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 Bronze Buckaroo (1939)
Herb Jeffries (as Herbert Jeffrey), Lucius Brooks, Artie Young, F.E. Miller, Spencer Williams, Clarence Brooks, Lee Calmes, Earle Morris
Themselves: The Four Tones
Sack Amusement Enterprises
Richard C. Kahn
Bob Blake (Jeffries/Jeffrey) receives a letter from his friend Joe Jackson asking for him to come to visit and to help him. When Bob arrives he meets Joe’s sister Betty (Young) who is shocked that Bob received a letter from her brother. Her brother Joe has been missing for a month after Joe and Betty’s father was killed. Bob sets out to figure out what happened to Joe.
• One of two films Herb Jeffries starred in 1939. Both were westerns.
• Herb Jeffries is billed as Herbert Jeffrey
• Written, produced and directed by Richard C. Kahn.
• Many of the cast members, including Artie Young and Lucius Brooks, co-starred with Herb Jeffries in another western in 1939, “Harlem Rides the Range.”
• “I’m a Happy Cowboy” performed by Herb Jeffries
• “Almost Time for Roundup” performed by the chorus
• “I’ve Got the Payday Blues” performed by Herb Jeffries
My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
In the mid-1930s, the singing cowboy was the king of the matinee. Gene Autry rode onto the scene in 1935, followed by Tex Ritter in 1936, and later Roy Rogers in 1938.
As western films increased in popularity, singer Herb Jeffries (then billed as Herbert Jeffrey) convinced producer Jed Buell to make a western “race film,” according to “Hollywood Black: The Stars, the Films, the Filmmakers ” by Donald Bogle.
Race films were movies produced outside of major Hollywood studios and starred all-Black casts for segregated audiences. These films were made between 1914 and into the 1950s. Segregated movie theaters would also see films made by Hollywood studios, but it may not be for several months or years, according to TCM host Jacqueline Stewart in a 2016 film interview with Ben Mankiewicz.
Until Jeffries’s proposal, cowboys in western films were white, though historians say that in actuality, 20 to 30 percent of actual American cowboys were Black, according to Bogle.
Jeffries made his first western in 1937, “Harlem on the Prairie” and starred in a total of five westerns between 1937 and 1939.
“They were just like white westerns. The family mine was being foreclosed. There was a fight over water rights. A pretty girl had been kidnapped,” said Jeffries, quoted in the book Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood by film historian Donald Bogle.
Though the cast was Black, often times the crew was white because Blacks couldn’t get into unions, Jeffries said, according to Bogle’s book, “Bright Boulevards…”
“The Bronze Buckaroo” was one of Jeffries’s last westerns; starring in two westerns released in 1939 and not appearing in another feature-length film until 1951. Of his five westerns, “The Bronze Buckaroo” was also one of two films that didn’t use “Harlem” in the title. Harlem “was a word to identify Blacks,” he said.
In “The Bronze Buckaroo,” Jeffries plays Bob Blake, who travels to visit his friend Joe, who wrote him needing help. When he arrives, Bob finds that Joe is missing and his sister Betty asks for his help. The character of Bob Blake was a recurring role that Jeffries played three times.
Outside of the intrigue, Blake’s sidekicks Dusty, played by Lucius Brooks, and Slim, played by F.E. Miller, are the comic relief. Dusty and Slim pick on each other throughout the film, including Slim using ventriloquism to make Dusty think that his mule can talk.
Race films sometimes perpetuated negative Black stereotypes. And at first, I felt that Dusty being tricked into buying a talking mule was playing on racist characterizations of being slow or dimwitted. However, Dusty has the last laugh and gets back at Slim by outsmarting him. Dusty studies ventriloquism as well and makes the mule “talk” to make fun of Slim.
Jeffries also plays a cowboy with dignity, the same as any other cowboy you would see on screen. He looks dashing in his western wear, saves the day, and we get to hear some wonderful music in the process.
The music was really a highlight in “The Bronze Buckaroo.” The songs “Got the Payday Blues” and “I’m a Happy Cowboy” performed by Jeffries are great. I also enjoyed the song “Almost Time for Roundup,” which is performed by an ensemble in a saloon.
By making westerns like “The Bronze Buckaroo,” Black audiences were able to see themselves represented in a film genre that they otherwise not represented. When discussing the singing cowboys of the 1930s, don’t forget to include Herb Jeffries.