16 December 2011


When I babble about Marlene Dietrich's film characters, I tend to revert to her name, but the loner Lydia in 1947’s Golden Earrings was a creation that I regard as a true alter ego, paralleling in some respects personas such as Amos 'n' Andy. Like that pair, Lydia presented ethnic/racial stereotypes for comical effect, yet these characters diverge in terms of their historical background. Although blackface has been traced as far back as the Middle Ages in France, the blackface minstrelsy that tapped into American culture had developed during the early nineteenth century. As for Gypsyface, the only instances that I know to have preceded Golden Earrings were stage and screen renditions of Victor Hugo's novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Please tell me more about these adaptations because the 1939 film version is the earliest one that I’ve seen. In that film, the Gypsies don’t prominently embody comical stereotypes; rather, some are bestowed with sharp wit. Of course, Maureen O'Hara as Esmeralda was so fair that I would more likely mistake her for an Irish Traveller.

In contrast to O’Hara’s gypsy performance, Dietrich’s Lydia embodied the phenotype, attire, and accoutrements of a Hollywood Gypsy (see here): a horse-drawn wagon, greasy black hair, bronze skin, a torn skirt, head kerchiefs, and gold coins strewn in her hair and sewn on her clothes. Lydia was also gifted with a Gypsy's supposed sixth sense: spewing garrulous curses, reading the mind of Ray Milland's character Col. Ralph Denistoun, and telling fortunes. When Lydia's supernatural powers couldn't aid her, she relied on superstitious rituals such as marking her chin to guard herself from the evil eye. In contrast to her broken sentences with omitted articles and botched conjugation, Lydia peppered her vocabulary with Romani words such as “gadze” (also spelled "gadje"--a non-Gypsy), German words such as “Liebling,” and Hungarian words such as “istenem,” evoking an exaggerated creole that Gypsies would speak after encountering multiple languages during their international wanders. By stealing apples and a coat, Lydia flouted concepts of ownership in a caricatured Gypsy fashion, too.

Aside from Lydia, other characters contributed to this barrage of Gypsy memes, such as Murvyn Vye's character Zoltan, who boasted of his fertility by claiming to have “thirty--and three” children and praised Denistoun for eating with his fingers. As far as Lydia was concerned, Denistoun’s visual trappings did not suffice until he pierced his ears to wear the film’s titular Gypsy symbol--a pair of golden earrings. Gypsy characterizations sometimes overlapped Black stereotypes as well, with Denistoun stealing a chicken from a coop. Paradoxically, this farcical imagery underscored the severity of Denistoun’s situation--survival in hostile territory. By upholding Gypsy tropes, Denistoun evaded his Nazi enemies and continued his espionage. In fact, Denistoun was able to reconvene with his colleague and learn about the Gestapo's actions under the pretext of telling fortunes. If Gypsies were the film’s archetypal tricksters, Denistoun was a metatrickster because he fooled friends and enemies to believe he was merely an errant buffoon.

With a penchant for reason, Denistoun resembled Shanghai Express’s Captain “Doc” Harvey when he told Lydia she would go to jail in England for her “hocus pocus.” Denistoun, however, suggested that the Lord’s Prayer could substitute spitting in a river before crossing a bridge, as if that act were any less ritualistic. While reading his colleague's palm, Denistoun unexpectedly foresaw his colleague's demise and later expressed to Lydia his doubt in his rationalist views. All along, Denistoun shared traits associated with Gypsies, which corroborated his realization, “Gypsy, gadze. Gadze, gypsy. It's all one, Lydia.” Indeed, Denistoun expressed assumptions about Gypsies (“I thought Gypsies always travelled around in caravans”), but Lydia and Zoltan also revealed their ignorance of gadzes. For example, Zoltan asked Denistoun whether gadzes bathe every day and blamed his father's early death on the baths the Hungarian army had forced him to take. Also, Lydia made an observation about gadzes that resembled the concept of white privilege: “You suckle pride and become ruler of world at your mother’s breast.” Perhaps you agree with Lydia’s statement, but my point in this context is that Gypsies saw gadzes as The Other just as gadzes saw Gypsies. In some later Hollywood productions, Gypsy characters exploited gadzes’ perception of them as exotic outsiders and used this status to con unsuspecting gadzes and elicit audience laughter. See this 1966 episode of The Andy Griffith Show:

Unlike this clip, serious references to ethnic persecution pervade the dialogue of Golden Earrings. Soon after meeting Denistoun, Lydia claimed that her husband had no papers, and that “they”--the gadze authorities--took them. Later, Lydia’s statements about gadzes became overtly bitter, such as, “In old days, they hunt us like wolves,” and, “One day in this accursed land, they will kill all of us.” Toward the film’s end, Lydia, Zoltan, and Denistoun boldly approached a home where high-ranking Nazi officials had met, and a houseguest declared, “We of the master race should not contaminate ourselves.” It was as if the film dealt with historical atrocities against Jews such as pogroms and the Holocaust through Gypsy allegory. Gypsies, too, were victims of genocide, and even though Golden Earrings did not entirely overlook prejudices against Gypsies, it did diminish the brutality that Gypsies endured during the Porrajmos by portraying Gypsies who roamed relatively freely through Nazi territory. Even the saccharine character development of Lydia couldn’t compensate for this historical omission, nor could her endorsement by a respectable Englishman like Denistoun: “You are the most wonderful person I ever met. Your generosity, and your warmth and affection, and your loyalty and devotion--you spill over with it.” The only other movie I know of that addressed both the persecution of Gypsies and Jews was The Man Who Cried, which I admittedly must watch again because I haven’t seen it in about a decade. If you've seen the film, please discuss it.

Of course, I can’t forget a woman who racked up three Billboard #1 hits in the 1970s by performing in ethnic drag--Cher. In addition to Bob Mackie’s peekaboo style, the imagery of Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves” performance (see below) was rife with exotic Gypsy stereotypes, in contrast to the seemingly intimate lyrics that conveyed the desolation in which Gypsies lived as pariahs. Before the Kardashians, who made Armenian ancestry a brand, Cher had an exotic look that didn't fit the All-American mold. Thus, it's no wonder she performed as lyrical characters of Gypsy and Native American descent. Dietrich also played various ethnic parts, which her foreign image in the U.S. allotted her, but Lydia represented such a drastic departure from Dietrich's usual appearance that it came off as parody. Since her arrival to the U.S., Dietrich had perfected her international sensuality, and Golden Earrings was a unique film in which Dietrich clowned around with her non-native status, comparable only to that dumpy milkmaid disguise in 1931's Dishonored.

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