WAY DOWN SOUTH
(director: Bernard Vorhaus; screenwriter: story and screenplay by Clarence Muse & Langston Hughes; cinematographer: Charles Schoenbaum; editor: Arthur Hilton; music: Victor Young; cast: Bobby Breen (Tim Reid), Alan Mowbray (Jacques Bouton), Clarence Muse (Uncle Caton), Ralph Morgan (Timothy Reid), Steffi Duna (Pauline), Sally Blane (Claire), Edwin Maxwell (Martin Dill), Charles Middleton (Cass), Matthew “Stymie” Beard (Gumbo), Robert Grieg (Judge Ravenal); Runtime: 62; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Sol Lesser; RKO; 1939)
“Absurd musical curio, that wants us to believe that slavery can be good if the white owner is benevolent.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Bernard Vorhaus (“Fisherman’s Wharf”/”Three Faces West”/”The Last Journey”) directs this absurd musical curio, that wants us to believe that slavery can be good if the white owner is benevolent. It marks the first times a black performer — Clarence Muse — received star billing in a film, in which he played the plantation house servant. The film was shot in b/w. The Hall Johnson Choir presents some worthy Negro spirituals such as “Nobody Knows de Trouble I See,” “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Lord If You Can’t Come, Send One Angel Down.”The white star Bobby Breen also sings a few spirituals, but his songs pale when compared to the black choir. Unfortunately, the story and screenplay by African-Americans, Clarence Muse and Langston Hughes, is from a different era, when racism was the norm, and will probably disappoint a large segment of a modern audience.
In 1854, in pre-Civil War Louisiana, the kind and generous plantation owner of the old Bayou Lovelle Plantation, Timothy Reid (Ralph Morgan), dies in a carriage accident. The sugar plantation’s mean-spirited eastern-born lawyer, Martin Dill (Edwin Maxwell), becomes executor of the plantation and along with his nagging greedy mistress Pauline (Steffi Duna) carries on in a corrupt manner and cruelly treats the slaves. Timothy’s under-aged orphan son, Tim (Bobby Breen), has inherited the plantation and is displeased with the way the plantation has changed. The local innkeeper (Alan Mowbray) comes to the kid’s rescue and gets Judge Ravenal (Robert Grieg) to intervene and relieve Dill as executor. This saves the plantation. The slaves can now rejoice and we are led to believe that the slaves cannow go back to their happy lives as slaves.
REVIEWED ON 8/11/2015 GRADE: B-