Racial Passing in the Classic Hollywood Melodrama

The classic Hollywood mixed female ‘passer’ is generally male-dependent and gripped by fear that her lover/boss/maid will discover her secret and ruin her.  The endurance of this template is evidenced by the deadly desperation of mixed protagonists in Perfect Stranger, The Crying Game and Devil in a Blue Dress.  In I Passed for White (Wilcox, USA, 1960, adapted from Reba Lee’s 1955 memoir), mixed ‘passer’ Bernice (Sonya Wilde) is so preoccupied that her pregnancy will reveal her ‘race’ that she eventually brings about her own downfall. 

Bernice begins the film having decided to run away to the North and ‘pass’ for white, despite her black grandmother’s (parents are again absent) pleas.  Bernice’s narrative is mapped out when her granny expresses her own regret for marrying a white man: “having children of mixed blood… there’s where the trouble is.”  The interracial family – and by extension mixed-race character – is presented as inherently tragic.

Once in Chicago, Bernice changes her name to Lila Brownwell (a name which implies the source of her mixedness and recalls the Harlem Renaissance writers’ positive use of ‘brown’ as a mixed-race descriptor). She finds work and then falls in love with Frederick Layton (James Franciscus).  He is white and from a wealthy, well established New England family. Frederick unwittingly notes her mixed identity when he exclaims: “I’ve never known anyone like you.”  In contrast to typical ‘passing’ narratives, Bernice shares her secret with a white colleague, Sally (Patricia Michon), who confirms the mixed character’s right to claim a white identity: “You’re as much a white as a Negro… You’re as white as I am.”  Racism is classed in the film; those with nothing to lose (Sally) recognise the illusion of ‘race’ but those with wealth (the Laytons) enforce segregation to protect their inheritance.  So, when Frederick proposes, Bernice invents a family story of white wealth and privilege, and they marry.

The horror of his family finding out that she is mixed torments her.  This theme is also central to Night of the Quarter Moon (Haas, USA, 1959), for which Julie London ‘tanned up’ to play a mixed-race woman.  In this film, Ginny meets her future high society husband Chuck (John Barrymore) in her native Mexico, a space used in the Western to signify conquest, assimilation and the threat of miscegenation.[1] The film is loosely based on a true story and, as Heidi Ardizzone (2008) notes, was the first filmic exposition of interracial marriage as a democratic right (it would take another 8 years for the Supreme Court to declare all remaining state laws against interracial marriage unconstitutional).[2]  It was also the first to show a white man who follows through on his marriage proposal despite knowing that his fiancé is mixed (to recap on other instances: Pinky and her fiancé never marry; Bernice’s husband never knows she is mixed; Britt tells Monique that he could never marry a non-white). However, Chuck’s family take her to court, arguing that she lied about her ‘race’ and that the marriage is invalid.  As in the real case, the ‘scopic rule’ is used to determine her ‘race’ and she is asked to remove her clothing.  Seeing her black lawyer (Nat King Cole) grow impatient with her slow disrobing and finally tear her top, her husband rises to her defense.  Here, in an unusual twist, the white hand displaces the black claim to her identity.  This brings resolution and she is reunited with her husband, a narrative which asserts her place within hegemonical whiteness (mimicking Sally’s recognition of Bernice’s whiteness).

The 1925 Rhinelander case on which the film is based ended with the marriage being dissolved by the New York courts.  The film’s positive reimagining of events can be read as a classical Hollywood strategy, but the film’s shift from New York (the site of the true story) to California may also be interpreted as an oblique reference to the latter’s softer laws; California’s landmark 1948 decision to overturn its anti-miscegenation laws set a precedent for the rest of America.[3] However as Ardizzone notes, this film and the empathy it evokes for mixed womanhood and interracial marriage (explicated in the court scene) did not reflect actual social realities. Gallup polls in 1959 showed that 97% of white Americans were opposed to interracial marriage. 

In both Night of the Quarter Moon and I Passed for White, it is the matriarch who targets the non-white penetrator of the white family unit. While most critics note Hollywood’s focus on protecting white women from black male sexuality, here we see an equal emphasis on protecting white men from ‘black’ female sexuality. In I Passed for White, Bernice faces strong opposition from Frederick’s mother, who says: “She’s not natural, she’s like a cat in a strange attic.”  The imagery evokes Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre where Mr Rochester keeps his first wife Bertha – often read as mixed-race – in the attic of his English mansion.[4] This draws attention to the implied animalism of Bernice’s ‘race’, the impossibility of her position and her ultimate desire for escape. 

When Bernice attends a dance with Frederick she flies into a frenzy on the dance floor, performing to ‘raced’ music such as jazz, salsa and Africanesque drumming, attracting numerous men to her side.  Her wild movements and trance-like state affirm ideas of the mixed/black woman as overtly sexual, uncivilised and unbalanced.  She behaves not like a New England wife but like Alwina in Princesse Tam Tam (who, when her drink is spiked at a society ball, reverts to racially marked samba dancing).  Both performances position the mixed characters – in contrast to the conservatism of their all-white, black tie settings – as spectacles of Otherness.

The fact that some of Bernice’s ‘relatives’ (white strangers to whom she has sent out invitations as a distant cousin) attend her wedding comically reveals the constructedness of family.  Once married, she successfully avoids the suspicions of her mixed-race maid Bertha (Isabelle Cooley; whose similar name also draws attention to Bernice’s true ‘race’).  Following a difficult pregnancy, Bernice becomes distraught and asks if it is black.  Frederick assumes she has had an affair, the baby dies and she leaves him.  The ease with which she gives up her lifestyle with Frederick (and her best friend, Sally) is implausible unless read as a metaphor in support of segregationist politics.  In the final scene, Bernice walks off to start a new life with a smile on her face, embodying feminist independence. Yet she remains trapped – able to be only black or white rather than both.


[1] By contrast with most mixed cinema’s fixation on the black/white binary, Ginny’s mixedness is multiply Other – Irish, Portugese Angolan, Spanish.  See Camilla Fojas, ‘Mixed Race Frontiers: Border Westerns and the Limits of “America”’ in Beltràn & Fojas (2008), pp. 45-63.

[2] For more on this film and the real-life case see Ardizzone, “Catching Up with History: Night of the Quarter Moon, the Rhinelander Case, and Interracial Marriage in 1959” in Beltràn & Fojas (2008), pp. 87-112; Mark Madigan, “Miscegenation and the ‘Dicta of Race and Class’: The Rhinelander Case and Nella Larsen’s Passing” in Modern Fiction Studies 36, no. 4 (1998); Earl Lewis & Heidi Ardizzone, Love on Trial: An American Scandal in Black and White (New York: Norton, 2001).

[3] Mixed marriages were not criminalised and if licensed in other states were legally valid in California. See Renee Romano, Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

[4] Fears of female sexuality are said to have created the literary tradition of ‘the woman in the attic’ as a metaphor for its containment: ‘fluid and unbounded female sexuality cannot be conceptualised within masculine parameters’ (Flax, 1990: 171).  Brontë’s ‘woman in the attic’ is innately disturbed and thus must be restrained – but not sexually engaged with – by white patriarchal order. 

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