SCAR OF SHAME, THE (director: Frank Perugini; screenwriter: David Starkman; cinematographer: Al Liguori; cast: Harry Henderson (Alvin Hillyard), Norman Johnstone (Eddie Blake), Ann Kennedy (Mrs. Lucretia Green), Lucia Lynn Moses (Louise Howard), William Pettus (Spike Howard), Lawrence Chenault (Ralph Hathaway), Pearl McCormack (Alice Hathaway); Runtime: 76; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: David Starkman; Image Entertainment; 1927-silent)
“A fine example of a classy race film.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
This is a fine example of a classy race film, a film starring only black performers that’s made for black audiences. Such films existed from the 1920s until the 1940s. David Starkman, a white man, owned a number of theaters in Philadelphia and noticed his audience was changing and to reach them he decided to produce his own films. In 1926, after raising a $100,000 investment, Starkman with the Colored Players Film Corporation of Philadelphia, produced films that would catch the interest of a black audience. The company made only three films before being absorbed into a bigger company. The other two films, A Prince of His Race (1926) and Ten Nights in a Bar Room (1921), remain lost. This weepie melodrama, of high historic value for black cinema, shows the struggle to rise and make something of one’s self among those in the black community and not be pulled down by the street; it also shows that there is a division existing between blacks who are born into good families and others who have to face adversity. Here it’s called a separation by caste. It’s the only film Frank Peregini, a white man, ever directed.
The film, written by David Starkman and most likely collaborated with blacks, voices its opinion that environment, education and ambition are the determining factors in a person’s life. Somehow it never fully proves its point. It more clearly shows there’s a bigotry in the black community that suggests those of a lighter skin complexion are treated more favorably than those who are dark-complexioned. The films good guys are all light-skinned, while the bad guys are all dark-skinned.
It’s set in Philadelphia. Mrs. Lucretia Green runs a respectable boardinghouse for blacks. One of the guests is the refined light-skinned Alvin Hillyard (Harry Henderson), a struggling young composer. His quiet life radically changes when he rescues Louise Howard (Lucia Lynn Moses, a dancer in the famed Cotton Club of Harlem, who had to commute between jobs to Philly while working on this pic) from being beaten by her wicked drunken stepfather Spike Howard (William Pettus) in the courtyard near the boardinghouse. He takes the shaken Louise into the boardinghouse and the kindly Lucretia puts her to work and gives her shelter. The untrustworthy cad named Eddie Blake (Norman Johnstone), the saloon owner where Spike hangs out and current boardinghouse resident, spots Spike’s daughter and schemes to get her to work in his joint. When she rejects his offer, he tries to kidnap her but is repelled by Alvin. After another attack on her by her drunken stepfather, Alvin feels sorry for the attractive young girl and marries her out of pity. He soon receives a fake telegram from Eddie, that draws him out to the suburbs to call on his mother. Louise is crushed that he won’t take her to meet mom, saying he never told mom about the marriage because she couldn’t accept her because she’s from the wrong side of the tracks. When he leaves, in anger she tears up their marriage license. While he’s out of town, Eddie comes by and makes a deal with Louise for them to go partners in a gambling club. She agrees to a fifty-fifty split and that it should be a strictly business arrangement. Alvin returns miffed that he was taken for a sucker and pulls a gun on Eddie, when he’s distracted Eddie also pulls a gun. In the crossfire Louise gets wounded in the neck, and will have a permanent scar of shame. Alvin gets convicted of assault based on Louise’s testimony; unable to cope with jail he escapes. He changes his name and becomes the refined piano tutor of a rich lawyer’s light-skinned daughter, Alice Hathaway. They fall in love and her dad (Lawrence Chenault) approves of their marriage. Mr. Hathaway is the financial backer of the Club Lido, which is run by Eddie and Louise. When Alvin is asked by his fiancee to deliver a message to her dad at the club, he runs into Louise and the fireworks begin.
It’s really no better or worse than most of the mainstream “white” melodrama silents of that period. But as history, the film is an invaluable record of the African-American experience as they see themselves. It explores questions of black identity and ambition within the black middle class like no other mainstream films would do at the time. Before judging it too harshly for its conservative views, one must remember its time period and that it was the only show around that gave the blacks the opportunity to play characters who weren’t insulting stereotypes.
REVIEWED ON 10/7/2007 GRADE: B-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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