Archive for Oscar Micheaux

The Devil’s Music

Posted in FILM, Interactive, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2021 by dcairns

Oscar Micheaux’s BODY AND SOUL opened Hippfest last night and was a triumph — thanks in no small part to the jazz accompaniment by Wycliffe Gordon and his big band. It’s a movie full of skilled performances, and some good big cartoonish ones, and a curious mixture of sophisticated and naive storytelling. The score made it seem like some of the more curious choices were intentional — perhaps because he’s from Georgia himself, where the story is set, Gordon seemed really… well, phrases like “in tune” or “in sync” could seem a little corny. But he really gave the film the power of confidence, so you could definitely believe Micheaux totally knew what he was doing.

An early news article tells us that the film’s phony preacher villain (Paul Robeson, startlingly nasty) is being tracked by “Black Carl, noted Negro detective” — a character we were very excited to meet. But he never shows up. He’s like Godot. This may be because the New York censors reportedly objected so strongly to the premise of a drunken, lecherous and corrupt preacher, even a fake one, that Micheaux was forced to recut and retitle the third act making the whole central part of the film a dream. This kind of ending (see UNCLE HARRY) is usually pretty disgustin’, but it kind of plays here… Since there was a strong history of Black audiences talking back at the screen, and since the heroine’s mother, deceived by her fake pastor, spends the film in a daze, audiences would yell at her “Wake up!” So at the end, she does.

And, thanks to Gordon’s score employing vocals — a risky business in silent accompaniment, but one that pays off here — Black Carl becomes a truly defining absence, the film’s avenging conscience, spoken of in song and headline, rather than a one-line mention.

Professor Charles Musser, Micheaux scholar, and Wycliffe Gordon himself, who joined us for a virtual Q&A after the film, provided useful context. Musser questions whether the film was really recut, and may have always had its strange, oneiric structure, which he identifies as a mash-up and critique of three hit plays about “the Black soul” — The Emperor Jones, Roseanne and All God’s Chillun, all of which had starred Robeson on stage. Just as Sidney Poitier felt compelled to play noble characters because he was the only Black star, carrying the burden of representing his whole race, Robeson seems to have been horrified at what he’d done here and spent the rest of his life denying that he was ever in such a film as BODY AND SOUL.

I asked if Black Carl would have showed up had the censor not forced a revision — Musser told me, first, half-seriously, “No doubt about it. He would have carted Robeson off to the prison in the sky where he would have had to serve penance for his sins,” but added, “Oscar Micheaux’s response to the censors was that he had left out something important –the opening scenes that makes clear that Robeson is playing an escaped convict who is pretending to be a man of God. Of course, this was playing off of Chaplin’s The Pilgrim. So I am not at all sure that this “new” beginning was for the benefit of the censors. I think this was the original, intended ending. You have to decide if this was the film’s “reality.” Or if this over-the-top ending was just one more fantasy. It does bear some relation to the ending of Symbol of the Unconquered when our hero turns out to be a millionaire.”

Micheaux intercuts jaggedly, running parallel actions whenever possible: if a character leaves, we’ll likely watch them going off down the street in little snippets that bite into the scene they’ve just left. This creates an odd, staccato rhythm in bursts, and might have seemed awkward or inept, but the music found a pace that really made it work. And the anticlerical slant was fascinating — Micheaux lampoons the congregations ecstatic reactions to their fake pastor’s big sermon — those censors weren’t wrong to see this as an attack on religion, not from where I’m sitting.

It’s not too late to catch this movie at Hippfest, with its truly amazing soundtrack. Here.

I want to see more Micheaux now. A kind of outsider artist who didn’t get much support from Black critics and intelligencia. I hope when I do see WITHIN OUR GATES, it’s with Gordon’s forthcoming score, which you can hear a sample of in the Spotify playlist he put together for the screening’s afterparty. Meanwhile, are there Micheaux talkies you’d recommend?

On the Tiles

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2021 by dcairns

For his second Essanay film, Chaplin upped sticks and left Chicago to Oscar Micheaux, decamping to Niles, California and taking Ben Turpin with him. There, he encountered the uneuphoniously-named Edna Purviance who became a fixture in his films until 1922, and who he would keep under contract for years and years, and who he would attempt to turn into an independent star by having Josef Von Sternberg direct her in A WOMAN OF THE SEA, a film which he subsequently shelved for unknown reasons and then seemingly destroyed for tax purposes.

Edna was characterised by a so-called friend as “a docile creature” and we perhaps see a bit of this in Chaplin’s anecdote about hypnotizing her at a party. Having bragged that he could put anyone under the influence, he leaned in close and whispered to her, “Fake it!” A good sport, she complied, and the bond was forged.

Edna is just one of a couple of girls Charlie flirts with during his drunken debauch here. There are also a lot of men in false beards, some of which disguise the thrifty repurposing of cast members (you pay your actors by the day, not the role, so work them, damnit). The “plot” is just Charlie & Ben on the razzle, but then a farce situation develops when Edna innocently finds herself in a compromising situation (in her pajamas in Charlie’s hotel room) after trying to retrieve her dog. Mabel Normand had played this exact situation the previous year in CAUGHT IN THE RAIN. But this is a better film.

Turpin continues to be an aggressive near-equal in screen time. The knockabout teamwork is at least as good as the taut routines Chaplin had worked out with Chester Conklin, so it’s a shame BT didn’t get a later cameo the way CC did in MODERN TIMES. David Robinson describes him as “one of the best comedy partners Chaplin ever found,” while describing him as resembling a prematurely hatched bird. But a feisty one! Chaplin used faint praise: his “stooge” “seemed to know the ropes.” It’s said the two didn’t get on, with Turpin impatient with Chaplin’s methods. Still, there’s more to Turpin than strabismus: Chaplin rarely gives anyone but the leading lady a close-up, so Turpin has to depend on his considerable physical skills to get the laughs, rather than falling back on his crossed eyes (ouch).

Bud Jamison, who had also come from the Chicago branch, is an effective heavy, playing the first insanely violent headwaiter in the Chaplinverse, anticipating Eric Campbell’s terrifying brute in THE IMMIGRANT. Having him turn up later as a jealous husband is smart plotting.

The bit that actually made me laugh out loud is Charlie trying to get toothpaste on his brush, and then forgetting why he’s doing it, while paralytically drunk. I say it again — Chaplin’s father was killed by his alcoholism — and his early comedy depends disproportionately on wringing comedy from abject inebriation.

I realize this isn’t as in-depth as previous posts. But I think I’ll go back to this film for more — especially as I am shocked — shocked! — to discover that my sepia DVD version has, unlike the more pristine YouTube print, actual intertitles!