Here’s some of the publicity from the trailer of the original release. It really ought to be in one of those giant, dramatic, 3-D typefaces they used to use in those days:
REALISTIC! EARTHY!…it pictures in dialogue and heart-stirring song the reckless love and the gripping drama of the Southern Negro…come to the dusky cabarets….the revivals and the baptisms!
And on and on in that vein. It was re-released some years later and they made a new trailer, which is included on the DVD:
THE FINEST ALL-COLORED DRAMA EVER MADE!
Wow. Have things changed, or what? Back then there was a tiny niche for “ALL-COLORED” movies, and they were made for “ALL-COLORED” audiences. But King Vidor, one of the great early great directors, had a passion for making this one, which was designed to be seen by whites as well … and from that description (and I suspect it was the publicity department that came up with it, not Vidor), it sounds like a trip to darkest Africa to see the strange wildlife, doesn’t it?
Which, in a way, I’m sure it was for most white viewers. Previously they had only seen blacks in supporting and usually patronizing roles. But for all its faults—and make no mistake, you will cringe many times watching this—blacks had never been portrayed so sympathetically for a white audience.
I thought to myself, early on, “Damn, these Negroes sure do a lot of singing and dancing.” They sang in the fields, and they sang back at their shacks, and I’m sure they would have sung while eating tons of watermelon, but Vidor doesn’t go there. (They eat a lot of chitlins, though.) Then I realized this really was intended to be a musical,, with all the suspension of disbelief such a genre entails. Most of the music is worked into the plot, happening at times when people really would sing, but from time to time the hero, Zeke (Daniel L. Haynes) does a solo like Paul Robeson singing “Ol’ Man River.” Zeke is a sharecropper and a world-class fuckup. He loses a whole year’s cotton profits in a crooked dice game, gets his little brother killed, finds Jesus and becomes a very successful preacher … and then throws it all away again when Chick shows up. Chick (Nina Mae McKinney) is the shill who got him into the crap game in a first place, and when she wades into the river to be baptized with hundreds of others, Zeke’s eyes glaze over and he stumbles after her like Frankenstein’s monster, away from his church, his wife, his kids … jus’ cain’t resis’ dat evil woman, lawd!
Okay, it’s offensive, it’s over-acted and over-written … but take a look at Vidor’s masterpiece Our Daily Bread, which is just as goofy and operatic to our eyes. That’s just what they did back then, they were still playing to the back rows of the Vaudeville theater, and vamping for the silent camera.
So there are the usual stereotypes and unconscious racism you would expect in a film from this period, even a well-intentioned one. But the virtues of this film are many, as well. Chief among them is McKinney, who could have been Lena Horne if she’d had some better breaks. As it happened, she fled to Europe, like Josephine Baker, where they appreciated colored people. (She is actually “high yellow,” as several people in the film point out.) Her career in Hollywood was going nowhere, but in Europe she was appreciated as a singer, and was known as the Black Garbo. Also very good is some of the photography, most strikingly a chase through a swamp in the night. Amazing dramatic lighting. And don’t miss Zeke’s sermon at the outdoor revival. But all in all, for modern audiences it is mostly interesting as a period piece, something that, if it hadn’t been a “first,” would probably be forgotten.
EXTRAS: There are two two-reelers on the DVD, the first one very good. They are both directed by Roy Mack, who did 114 of these things. I was unable to determine if Mack was white or “colored.” I suspect he was white. I doubt there were any black directors around back then. They are:
“Pie, Pie Blackbird” (1932) Nina Mae is in this one. The idea is she bakes a pie, and it bursts open to reveal Eubie Blake and his band, all dressed in big floppy chef’s hats, playin’ up a storm! Not quite four-and-twenty blackbirds, but almost. The best thing here is the fabulous Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold, who just may have been the best dancers ever to appear in a Hollywood film. I’m not kidding! They didn’t have Fred Astaire’s grace, but they could do things neither he nor Gene Kelly could do. I’d seen them before as adults. Here they are much younger, and already their talent was enormous. Look them up, you won’t believe it.
“The Black Network” (1936) A trifle about a black radio station. Again, the Nicholas Brothers tear up the place … on radio! Reminded me of an old Stan Freberg skit, “The Zazaloph Family,” acrobats on the radio! “I wish you could see this, ladies and gentlemen, they’re forming a human pyramid …”