Before “Cabin in the Sky” – Early Black Films of the 1920’s

 

Believe it or not, I appreciate being corrected and kept on my toes about the facts and details of film history.

Thanks to the observant eye of one of my fabulous readers, I’m making a correction to a previous post about “Cabin in the Sky”. I labeled it as the first all black cast and musical which it was not.

 

 

To make sure of my facts, I did some digging and discovered that the first all black sound film was The Melancholy Dame (1929). An early two-reeler, it starred Evelyn Preer (known for her 1920 role of Sylvia Landry in Oscar Micheaux’s “Within Our Gates”), Roberta Hyson, Edward Thompson, and Spencer Williams.

Spencer Williams was an American actor, writer, director, and producer whose early pioneering work in African-American or “race” films was eclipsed in fame by his role as one of the title characters in the equally pioneering and also controversial 1950s sitcom The Amos ‘n Andy Show (1951). (IMDb)

Directed by Arvid E. Gillstrom, the plot of “The Melancholy Dame” involves a nightclub owner’s wife (Evelyn Preer), jealous of his attentions to his star singer, scheming to get her fired. The look on the wife’s face from the opening frame says it all!

 

I can’t believe I found a copy of the film (20 min.) on YouTube.

The first two full-length films with all black casts were “Hearts in Dixie” (1929) starring Daniel Haynes, Nina Mae McKinney, and Victoria Spivey and “Hallelujah” (1929) which starred Clarence Muse, Stepin’ Fetchit, and Mildred Washington. “Hearts in Dixie” was also the first all black-oriented all-talking film from a major company. (The Chronical History of the Negro in America)

 

“Hearts in Dixie” celebrates African-American music and dance and was released by Fox Film Corporation just months before Hallelujah, produced by competitor Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The director of Hearts in Dixie was Paul Sloane. Walter Weems wrote the screenplay, and William Fox was the producer. (Wikipedia)

“Hearts in Dixie” unfolds as a series of sketches of life among American blacks. It featured characters with dignity, who took action on their own, and who were not slaves. The plot focuses on Grandfather Nappus (Clarence Muse), his daughter, Chloe (Bernice Pilot), her young son, Chinaquapin (Eugene Jackson), and her husband, Gummy (Stepin Fetchit).

To make certain his grandson Chinaquapin does not end up like his father or become tainted by the superstitions that dominate the community, the grandfather decides to send the boy away.

 

“Hallelujah”(1929), was the first all black musical and was directed by King Vidor and produced by MGM studios. It was intended for a general audience and was considered so risky a venture by MGM that they required King Vidor to invest his own salary in the production.

Vidor expressed an interest in “showing the Southern Negro as he is”(whatever that means) and attempted to present a relatively non-stereotyped view of African-American life.

“Hallelujah!” was King Vidor’s first sound film, and combined sound recorded on location and sound recorded post-production in Hollywood. King Vidor was nominated for a Best Director Oscar for the film.

It was the first major studio musical and the first of its kind in Hollywood history. In 2008, “Hallelujah!” was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

 

Vidor thought the time was right to test the waters of racial tolerance with a tale of sex, murder, religion, and music enacted by a black cast. He also wanted to take advantage of the emerging sound technology that was revolutionizing the film industry.

ΔΔΔΔΔ

These 3 films were some of the first race talkies ever and despite the stereotypes, these films are important as they were made with black actors for black audiences (thus ‘race films’).

African Americans produced films for black audiences as early as 1905, but most race films were produced after 1915. As many as 500 race films were produced in the United States between 1915 and 1952. As happened later with the early black sitcoms on television, race movies were most often financed by white-owned companies, such as Leo Popkin, and scripted and directed by whites, although one producer, Alfred N. Sack, made some films written and directed by black talent such as Spencer Williams (actor).

 

Many race films were produced by white-owned film companies outside the Hollywood-centered American film industry such as Million Dollar Productions in the 1930s and Toddy Pictures in the 1940s. One of the earliest surviving examples of a black cast film aimed at a black audience is A Fool and His Money (1912), directed by French emigree Alice Guy for the Solax Film Company. The Ebony Film Company of Chicago, created specifically to produce black-cast films, was also headed by a white production team.

Some black-owned studios existed, including Lincoln Motion Picture Company (1916–1921), and most notably Oscar Micheaux‘s Chicago-based Micheaux Film Corporation, which operated from 1918–1940. On his posters, Micheaux advertised that his films were scripted and produced exclusively by African Americans. Astor Pictures also released several race films and produced Beware with Louis Jordan.

 

 

Race films vanished during the early 1950s after African-American participation in World War II contributed to black actors in leading roles in several Hollywood major productions, which focussed on the serious problems of integration and racism, such as Pinky with Ethel Waters; Home of the Brave with James Edwards; and Intruder in the Dust, all in 1949; and No Way Out (1950), which was the debut of the notable actor Sidney Poitier. The last known race film appears to have been an obscure adventure film of 1954 called Carib Gold. (Wikipedia)

Thanks to my original error, I ended up learning so much more about the history of black ‘race’ films and the long, rich history of African American artists.

 

 

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