In class yesterday, a perplexed student asked if Daniel Sullivan, a central character in Larry Duplechan’s Tangled Up in Blue, was Black. She understood that he was described as a double for Superman. People would approach him in public thinking that he could be Christopher Reeve. But the student didn’t know who Reeve was. Her first impulse, given that we are in the middle of an African American literature course, was to express wonder that a Black man had played Superman in a movie. But she couldn’t find evidence of such a person on the Internet. I thought her reaction humorous but also quite reasonable. Students had read six novels by African American authors, none of which featured leading White characters. It’s not wild for an undergraduate to assume that developing Black protagonists was always the main concern of Black writers. Indeed, several other students were thrown off, and part of the problem was the description “tall, dark, and handsome.” The word “dark” was read as “Black,” also a reasonable call for students not steeped in old-school and even older than old-school culture, particularly that in the American image industry. When I was a kid and heard an actor described as “tall, dark, and handsome,” I knew they were not talking about Sidney Poitier. They had in mind men such as Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and Rock Hudson. Idris Elba wouldn’t have made the list back then. I am now reminded of how crucial context is to interpretation.
I mumbled some explanation to my students about swarthy complexions and dark hair, but I realized I was no expert on the phrase. I then did what they often do: hit the Internet. I didn’t want to get too deep into it but did want to enhance class discussion. Besides, what particular language was I signing onto back then?
C. Brian Smith, writing for MEL magazine, provides numerous lessons in a piece titled “The Not-So-Attractive Origins of ‘Tall, Dark and Handsome.’” I won’t take up all of them, for example, suggestions concerning Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s 1813 novel. Or the supposed relationship among the nutrient folate, ultraviolet rays, and sperm quality. I don’t think Hollywood was pondering that much. What I’m most interested in regarding Hollywood and my main topic seems to begin, as Smith informs us, with Mae West. Apparently, she described Grant as tall, dark and handsome as she eyed him to play Captain Cummings opposite her Lady Lou in the 1933 movie You Done Me Wrong. Grant, often sun tanned, eventually became the embodiment of the trope and also became, by many accounts, the greatest leading man in Hollywood history. His career ran parallel to that of Gable, the so-called King of Hollywood, known most famously as the character Rhett Butler in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. That was two years before Cesar Romero played Shep Morrison in Tall, Dark and Handsome.
But before Grant, Gable, and Romero there was sex-symbol Rudolph Valentino, dubbed the “Latin Lover” by movie moguls and promoted to become the leading “exotic” male, eclipsing Sessue Hayakawa. Valentino wasn’t quite six feet tall but was about four inches taller than Hayakawa. At any rate, the commonplace of the mysterious Latin Lover, stemming from Valentino, evolved alongside the idea of the tall, dark, and handsome leading man both in Hollywood and the culture at large. These were the concepts we learned. These were not Black-man concepts but were the lineage of Gregory Peck; Hudson, whose felt presence is significant in Duplechan’s novel; Sean Connery, Reeve himself, George Clooney, and Ben Affleck. (I saw a woman nearly ruin a business lunch by insisting aggressively that Jennifer Lopez didn’t look good enough to be in a movie with Clooney, a proposition with which Affleck would disagree.)
Back to Class
Of course, you have to keep up with the times. I’ll let the students get to that. Are Black actors in the club now? Are they the only members of the club? Or can White actors still be members? The world may be less confusing than when we heard the phrase “tall, dark, and handsome” and translated it instantly to “white, not too pasty, over six feet, with dark hair.” But maybe the world is more confusing now. The students will straighten out some of it next class.