Race Films Spotlight: 1943’s Black Musicals

The dark truth of cinema, the truest American art form outside of television, is that it was founded as entertainment for the white norm. Whiteness is seen as a given and a status quo of early cinema, while any other race, especially black, is seen as useful only as entertainment. There was a need (and there remains a need) for an antecedent to a starkly monocultural screen, which was for a time filled by a brave few independent filmmakers. Their films, a hodgepodge of melodramas, genre pictures, and the unclassifiable, were at the time characterized as a single genre- “race films”.

~ Race Films Spotlight: Prehistory, Oscar Micheaux, and Body and Soul (1925) ~ Race Films Spotlight: 1920s Oddballs ~ Race Films Spotlight: Hallelujah (1929) ~ Race Films Spotlight: Paul Robeson and Emperor Jones (1933) ~ Race Films Spotlight: 1943’s Black Musicals

ethel
Ethel Waters in Cabin in the Sky (1943)

1943 proved to be one of the most important years for studio-produced race films, with the brief appearance of the all-black musical as a commercially viable genre. By that time, the smash success of the black Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky all but demanded adaptation. Miraculously, the play’s witty book actually treats its characters with dignity. (Producer Arthur Freed and director Vincente Minnelli, presaging many an apology to Al Sharpton, even consulted black leaders to ensure the movie was respectful.)  The premise, oddly enough, is essentially the same of The Blood of Jesus- a carouser (played by Eddie Rochester) is shot in a night gambling and destined for Hell, but is given a second chance by the prayers of his devout wife (Ethel Waters). Characters that might resemble stereotypes in lesser films are complicated- Rochester’s scurrilous Little Joe, for one, is

cabin01
Eddie Rochester and company in Cabin in the Sky (1943)

adorable (discovered by his wife with a bullet in his stomach, he says, before keeling over: “I got in a little trouble again, honey.”); Water’s Petunia initially seems like a saint, but can beat dice-shooters at their own games and strut like any pool hall girl. Even better, moralism is kept to a minimum, the battle between good and evil treated like a bureaucratic competition between the angelic General, and Satan’s put-upon son, Lucifer Jr. And, of course, the performances are uniformly magnificent- Waters is titanic, and makes the biggest impression, but Rochester, finally out of the valet suit, ably demonstrates his talents, as do Lena Horne as Rochester’s midriff-revealing temptress, and John W. Bubbles as Rochester’s charming assaulter, moving like Astaire in his astonishing “Shine” number.

STORMY WEATHER, Lena Horne, 1943, TM & Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.
Lena Horne in Stormy Weather (1943)

When Cabin proved a success, it bred competition; within two months of the former’s release, another all-black Hollywood musical was produced, under the pretense of a loose, self-starring biopic of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the famous tap dancer and Shirley Temple co-star. A more traditional movie musical, Stormy Weather followed the Singin’ in the Rain system of appropriating standards for soundtrack and going light on story, but to a more vehement degree. Its ostensible plot- a romance between then 65 year-old Robinson and 27 year-old Lena Horne as their careers advance- barely moves beyond its conception, while the curt 77 minute runtime is packed to the gills with twenty numbers. Weather is a glorified revue with an upward rise arc as its breath, basically, but a glorious one, featuring just about every notable name of Harlem cabaret at the time performing at or near their peak. The most astonishing run of musical numbers starts when Ada Brown and Fats Waller perform “That Ain’t Right”, and is sustained all the way to a finale (widely regarded as a masterpiece of dancing virtuosity) in which the Nicholas Brothers leapfrog into splits on a flight of stairs. It’s all unimpeachable, but tinged with the melancholy of knowing that these performers would never receive such a spotlight again. Fats, in his only major film appearance, would be dead in a year; Horne would never have another starring role, and eventually found herself blacklisted; Robinson, Brown and dancer Katherine Dunham would never appear on film again. Only Cab Calloway, who starred in a few concert films, and the Nicholas Brothers, who continued to make sporadic appearances in surgically removable film numbers, would continue with limited screen careers. It and Cabin are the briefest of spotlights on an entire era.

stormy-weather-nicholas-brothers
The Nicholas Brothers in Stormy Weather (1943)

Minor black musicals would appear sporadically for the rest of the forties, mostly through revues and independent films, but neither MGM nor 20th Century Fox attempted to restage the risky hits of 1943. Only the 1950s would see a brief revitalization of the black musical under the direction of noted Hayes Code defier Otto Preminger. Check back next time for a spotlight on Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1953), which pushed its star Dorothy Dandridge towards the first Academy Award nomination for a black actor in a lead role.

 

 

 

Race Films Spotlight: Paul Robeson and Emperor Jones (1933)

The dark truth of cinema, the truest American art form outside of television, is that it was founded as entertainment for the white norm. Whiteness is seen as a given and a status quo of early cinema, while any other race, especially black, is seen as useful only as entertainment. There was a need (and there remains a need) for an antecedent to a starkly monocultural screen, which was for a time filled by a brave few independent filmmakers. Their films, a hodgepodge of melodramas, genre pictures, and the unclassifiable, were at the time characterized as a single genre- “race films”.

~ Race Films Spotlight: Prehistory, Oscar Micheaux, and Body and Soul (1925) ~ Race Films Spotlight: 1920s Oddballs ~ Race Films Spotlight: Hallelujah (1929) ~ Race Films Spotlight: Paul Robeson and Emperor Jones (1933) ~ Race Films Spotlight: 1943’s Black Musicals

One of the most important race film paths to follow of the 1930s was that of actor Paul Robeson,

Borderline
Paul Robeson in Borderline (1930)

previously seen in this blog series portraying a nefarious preacher in Micheaux’s Body and Soul (1925).  Robeson’s public image only increased with his role in the stage musical Show Boat, having popularized the song  “Ol’ Man River”.  In 1930, Robeson returned to race films, making the avant-garde silent film Borderline with the Pool Group, a trio of liberal artists from Switzerland. A misguided attempt at combining experimentalism, psychology, and a thin story, Borderline is also a race film that hardly features its black actors. This is only partially alleviated by the Pool Group’s sideways critique of their own freed politics- Robeson’s character is allowed to stay in a liberal guesthouse for most of the film, but is kicked out after enough social pressure.

20140130154740cc-robeson-theemperorjones

220px-the_emperor_jones_281933_film29In 1933, Robeson headlined his first major project, what would prove to be the most controversial race film of the 30s, coinciding with his ideological awakening and embrace of pan-Africanism and communism. The film, Emperor Jones, was an adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill play of the same name, and Robeson had previously portrayed the title role on the stage in 1924, kick-starting his career; its plot, about a superhumanly ambitious black man who becomes the emperor of a small Caribbean island, was provocative even on as relatively liberal a stage as Broadway. The project was spearheaded by Dudley Murphy, a self-induced hermit of the Hollywood system and pioneer of experimental filmmaking and early incarnations of music video, and funded by private investors rather than studio. DuBose Heyward, a white writer known for creating sympathetic, if stock portrayals of African-Americans (including his 1927 play Porgy), was hired to reconstruct O’Neill’s play, by large an extended monologue, into something befitting the screen; he shares with O’Neill a talent for imbuing stereotypically black pidgin with musicality, and the transition from his screenplay to an O’Neill derived climax is mostly seamless.

Emperor JonesThe film is notable and commendable for targeting a wider audience than the African-American community, and playing with expectations of that wider audience. The film starts with a bold dissolve from an African tribal ritual to a meeting at a Baptist church, and frequently uses  the word “nigger” (to a degree that moves far beyond justifiable). While interference from censors and Heyward’s reconception of the play muted the extent to which the character was explicitly metaphoric, Jones remains a monolithic embodiment of white America’s fears regarding the upward mobility of black men (made clear in his initial career as a Pullman porter)- sociopathically ambitious, authoritative and brazenly sexual, an undefinable force of nature whose every mood, as superbly played by Robeson, feels like an earthquake. Robeson appears shirtless multiple times in the film, rare for even white actors of the time but emphasizing white perception of black virility. His uneasy relationship with the audience is further emphasized by Murphy’s camera, which films Robeson from low angles in the style of a horror villain. Jones was also the first film to credit a black actor above a white actor, which could be viewed as a further provocation.

Jones‘ distribution by United Artists proved to be as tumultuous as could be expected. While Harlem and the notoriety of the play ensured that New York theaters were sold out, the film’s expansion across the country was fraught with censorship, as theaters edited perceived offenses, and tragedy, as upticks in lynching occurred throughout the South on opening weekend. (Jones‘s restored form is about four minutes short of the original.) The film’s reputation was further diminished by Robeson’s blacklisting in the 1950s, which extended to suppression of his work; it is now mostly unknown to the American public, in spite of its importance as a piece of iconoclast art.

After Jones, Robeson attempted to further connect with his heritage by starring in films as native Africans, to varied success; while all of the films endorse the stereotype of the noble savage to some degree, the first, Sanders of the River (1934), became grossly colonialist due to studio pressure, turning the actor against the Hollywood system for good. Robeson thereafter worked on British race films until swearing off film altogether in 1943, starred in plays, and acted as a propagandist for civil rights and the Soviet Union.

paul-robeson

Check back next time for thoughts on the two most famous black musicals Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, both from 1943.

Race Films Spotlight: Hallelujah (1929)

The dark truth of cinema, the truest American art form outside of television, is that it was founded as entertainment for the white norm. Whiteness is seen as a given and a status quo of early cinema, while any other race, especially black, is seen as useful only as entertainment. There was a need (and there remains a need) for an antecedent to a starkly monocultural screen, which was for a time filled by a brave few independent filmmakers. Their films, a hodgepodge of melodramas, genre pictures, and the unclassifiable, were at the time characterized as a single genre- “race films”.

~ Race Films Spotlight: Prehistory, Oscar Micheaux, and Body and Soul (1925) ~ Race Films Spotlight: 1920s Oddballs ~ Race Films Spotlight: Hallelujah (1929) ~ Race Films Spotlight: Paul Robeson and Emperor Jones (1933) ~ Race Films Spotlight: 1943’s Black Musicals

With the dawn of sound, mainstream Hollywood was still uninterested in making race films, lest it lose the bigot dollar; fortune would change with the repeated efforts of King Vidor, one of the era’s most successful directors, to mount a “personal project”, one that recalled his roots in the South- an African-American musical project, inspired by his childhood observation of black spirituals. While Vidor convinced the company to mount an all-black production based on the success of black-led Broadway shows at the box office, he did so at losses of varying degree- he had to invest his salary in the film, and emphasize the “sexual deviance” of African-Americans, so as to not alienate white audiences.

Hallelujah! (1929), in all its initial eagerness to show, in Vidor’s words, “the Southern 220px-hallellujahNegro as he is”, by and large sees blackness as an aesthetic and a vehicle for entertainment; its first twenty minutes almost feel like a walking tour of happy stereotypes in Stephen Foster land, sharecroppers literally singing “Swanee River” as they pick cotton, mammies and pickaninnys flaunting spunk and tune. Once the film moves to big city and into the clubs, however, it takes a turn into giddy entertainment, partly because of the introduction of then sixteen year-old Nina Mae McKinney as a hustling pool hall girl. These scenes are also an invaluable portrait of a hardly-seen “missing link” in the history of classic jazz, portraying jazz in its relative infancy.

hallelujah
Still from Hallelujah! (1929)

Hallelujah! becomes its most powerful when the religious and sexual aspects of the picture collide in an orgastic spiritual revival, unexpectedly turning the film into a powerful examination of the relationship between fundamentalist religion and sexual hysteria, and thus a more specific film than Vidor’s original intentions. Few moments in film are as shocking as when Daniel Haynes, as a preacher who has turned to God to keep himself from the dangers sex, falls into the religious mosh pit below him, entranced by McKinney’s physical reaction to her repentance. Thereafter, Hallelujah! only turns darker, as the results of Haynes’ decisions leads him to a pitiless point of no return in the swamps of Tennessee. Of course, the film allows him a return to Stephen Foster land, a return he and the audience don’t truly deserve, but a release from the darkest depths of human nature is at least appreciated. Maybe just the image of Haynes on the top of a train car, playing a banjo as thunder rolls would have sufficed for those in want of a more bittersweet coda.

The first Hollywood film to feature an all black cast is a complicated and often contradictory work, in ways sometimes indicative of the state of race in film as a whole. Check back soon for continued explorations of race films, as Paul Robeson dominates a shaky decade for the genre.Hallelujah

Race Film Spotlight: 1920s Oddballs

The dark truth of cinema, the truest American art form outside of television, is that it was founded as entertainment for the white norm. Whiteness is seen as a given and a status quo of early cinema, while any other race, especially black, is seen as useful only as entertainment. There was a need (and there remains a need) for an antecedent to a starkly monocultural screen, which was for a time filled by a brave few independent filmmakers. Their films, a hodgepodge of melodramas, genre pictures, and the unclassifiable, were at the time characterized as a single genre- “race films”.

~ Race Films Spotlight: Prehistory, Oscar Micheaux, and Body and Soul (1925) ~ Race Films Spotlight: 1920s Oddballs ~ Race Films Spotlight: Hallelujah (1929) ~ Race Films Spotlight: Paul Robeson and Emperor Jones (1933) ~ Race Films Spotlight: 1943’s Black Musicals

The Flying Ace 1
The Flying Ace (1926)

Around the same time as Micheaux Film and Book Company, another producer, the white Richard Norman, entered the race film game, seeing an untapped audience niche and hoping to reconcile race relations of the time. At the opposite end of the race film spectrum to Micheaux’s “educational films” was Norman’s The Flying Ace (1926), an attempt at pure entertainment riding on the coattails of the latest Hollywood craze- airplane flicks. Lightly notorious for not taking place during World War I, nor featuring an actual flight sequence, Ace is really a stodgy, wafer-thin detective mystery, but once freed to stage fight scenes and attempt flying practical effects, executed with earnestness to the point of endearment. The most obviously entertaining portions of the

The Flying Ace 2
Steve “Peg” Reynolds in the Flying Ace (1926)

film star Steve “Peg” Reynolds as his namesake, the Flying Ace / Railroad Detective’s one-legged sidekick, who manages to steal the film entirely out of the utility for his crutch as a prop- Peg plays his crutch like a banjo, inserts a long-barreled gun into a secret compartment in his crutch whilst saying “I’ve had enough of this hocus pocus”, uses his crutch to peddle a bicycle whilst using the gun-crutch to shoot at bad guys, and finally apprehends the crooks by using his crutch like a scarecrow. Beyond amusement, these scenes are a reminder that independent cinema created venues of expression for other minorities besides African-Americans.

Image result for the scar of shame 1927A third production company, The Colored Players Production Company, entered the fray in 1926, founded on the principle of racial cooperation by white producer Will Starkman and black vaudevillian Sherman Dudley. “Players” were all black; the crews were white, while the production teams were integrated. Films made by the company stayed close to Micheaux’s precedent, making melodramas about issues of race, but employed higher production values and classically trained actors to distinguish itself from the competition (a decision that ultimately harmed the company). Its last and most notable film, Scar of Shame (1920), is a far more attractive film than any of Micheaux’s, but also a more impersonal one, with intertitles that read as if written by a bleeding-heart tin man. (A choice example, spoken by a character after stopping a near-beating: “This is another instance of the injustices some of the women of our race are constantly subjected to, mainly through lack of knowledge of the higher aims in life.”) An attempt at tackling social stratification and misogyny among African-Americans with its own strains of classism and misogyny, Shame is also among the least involving race films of its era.

A silent race film that could makes no claims for blandness was Eleven P.M. (c.1928), by Richard Maurice. Little is known about Maurice; he founded a production company, the Eleven P.M. 1Maurice Film Company, in 1920, proceeded to make a lost film called God’s Children, then disappeared from the public eye until the release of P.M. The film, on the short list of the most bizarre silents ever made, takes place within the dream of a writer, who is attempting to write a story about man’s ability to transmogrify into an animal; thereafter, the plot can hardly be explained, beyond an addendum regarding the constantly variable ages and net worth of the characters, and a further addendum regarding the sheer strangeness of its ending. The film is deeply incomprehensible and thus deeply unpleasant, but has attracted a cult following for the

Eleven P.M. 2
Still from Eleven P.M. (c.1928) of Richard Maurice, the film’s director and star

same, and for its limited but enthusiastic use of unusual angles, cuts and special effects. Whatever it is, P.M. is a presence.

Check back next time for analysis of Hallelujah (1929), the first studio-produced race film.

Race Film Spotlight: Prehistory, Oscar Micheaux and Body and Soul (1925)

The dark truth of cinema, the truest American art form outside of television, is that it was founded as entertainment for the white norm. Whiteness is seen as a given and a status quo of early cinema, while any other race, especially black, is seen as useful only as entertainment. There was a need (and there remains a need) for an antecedent to a starkly monocultural screen, which was for a time filled by a brave few independent filmmakers. Their films, a hodgepodge of melodramas, genre pictures, and the unclassifiable, were at the time characterized as a single genre- “race films”.

~ Race Films Spotlight: Prehistory, Oscar Micheaux, and Body and Soul (1925) ~ Race Films Spotlight: 1920s Oddballs ~ Race Films Spotlight: Hallelujah (1929) ~ Race Films Spotlight: Paul Robeson and Emperor Jones (1933) ~ Race Films Spotlight: 1943’s Black Musicals

Noble Johnson
Noble Johnson

The first producer of films for African-American audiences was the Image result for the realization of a negro's ambitionLincoln Motion Picture Company, founded by Noble Johnson; a handsome, 6’2, light-skinned entrepreneur and character actor known for playing ethnically and racially ambiguous characters on the big screen. All of five films made by the unprosperous and thus short-lived production company, commonly cited as originators of the “race film” genre, are now lost; the first of these films, by virtue the first feature by a black production company, is aptly called The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition

In spite of its brief appearance on the filmmaking stage,

Image result for the homesteader 1919
Oscar Micheaux, c. 1919

the Lincoln Company established a legacy simply by existing, trail-blazing for later and more successful film producers. One of the projects the Lincoln Company had courted before it folded was an adaptation of The Homesteader, an autobiographical book by the independently published Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux, a self-made man and an acolyte of Booker T. Washington, broke off discussions over disputes as to the extent of his involvement in the film’s production. Still inspired by this new frontier of black expression, and in an extension of his ferocious dedication to self-sufficiency, he decided to make The Homesteader under his own production company and become a maker of “educational” films about race issues, targeted at his own black middle class. In an inspired appropriation of the presiding class’s wealth, Micheaux funded his all-black Micheaux Film and Book Company by coercing the investments of white businessmen he had met in any early career as a Pullman porter.

Image result for within our gates
Evelyn Preer, the “First Lady of Black Cinema”, and one of Micheaux’s frequent collaborators, in Within Our Gates (1920)

Only three of Micheaux’s films from the silent era survive. The first, Within Our Gates (1920), is considered to be the earliest surviving feature by an African-American director. The film was pragmatically produced, employing borrowed props, costumes, and sets, without any reshoots. The result is a surfeit of listless subplots, and occasionally borders on incoherent, but remains valuable from a historical perspective, for its avoidance of negative black stereotypes, its depiction of the divide between Northern and Southern blacks, even for its demonstrative prejudices against darker-skinned African-Americans and separatism. The final minutes, intercutting a mass lynching and an Oedipal rape attempt to appropriately nauseating effect, feature some of the most shocking images of the early screen.

Micheaux thereafter became a prolific director, making a still-surviving satire of the Ku Klux Klan, Symbol of the Unconquered, in the same year as Gates, and several intriguing lost films- his two adaptations of novels by black author Charles Chesnutt, and his parody of pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey, Marcus Garland (1925).  His most fascinating surviving silent, Body and Soul (1925), a scathing critique of blind trust in religion, is not

Body and Soul
Sequence from Body and Soul (1925)

coincidentally his most linear and coherent. (By default- there’s still a confusingly established and barely onscreen twin brother for the film’s villain). The only one of his films to retain its original intertitles, Soul possesses the touch of an inadvertent auteur- in Micheaux’s propensity for casting the cream of flexible-faced character actors for his criminal types, in a title card announcing two enormously hatted old women as “Sis Caline and Sis Lucy, District Grand Matron of the ‘Household of Ruth’”, in the stylish implication-by-necessity brought to a rape scene in order to appease censors. To further elevate its status, Soul is the feature debut of singer and stage performer Paul Robeson, playing a false preacher; charismatic even without his distinctively robust voice, Robeson would go on to become the most popular black actor of the 1930s, and a major civil rights leader of the 1940s and 50s. The film might qualify as the best of the independent race films, were it not for a cowardly twist ending that takes much of the air out of its bolder elements.

Micheaux’s career in the 1930s, and by extension the entire race film movement, would be hurt by the introduction of sound to the screen. His lack of technical prowess and employment of unprofessional actors was easily cloaked by silence; in this new era, poor photography, fluctuating sound quality and community-theater self-consciousness render his films borderline unwatchable. Micheauxs of the 1930s and 1940s were reviled by critics, even as they tackled the same ambitious themes with typical fearlessness. His fortieth and final film, The Betrayal (1948) was met with negative reviews from mainstream and black presses; the director would die three years later. His gravestone fittingly reads: “A man ahead of his time”.

Micheaux

Check back next time for insight on some of the more outlying race films of the 1920s.