Vintage Black Cinema
- 10-movie pack
– Mill Creek Entertainment
– Harlem Double Features
– Alpha Video 5025D, 5089D, 5091D, 5177D, 5197D, 5198D
Hollywood musicals have been with us ever since “talkies” appeared on the scene about 75 years ago. Although most musicals were geared toward mainstream audiences, a surprising number were aimed at niche markets. “Niche” is just a polite way of saying rural white folks or urban black folks.
Many Americans and most film collectors are aware that an entire genre existed in which cowboys like Gene Autry and Tex Ritter spent 60 minutes on Saturday matinees singing to their gals, pals and horses. However, the world of black features in general — and black musicals in particular — remains a more exotic domain to many. It’s clear that the flood of Black Exploitation films of the 1970s — of which Shaft was just the tip of the iceberg — didn’t appear out of nowhere.
The history of black cinema in America is a fitting subject for books and doctoral dissertations. Indeed, the 1994 documentary Midnight Ramble is a fitting place to start your journey through this rich and fascinating genre. The DVD reissue boom has yielded several treasures that were originally marketed exclusively for black audiences in the 1930s, ‘40s and early ‘50s.
There are many unsung heroes of black cinema. Perhaps the most important is Oscar Micheaux (1884–1951), who managed to produce 44 feature films, as well as seven novels, between 1919–48. That alone might mark Micheaux as the most productive independent filmmaker in history, quite apart from his pioneering role as a black filmmaker.
Another important contributor to vintage black cinema is actor/singer Herb Jeffries. What Autry was to rural white America, Jeffries was to black America. While Autry remains a cultural icon, however, Jeffries is virtually unknown today.
Jeffries was not the only black cowboy on the screen. Films like Harlem Rides the Range (1939) reveal actor Dusty Brooks had the role of sidekick down pat. Brooks is doubly fascinating — he actually recorded for the Sun label in Memphis about a year before Elvis Presley found his way to the tiny Memphis studio.
Alpha Video (www.oldies.com) has issued such vintage black fare in a series of Harlem Double Features. Many of them are the efforts of black actor and entrepreneur Spencer Williams — a face many viewers will remember from TV’s Amos & Andy. With titles such as Lying Lips, The Blood of Jesus, Girl in Room 20, God’s Step Children, Go Down Death, Juke Joint, Look Out Sister and Sunday Sinners, it’s clear that Williams and like-minded producers had their eye on the regional black cinema, whose appetite was large and critical standards were quite low.
This is not an indictment of black cinema. The cowboy product being cranked out by Poverty Row studios like Monogram or PRC was no competition for Sir Laurence Olivier. All of these features were geared to make money quickly. Like all niche cinema, budgets and standards were lower while production schedules were faster. The shelf life of these films was often measured in weeks or months, not years or decades. It barely paid to copyright them, which is why most now reside in the netherworld of public domain, awaiting resurrection on DVD.
Although not as easily or cheaply produced as straight drama or comedy, musical films were also an important part of black cinema. Once again, there was no shortage of exploitation vehicles for black musical artists. There’s a special thrill in finding titles like these in bargain bins. You never know who you’re going to find. For every major artist like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole and Louis Jordan, there are plenty of obscure performers or those whose fame has eroded with the years. Here is a chance to see Cats & The Fiddle, Mamie Smith, Amos Milburn, Big Joe Turner, Ethel Waters and a very young Lena Horne.
Mill Creek Entertainment has put together a collection of 10 black musicals from 1933–56. Available for less than $10, this is an unfathomable bargain. Titles include Check & Double Check, a 1933 title starring radio’s Amos and Andy (Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll in blackface), along with Ellington. Calloway stars in a 1943 exploitation classic called Hi-De-Ho, in which Minnie the Moocher takes a bullet meant for our star.
Jordan virtually defined what it was to be a showman, yet he provided some solid jump-and-jive music with his tight musical aggregations. All of his charm is on display in 1947’s Reet, Petite and Gone.
Some of these films, such as Paradise in Harlem (1939) with Mamie Smith or The Duke Is Tops (1938) with Lena Horne, offered surprisingly complex plots. Others sported story lines that were threadbare at best, although the entertainment quotient remained high. In fact, the plots of fare like Killer Diller (1948) are little more than an excuse to bring act after act out on stage.
Four of the titles — Rhythm & Blues Review, Rock & Roll Review, Soundies Calvacade and Soundies Festival — are a series of rare and often wonderful musical performances strung together for release years after the fact. It’s a chance to travel back in time for Showtime at the Apollo, a dazzling glimpse of early 1950s R&B and the unmistakable roots of rock ’n roll.
Film quality is always a reasonable concern on low-priced public-domain reissues like these. At these prices, no one is doing elaborate digital restoration. Nevertheless, the results are generally quite acceptable. Most prints are in gently worn but watchable condition. Considering their rarity and the tremendous entertainment value of the contents, it’s hard not to seek out these items while they’re available to a mass market.
If you want to learn more about black cinema, check out Larry Richards’ African American Films Through 1959 or Yvonne Sims’ book Women of Blaxploitation (both available through www.mcfarlandpub.com).
Hank Davis is the author of Classic Cliffhangers: Volume I, available soon from Midnight Marquee Press.