Born for Hard Luck
A portrait of the last Black medicine-show performer, Arthur “Peg Leg Sam” Jackson, with brilliant harmonica songs, tales of hoboing, buck dances, and an authentic live medicine-show performance filmed at a North Carolina county fair in 1972. Between the Civil War and World War II, many such gifted and restless young black musicians found careers in the traveling patent-medicine shows, a favorite entertainment in the rural and small-town South. They sang and recited comic routines and danced to attract a crowd for the pitchman and his sales of wonder-cure “snake oil.” Born for Hard Luck includes highlights from Peg Leg Sam’s performance at a North Carolina county fair in 1972, the only film record of a live medicine show. It gives excerpts from his comic routines, a mock chanted sermon, “toasts,” folktales, three “buck dances,” and his brilliant harmonica playing and singing of “Reuben Train,” “Greasy Greens,” “Hand Me Down,” “Who Left My Backdoor Running,” and “Froggie Went A-Courting.” (29 minutes, B&W)
Free Show Tonight
Academy award winning filmmaker Paul Wagner and folklorist Steve Zeitlin produced this 1983 oral history of the old-time travelling medicine show performers, with a recreated medicine show staged in a small North Carolina town. “There is a great deal of America in the medicine show,” the film states in the opening credits, “and there is a great deal of the medicine show in America.” Wagner and Zeitlin, with an eye trained to see how popular culture and performance tie together, tell the story of the medicine show from performers to its disappearance due to the rise of border radio, food and drug regulation, and changing attitudes.
Some of the film’s most moving moments are when veteran performers—assembled one last time for this show—reflect on how things have changed. One white performer shares the story of the last time he put on blackface for a performance. Then, we watch him do it once more, wistfully but with an obvious pang of self-consciousness. “There is a great deal of America in the medicine show,” the film states upfront, “and there is a great deal of the medicine show in America.” This film deals honestly with a form of entertainment that, as much it is still shrouded in nostalgia and mystique, was deeply problematic. Here, we see the good and the bad, difficult to disentangle from one another, as the building blocks for a lost American tradition.
(58 minutes, Color)
Willa: An American Snow White (85 min., ages 10-adult), Directed by Tom Davenport.
“Does it really work?” says Willa (Snow White) as she watched Chief Tonka, the red-headed “Chief of the Pootiepows” mix his magic formula for the “elixir of life.” “It can do lots of things,” says the evasive Tonka, “if you believe it can.” And so it does. Traveling with Tonka, and Billy, last of the dancing Buggs, and the mysterious Alfonzo, Willa learns to sell illusions too. But even as she learns to love her motley companions, she is moving toward the inevitable confrontation with her evil stepmother. Will her new-found friends be able to protect her? Certainly, in this Shakespeare-haunted fable, “things are not what they seem.”
“Charming, funny, unpredictable, and deeply touching.” -Children’s Video reports, **** (four stars)
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