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:
Miracle in Harlem (1948) – Musical #662
Hilda Offley, Sheila Guyse, Kenneth Freeman, William Greaves, Sybil Lewis (billed as Sybyl Lewis), Creighton Thompson, Laurence Criner, Jack Carter, Stepin Fetchit,
Specialty performers: Juanita Hall, Norma Shepherd, Lynn Proctor Trio, Lavada Carter, Savannah Churchill
Aunt Hattie (Offley) and her niece Julie (Guyse) run a small candy store. They have a small location and their only help is Julie’s boyfriend Bert (Greaves) and the handyman, Swifty (Fetchit). Julie and Bert want to expand, but Aunt Hattie resists. Wealthy Albert Marshall (Criner) of the big business Harlem Candy Manufacturers tries to put Julie and Aunt Hattie out of business. Marshall and his son Jim (Freeman) trick Julie out of the candy store, but when Marshall turns up dead, Julie is accused.
• There is a print of this film at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which was a gift of Randall and Sam Nieman.
• The film was shot around Harlem and at Filmcraft Studios in the Bronx, according to the American Film Institute.
• The musical performances
• “Look Down That Lonesome Road” performed by Sheila Guyse
• “Chocolate Candy Blues” performed by Juanita Hall
• “Patience & Fortitude” performed by Norma Shepherd
• “Watch Out” performed by the Lynn Proctor Trio
• “I Want to Be Loved” performed by Savannah Churchill
“Miracle in Harlem” is more of a murder mystery than a musical, but it is sprinkled with musical showcases, from nightclub acts to religious spiritual songs.
The film begins with hymns sung inside the parlor of Aunt Hattie’s home, where services are held. Also inside their home, Hattie and her niece Julie run a candy business out of their kitchen. A larger candy merchant and businessman, Albert Marshall, and his son Jim trick Julie and her aunt into signing their candy business to them. Jim has a seedy past, but when Albert turns up dead, Julie is accused. She has the motive since her business was taken away from her.
Musical acts are sprinkled throughout – from a choir singing, Juanita Hall singing in the candy kitchen, and then a showcase of talents at a party Jim throws.
“Miracle in Harlem” is a race film, movies released from 1915 to 1950 and produced outside of major Hollywood studios for segregated audiences. Produced late in the era of race film, “Miracle in Harlem” has several notable actors in the film.
William Greaves plays Bert, the boyfriend of Julie. Greaves only acted in a few films from 1947 to 1949, but he is better known today as a documentary filmmaker and pioneer of African-American filmmaking.
Sheila Guyse and Sybil Lewis are both glamorous characters – Guyse as the beautiful heroine and Lewis as an unscrupulous private secretary.
Actress and singer Juanita Hall also has a small role singing “The Chocolate Candy Blues.” It was interesting to see Hall in this film, because I’ve only ever seen her in her later roles where she was unfortunately cast in yellowface roles in “South Pacific” and “Flower Drum Song.”
Also in the film is the controversial actor Stepin Fetchit, who provides the only racial stereotype in the film. Fetchit plays his signature character who is often tired, speaks in slurred and confused speech, which earned him the nickname the “Laziest Man in the World.” Born Lincoln Perry, he was the first Black actor to earn $1 million.
In “Miracle in Harlem,” Fetchit receives an honorary “And” credit. He still plays his usual character, but Fetchit’s biographer, Mel Watkins, feels it’s a bit better because of the all-Black cast.
Greaves remembers Fetchit being quiet and standoffish on set; very different than the character he crafted, according to an interview in Watkins’s biography.
“He kept to himself and seemed very serious about what he was doing. It was in that context that I realized how talented he was. His actual off-screen persona was not this idiot that we were used to seeing,” Greaves said. “But it was okay for him to act that way in Miracle in Harlem, because it was a black cast movie and other people were portraying lifestyles that contrasted with the comic character he played.”
To Greaves’s point, Fetchit in the film was hired by a Black family who shook their head at his antics, rather than white actors making fun of him. He also uses his confused manner while being questioned by police, which could be interpreted as knowing more than he thinks and using the act to get out of questioning.
Outside of this controversial performance, I think “Miracle in Harlem” is a decent film. There are also so many excellent musical performances, which are worth seeing. This includes a song performed by Sheila Guyse, Juanita Hall, Savannah Churchill and Norma Shepherd.
The “who-dun-it” kept me guessing: I had three people in mind of who possibly could have killed the wealthy businessman. It is an exciting twist that will keep you guessing.