Monday, March 23, 2009
A Tale of Two Sammies: Charlie's Angels & the Sammy Davis Jr. Kidnapping Caper
Angel: "You prefer to go incognito?"
Herbert Brubaker: "Don't you talk no smut, woman, I'm a veteran!"
The very sophisticated and marvelous Sammy Davis Jr. makes a 1978 episode of Charlie's Angels extraordinarily special. The episode to which I refer being found in season two, disc five: "The Kidnapping of Sammy Davis Jr." Thank you very much. But can you dig the split, man? The Jekyll & Hyde split trip this cat's all about? Because tied into a fundraiser Sammy's doing (this all while skirmishing with angels and kidnappers) is a "celebrity look-a-like" contest, with a fake Burt Reynolds, a fake Barbara Streisand, and a... Sammy Davis Jr.! The sheer thinness of all this is stretched to surrealism when Herbert Brubaker III (Davis in platforms) gets mad whenever anyone tells him he looks like Sammy Davis! Why is he at a celebrity look-a-like contest, then? He just wandered into it, baby.
What's cool is how deftly Davis navigates between the two poles. As a white guy reading into it, I'm thinking these baggy pants stereotypes have their purpose in any culture. As an African American artist of widespread white acceptance, a cat like Mr. Davis essentially has to play white better than even a white guy. This results in a hyper-articulateness, since there's perhaps encoded hostility at needing to "become" rather than "be," to enunciate with Poitier-level precision as opposed to the soulful "jive talkin" of popular culture stereotype.
Herbert Brubaker III, President of H&B Boozeterias, becomes the depository of all Davis' abolished black impersonator-impersonator-isms. Sammy's getting old here--you can see ennui in his eyes--and while he's still got tons of class, grace and supreme showmanship, there's a glimmer of getting ready to face something, like Johnny Cash in the "Hurt" video. It's time to take some personal inventory, and exorcise some demons.
The white mainstream acceptance thing carries lots of baggage: The late 1960s through 1970s was a gala time for the sophisticated black comic, ala Bill Cosby and Flip Wilson, while at the same time there's the Black Panthers and the underlying pressure to not let your "blackness" slip away by catering too much to the white audience. Davis makes a point that the gorgeous woman waiting for him at home (dancer Altovise Gore) is "cocoa-brown" (as opposed to his previous wife, the controversially Swedish blonde Loray White) and he's sporting his jewelry, but he's clearly in the groove of the uber-sophisticated cat, forever erasing chunks of heritage on behalf of advancement, pulling common perception of African American culture behind him while maintaining a lightness and ease that seems heavier than uranium.
Let's not forget that Davis refused to play segregated casinos and thus helped abolish segregation in both Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Let's not forget that Harry Cohn arranged Sammy's kidnapping to scare him off an affair with Kim Novak in the mid 1950s. And while the kidnapping here is pretty nonthreatening all around, it still has a whiff of the real. Of course they pick up Brubaker by accident and when he tries to tell them who he is, the kidnappers say, "This is just a flimsy excuse to weasel out of your own kidnapping." A hilarious line implying that if being kidnapped is some manly rite only the weasely would try to escape from.
Brubaker is Davis' chance to shuck and jive, to tarnish his gloss and get some crazy soft shoe in. For an intellectual artist of Sammy's caliber, a Hyde like Herbert Brubaker III, with his huge blue and white checkered flared pants and white platform shoes (Sammy can barely walk in them [he's only filmed from dead front or behind]) must have been some kind of crazy liberation. He finds the perfect group of supporters in the lovely angels, and gives a veritable refresher course in the proper etiquette for dealing with three beautiful lady bodyguards, who really can't bodyguard worth a damn (they like to jump on the suspect's back like children). As the top quote "don't talk no smut" indicates, this is a land where no bad guy is bad enough to sexually assault, torture, or even intimidate anyone; a comfortingly sexless universe filled with sexual symbols that lead nowhere. In this groovy 1970s paradise "the Candy Man" fits like a crazy supersexy glove, just another reminder that once upon a time stars could be sexy without implying sex, cool without being vapid, and nice without being hopelessly corny.