Dick the First and His Eight Wives

LYDIA BAILEY — they needed to give it a dull title otherwise it would have been TOO EXCITING. The plot concerns the battle for independence in Haiti, into which Napoleon’s armies got mixed. The title character is the lovely Anne Francis, the nominal hero is Dale SON OF SINBAD Robertson who comes to get her to sign some papers to help sort out her father’s will (he’s left his fortune to the still-fragile United States), but Robertson’s mission is soon forgotten about (we never see the papers signed and I imagine he lost them around the time he jumped into the waterfall) as is Robertson, even when he’s onscreen. The star of the show is William BLACKULA Marshall in his first movie, as revolutionary warrior King Dick.

King Dick talks softly and carries a VERY big stick, and has eight wives, each a specialist in her own field — cooking, sewing, love-making, voodoo, and so on. He’s always singing the praises of polygamy — “One woman is too much, two are just about bearable, eight is ideal!” The movie, directed by Jean Negulesco in vivid colour, knows full well who the star is, and ends on a shot of King Dick rampant against a burning city.

At times it looks like the movie is going to forget about its new star and focus on beefcake breezeblock Dale Robertson, and only the delights of Anne Francis stave off ennui, but then King Dick springs up again and everything is hunky dory. He should really have had his own movie series: solving crimes; espionage; hitting things with his stick. The possibilities limited only by King Dick’s immenseness, which is to say that they are UNlimited.

Throughout all the luridness and camp excess, Negulesco keeps his camerawork relatively muted — and he was a director who certainly knew how to lunge into hysteria if required. I presume he deduced that in this case he could let the Technicolor, the unruly passions, and the general air of madness do all of that for him. He serves up the fervid antics with the nearest thing to understatement the film has to offer, apart from Marshall’s delivery, which is frequently drily drôle.

The film seems progressive not just because it has a major black character, but it also has different factions of Haitians, rather than treating them as a single unified mass. There’s the political leader, described as the nation’s George Washington, and there’s Juanita Moore, too, in a substantial yet uncredited role. 20th Century Fox’s crediting policy was obviously not as up-to-date as their storylines: Robert Evans gets a prominent cred for playing a nameless soldier, but black actors with major named characters get zip.

Maybe a decade or so later Robertson could have been left out of the movie altogether and we could have allowed chemistry between Anne Francis and Marshall (the movie tries hard to stop them ever appearing at once), which would be REALLY interesting. They’re both pretty potent.

The voodoo dance is directed by Jack Cole, who also appears, quite convincingly, in blackface (because there just aren’t any good black dancers, apparently). And the plot, less believably, has several characters smearing mud on themselves to pass as mulattos — I was waiting for Dale and Anne to dry out in the sun and start cracking and flaking.

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16 Responses to “Dick the First and His Eight Wives”

  1. La Faustin Says:

    One of the voodoo dancers was Alvin Ailey … so the pickings were not TOO thin. I like to think that Jack Cole was seized by an irresistible urge and COULDN’T HELP joining in — sort of a PRINCESSE TAMTAM moment.

  2. Very lovely, but hovering on the border between intertitle and something that hasn’t got a name. It’s masquerading as a page from some extremely fancy 19th century text book (even though the film is adapted from a 20th century historical novel). Redolent of Hollywood’s love of faux-authenticity.

    Could we call it an “intersticial text” or something? Or is that too fancy?

  3. La Faustin Says:

    I’m all for fanciness in the interstices!

    Doesn’t this remind you a tiny bit of Minnelli’s THE PIRATE? All of a sudden I got a flashback to the well-groomed feminine hand turning the parchment title pages.

  4. Yeah, The Pirate has similar exoticism and takes the final step into being a full-on musical, while Lydia Bailey hovers forever at the threshold.

    The only thing that would improve LB would be if Anne were allowed a little interplay with King Dick. Instead, Forbidden Planet is allowed to take the sexiness prize and perversity prize for its incestuous suggestions.

  5. I shouldthink that Jack Cole was seized by an irresistible urge to jump Alvin Ailey’s bones.

  6. Ah, but I’ve seen Designing Woman, therefore I KNOW that Cole was, despite appearances, a two-fisted tough guy heterosexual.

    “Proof” around 2:42!

  7. La Faustin Says:

    What a charming personality! I really, really crave a post on his appearance in DESIGNING WOMAN.

  8. La Faustin Says:

    Great minds not only think alike, they post simultaneously.

  9. Anne looks astonishingly young here. The film’s from 1952, and she was born in 1930, so I’m guessing maybe 21. I remember how shocked I was, the first time I saw BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, to see her ruthlessly killed by Robert Ryan’s character. How could he do that? She was just too cute to die.

  10. I felt the same way when she died for real. Saw her a few years back on a documentary with Robbie the Robot and she was perky as ever.

  11. Who better to play a two-fisted heterosexual than Jack Cole? And who better to direct him than Vincente Minnelli? The Heterosexual Dictatorship (Christopehr Isherwood’s ever-useful term) MUST be served. So logic and sanity be damned!

  12. Designing Woman is very weird and interesting in its use of Cole. Of course it’s great getting to see him act and dance, but WHAT is going on with his character? I guess the message is, seemingly, that appearances can be deceptive and you shouldn’t judge people by them, which is nice enough. It’s just the rendition of that message that’s very, very strange, so that one prefers to believe Cole’s character IS gay, and his unbeatable dance-fu moves are a blow against stereotyping.

  13. La Faustin Says:

    And the “wife” and two football-playing “sons” are part of some revolutionary menage.

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