In the World of Soundies, racism and racial/gender/religious stereotyping range from ugly and virulent, to obscure and what today we call “dog whistles.” One of the more insidious forms of racism in Soundies, however, is the introduction of African-American where they need not logically appear. Yet they are included as a subtle (or not so subtle) object of mockery. Such is the case in today’s Soundie, Ask Dad.

The vaudeville team Cross and Dunn had been working together since the early 1930s, although each had been active during the previous decade. Henry Dunn’s career, for example, can be traced back to the mid-1920s with an appearance in Earl Carroll’s Vanities (1924-25).

Dunn began working with Alan (occasionally Allen) Cross some years later, and the act appeared in two Vitaphone shorts in 1932-34. Beginning in 1935, they were booked almost yearly at the Chez Paris in New York City, and during an appearance in Florida, the Palm Beach Daily News noted that the two “have proved sensational hits in … Paris, Berlin and most of the capitals of Europe.”

In Ask Dad, Cross and Dunn sing a sentimental ballad from 1936, “Sing an Old-Fashioned Song (To A Young Sophisticated Lady).” While the tune had been recorded by such jazz artists as Fats Waller, Cross and Dunn’s low-key, almost somnambulistic performance style, is hard to connect with today, although these types of ballads were popular during the war years.

If this were a straight vocal performance, it would quite likely not make it to our site, in part because there are better examples of this approach to love ballads. But we share this Soundie because, under the misguidance of director Arthur Leonard, it becomes one of those “what was he thinking” moments in the World of Soundies. Behind the two performers, for no reason at all, we see a group of minstrels, white sideline extras in black face, who do nothing but sway gently to the music. Even Billboard was perplexed, asking, “Their vocal work is okay, but why the puzzling minstrel set?”

The pervasiveness of the minstrel tradition, and the appearance of white actors and black face, was part-and-parcel of the racism on the 20th century. Perhaps one way to look at this phenomenon is that the popularity of the early of the minstrel tradition in the 19th century was so widespread that it created an inertia that kept it on the performance stage for decades. In 1928 for instance, Jim Rice’s song and dance “Jump Jim Crow” combined with Al Jolson’s appearance in black face in The Jazz Singer to provide further nationwide exposure of this performance style. At the time of this Soundies production, this inertia wasgiven new momentum on screen as stars Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney blackened up in the hit film Babes in Arms.

What makes this Soundie so distressing is the fact that director Arthur Leonard must have known that the actors in blackface contributed nothing to the song or story. The mistrels would somehow be entertaining sitting there in the background. White people in blackface alone was seen as something to laugh at.

In the world of Soiundies there are dozens and dozens of high points, which is of course what we try to visit here regularly. But there are low points as well, and this particular Soundie occupies one of the nadirs of our musical shorts. This is not a musical sure to celebrate, but one to view, if only once, in order to maintain the memory of a less enlightened time in our musical history.