Archive for Paul Robeson

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?

Quartermain and the Pit

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 11, 2017 by dcairns

Maybe the 1937 KING SOLOMON’S MINES is the best?

I do have a story from the 1950 version, though, courtesy of my late friend and spy in the pages of film history, Lawrie Knight. He reports that one morning, Stewart Granger was nowhere to be found on the African location. He had heard lions roaring in the night, from his tent, and jumped on the first flight back to Merrie and Lion-Free England. That is all.

The ’37 one is in part a vehicle for Paul Robeson, which means its inherent colonial racism gets softened somewhat. Also, it has more singing than any other version — no bad thing. It’s also, just as significantly, a vehicle for Roland Young, whose comedy mutterings deflate a lot of the would-be grandeur and again soften any hint of white supremacy. You just can’t make a case for that kind of beastliness if one of your prime exhibits of pallid masculinity is the daffy, tight-lipped Young.

   

The charm offensive is enhanced by the director’s lovely wife Anna Lee, doing what she fondly imagines is an Irish accent, and then there’s John Loder who’s inoffensive here, acting as a kind of foam wadding between the more charismatic players, and then there’s Cedric Hardwicke as Allan Quartermain, a surprising choice when you compare him to Granger or Richard Chamberlain or even Sean Connery, but quite an effective one — he has more authority than all of them, and manages to ACT the necessary ruggedness. You believe he could be a great white hunter, or possibly a gray-white hunter.

It’s interesting that director Robert Stevenson, at the far end of his long career, would wind up tackling similar boy’s-own nonsense in Disney’s ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD. And there’s a trick to this one — the impressive African locales were all shot with stand-ins by co-director Geoffrey Barkas, with the expensive cast nowhere to be seen. The only bush they went near was Shepherd’s Bush. The footage is nimbly cut together with Stevenson’s English material (studio and exterior, usually low-angles to conceal the lack of dark continent vistas) and the illusion is almost perfect — the fact that you CAN see through it just provides an amusing tickle of subconscious entertainment running parallel to the plot and character business.

The later Disney film is similarly discombobulated, but much worse, for there the two kinds of footage try to join hands through the medium of rear-screen photography, so we have poor Donald Sinden jogging on the spot in front of process shots of Norwegian lava. (I can’t recall for sure, not having seen this film since I was ten, but I strongly suspect the lava was of the miniature variety, too.)

We saw the movie on Talking Pictures TV and were glad of it. Regrettably, great fuzzy blobs of genital fogging descended upon it, despite the lack of genitals involved. Their targets were the bazooms of the native girls, proudly displayed during ritual dances or just standing around, “to swell a scene” as T.S. Eliot would put it. Gone are the days, it seems, when the National Geographic double standard held illimitable dominion over all — native girls in their native attire on their native land were deemed not obscene, by the BBFC it seems as well as by estimable ethnographic magazines consumed avidly in private by schoolboys.

Transplant those same girls to UK or US soil, and you’d have pornography. It struck me that in the original TV roots, there was nudity on the slave ship crossing the Atlantic, a rarity for TV but one considered justified by drama and historical and ethnographic concerns and political seriousness. But the breasts stopped at Plymouth Rock, or wherever it is slave ships dock. The abducted women were now Americans, and could not therefore be seen topless.

(Is it coincidence that the first female nude in mainstream American cinema is African-American, in Sidney Lumet’s THE PAWNBROKER? Was there a mental connection to National Geographic that made Thelma Oliver’s dusky chest easier to swallow? Of course the extreme seriousness of the film’s theme must have helped too, as the nudity of Oliver connects directly via the main character’s mental association to his memories of the Holocaust. Very un-sexy tragedies seem to be key to be overcoming prudish censorship.)

Things mumbled by Roland Young in KING SOLOMON’S MINES ~

“No reason for being insanitary, even in Africa.”

“Mn, ah, mm, steady, mm, naaah…”

“My only toothbrush is in that wagon.”

“And what’s left of my trousers.”

“Mnyep.”

“Owh. Owwwhh.”

“Mnm.”

“I suppose we’re going to have melons today? Don’t the birds in this country ever lay eggs?”

“Seem to be a lot of people about, for an uninhabited country.”

“So unlike the home life of our dear queen.”

“Funny to think it’s Derby Day back home.”

Of a hundred-year-old witch doctor: “Would you say that she was… well-preserved?

Also: “Reminds me of my poor old Aunt Hannah… she came to no good.”

“It is too bad that just when we get to a fortune in diamonds, the mountain should decide to sit down on it.”

Also, on espying vultures circling, Young asks of Robeson, “What are those birds?”

“Aasvogel.”

“Must be, to live in a place like this.”

Considerable wits were involved in the screenplay — Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett, and humorist Roland Pertwee.

The South African locations and Alfred Junge sets are augmented by nifty model shots — this scene looks very LORD OF THE RINGS, and minutes later we will realise that Tolkein’s Mount Doom has a lot in common with Rider Haggard’s subterranean realm, at least as visualised here — a secret tunnel opens out onto an underground lake of lava, complete with your basic Dramatic Overhanging Precipice. Throw in an ancient treasure and The Hobbit is prefigured also… This movie came out the same year as Tolkein’s first book, so it’s unlikely to have been a direct influence, but if young John Ronald Reuel had decided to celebrate publication by taking his best girl on a hot date to see the latest Cedric Hardwicke flick, he would certainly have looked upon these scenes and said, “This is just the sort of shit I like!”