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Friday, 28 November 2014

Body and Soul (1925)

Apart from the standard popular tune, there have been a surprising number of films, TV series, and mini-series with the above title -- each unrelated to the next, but none of such potentially great interest to the movie buff as the above Poverty Row movie.

Looking at niche interests, one must note that it was directed by Oscar Micheaux, one of very few black directors to accumulate a substantial body of work in the bad old days, and that it showcases the first film role (and his only silent role) of the majestic Paul Robeson. Both of these men were giants with landmark footnotes in film history. Micheaux is credited as the first African-American to produce a feature-length movie ("The Homesteader" - 1919) and also the first to produce a feature-length sound movie. Not many of his movies survive and since they were intended primarily for black audiences, few are known today. The fact that they were all made on the proverbial shoestring did not help them to linger in the collective memory.

As for Robeson, he was one of the first black actors to cross over into 'white' films, most noticeably in the original 1936 version of "Showboat". Tall, handsome, with a beautiful bass voice, he was the son of a minister, graduated from college in 1919, and attended Columbia Law School -- so he was hardly any kind of stereotype. He performed on stage and in concert from the early twenties, and made a series of wonderfully conceived films (several of them in England) in the thirties. His last film performance was in "Tales of Manhattan" (1942) when he took offence at the portrayal of Negroes in Hollywood movies. Always a radical and a fighter for justice, he was suspected of Communist sympathies (he famously performed in Moscow), and had his passport confiscated for his beliefs. He was effectively blacklisted and his career destroyed. A sad, sad story.

In the above film he takes a dual role as the respectable, poor would-be inventor Sylvester and his ex-convict brother who poses as a man of the cloth. His fire and brimstone sermons become so popular with the local community, that no one sees his true colours (a drinker and a gambler) through the fa├žade. He entices Sylvester's girlfriend or rather rapes her, manages to get her to steal the money that her poor old mother has been saving in the family bible, and drives her in disgrace from her home. When the mother eventually traces the girl, she is starving and sickly --soon to die. The mother is played by the large and imposing fair-skinned Mercedes Gilbert, who was a well-known stage actress, and the girl by Micheaux's sister-in-law in her only film appearance.

While censorship was not as formal in the twenties as it became after the Hays Code, the director was broadly criticised by his fellow blacks for portraying a minister as a thief, rapist, and murderer. Without the funds to reshoot the movie, Micheaux tacked on a new ending -- an early instance of 'it was all a dream, the nightmare of a tortured soul' cop-out. Despite this being the only time Robeson played what could be considered a villain, his performance is mesmerising. The film is worth seeing for him alone, but the Criterion disc is blessed with a great jazz score by Wycliffe Gordon and Courtney Pike. And while I usually object to voices on the sound-track of a silent movie, I could just about swear that at times I could hear Robeson himself singing.

I am away for a short break at the end of next week, so I shall reappear in a fortnight's time. 'Til then....
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