Watching 1939: The Devil’s Daughter (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: 
The Devil’s Daughter (1939)

Release date: 
Dec. 7, 1939

Cast: 
Nina Mae McKinney, Jack Carter, Ida James, Hamtree Harrington, Willa Mae Lang, Emmett ‘Babe’ Wallace

Studio: 
Sack Amusement Enterprises

Director: 
Arthur H. Leonard

Plot:
Sylvia Walton (James) travels from her home in New York to Jamaica, because her father left his banana plantation to her in his will. However, her step-sister Isabelle Walton (McKinney) has already been running the plantation for years. Isabelle goes into hiding in the jungle when Sylvia arrives, and Isabelle conspires with Sylvia’s boyfriend Philip (Carter). In order to get the plantation, Isabelle uses “obeah” (a type of sorcery) to scare Sylvia away for the plantation and for the love of John Loden (Wallace).

1939 Notes:
• Nina Mae McKinney and Jack Carter were both in two films released in 1939, and they starred in both films together: “Straight to Heaven” and “The Devil’s Daughter.”
• First film of Ida James, who acted in three films. James was also in Nat King Cole’s Trio.
• Only film of Willa Mae Lang.

Other trivia: 
• Remake of Ouanga (1936), which starred Fredi Washington.
• Leon Lee narrated the film.
• The original script title was “Daughter of the Isle of Jamaica” and the working title was “Pocomania”
• Filmed in Jamaica, according to the Film Detective.

Nina Mae McKinney and Ida James in “The Devil’s Daughter.”

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Actress Nina Mae Mckinney is attributed as saying, “You just tell me one Negro girl who’s made movies who didn’t play a maid or a whore. I don’t know any.”

And while Mckinney doesn’t play a maid in “The Devil’s Daughter” (1939), this race film perpetuates stereotypes – even though it was filmed for black audiences.

McKinney plays Isabelle, a woman who has been running a Jamaican banana plantation for years until her half-sister inherits the plantation from her father. Isabelle is upset and seeks revenge, as this ruins her plan of being a respected woman of power in her community. While Isabelle is strong and has a commanding prescience, her sister Sylvia, played by Ida James, is sweet as honey and was educated in the United States.

Isabelle doesn’t really have the capability to do black magic, but fools her stepsister into thinking she can by drugging her, so that Sylvia will head back to the U.S.

The film begins with stereotypes of cockfighting and a joke about picking cotton. Percy Jackson, played by Hamtree Harrington, is another Harlem transplant in the film and his character is the same stereotypical black character you would have seen represented in any other Hollywood studio production. Percy’s character is superstitious, and to play a joke on him, Isabelle says she has transferred his soul to a pig, so the whole film he goes around chasing a pig.

In this film, McKinney stereotyped with a sexualized character who wants her sister’s boyfriend for herself, who she has always been in love with. She also tries to kill her sister and as the title implies – is as evil as the devil.

But the image of being both sexy and evil had followed McKinney from her first Hollywood film role, Hallelujah (1929) where she played the temptress Chick. This image followed her through the remainder of her career, according to the book African American Actresses: The Struggle for Visibility, 1900–1960 by Charlene B. Regester

Despite being type-cast, McKinney gives the most interesting and dynamic performance in the film. She commands her prescience on the screen, and I wish I saw more of her.

The central character is Sylvia, played by Ida James, who is almost too sweet. Off-screen, James was a singer with Nat King Cole’s Trio.

“The Devil’s Daughter” (1939) runs just under an hour and is a brief watch. The obeah scene runs a little long, so this film could have been even shorter. The ending is almost disappointing because it is all wrapped up in a too-easy, vanilla manner.

However, this film is worth watching for McKinney alone.

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