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Caucasian actors playing natives on screen


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#1 jamesjazzguitar

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Posted 29 August 2016 - 11:54 AM

The

 

Screen%2Bshot%2B2016-08-28%2Bat%2B10.56.

 

I'm watching THE SAVAGE (1952) this morning on Amazon Prime. It was Charlton Heston's second Hollywood film at Paramount, and he's very young. He plays a white man whose family was killed by the Crow Indians when he was a boy. The Sioux came along and took him into their tribe, so he grew up as an adopted member of the Sioux. 

 

The filmmakers have smeared some sort of brown oil on Heston's face (unless it's just his deeply tanned skin), and he fits in with the Sioux. But he's supposed to be adopted, so even if he didn't fit in entirely, it would make sense.

 

On the other hand, most of the Sioux in this movie are played by Caucasian actors. And they do not seem to fit into this picture. Don Porter, who costarred as Ann Sothern's boss on her sitcoms, and later turned up as Gidget's father on TV, is one of these performers. He is not very convincing at all as a full-blooded native.

 

I'm not sure I understand the reason Hollywood studios did not cast native actors in major native roles. This particular production, THE SAVAGE, was filmed on location in South Dakota. And supposedly, the producers did use real native extras. Plus Sitting Bull's 91 year old son has a small part in the story. But when it comes to the main native roles, they are done by whites.

 

Thoughts..?

 

Another reason was the studio-system and the fact actors were under contract and where paid regardless of how many films they were in.    Stand-ins or background actors were paid a very low rate and where hired per picture,  but even secondary actors were mostly contract players. 

 

Therefore a director was told to use a warm body under contract instead of hiring them.   The Make-up department did the rest. 


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#2 TopBilled

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Posted 29 August 2016 - 11:20 AM

Unfortunately, so many of the Natives living on reservations (and off them, too) lived in abject poverty. And an empty belly will trump a principled stand almost every time. They agreed to be extras because they needed the money, as small as it probably was.

 

Yes, I suppose so. Though it's sad.

 

THE SAVAGE could have been a much more powerful film if Paramount had taken a few more chances with the material. Heston puts his heart into it, and that along with the on-location scenery is probably its greatest strength. But as a balanced depiction of the struggle between whites and natives, it unfortunately does not succeed.


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#3 LawrenceA

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Posted 29 August 2016 - 11:14 AM

As I said in a previous post, the producers of this Paramount film used many native extras while shooting on location in South Dakota. So unless they hadn't read the end of the script, it's interesting the native extras would agree to go along with this type of story. Sure, it may have some historical basis in fact, but in the final moments when Heston's character makes his choice, it comes down on the side of the whites and does not show the natives sympathetically at all-- mostly, that they continued to war like savages (hence, the title) and brought about a lot of their own destruction.

 

Unfortunately, so many of the Natives living on reservations (and off them, too) lived in abject poverty. And an empty belly will trump a principled stand almost every time. They agreed to be extras because they needed the money, as small as it probably was.


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#4 TopBilled

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Posted 29 August 2016 - 09:49 AM

There are many reasons. Racism against Native Americans was a very real thing, especially in the Western US, and many actors, actresses, producers, directors and others preferred not to work with actual Natives. Some producers feared audience backlash and weak ticket sales in communities where anti-Native sentiment ran high. While the Deep South and New England were dealing with their racist attitudes concerning black Americans, during this same time racism against Latinos and Native Americans was strong in the West, something that isn't discussed a lot in film, at least to the extent of the Black experience. There were Whites only restaurants, hotels, drinking fountains, etc, that singled out Natives and Latinos throughout the West.

 

Another reason was lack of training in the performing arts among Natives. Reservation schools barely managed to scrape by just doing basic curriculum work, so that arts and other "secondary" subjects were often not even broached. White-controlled schools were often religious in nature, and they also shied away from artistic endeavors. The few Natives that made their way to Hollywood usually ended up in extra and/or stuntwork. The prevailing direct and passive racism of the time kept them out of serious contention for major roles.

 

There was also the old theatrical tradition of actors and actresses essaying roles of every race, every nationality, every age bracket, etc, and it was often seen as an indicator of a performer's range as to how many different ethnic types they had or could play. 

 

And finally there's the basic reason that a star, or at least a recognizable performer, would bring in more box office. They could have groomed and promoted a few Native stars if they had the will, but they didn't, unfortunately.

 

Excellent post. You've very clearly explained many reasons why whites play natives in western films of the 30s, 40s & 50s. 

 

One thing I wanted to add about THE SAVAGE (spoilers ahead)...Heston's character has to make a choice during a battle, which side he will fight on. He tries to be a mediator after his attempts to foil the U.S. Army and help the natives has failed. He goes back to the Sioux and tells them to give up, which they won't do. At this point, he has decided to reclaim his white heritage and we soon see him wounded by natives, struck in the chest with an arrow. The last scene has him surviving and dragged back to an Army fort to be treated. it's very clear the natives will lose and that Heston is saved by realigning with the whites. 

 

As I said in a previous post, the producers of this Paramount film used many native extras while shooting on location in South Dakota. So unless they hadn't read the end of the script, it's interesting the native extras would agree to go along with this type of story. Sure, it may have some historical basis in fact, but in the final moments when Heston's character makes his choice, it comes down on the side of the whites and does not show the natives sympathetically at all-- mostly, that they continued to war like savages (hence, the title) and brought about a lot of their own destruction.

 

So not only do we have the casting issue, we have the screenwriting and the producers' point of view which stacks the deck even more against fair native representations in these films.


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#5 TopBilled

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Posted 28 August 2016 - 10:43 PM

Jarrod, it's a long-honored tradition in Hollywood.

 

The most garish example is Ed Ames playing an Cherokee Indian in the "Daniel Boone" TV series.

 

Screen%2Bshot%2B2016-08-28%2Bat%2B8.40.3

 

Another strange example is Irene Tedrow playing a native woman opposite Faith Domergue in SANTA FE PASSAGE. Tedrow is an excellent actress and she does an admirable job, but when you look at her in this role after seeing her as a suburban busybody in the Dennis the Menace TV series, it's jarring.

 

Screen%2Bshot%2B2016-08-28%2Bat%2B8.46.4


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#6 LawrenceA

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Posted 28 August 2016 - 09:57 PM

There are many reasons. Racism against Native Americans was a very real thing, especially in the Western US, and many actors, actresses, producers, directors and others preferred not to work with actual Natives. Some producers feared audience backlash and weak ticket sales in communities where anti-Native sentiment ran high. While the Deep South and New England were dealing with their racist attitudes concerning black Americans, during this same time racism against Latinos and Native Americans was strong in the West, something that isn't discussed a lot in film, at least to the extent of the Black experience. There were Whites only restaurants, hotels, drinking fountains, etc, that singled out Natives and Latinos throughout the West.

 

Another reason was lack of training in the performing arts among Natives. Reservation schools barely managed to scrape by just doing basic curriculum work, so that arts and other "secondary" subjects were often not even broached. White-controlled schools were often religious in nature, and they also shied away from artistic endeavors. The few Natives that made their way to Hollywood usually ended up in extra and/or stuntwork. The prevailing direct and passive racism of the time kept them out of serious contention for major roles.

 

There was also the old theatrical tradition of actors and actresses essaying roles of every race, every nationality, every age bracket, etc, and it was often seen as an indicator of a performer's range as to how many different ethnic types they had or could play. 

 

And finally there's the basic reason that a star, or at least a recognizable performer, would bring in more box office. They could have groomed and promoted a few Native stars if they had the will, but they didn't, unfortunately.


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#7 rayban

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Posted 28 August 2016 - 09:16 PM

Jarrod, it's a long-honored tradition in Hollywood.

 

The most garish example is Ed Ames playing an Cherokee Indian in the "Daniel Boone" TV series.


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#8 TopBilled

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Posted 28 August 2016 - 12:55 PM

Screen%2Bshot%2B2016-08-28%2Bat%2B10.56.

 

I'm watching THE SAVAGE (1952) this morning on Amazon Prime. It was Charlton Heston's second Hollywood film at Paramount, and he's very young. He plays a white man whose family was killed by the Crow Indians when he was a boy. The Sioux came along and took him into their tribe, so he grew up as an adopted member of the Sioux. 

 

The filmmakers have smeared some sort of brown oil on Heston's face (unless it's just his deeply tanned skin), and he fits in with the Sioux. But he's supposed to be adopted, so even if he didn't fit in entirely, it would make sense.

 

On the other hand, most of the Sioux in this movie are played by Caucasian actors. And they do not seem to fit into this picture. Don Porter, who costarred as Ann Sothern's boss on her sitcoms, and later turned up as Gidget's father on TV, is one of these performers. He is not very convincing at all as a full-blooded native.

 

I'm not sure I understand the reason Hollywood studios did not cast native actors in major native roles. This particular production, THE SAVAGE, was filmed on location in South Dakota. And supposedly, the producers did use real native extras. Plus Sitting Bull's 91 year old son has a small part in the story. But when it comes to the main native roles, they are done by whites.

 

Thoughts..?


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