Musical Monday: Song of Freedom (1936)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
Song of Freedom (1936) – Musical #639

British Lion Films

J. Elder Wills

Paul Robeson, Elisabeth Welch, Esme Percy, Robert Adams, Joan Fred Emney, Robert Adams, James Solomon, George Mozart, Jenny Dean, Cornelia Smith, Ronald Simpson, Bernard Ansell

John Zinga (Robeson) works on the English docks and wants to travel to Africa to learn more about his heritage. While driving by, composer and impresario Gabriel Donozetti (Percy) hears John singing in the street. Struck by his voice, Donozetti seeks out John to make him an opera star. With the encouragement of his wife Ruth (Welch), John reluctantly accepts; seeing that this career could allow him the opportunity to travel to Africa. After one performance during an encore, John sings a piece of a song that he has known all his life, but isn’t sure of the origins. A professor in the audience tells John that the song is a war song for an African tribe and that John may be king based on a pendant that John has worn since childhood. John and Ruth travel to the small African island so he can lead the island and his people, but they aren’t welcomed with open arms.

• The first film Paul Robeson made in England.
• Paul Robeson requested in his contract final cut of the film, so the message wouldn’t be altered in post-production.
• The impresario Gabriel Donizetti (played by Esme Percy) is thought to be based on the composer Gaetano Donizetti.
• Based on the story “The Kingdom of Zinga” by Claude Wallace and Dorothy Holloway
• Tony Wane is billed as Ecce Homo Toto.
• Cornelia Smith is billed as Miss C. Smith.

• Paul Robeson’s singing

Notable Songs:
• “Sleepy River” performed by Paul Robeson and Elisabeth Welch
• “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” performed by Paul Robeson
• “Lonely Road” performed by Paul Robeson
• “Stepping Stones” performed by Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson performing in “Song of Freedom”

My review:
Actor, singer Paul Robeson appeared in his first film in 1925. By the mid-1930s, Robeson left the United States for England, hoping to find better roles.

“In America, the color question is too acute, and prejudice is rampant. A serious Negro artist stands very little chance there,” Robeson said.

Robeson’s first film in England was “Song of Freedom” (1936).

The film begins in 1700 and a montage takes us from 1750, 1807, 1838 and then to current day in 1936. In 1700, the story depicts John Zinga’s ancestry. The island of Casanga, located off of the coast of Africa, is under the cruel rule of Queen Zinga. One of the women in the tribe is unhappy with her reign of terror, and steals a medallion and flees with a man from the tribe. When the man and woman think they have reached safety, they are sold into slavery and taken to England. These are distant relatives of John Zinga, who lives in current-day England, works in the docks and attracts bystanders with his beautiful singing voice. John and his wife Ruth are content, but John is restless and feels out of place. He wants to know more about his background and feels drawn to Africa to learn more about his ancestry. One day, an impresario hears John singing and wants to make him an opera star. John’s fame and fortune from his singing career allows him to return to Africa with Ruth. John is met with reservations by his ancestral tribe, who aren’t receptive to his western ways. They also are wary of the fact that he has a medallion that proves he is their king, but they aren’t sure they believe him. After proving himself by singing the secret ancestral song, the tribe welcomes him. As the king of the tribe, John travels between England and Africa; using his opera fame to help send funds for medicine and education.

“Song of Freedom” was released the same year as the Hollywood film “Show Boat” (1936), and Robeson’s roles in both films are extremely different. In “Show Boat,” Robeson performs the pivotal song of “Ole Man River,” but though the role in the original Broadway show was written for Robeson, he is not a lead character. “Show Boat” also features blackface performances from a lead actor and Robeson’s character follows Hollywood stereotypes. In “Song of Freedom,” Robeson is the star and the story centers around him.

His character in “Song of Freedom” is honorable, dignified and becomes famous. This is in comparison to a comedic character filled with stereotypes – which he was often offered in Hollywood, according to the book. Elisabeth Welch’s character of his wife is also supportive and kind. Not the stereotype of a mammy or a vamp who will bring about a man’s downfall, according to the book “Paul Robeson: A Life of Activism and Art” by Lindsey R. Swindall.

Also different than a Hollywood film, Robeson is friends with white characters, and everyone (of all races) stops and listens when he sings. When Robeson’s character performs in a pub, it’s standing room only.

Film critics in 1936 were complimentary of the film. The Pittsburgh Press said it was “The finest story of colored films yet brought to the screen … a story of triumph.” Writer and activist Langston Hughes also complimented the film, saying it was well-received in Harlem, according to “Paul Robeson: A Biography” by Martin Duberman.

Robeson said it was the first real part he had at this point in his career.

Unfortunately, “Song of Freedom” was a rarity and not many films (especially before the 1950s and 1960s) depicted black actors with dignity.

Robeson later said that “Song of Freedom” was the one of the few films he took any pride in (along with “Proud Valley”), according to Duberman’s book.

However, that doesn’t mean this story is without racism. When the impresario’s assistant learns that he wants to train Robeson’s character for opera, he makes a derogatory statement about him being Black. The impresario defends Robeson’s character saying, “What does it matter about the color of his skin when he has color in his voice!”

Today modern critics note issues with the story. In her book “Fear of the Dark ‘Race’, Gender and Sexuality in the Cinema,” Lola Young notes that Robeson wanting to return home to his people demonstrates a class and racial divide with him and the people in England.

Young also notes that the unity of the dock workers of all colors is a “utopian vision of racial harmony.” In the film, racism isn’t the issue but social classism in England is prevalent. But his longing to go to Africa shows that Black people are out of place in England, she writes.

While the real highlight of the film is hearing Paul Robeson’s baritone singing voice, I was also happy to discover Elisabeth Welch in this film, who I wasn’t familiar with prior. Welch was popular on stage and in night clubs, performing the song “As Time Goes By” in the 1930s. “Song of Freedom” was Welch’s first acting film role and her second film appearance. Before this, she was a singer in “Death at a Broadcast” (1934).

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