Stage Left: Thoroughly Modern Racism, or, the problem with MILLIE
Recently I sat down and watched the 1967 film musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, starring Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore. Millie has all the makings of what could be an incredibly charming, silly film: it has tap-dancing in elevators, inexplicably well-choreographed impromptu dances, and Carol Channing making what may be the greatest entrance in movie history. [video: Millie, Miss Dorothy, and Jimmy in a red plane. Dramatic music plays as a black plane approaches, then abruptly switches to a jaunty tune as the other plane pulls level. Carol Channing as Muzzy Van Hossmere leans out of the front seat holding a glass and bottle of champagne and rapturously exclaims "raspberries!" before flying off once more] However, what Millie also features is a staggeringly racist plotline involving [CONTENT WARNING: racist plot described in detail] a hotel owner and her two nameless, menacing Chinese manservants (played by Jack Soo and Pat Morita and credited, appallingly, as Oriental #1 and Oriental #2) selling residents of the hotel into white slavery. Nothing about this plotline is remotely okay, especially given that every scene with the "Orientals" serves to emphasize how alien they are. What this still image (described in alt text) can't convey is the jaw-droppingly awful mish-mash of "Chinese" sounds she speaks to them with, nor that they spend most of the film near-silent and gratingly incompetent. It does hint at the fact that Meers, despite being white, is very much coded as a "dragon lady," most obviously in her garb, but also through the ruthlessness she uses to achieve her goals. I could write a lot about how Millie treats its Asian characters. But there is one other scene I wanted to discuss in this post, and that is the Jewish Wedding. First, I want to make clear that none of the main characters is textually Jewish. But midway through the film, Millie reminds Miss Dorothy that the two of them have a wedding to attend, and then this happens: [video: Julie Andrews as Millie singing a Yiddish song ("Trinkt le Chaim"--the only lyrics I could find are here and I am uncertain of their accuracy, I apologise) at a wedding. There is an extended dance break partway through] I should state that I am not Jewish either, and know relatively little about Jewish traditions (and I want to thank Amadi for talking to me about this scene). But this scene is not only exceedingly voyeuristic (witness Miss Dorothy midway through, where she bemusedly exclaims "it's...Jewish!"), it gets some extremely important aspects of Jewish wedding traditions wrong (in particular, the lack of a Chuppah for the bride and groom). Millie was adapted into a stage musical in 2000, which came to Broadway in 2002. I have not seen it, but I do know enough to know that they tried valiantly to rectify the problems with the source material. They (mercifully) cut the Jewish wedding entirely, and they gave Mrs. Meers' servants names and motivations—one ultimately ends up marrying Miss Dorothy, in the stage show's most radical departure from the film. But I question why this adaptation even came to be, more than thirty years after the film first premiered. Why it was felt that a film this transparently problematic could—or should!—be turned into a stage show, other than the general momentum stage adaptations of movies have been gaining in the past decade. And lastly, I question whether the changes they made really solved the problem, and I am forced to conclude they almost certainly didn't. Millie, despite many charming moments, is rotten to the core, and I don't see a way to solve that problem without making an entirely different show.
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