Charleston (1927)

I’d only seen this once before, albeit on the big screen (it was supporting something at Cinematheque back in 2000 or so), and it was splendid to revisit it. As I said, the Renoir box I’m covering lately is an odds and sods affair, bundling together some otherwise not readily available stuff rather than being, say, an actually representative selection of his oeuvre; hurray that it does take that approach, though, cos I otherwise might not have one of cinema’s great oddities in my DVD collection at last… Apparently shot in three days on stock left over from the Nana shoot, Charleston takes place in 2028 after “the last war”, and depicts an African explorer (American vaudeville performer Johnny Huggins, or Hudgins, or even Higgins depending where you read) travelling to post-apocalyptic Paris (where the Eiffel Tower’s not quite how it used to be), where he encounters a local savage (Catherine Hessling again) who teaches him the traditional dance of the European aborigines, the Charleston. This review is puzzled by the idea of a performer who was already black dressing up in minstrel fashion, which question is fascinatingly addressed here, and some other reviews I’ve seen appear determined to paint it as some sort of racist parable. Which, frankly, is bullshit in my opinion; there’s a line about black meat that can be considered dodgy, but if anything Renoir is having fun reversing the stereotypes of the noble white European explorer encountering savage darkies in Africa, and gently kidding the contemporary European/American fascination with black African music (in the form of jazz) by inverting that as well. Trying to read anything else into it really is putting too much weight onto something clearly never intended to bear it; Renoir seems to have made this just for the fun of showing two people dancing for 20 minutes. It was as delightful earlier tonight as it was way back when at the Chauvel.

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