have been known to call out discourtesy myself on occasion. I am, after all, my mother’s daughter.
In 1952, Shosuke Sasaki began a fight to eliminate use of the racial slur by the print media. He continued his battle for 20 years, and he became noted for his efforts to remove inaccurate descriptions of the term in modern dictionaries.
By 1957, the Japanese American Citizens League launched a national public education drive to discourage the use of the offensive term. Later, the JACL developed and distributed a brochure entitled “Please Don’t.”
Sasaki once said, “Not even a moron would persist in calling a person by any name which that person considers offensive…”
“There’s a big, wonderful world out there for you. It belongs to you. It’s exciting and stimulating and rewarding. Don’t cheat yourself out of this promise.” — Nancy Reagan
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