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Check and Double Check

Check and Double Check(1930)

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teaser Check and Double Check (1930)

Amos 'N' Andy was a hugely popular radio show for almost three decades. It featured white comedians Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll as black, Harlem-based cabdrivers Amos and Andy. The program drew its share of controversy for its stereotypical treatment of African American characters. But despite protests it remained a ratings hit on radio and survived several incarnations including a 1950s TV series and a trip to the big screen in Check and Double Check (1930).

Gosden and Correll began their act on a vaudeville stage in 1919. They took the show to Chicago radio in 1926. At first the characters were called Jim and Charley. After two episodes they tried out Sam and Henry before finally settling on Amos and Andy. The last name change seemed to catch on, and in 1929, NBC began broadcasting the program nationally. The show lasted 15-minutes and ran five nights a week. It was a staple in many 1930s households - both black and white. But with Amos and Andy's widening audience came growing objections from the African American community. Future Civil Rights leader Clarence Mitchell said black fans of the show "were about as sensible as a jackass." And a black newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier, set out to collect a million signatures in 1931 demanding the program be pulled.

Despite these complaints, a feature film version of Amos and Andy, called Check and Double Check, was made in 1930. Radio listeners were anxious to get a look at Gosden and Correll's faces - especially since many fans actually believed the pair was black. That perception changed after Gosden and Correll appeared in blackface for Check and Double Check. The film's plot finds Amos and Andy helping white characters locate a missing deed. And sends the cabbies into a familiar movie scenario - as frightened black characters in a haunted house.

Amos and Andy also meet Duke Ellington and his Orchestra in Check and Double Check, when they are hired to transport the band to a society ball. The combination seemed a logical fit - Amos and Andy's fictional cabdrivers worked in Harlem and Duke Ellington performed nightly in Harlem's Cotton Club. Check and Double Check marked Duke Ellington's Hollywood feature debut and it introduced him to a broader audience.

Upon the orchestra's arrival in Hollywood, Check and Double Check director Melville Brown deemed two members of Ellington's band too light skinned. Looking for what he called a uniform appearance for the movie, Brown had band members Juan Tizol, who was Puerto Rican, and Barney Bigard, a Creole, wear makeup to appear darker on film. The newspaper The Baltimore Afro-American ran a photo of the band with the caption, "They Must Black Up for Part in the Movies."

Another Ellington band member, drummer Sonny Greer, was to perform the Bert Kalmar/Harry Ruby song "Three Little Words" in the movie - but the idea of singing on film gave him stage fright. As Greer remembers it, "they tried a few takes, but I just couldn't seem to get the words to come out right. Finally I told Duke the whole damn thing was making me nervous." The script was rewritten to have the remaining orchestra members mouth the words. The vocals would be provided by The Rhythm Boys - also known as Bing Crosby, Harry Barris and Al Rinker. In a humorous bit of irony, the original idea (after Greer dropped out) was to have Bing Crosby record the track solo. Apparently the director heard Crosby's take, said, "this guy can't sing" and called in the whole trio.

Check and Double Check had its Harlem premiere at the Douglas Theater which was downstairs from the Cotton Club. Duke Ellington and his Orchestra appeared on stage at the movie theater. The movie did mediocre business, but wasn't the runaway hit it was on radio. Even contemporary reviews found the blackface unsettling. It would be the only Amos and Andy feature film. But Gosden and Correll did appear again as Amos and Andy in The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1935). They also voiced two 1934 cartoons The Rasslin' Match and The Lion Tamer.

Amos and Andy played on NBC radio until 1948. Then the show moved to CBS where it aired until the end of its run in 1954. A television version premiered in 1951 - this time with black actors playing Amos (Alvin Childress) and Andy (Spencer Williams). Ratings for the program were initially strong, but protests from the NAACP and other groups led to its cancellation after two seasons.

Love it or hate it, two things about the Amos and Andy phenomenon remain clear today: the show was always popular - and always controversial. On visiting America, playwright George Bernard Shaw said three things impressed him, "the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and the radio show Amos 'n Andy."

Producer: William LeBaron, Bertram Millhauser
Director: Melville Brown
Screenplay: Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, J. Walter Ruben
Cinematography: William Marshall
Film Editing: Claude Berkeley
Art Direction: Max Ree
Music: Harry Ruby, Harry Akst, Max Steiner
Cast: Freeman F. Gosden (Amos), Charles J. Correll (Andy Brown), Sue Carol (Jean Blair), Irene Rich (Mrs. Blair), Ralf Harolde (Ralph Crawford), Charles Morton (Richard Williams).

by Stephanie Thames

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