Watching 1939: Harlem Rides the Range (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: 
Harlem Rides the Range (1939)

Release date: 
Feb. 1, 1939

Cast: 
Herb Jeffries, Lucius Brooks, F.E. Miller, Artie Young, Clarence Brooks, Spencer Williams, Leonard Christmas
Specialty Acts: The Four Tones, The Four Blackbirds

Studio: 
Hollywood Pictures Corporation

Director: 
Richard C. Kahn

Plot:
Bob Blake (Jeffries) and his pal Dusty (Brooks) come across an empty ranch Jim Dennison (Christmas) where it appears a murder may have taken place. Jim isn’t dead, but hiding after the event. Bob finds a photo of Jim’s daughter (Young), saying she’s beautiful, and accidentally drops his glove at the ranch by accident. Bob and Dusty are then hired at a nearby ranch while they try and figure out what happened to Jim. When Bob’s glove is found, he is accused of murder.

1939 Notes:
• By the numbers:
– One of two films Herb Jeffries starred in 1939. Both were westerns. The other was The Bronze Buckaroo.
– Lucius Brooks was in two films released in 1939. Both were with Herb Jeffries.
– Clarence Brooks was in three films released in 1939.
– Spencer Williams was in three films released in 1939.
– F.E. Miller was in three films released in 1939.

Herb Jeffries in “Harlem Rides the Range.”

Other trivia: 
• Two of the film’s stars, F.E. Miller and Spencer Williams, developed the screenplay for the film.
• Filmed in Sindewinder Vallley, Apple Valley, CA.
• Part of a series of Herb Jeffries westerns including:
– Harlem on the Prairie (1937)
– Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938)
The Bronze Buckaroo (1939)

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Actor and singer Herb Jeffries was a groundbreaking figure in the world of western films. In the 1930s, Jeffries proposed the idea of all-Black western films.

Known as “race films,” these films were movies produced outside of major Hollywood studios and starred all-Black casts for segregated audiences.

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. 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.

From 1937 to 1939, Jeffries starred in five all-Black western films as a singing cowboy. “Harlem Rides the Range” (1939) was his last western and his last feature film appearance until 1951.

In “Harlem Rides the Range,” Jeffries plays Bob Blake, which was his recurring character in the westerns. Bob Blake’s sidekick is Dusty, played by Lucius Brooks, who co-starred in three of the westerns with Jeffries. Others who co-starred in several of the westerns include Artie Young, Spencer Williams and F.E. Miller.

In the film, Bob Blake is a stranger in town and is accused of a murder, when Jim goes missing and all that is left is his blood on the floor in his business. Blake tries to clear his name by finding Jim and figuring out what happened to him. In the process, Blake also finds a picture of Jim’s daughter, played by Artie Young, and falls in love with her portrait.

Along the way, we are treated to two songs performed by Herb Jeffries: “I’m a Happy Cowboy” and “Prairie Flower.”

Though this film was made for Black audiences, it wasn’t made without stereotypes. The character of Dusty is fearful of ghosts and the dead throughout the film.

“Harlem Rides the Range” was one of two Herb Jeffries westerns released in 1939, the other being “The Bronze Buckaroo,” which I may have enjoyed a little more.

But overall, this is an enjoyable western that runs just under an hour.

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