Sportin’ Life: John W. Bubbles, an American classic book review
Wearing a bowler hat and twirling a cane, Bubbles, as a cheeky murderer named Domino Johnson, rushes into a cabaret and unleashes a cyclone of spins, floating slides and sharp, sharp stops at the both familiar and strange. The sharp turns, the draw of his hat, the way he freezes his leg with his head tilted, a bent knee: it’s familiar because you’ve seen the moves copied by Bob Fosse, James Brown and Michael Jackson.
The crisp clarity and liquid ease of Bubbles is uncanny. He has complete command of his body, a body that flies in different directions and then interlocks so fast you might suspect there’s some cinematic trickery at work. Incidentally, he also sings, cheekily, and flirts with the ladies at their tables, teasing them with little shoulder thrusts. It exudes an edgy glamour. The stage buzzes with electricity and visual surprise.
“Sportin’ Life”, by Brian Harker, author of books on Louis Armstrong and jazz, is the first life story of this dance artist, a surprising fact given his former fame. For 36 years, Bubbles was part of the song and dance team Buck and Bubbles, one of the most enduring partnerships in vaudeville history. The duo were featured on the world’s first television broadcast in 1936. They were driven around London by the Prince of Wales himself, before the abdication, after a commissioned performance for Edward and his not-yet-wife Wallis Simpson .
Even by the racial confines of the time, Bubbles was movie material: tall, handsome, killer smile. An extraordinary showman. In the very few clips that exist, it’s a natural. In the 1937 feature film “Varsity Show,” starring Dick Powell and Priscilla Lane, Bubbles tap dancing brilliantly (playing a concierge, no less), accompanied by his pianist partner Buck (born Ford Lee Washington). That, and Bubbles’ brief scene in the all-black “Cabin in the Sky,” was pretty much all Hollywood wanted from him.
The film industry had a blind spot (more on that soon), but not George Gershwin.
Harker, who teaches music history at Brigham Young University, takes the title of his book from the lead role Bubbles created in Gershwin’s 1935 all-black opera “Porgy and Bess.” Sportin’ Life was the star villain of this landmark production: a dancing drug dealer who was dangerous and, true to Bubbles’ nature, irresistible. Gershwin gave him the role; no audition necessary. He called it “my Bubbles”.
Because Bubbles was a self-taught dancer, read no music, and had no opera experience, Gershwin taught his “unconventional protege” himself, playing the piano in his apartment. while Bubbles sat next to him and sang. It was a life changing experience. For the rest of his career, “It Ain’t Necessarily So” was Bubbles’ unofficial theme song. Gershwin also tricked Bubbles into using his famous feet to dance the songs note by note.
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Many rolled on these feet. Prior to Gershwin’s arrival, Bubbles had insured his ankles for $50,000. His influence had spread to the world of tap dancing. Where Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was revered for his light, crystalline pattern and honed patterns, Bubbles had a more powerful, dynamic, and spontaneous style. Most tappers of the day danced on their toes, but Bubbles lowered her heels, adding rhythmic complexity and syncopation. Followers have dubbed him “the father of rhythm tapping”.
However, Bubbles died poor in 1986, at the age of 84. Famous admirers contributed to his funeral, including Bob Hope, Liza Minnelli and Johnny Carson, who was a regular on the Bubbles TV show years earlier. Bubbles had had some vogue moments as nostalgia swept through the 1950s and 1960s. named his pet chimpanzee after the great dancer”. Apart from connoisseurs and tap dance enthusiasts, few today know the name Bubbles.
Harker meticulously traces the points where racial discrimination has limited the showman’s opportunities on the vaudeville circuits and in Hollywood. Still, Bubbles was hopelessly in love with acting. Born John William Sublett Jr. in Nashville in 1903, he received his stage name as a child from a vaudeville manager captivated by his upbeat nature. At 14, he teamed up with Buck.
“We looked poor,” Bubbles said, “we talked like we didn’t know anything and we danced like we didn’t care.”
This relaxed look hid the duo’s special sauce: absolute mastery. “In their virtuosity, Buck and Bubbles heralded a new era of black achievement,” Harker writes. They were the act no one wanted to follow.
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Still, Bubbles’ legacy would surely be different had he had the movie career of, say, Fred Astaire or Bill Robinson. Harker thinks racism isn’t the only reason Bubbles hasn’t appeared in the movies. Certainly, many vaudevillians managed to get into the movies – Astaire, Ginger Rogers, George Burns, to name a few – and there were black performers among them. Robinson, Stepin Fetchit and Eddie Anderson “all made it in Hollywood despite the color of their skin,” Harker writes.
Harker makes an interesting argument as to why the dancer blew up Hollywood: He was too hot. “More than any other issue,” Harker asserts, “the filmmakers were almost certainly terrified of Bubbles’ sexual potency.”
In this “Stormy Weather” scene, there’s a masculine warmth that radiates through his curvy agility.
He was so different from Robinson, who, for example, teamed up with a young Shirley Temple in “The Little Colonel,” as an avuncular, deferential servant. By contrast, Harker notes, “slinky sexy” is how film critic Pauline Kael described Bubbles.
Harker writes, “For Clark Gable, sex appeal was the key to success; for John Bubbles, it was fatal.
It remains amazing that the movie industry chose not to capitalize on Bubbles’ talent and magnetism. The ironies and injustices are obvious. Harker opens his book with Fred Astaire paying Bubbles the astronomical sum of $400 for a tap dancing lesson in 1930 – an extraordinary decision.
Harker clarifies that Astaire himself never divulged the lesson. The account comes from Bubbles, who told the story in several published interviews. Harker thinks that’s true, but even if it’s not, he writes, that scores a point. “Astaire’s complex progression…could only take place in a world informed by Bubbles’ innovations. Whether studying with the man privately or observing him from afar, the result was the same: Astaire borrowed ideas from Bubbles. Everyone did.
The influence, however, was not enough to ensure immortality. Harker’s book is not just a living history, but a poignant rumination on what might have been – what greater art Bubbles could have made, if only the world that applauded him hadn’t also locked him away.
Sarah L. Kaufman is the Washington Post’s dance critic and author of “The Art of Grace.”
John W. Bubbles, an American classic
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