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.