As with the book, I was completely blown away by how not-racist 1934’s Laughing Boy was. For a movie set on the Navajo reservation in — again — the 1930s, Native American culture and rituals are handled fairly respectfully, and many of the characters were played by actual Navajo actors. Moreover, the whole message of the film — which here is delivered much more heavy-handedly than it is in the novel — is about the harm of cultural imperialism.
This theme is established right in the opening scene, which satirizes a couple of stereotypical “ugly Americans,” shown treating the Navajo characters as adorable tourist attractions.
This, as with similar scenes in the novel, establishes not just that the film is attempting to be anti-racist, but that it won’t only limit itself to criticizing the really obvious targets. It is also willing to tackle racism’s more subtle and insidious forms, such as exoticism and condescension.
The only really embarrassing part of the movie are the actors’ absolutely wretched attempts at Navajo accents, which were mocked by moviegoers even at the time.
Despite that troubling and cringe-worthy little flaw, Laughing Boy is probably the absolutely least offensive movie about this topic anyone could have expected from early Hollywood. I mean, when you think of all the truly racist crap studios were churning out around the same time (and still are, cough cough), it’s a miracle it was allowed to be produced at all.
And it almost wasn’t. Starting from the time they acquired the film rights, first Universal and then MGM were plagued with complaints and threats by both government and industry censors, not just for the movie’s depictions of white people not on their best behavior, but also for its portrayal of “miscegenation” and just sex in general. As you may remember from my book review, our heroine, Slim Girl/Lily, is a prostitute who is depicted sympathetically, and that sort of thing was a big no-no back then (not the prostitute part necessarily, just the sympathy part).
Harassing the studios from the other direction, though, were the demands from Laughing Boy’s author Oliver La Farge. As an anthropologist, La Farge was pretty concerned about the authenticity of any ceremonies shown, which is understandable given that fiction writers of the time would often make up any kind of noble savage crap they wanted in place of doing actual research. Perhaps to alleviate that worry, much of the movie was shot on location on the Arizona Navajo reservation.
And those rare little peeks into midcentury reservation life are pretty beautiful. They are the only scenes that almost tip Laughing Boy to the side of forgotten classic. It’s too bad they are so few and far between.
So between ducking accusations of being both too offensive to white Americans and too offensive to Native Americans, of not promoting good values and of not pushing the envelope, did director W.S. Van Dyke find the time to actually make a good movie?
Well, the storyline is still the strongest part of this…story. They changed some points, but the plot is basically the same as in the book: traditional, sheltered Navajo man falls in love with a woman who is trying to walk the line between both worlds. Tragedy ensues. It’s an original idea that raises plenty of difficult questions about culture and identity.
The actors playing the minor characters range wildly between decent and completely horrendous, but the two lead actors are pretty strong and really sell both the love story and the cheesy dialogue, in spite of looking and sounding about as Navajo as I do. Our leading Navajo man and lady were actually played by two Mexican actors, Ramón Navarro and Lupe Vélez. Hey, that name sounds familiar…
Anyway, she in particular is good at embodying a very complex character with conflicting motivations and many sides to her personality.
Navarro, on the other hand, does not really add any depth to the Laughing Boy character. He doesn’t manage to convey innocence as much as just simplicity. And not the good kind of simplicity, more the stupid kind.
So there’s nothing really wrong with Laughing Boy, per se. It’s just… not very good. Somehow the same plot isn’t nearly as compelling here as it was in the book. Done right, I should be sobbing by the final scene, but I didn’t shed one tear. I’m the girl who still cries when Ash says goodbye to Butterfree, damn it! This beautiful tragic love story should have some kind of effect on me.
Nineteen thirties movie watchers rejected it even more strongly, though, as Laughing Boy was a huge financial flop and critically panned.
Maybe part of the problem is the book is just so darn good it’s hard for another medium to capture the same spirit. I’d love to see this film remade with a director who was given a little bit of breathing room to actually be creative.
Also, I could have done without all the singing, which was equal parts culturally inappropriate and annoying. Fair warning to those interested in watching this movie: The score will never leave your brain. Ever.
Still, I have to give Laughing Boy props. It did in nineteen thirty — freakin’ — four, what studios won’t do to this day: make a movie where all the heroes are people of color. Even if you set aside the wonderfully sympathetic portrayal of the abused, “fallen” Slim Girl, that’s a pretty sweet deal.
Laughing Boy is available on Youtube.