EMPEROR JONES(director: Dudley Murphy; screenwriters: Du-Bose Heyward/based on the play by Eugene O’Neill; cinematographer: Ernest Haller; editor: Grant Whytock; music: Rosamond Johnson/Frank Tours; cast: Paul Robeson (Brutus Jones), Dudley Digges (Smithers), Frank Wilson (Jeff), Fredi Washington (Undine), Blueboy O’Connor (Treasurer), Ruby Elzy (Dolly), Rex Ingram (Court Crier), George Haymid Stamper (Lem), Brandon Evans (Carrington); Runtime: 76; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Gifford Cochran/William C. DeMille/John Krimsky; United Artists; 1933)
“A great performance from the legendary African-American singer Paul Robeson.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
It’s based on the acclaimed controversial Eugene O’Neill play that first appeared in Manhattan in 1920 and is written by Du-Bose Heyward. Though a crude and stagy production, liberal white director Dudley Murphy (“One Third of a Nation”/”Yolanda”/”St. Louis Blues”) through his unconventional and arty direction gets a great performance from the legendary African-American singer Paul Robeson (a gifted athlete and Columbia Law School graduate)—probably his most memorable in film. Robeson plays the ambitious Negro Pullman porter named Brutus Jones, who leaves Georgia when hired on the railroad and gets involved with a fast big city eastern woman Undine (Fredi Washington). She’s a hussy he secretly steals from his conniving porter pal Frank Wilson (Frank Wilson), who when he hears about it plots his revenge. That comes in a game of craps, where he attempts to cheat Brutus and when caught pulls a knife on him. In the ensuing struggle, Jeff is killed and Brutus is given a life sentence on a Georgia chain gang. Brutus escapes after killing a sadistic white guard, and takes a job as a stoker on a boat to Haiti. There his freedom is bought by the unscrupulous sniveling Cockney white trader Smithers (Dudley Digges), so he can work for him without wages. But the boastful and arrogant Brutus outsmarts the white man and works a coup of the island ruling deity, as he runs the island as the tyrannical Emperor Jones for two years. But his luck runs out due to his false pride, thirst for power and wealth, and when forced to escape is hunted down by his former soldiers in the woods and meets his end when betrayed by the white man.
Mr. Robeson knocks out a few songs (such as “Now Let Me Fly,” “I’m Travelin’,” and “Water Boy”) that shows off his uniquely robust bass voice. Few theaters in the United States had the guts to book the film and when booked there were cuts to appease the country’s institutionalized racism; for white theaters the scene in which the new Emperor makes the white man Smithers light his cigarette and for the segregated black audiences the word “nigger,” often used in the film, was cut. The Library Of Congress deserves thanks for the fine restoration job they did of this neglected film; they restored its censored cuts (though there are still a few missing scenes that couldn’t be located). It holds up today as a very interesting curio from the 1930s; one of the few portraits of African-American life made at that time that could be seen by a white audience and had a cast of both races. Robeson eventually fled to Europe to escape America’s racism and get better film roles. He damaged his career greatly by traveling to the USSR and embracing communism. Most producers would not hire him during the communist witch hunts of the early 1950s. Robeson’s last feature film was Tales of Manhattan(1942). After returning from exile in Paris, he would die in relative obscurity in Philadelphia in 1976.
REVIEWED ON 1/21/2008 GRADE: B+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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