Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Bert Williams’s “Poker Pantomime”

Today’s installment of “Poker & Pop Culture” shares a bit from a collection of stories I found a few years back -- actually a couple of collections -- about the invented Thompson Street Poker Club originally written for Life magazine way back in the 1880s by Henry Guy Carleton.

I’m discussing the books as part of a short series of articles about early “poker clubs” (both real and fictional), but they are probably most notable because they involve the earliest “poker books” featuring African American characters.

As with all of these columns, there are long, interesting detours that I usually need to cut out both because of space considerations and because those side roads tend to be a little too obscure or too far off the beaten path.

For example, a couple of weeks ago I wrote about Bret Harte’s 1869 story “The Poker Outcasts of Poker Flat” and near the end got into some of the many film adaptations. One such adaptation came in the 1970s from the Italian director Lucio Fulci, a film called Four of the Apocalypse that actually draws from two different Harte stories and adds a lot else to fill out the plot.

Fulci is better known for several horror films, including some “giallos” and gore/exploitation films like Zombi 2 and City of the Living Dead and others that have been met with varying degrees of controversy. As someone curious about some of these films, I had to resist going too far down the non-relevant-to-poker road of exploring how this latter-day “spaghetti western” fit into Fulci’s overall oeuvre. (I still couldn’t resist mentioning his background, though.)

I ended this week’s column about the Thompson Street Poker Club bringing up the 1914 song by Bert Williams, “The Darktown Poker Club.” It’s a legitimate reference, as the song was said to be inspired by the stories. Doing so also gave me a chance to mention in one article both the earliest poker books about African American characters and Williams who was the first black American to appear on the Broadway stage.

I’d known about the song for a long time. In fact, I included it in the very first episode of The Hard-Boiled Poker Radio Show (from over eight years ago) -- which, by the way, I still don’t regard as having been abandoned altogether (even though it has been three years since the last episode).

When revisiting the song and Williams career a little for today’s column, I found a cool clip of a famous routine of his, called the “poker pantomime,” that he first performed on Broadway in a 1908 production called Bandanna Land and which became an oft-repeated part of his act in other contexts.

The routine was later included in a silent two-reel film called A Natural Born Gambler (released July 24, 1916), Williams’s first film that was longer than a short. I’ve not seen the entire film, but reading the synopsis it is clear this poker pantomime scene comes at the very end as a kind of tacked-on postlude -- it’s Williams pretending to deal a hand of poker in jail.

Like I say, this was intriguing but a bit out of the way for today’s column. In fact, to have included the clip would introduced the need for a lot of contextual discussion both about the film, Williams’s career, and -- as anyone looking at the clip can see -- the Williams’s use of blackface.

Those familiar with early 20th-century film know about white performers famously using blackface makeup to portray black roles, a practice dating from minstrel shows of the mid-19th century and lasting into the the middle of the 20th century (and occasionally afterwards).

Al Jolson’s turn in blackface in 1927’s The Jazz Singer is probably the most widely remembered instance. I remember once seeing the 1936 film Swing Time in a theater -- an amazing movie, really -- in which Fred Astaire appears in blackface for one scene (and thus kind of makes it hard to recommend the movie without an additional disclamer).

Whites’ appropriation of black identity is troubling enough, but blackface almost always tended to exaggerate racist stereotypes even further. Meanwhile black performers’ use of blackface -- done in part to assuage white audiences -- adds another layer of complexity to the issue.

In any event, I say all of that as I introduce this clip featuring Williams doing his poker pantomime, to which the uploader has conveniently (and appropriately) added his singing “The Darktown Poker Club” as a soundtrack.

It’s a genuinely funny clip, offering as it does a glimpse of Williams’s larger talents. I wanted to share it here -- not that long after the 100th anniversary of its release -- as an interesting cultural expression of poker.

Photo: Bert Williams, public domain.

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