GREEN PASTURES, THE (director: Marc Connelly/William Keighley; screenwriters: Roark Bradford/Marc Connelly/Sheridan Gibney/from the play by Marc Connelly which was suggested by Roark Bradford’s stories, “Ol’ Man Adam An’ His Chillun'”; cinematographer: Hal Mohr; editor: George J. Amy; music: Erich Wolfgang Korngold; cast: Rex Ingram (Adam/Delawd/Hezdrel), Oscar Polk (Gabriel), Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (Noah), Frank H. Wilson (Moses/Sexton), George Reed (Mr. Deshee/Aaron), Frank Wilson (Moses), Edna M. Harris (Zeba), Al Stokes (Cain), The Hall Johnson Choir; Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Henry Blanke/Jack L. Warner; Warner Bros. Pictures; 1936)
“Recreates various Sunday school stories from the Old Testament that’s told in a spirited manner in the lingo of the rural southern Negro.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
White New York-based co-director Marc Connelly (with William Keighley) adapted his Pulitzer prize-winning play The Green Pastures from the stage to the screen with an all-black cast. It’s a Deep South folk tale that recreates various Sunday school stories from the Old Testament that’s told in a spirited manner in the lingo of the rural southern Negro. It has some beautiful moments (the children asking innocent but significant questions in Sunday school and the warm, intelligent and dignified performance by Rex Ingram) but suffers by being stage-bound and stilted in dialogue.
Set on a beautiful Sunday in the Louisiana delta, near New Orleans, where a black Baptist preacher, Mr. Deshee (George Reed), conducts a Sunday school class for the black children and recreates the Genesis story so the children can grasp it in modern terms. De Lawd Jehovah (Rex Ingram, the first African-American to receive the Phi Beta Kappa key at Northwestern University, who became an actor instead of a medical doctor) is introduced during a fish fry picnic for the heavenly angels by the angel Gabriel (Oscar Polk) and the choir sings gospel songs upon De Lawd’s request. De Lawd creates too much firmament as he performs a miracle and so creates the sun and earth to remove it. But that leaves a good tract of farmland, and so he creates Adam and Eve to enjoy it. But they are given the boot from the Garden of Eden after eating the forbidden fruit. Much later when visiting Adam and Eve’s descendents De Lawd is sad to find that Caine killed his brother Abel. On a later visit, Jehovah finds that the descendents are all sinners but for Preacher Noah (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson). Noah is ordered by Jehovah to build an ark to escape with the animals because of the impending flood. De Lawd returns after the deluge to again find the world filled with sin.
The narrative follows through on Abraham’s descendents in the land of Canaan and of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt. The lesson ends with the De Lawd realizing mercy can be achieved through suffering and with the message of love and mercy from Jesus Christ (even God must suffer for mankind’s sins). As Sunday school ends, the children run out to the paradise-like countryside brimming with hope.
The simple-minded fable about miracles is seen sympathetically through Negro eyes and is entertaining in its cunning presentation, but is condescending by letting white America off the hook for its racist attitude. It instead blames the Negro entirely for self-created problems. Nevertheless, it works as an uplifting religious film; the jubilant cast showed it wanted to be in the film and did it with a spirited and pleasing performance. The Green Pastures did well at the box office (playing mostly to black audiences that accepted it) and premiered at the prestigious Radio City Music Hall.REVIEWED ON 1/16/2007 GRADE: B-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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