Watching 1939: Midnight Shadow (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  Midnight Shadow (1939)

Release date:  May 1939 (first date referenced in newspapers)

Cast:  Frances Redd, Buck Woods, Richard Bates, Ollie Ann Robinson, Clinton Rosemond, Jesse Lee Brooks, Edward Brandon, John Criner, Pete Webster, Ruby Dandridge, Napolean Simpson

Studio:  George Randol Productions

Director:  George Randol

A traveling mind-reading performer, Prince Alihabad (Criner) courts Margaret Wilson (Redd), who lives in the quiet Oklahoma town that he is performing in. Margaret will receive land in Texas that may have oil on it when she marries. Margaret has other suitors who also want to marry her, including Buster (Brandon). When Margaret finds her father dead and the deed to the land missing, police and two amateur detectives (Bates, Woods) investigate the case.

1939 Notes:
• The only film for Frances Redd, Richard Bates, Ollie Ann Robinson,
• Laurence Criner, who is billed a John Criner in “Midnight Shadow,” was in two films released in 1939. In one film, he was billed as John and the other – “One Dark Night” – he was billed as Laurence Criner.
• Ruby Dandridge’s first credited film role.
• Edward Brandon’s last film role.

Other trivia: 
• “Midnight Shadow” is known as a “race film,” which is a film that has an all-African American cast and was released made between 1915 and 1950. These films were usually produced outside of the Hollywood studio system.
• George Randol’s second and last directorial project.
• Jess Lee Brooks is billed as Jesse Lee Brooks.
• This film is in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, as a gift of Randall and Sam Nieman.

Comedic detective team Buck Woods and Richard Bates

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
When Margaret’s father is murdered, her suiters are all murder suspects. The most obvious seems to be a Prince Alihabad, who knows Margaret is coming into some land when her father dies.

“Midnight Shadow” would be considered a “race film,” as all of the performers are black. “Race films” have all-black casts and with characters who are everyday people and not the caricatures seen in other films. But though some race films are supposed to avoid those stereotypes, many still include them (for ex: Micheaux’s “Swing”).

While “Midnight Shadow” is not exempt, it seemed to be a bit better than some films concerning stereotypes.

Along with the police, a bumbling detective duo, played by Buck Woods and Richard Bates, tries to solve the murder so they can get their big break. Their bumbling and ineptness could be seen as stereotypical, but considering other films of the 1930s, it was also a form of humor that was fairly standard at this time. Unqualified detectives were common in mystery comedies and often characterized by comedy groups like the Marx Brothers or the Ritz Brothers.

Some of these public domain films have poor sound and visual comedy, but “Midnight Shadow” is relatively clear. I also enjoyed the credits at the beginning, which showed each performer, like other 1930s films did.

An interesting note about many “race films” is that the performers did one or only a few films. For example, the lead actress Frances Redd only acted in “Midnight Shadow.” Redd was dubbed the “Cinderella Girl of 1939,” because she was an unknown from Missouri and was selected to star in the film, according to a June 3, 1939, article in the Pittsburgh Press. Even director George Randol only directed two films, with “Midnight Shadow” as his last.

“Midnight Shadow” is only a 54-minute comedic mystery, but it is fairly entertaining – it even kept me guessing about “who done it.” I would wager that it’s better than most of the race films of its time.

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