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 in order to be as diametrically opposed to the soulful "jive talkin" of popular culture stereotype as it's popular to get, and it's only then that he can embody a burlesque of the stereotype as it makes him all the more sophisticated by illuminating the difference, ya dig, baby?
And so 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; he's still got tons of class, grace and supreme showmanship but 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 of his personal and political/racial demons. And if you can do it around three lovely ladies, on prime time, so much the better. Boozeterias!
The white mainstream acceptance thing carries lots of baggage: The late 1960s through 1970s was a gala time for the sophisticated (i.e. white-friendly albeit unafraid to examine racial stereotypes) black comic, ala Godfrey Cambridge, and Flip Wilson, and there were only-black "blue" comics like Rudy Ray Moore. And there was a consistent pressure within the intellectual black community to not let your "blackness" slip away by adopting too many bourgeois affectations. And so 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 blonde Loray White) and he's sporting his jewelry, but as his Davis self 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 like a canoe while maintaining a lightness and ease that can seem, at his advancing age, heavier than uranium.
Let's not forget that the Rat Pack refused to play segregated casinos and thus helped abolish segregation in both Atlantic City and Las Vegas. But let's also not forget that Harry Cohn arranged Sammy's real-life 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 that incident. Of course the coded-Cohn kidnappers pick up Brubaker by accident and when he tries to tell them who he is, the kidnappers say he's just trying to "weasel out of [his] own kidnapping!" --a hilarious line implying that being kidnapped is some manly rite only the weaselly would try to escape from.
But most of all, Brubaker provides Davis with a real chance to shuck and jive in the style of the Moores and Foxxes rather than sip champagne and make bon mots ala the Cambridges and Wilsons, to tarnish his gloss and get some crazy soft shoe off his chest. 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 (which Davis can't even walk in) must have been some kind of crazy liberation. And most of all, 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, starve, or even intimidate anyone; it's a comfortingly sexless universe filled with attractive 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; could be cool without being empty; hip without being hipster; and nice to each other without being naively sentimental.