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:
The Emperor Jones (1933) – Musical #730
Paul Robeson, Dudley Digges, Frank H. Wilson, Fredi Washington, Ruby Elzy, George Haymid Stamper, Moms Mabley (uncredited), Rex Ingram (uncredited), Harold Nicholas (uncredited), Billie Holiday (uncredited)
Brutus Jones (Robeson) leaves home after being hired as a Pullman porter on a train. Jones does well for himself, until he fights with his best friend (Wilson) and ends up killing him. Jailed for murder, Jones escapes from prison. Jones hops a freighter shoveling coal and jumps off the boat to swim to a remote island. On the island, Jones works himself up to being the emperor of the people.
• Paul Robeson’s first talking picture
• Based on the play The Emperor Jones by Eugene O’Neill, which first was staged on Nov. 1, 1920. Robeson was in the play during a 1925 staging. For the play to be told on film, O’Neill said that Robeson had to star.
• First film appearance of Moms Mabley
• Billie Holiday appears in an uncredited role
• Child Harold Nicholas tap dancing in the night club
• The blue tint to signify night time in the jungle.
• “Now Let Me Fly” performed by Paul Robeson and the chorus
• “St. Louis Blues”
• “Water Boy” performed by Paul Robeson
• “I’m Travelin’” performed by Paul Robeson
• “Daniel” performed by Paul Robeson
With his rich voice and broad smile, Paul Robeson is a charismatic prescience on screen. This talent and commanding personality are well displayed in Robeson’s first talkie, “Emperor Jones” (1933).
The plot takes many terms and travels to many locations. Many film plots descriptions simply say the film is about Paul Robeson, playing Brutus Johns, becoming an emperor being on a remote island. However, there’s more to the story.
The film begins in a church in the American south. Brutus Johns just got a job as a porter on a train, where he does well for himself. However, Brutus runs into issues when he begins dating his best friend’s girl. When Brutus accidentally kills his friend, he is thrown in prison on a chain gang. But Brutus escapes prison and starts working on a steam ship, which he eventually jumps off and swims to an island. This is where Brutus becomes an emperor, and reigns with terror over the people.
Robeson is reprising his role here from the stage show of the stage name. In his first feature-film talkie, we also get to hear Robeson sing several songs, that are mostly hymns and religious songs. While Brutus Jones has his downfall, he’s also nobody’s fool. Robeson’s last scene in the jungle is a good one, which also looks interesting with the blue color tinting for night.
One of the first films of the sound era to feature a Black actor in a leading role alongside white actors, according to Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz.
While “Emperor Jones” is a landmark film in many ways, it has some difficult content that can’t be ignored. Particularly once Brutus arrives on the island, the n-word is used multiple times. It’s first used by the white character, Smithers, who uses other degrading phrases. But then Robeson’s character starts to use the word, especially once he becomes emperor. At one point, the language was edited out of the film, according to Mankiewicz, but the full film and original dialogue were restored by the Library of Congress.
When “Brutus Johns” was released, several Black publications criticized the film. The Amsterdam Press said that it was “a shame and a disgrace” that the n-word was used in the film, and the Philadelphia Tribune said there was no one redeeming feature in the film.
At one point, Robeson was pleased with the film and movies as a medium, hoping that movies would offer better roles to Black actors than the stage. However, by 1939, Robeson largely retired from movie acting, saying:
“I thought I could do something for the Negro race in films, show the truth about them and their people, too. I used to do my part and go away feeling satisfied, thought everything was OK. Well it wasn’t. The industry was not prepared to permit me to portray the life or express the living interest, hopes and aspirations of the struggling people from whom I come. You bet they will never let me play a part in a film in which Negro is on top.”
For me, along with Robeson’s acting, a major highlight of the film is an uncredited appearance from young Harold Nicholas (without his brother Fayard) tap dance briefly in a nightclub scene. Harold was just 12 years old and it was fun to catch a glimpse of him in this film.
Despite its flaws, “Emperor Jones” does display Paul Robeson’s acting and singing talents well.
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