BluRay/DVD Reviews

PAUL ROBESON ON DVD

By • Feb 13th, 2007 •

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PAUL ROBESON: PORTRAITS OF THE ARTIST
(Criterion)

4-disc collection including 7 feature films, 5 documentaries, 2 commentary tracks, 1 radio interview from 1958, and 1 booklet of essays.

BODY AND SOUL – 1925. 79 Mins. Silent w/ Jazz score. Dir. Oscar Micheaux.
BORDERLINE – 1930. 75 mins. Silent w/ Jazz score. Dir. Kenneth MacPherson.
THE EMPEROR JONES – 1933. 76 mins. Dir. Dudley Murphy.
SANDERS OF THE RIVER – 1935. 87 mins. Dir. Zoltan Korda.
JERICHO – 1937. 75 mins. Dir. Thornton Freeland.
THE PROUD VALLEY – 1940. 77 mins. Dir. Pen Tennyson.
NATIVE LAND – 1942. 88 mins. Dir Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand.

For Black History Month, Criterion has done all humanity a favor, not just African Americans, by compiling much of the work of one of the 20th Century’s most fascinating film and stage personalities. They’ve split Robeson’s work into categories – “Pioneer’, ‘Outsider’, ‘Icon’ and “Citizen of the World”, an approach that seemed arbitrary for me. Also, the progressively darker covers on the DVD sheaths inside the box made me keenly aware that my eyesight isn’t what it used to be. The ‘Pioneer’ sheath, in particular, was impossible to read in my living room, which is painted dark blue to keep light from bouncing around during screenings. I had to go into the bathroom to make out the writing. Otherwise, it’s a hell of a package. The films vary in quality – both in terms of aesthetics and presentation – but taken as a whole, it probably must be owned.

BODY AND SOUL is a solid silent drama, steeped in the black urban life of the era, although disparaging images of an Episcopal minister – Played by Robeson – were not appreciated at the time by many in the black community. Perhaps only 10% of writer/producer/director Oscar Micheaux’s work has been preserved. Fortunately this is one.

Considering that this was his debut film performance, I liked Robeson quite a lot. Granted how important his voice was to his persona, I nonetheless find his acting style more suited to the art of silent film than to the talkies, where he was often a little too broad for the reality being created around him. According to commentator Pearl Bowser, Julia Theresa Russell, the put-upon damsel in the drama, was chosen in a casting contest and had never acted before. Narrow in range, she is nonetheless effectively demure and believable in her pivotal role.. A rape scene involving Russell and Robeson, though mainly implied, still communicates how powerful it must have been to 20s audiences.

Shot in New York, New Jersey, and Georgia, the Atlanta street scenes are beautiful documents in themselves. And the musical score by Wycliffe Gordon features not only instrumental compositions but vocal pieces as well. The restoration by George Eastman House is exemplary.

BORDERLINE comes as a surprise, though not as a treat. It’s reputed to be about inter-racial strife, and I suspected that it might have been, but I never saw any hard evidence of it. There were a few racist inter-titles, but they never tied in with the fragmented, experimental narrative. Mightily influenced by Eisenstein montage, screenwriter/producer/director Kenneth MacPherson does create some powerful editorial rhythms, and some striking counter-angles. And Robeson poses wonderfully – some of those frames could be blown up to create a photo exhibit of the artist circa 1930. Being a silent film, substantially after the ‘talkies’ had eradicated the earlier art, this film is self-consciously experimental if only for having skirted sound. It may not be something a collector would buy as a stand-alone disc, but in this comprehensive collection, it’s a worthy curiosity.

A recent jazz score by Courtney Pine accompanies the film, and its avant-garde riffs always enhance the viewing experience.

THE EMPEROR JONES, an independent film released originally (in 1933) by Charlie Chaplin’s company – United Artists – had a tough time of it both during production, and later, in its so-called release. Robeson’s was the first leading role for a black actor in a main-stream American film (his starring role was insisted on by playwright Eugene O’Neill), but the actor, who had already moved to England as a reaction to the stifling atmosphere of racist cultural opposition to his development in the US, refused to do it unless it were filmed above the Mason-Dixon line. Despite that impressive display of bargaining power, he still couldn’t prevent actress Fredi Washington, who played opposite him in the film, and with whom he apparently carried on a long-term affair, from having to wear black-face makeup, because the producers feared she appeared too white in the rushes.

Robeson saw the value of O’Neill’s play in its depiction of the black man standing up against the white power structure, even if the flawed character of Brutus Jones (based on a former Haitian President) eventually goes mad because he has absorbed the wrong lesson from the whites – the ability of the colonialists to subjugate people through power – which proves his undoing. The actor was entirely in favor of the use of the word “nigger,” feeling, I imagine, that it was more effective as an anti-racist weapon then when it was pre-empted by a euphemism. (The actor who had originated the role on stage years earlier, Charles Gilpin, was offended by the word and wouldn’t agree to it’s being used.) The prints of the film shown in black movie theaters had the word deleted, and then, even despite the deletion of the word, the film was condemned by the United Negro Improvement Association.

After all the cuts EMPEROR endured to make it palatable to both races, it ended up emasculated of even its raw shock value until the recent Library of Congress/National Films Preservation Foundation restoration, which isn’t complete, but includes some of the black/white confrontations that are still remarkably bold today, and make the film a powerful viewing experience.

Jeffrey Stewart, Professor of History at George Mason University, handles the commentary, and there’s plenty of info to share with us. Judging by the film alone, I found this play bewilderingly weak for O’Neill, until Stewart informed us that director Dudley Murphy and screenwriter DuBose Heyward restructured the narrative from the playwright’s flashback form to a chronological telling of Jones’ rise and fall (a half hour of back story was not even from the O’Neill play – therefore only 45 minutes were his, which invalidated any judgment I might have made about the work as being representative of O’Neill). Also, an experimental use of drumbeats – carried through the entire live performance of the play, intensifying with Jones’ mental disintegration – was discarded in the film as a pervasive sound element. The way Robeson plays it, with the drumbeats not appearing until the third act, his descent into madness feels both forced and rushed. The decision to tint the prints blue during his degeneration helps a little, but can’t overcome the narrative illogic.

Cinematographer Ernest Haller gives the film a creamy nitrate look and beautiful compositions, consistently the finest aspect of the production. Also compelling are interesting glimpses into urban black nightclub life (and rare appearances by ‘Moms’ Mabley and a very young Harold Nicholas – both uncredited).

SANDERS OF THE RIVER followed THE EMPEROR JONES. “Oh, the horror…” It originally was to be a Hitchcock project called WINGS OF THE JUNGLE. Can you imagine?

Where EMPEROR is aggressive and shocking, SANDERS is just outrageous. You might call it ‘camp’ before its time, ‘politically incorrect’ way before it’s time, and a wonderfully bizarre gem to show to initiates, which will almost unfailingly get the kinds of reactions REEFER MADNESS evokes. To see Robeson standing in front of poorly rear-screened images of authentic native documentary footage, singing lyrics in English like“Smash!… smite!… slash!… fight!…” is a monument to bad taste (true, his character comes from Liberia, where English is spoken, but it isn’t spoken by the tribe he’s supposedly leading into battle).

Another run of lyrics, celebrating the eponymous character (a caricature of the paternal, colonial Brit) goes “Sandy (native abbreviation for ‘Sanders’) the strong, Sandy the wise, righter of wrong, hater of lies!” When Leslie Banks, as Sanders, imperially lectures a line-up of ashamed tribal chiefs about breaking the law, it conjures up Charles Laughton from ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, talking to the animal-people (“What is the Law…?!”). Late in the film, as Sanders heads back to Africa to stop an uprising, and his single-engine plane flies low over the wildlife of Africa as they race madly beneath him, we’re reminded of the Fuhrer’s plane flying over Nuremburg and rousing the populace in TRIUMPH OF THE WILL.

And all this came from Alexander Korda, who had taste. It was co-scripted by Lajos Biro (THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, REMBRANDT), co-shot by Georges Perinal (THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, THE FOUR FEATHERS), and edited by Charles Crichton (THE LAVENDER HILL MOB, A FISH CALLED WANDA). And it was the second biggest budgeted British film at the time. How could a guy like Robeson, a Columbia law graduate who spoke twenty languages, get duped into such a project? A half-hour doc on the same disc – TRUE PIONEER: THE BRITISH FILMS OF PAUL ROBESON – hosted by Ian Christie, Stephen Bourne (who refers to the film as the UK’s BIRTH OF A NATION), and Paul Robeson Jr., does a decent job explaining how the project careened away from its initial goals and into dreadfulness. Robeson quickly disowned it (leaving the theater during the premiere but being persuaded to return), but it remains a genuine curiosity, probably belonging on a list with Howard Hughes’ THE CONQUERER, the musical remake of SHANGRI-LA, XANADU, MACKENNA’S GOLD, etc: in other words, the worst films of all time. Hence, it is invaluable.

I discovered SANDERS in 1970, while in post-production on THE PROJECTIONIST. It was on a metal shelf in the back of Charlie Diana’s negative cutting facility on the 12th floor of the Film Center Building at 630 9th Avenue. It was a 16mm print, I took it home to screen and, not believing my eyes (and ears), quickly arranged to show it to Harry Hurwitz, THE PROJECTIONIST’s director. He roared with disbelief. It became an instant classic, which we both brought up in conversation countless times as a film that had to be seen to be believed. I think Criterion isn’t playing both EMPEROR and SANDERS up for their full value, though that would be tricky to do. More useful for reviewers to discover them and spread the word. They are really…spectacular.
Unfortunately, for the first ten minutes, vertical lines litter the print like black rain; after that it clears up. Criterion makes it quite clear in the back of the enclosed booklet how hard they labored to find the best materials and then to present them in the best condition. But vertical black lines are still an insurmountable problem for today’s digital cleanup programs. Maybe one of these days they’ll find the solution.

Then there are the more successful, more serious films, even if they are less in-your-face. JERICHO and THE PROUD VALLEY are strong efforts, which are indeed ‘about something’ (pacifism and emancipation in the former, inter-racial harmony and labor-management relations in the latter). In JERICHO, made in ’37, Robeson had enormous control, and it shows. Oddly mirror-imaging EMPEROR JONES, he plays a WWI African-American corporal for whom a heroic act ironically makes him a victim of military rules-over-humanity, and sure to be sent to prison, if not executed. He is forced to escape, fleeing to the African desert (filmed in Egypt) where his pre-army medical education earns him the position of tribal leader. Unlike the megalomaniacal Jones, Jericho is benign, a warm leader, ready to lead his men into battle, or to negotiate a truce between the desert tribes. Sadly, his former military captain, played by Henry Wilcoxon (three years after starring in DeMille’s CLEOPATRA, and two years after THE CRUSADES) gets sent to prison because of Jericho’s escape, and stews in a cell for five years, aching to find him and bring him back to justice, and to exonerate himself.

Robeson sings, of course, several times, but it doesn’t get in the way. Everything just seems to gel better here. He does one of the songs – ‘My Way’ (not to be confused with the Sinatra version) – twice, and it’s a really good song. The film moves quickly, with lots of pleasing detail, evolving its mise en scene with never a dull moment, from disaster below-decks after a torpedo attack, to a sea escape, and later, a brilliantly strategized counter-attack on a marauding pack of desert raiders. Along the way he meets a lovely local named (for real!) Princess Kouka, who has the most wonderful way of delivering her lines. Apparently she had something of a career after JERICHO, but in films I’ve never seen.

Wallace Ford provides foolish comic relief, but somehow, and I don’t quite know how, it fails to derail the reality of the narrative any more than Robeson’s singing. Perhaps that’s because of the radical nature of a white man playing comic relief to a black man for a change. And as if to drive that point home, when Ford races two lambs for fun, Robeson refers to the one with the white patch on its forehead as ‘Whitey’, whereas Ford later, when alone, calls it ‘Junior’. I found all this good-naturedly pointed (Ford is not as painful as, say, Stepin Fetchit was in his comic relief roles, though his antics do wear a bit thin), and historically it’s rather amazing.
Robeson delivers a modulated and rarely caricatured performance, full of shading, and emotionally satisfying. I imagine director Thornton Freeland deserves some credit here. Certainly not an auteur, though entirely competent, he’d previously directed WHOOPEE! with Eddie Cantor, and FLYING DOWN TO RIO with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Sometime during act two, a documentary crew asks to cover the tribes’ trek across the desert to harvest salt, and Jericho okay’s their request. The resulting footage is astoundingly ethnographic; even a narration added to the footage in a movie theater several scenes later feels uncannily like the real thing.

The print quality is not great. Everything from soft focus, to bands of slight white scratches on the right side of the image for a while, to other imperfections of time and wear, dog the print for the duration. But they don’t kill the experience. In balance, this is a wonderful film.

In the case of PROUD VALLEY, we have a tight little British flick that deals with social issues – not mainly issues of race, although there’s inevitably a bit of that. Its focus is coal-mining, the economic consequences a town endures when a gas fire forces their mine’s closure, and the encroaching World War’s paradoxical good fortune for their community since, with a sudden need for more fuel, the chances of re-opening the mine seem more reasonable.

Robeson is, almost as always, the strong, likeable outsider who is fairly quickly accepted by his Caucasian mates, and he performs heroically during a thrilling mine explosion and cave-in.

The film reflected his socialist ideas. Its portrayal of the exploitation of Welsh mining towns, where it was filmed, used many real miners as cast members. WWII broke out in Europe during filming, and Robeson stayed to finish the film, then returned to the US, helping to advance the civil rights movement.

Four documentaries give overviews of Robeson’s life and careers. The first, TRIBUTE TO AN ARTIST: PAUL ROBESON, narrated by Sidney Poitier, is important for its archival footage, including interviews with Robeson (amazingly, one is in his Othello makeup), concert footage, and newsreel coverage of a riot in Peekskill, NY, following one of his concerts. The mutating lyrics of “Ol’ Man River’ as his politics evolved is an enlightening through-line, providing insight into his civil and personal struggles and development. TRIBUTE was directed by Saul Turell, a former owner of Janus Films, whose home video wing is The Criterion Collection.

TRUE PIONEER: THE BRITISH FILMS OF PAUL ROBESON (’07 – mentioned earlier) is hosted by historians Ian Christie and Stephen Bourne, and Paul Robeson Jr. They explain that leaving the US in ’28 and settling in the UK gave Robeson more cultural as well as cinematic freedom. In addition, he developed friendships with people like George Bernard Shaw, and was also better able to explore his African roots. The doc includes clips from the three films not included in this collection: SONG OF FREEDOM, BIG FELLA, and KING SOLOMON’S MINES.

The third and fourth docs, OUR PAUL: REMEMBERING PAUL ROBESON (19 mins), and ROBESON ON ROBESON (11mins.), made last year, contain even more shading on Robeson’s life, as well as memories and feelings from James Earl Jones, William Greaves, Ruby Dee, and Robeson Jr. Jones’ father apparently was Robeson’s protégé, and you can feel James Earl Jones in Robeson’s delivery from time to time in most of the Criterion collection…or should I more appropriately be saying there’s a lot of Robeson in James Earl Jones…

The 76-page booklet that is enclosed in the box contains a collection of beautifully written essays by such people as Director Charles Burnett, Clement Alexander Price, and Robeson himself. Ian Christie’s essay, in particular, illuminates the period of experimentalism that allowed a film like BORDERLAND to be created.

PAUL ROBESON COLLECTION (Kino Video)
SONG OF FREEDOM – 1936. 80 mins. Dir. J. Elder Wills
BIG FELLA – 1937. 73 mins. Dir. J. Elder Wills

In SONG OF FREEDOM, Robeson plays a singing-dock-worker-turned-professional-singer, so the first half of the film is packed with songs, including, at one point, the third act of THE EMPEROR JONES (referred to as ‘The Black Emperor) condensed into a musical number. Having achieved fame and fortune, he sets out to find his African roots, and in doing so, discovers that one should be careful what one wishes for.
The first half is solid, and Robeson acts pleasingly and believably. The narrative during this half stresses positive interracial labor relations, something Robeson campaigned for. The working class comradeship is given more weight than its interracial aspect, though the motif of the outsider being accepted into a tolerant society is never far from the heart of his film projects.
However, the films second half, as Robeson returns to Africa and blends in poorly with his tribe, is full of troubling caricatures and also wobbles dramatically. The film’s warmth and durability is in its British sequences.

BIG FELLA, Robeson’s other film with director J. Elder Wills, is possibly his least successful, since it lacks even the camp value of SANDERS OF THE DESERT. It has been compared to Chaplin’s THE KID, but I know THE KID, and this is no THE KID. Not only are Robeson and his acting cohorts uncomfortable and often silly, but the kid, once he enters the scene, is irritating. The virtue of the film for me was seeing Robeson’s wife, Eslanda, in a supporting role. I believe it’s her first speaking part in one of his films (she co-starred in the silent BORDERLAND). The story is set in Marseilles, and the second unit shots are nice, but as soon as the film shifts to a set, it becomes too confined, moreover the cramped sets are used redundantly. The way the songs are built into the film feel redundant as well, which is not the norm for Robeson’s vehicles. They may feel forced, or weirdly introduced, like the later dramatic films of Mario Lanza, but never redundant.

There’s another Robeson appearance on celluloid which, if you’re a completist, I imagine you must see once, though it’s only worthwhile for Charlie Chaplin’s recreation of the roll-dance from THE GOLD RUSH without wearing his makeup or tramp outfit. This is an amateur film called CAMILLE, running 33 unbearable minutes, without music, included as a supplement on the A WOMAN OF PARIS/A KING IN NEW YORK double disc set from the Warner Bros Chaplin DVD collection. Photographed (if you can call it that) by Ralph Barton in ’26, it’s just an excuse to get an impressive collection of famous people in front of the camera, and then construct the story of Camille very loosely around them. Robeson leads off, playing Alexander Dumas fils, seen thinking and writing at his desk. Others who appear are Anita Loos (as a very cute Camille), Clarence Darrow, Sinclair Lewis, Ethel Barrymore, and dozens more, but except for Chaplin they don’t do anything of even moderate interest, and there’s no attempt at imaginative staging. What one can deduce from Robeson’s appearance is that he was already widely successful, and hung out with an impressive roster of his peers.

It would be nice if SHOWBOAT (’36) were available. Though only appearing in it briefly, Robeson acquits himself well under James (another Brit, with whom he enjoyed working) Whale’s direction, doing an elaborate version of “Old Man River”, as well as a charming duet with Hattie McDaniel. However, that extraordinary musical is still sitting in the Universal vaults. I don’t even know if it’s on the runway for near-future release.

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