Watching 1939: Lying Lips (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: 
Lying Lips (1939)

Release date: 
July 9, 1939

Cast: 
Edna Mae Harris, Carman Newsome, Robert Earl Jones, Frances E. Williams, Juano Hernandez, Cherokee Thornton, Slim Thompson, Gladys Williams, Don De Leo, George Reynolds, Charles La Torre, Henry ‘Gang’ Gines

Studio: 
Micheaux Film

Director: 
Oscar Micheaux

Plot:
Elsie Bellwood (Harris) is a nightclub singer at the Poodle Dog night club, but the Italian owners, Farina (Leo) and Garotti (Torre) want her to use her talents off stage and attend “private parties” to bring in extra money. Elsie refuses, insisting she’s a good girl, and her agent Benjamin Hadnot (Newsome) stands up for her. After Hadnot has an altercation over Elsie with Farina and Garotti, Elsie returns home to find her aunt dead. Elsie is framed for the murder and Hadnot and Detective Wenzer (Jones) try to uncover the case.

1939 Notes:
• First film of Robert Earl Jones.
• Edna Mae Harris was in two films released in 1939, and her film career ended by 1943.
• First film of Frances E. Williams

Edna Harris and Carman Newsome in “Lying Lips.”

Other trivia: 
• Written and directed by Oscar Micheaux
• Mae Edwards of Indianapolis, Ind. sued Oscar Micheaux for $10,000 in 1939, claiming she gave him the story, and he promised her the lead role in the film and royalties for the story. She said the story had been slightly changed and the title changed to “Lying Lips,” according to a June 3, 1939, article “Claims Screen Story Stolen, Seeks $10,000,” in the Pittsburgh Courier. Edwards said the story was written based on an experience she had, according to a July 15, 1939, Pittsburgh Courier article.
• “Lying Lips” 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. Race films were produced for segregated audiences.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
From 1919 to 1948, writer and director Oscar Micheaux worked to make and distribute films that would show African Americans in a better light, rather than as punchlines to jokes or performing roles as people working lower staff jobs like servants, railroad porters or shoeshiners.

His films were primarily cast with black actors in the lead roles and fall into the category of “race films.” These films were released from 1915 to 1950 and produced for segregated audiences.

In “Lying Lips,” Edna Mae Harris stars as Elsie, a nightclub singer at Poodle Dog Club. She’s a good girl, but her cousin Elizabeth Green, played by Frances E. Williams, tells the owners of the club that they could earn more money if singers like Elsie “entertained” at after-hours private parties. Without really saying it, they want Elsie and the other performers to go into prostitution to earn them more money.

The club owners Farina (Don De Leo) and Garotti (Charles La Torre) are played by black actors but are supposed to be Italian, according to movie credit Gene Siskel.

Elsie refuses, and the club owners turn to her her manager Benjamin Hadnot, played by Carman Newsome. Hadnot is outraged and quits to defend her honor.

“If you had any respect for the unfortunate members of my race, especially the girls that were forced to work here, you wouldn’t try to make them do ugly things. But since you haven’t, I don’t like your attitude,” Hadnot says as he quits.

Elsie later returns home to find her aunt is dead, and her cousin Elizabeth, who has the “lying lips,” creates a story to make Elsie look guilty. The white district attorney (Robert Paquin) and white police officer (George Reynolds) assign Detective Wenzer (Jones) to the case, believing he will learn more information since he is black.

“Lying Lips” came at the end of Micheaux’s long career seems to have a smoother storyline is smoother of any of the Micheaux “talkies” I have seen (though that’s only a handful.

However, while Micheaux’s goal was to give black actors better roles, his films aren’t without racial stereotypes.

For example, when Hadnot and Detective Wenzer plan to question the brother of Elizabeth Green, Hadnot says, “They always talk. They never could keep a secret.” His reference to “they” is to men of his race.

Then to get the man to talk, Hadnot and Wenzer take him to a haunted house and threaten to leave him tied up overnight with the ghosts. This forces a confession out of the man.

Though only in six films, actor Carman Newsome, who plays Benjamin Hadnot, is a regular of Micheaux’s films. All of his film credits were Micheaux’s films, including the lead in “Birthright.”

Edna Mae Harris, who plays Elsie, was also a popular actress of the time. Here we get to hear her sing popular songs like “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” and “I’ve Got a Heart Full of Rhythm.”

The standout performances, however, are from Robert Earl Jones (father of James Earl Jones) and Juano Hernandez.

This was the first role for Jones, as he plays Detective Wenzer. While some of the actors in “Lying Lips” performed only in race films, Jones went on to have a long career, acting into the 1990s in films like “The Sting” (1973) and “Witness” (1985). Of all the actors in “Lying Lips,” he commands the screen and makes you take notice of him immediately. However, after acting in “Lying Lips” and another Micheaux film, The Notorious Elinor Lee (1940), his next film role wouldn’t be until 1955.

This was an early role for Juano Hernandez, playing Rev. Bryson, who gives information to the detectives as part of the investigation. Hernandez’s role is brief but memorable. Hernandez also went on to play in mainstream roles, including “Intruder in the Dust” (1949), “Breaking Point” (1950) and “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955). While this wasn’t his first film role, it was his first film since 1932.

Juano Hernandez, Robert Earl Jones and Carman Newsome

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