Cast & Crew
Leo C. Popkin
A fight in a diner over the claims of conflicting gangster factions reveals Bob "Killer" Meade as a rising lawbreaker in Harlem. A member of Bull Brown's gang, Bob soon takes over and orders Bull to be "given some air." Bob is indicted for his crimes, but witnesses are afraid to talk and he is found not guilty. At the courthouse, he meets Mazie "Sugar" Walford, who believes him innocent. Although Mazie is engaged to George Stevens, a member of a prominent local family, Bob falls in love and begins to court her, promising to lay Harlem at her feet. Bob decides to cut in on the juke box action of rival Harlem boss, Lew Baron, who sends several killers for him. However, Bob outsmarts them and demands half of Lew's take. In the ensuing gangland war, Bob and his men defeat Lew, taking over his machines. Lieutenant Holmes, a policeman who knew Bob as a boy, warns him about where his methods will lead. Lew calls to make a deal with Bob and learns that Bob and his men are celebrating the opening of Mazie's new show at a nightclub. During an African number, Lew's gang enters the club, and Bob and his company leave, prompting an automobile chase. Later, Bill, Lew's henchmen, goes to Mazie and forces her to sing her new song, "Remember the Moon," to Bob over the telephone. After the connection is broken, Bob finds the body of his old friend, Slicum, at his door with a note from Lew. With his other henchmen, Phil and Danny, Bob goes after Lew, catching and shooting him and his men as they are about to leave town. Mazie, who has warned Bob, tells Holmes of his actions, and the police surround Lew's hideout. Bob escapes to Mazie's but realizes it is too late to hide when Holmes comes to the door. Nonetheless, Bob makes a mad dash over the rooftops as the police pursue and finally shoot him, his corpse falling at the feet of Mazie and Holmes.
Leo C. Popkin
Jesse C. Brooks
Harry M. Popkin
Harry M. Popkin
Arthur C. Ringer
Geo. D. Ringer
George D. Ringer
Treasures of Black Cinema - TREASURES OF BLACK CINEMA, Vol. 1 on DVD
When most people think of the early black independent film, they imagine the ambitious works of Oscar Micheaux (Within Our Gates ) or Spencer Williams (The Blood of Jesus ), films that wrestle with issues of race and morality. This new collection offers a more broad sampling of the movement, helping illustrate that the majority of films made for segregated audiences were genre pictures -- produced quickly and cheaply, designed to please the mass audience. In fact, these "programmers" vary little from the plotlines and themes of their Caucasian counterparts.
The Western, for example, allows little room for reinvention, especially if one doesn't want to alienate an audience that carries certain expectations of the genre. Therefore, The Bronze Buckaroo has no overt references to matters of race. It is a straightforward, capably-made, low-budget oater that happens to have an African-American cast.
Herb Jeffries stars as Bob Blake, the debonair leader of a group of cowboys who come to investigate the S.O.S. letter of an old friend, Joe Jackson. When Bob arrives, his pal has disappeared, and Joe's sister Betty (Artie Young), is being coerced to sell their ranch by a neighboring land-owner, Buck Thorne (Clarence Brooks). Bob takes up Betty's cause and discovers that the Jackson place sits on a ridge of gold, and that Buck is desperately trying to buy or steal the property out from under them. Needless to say, Bob fulfills his duty as a Western hero and restores law and order to the rural community. Occasionally, however, this quest for justice is momentarily paused, for the insertion of musical numbers (since The Bronze Buckaroo is a singing cowboy picture). "Payday Blues" is a lively tune punctuated by a tap solo, while "Almost Time for Round-Up" is a beautiful, mournful a capella melody punctuated by a cardtable shoot-out. Both numbers are performed by The Four Tones.
Another genre-conforming picture in Treasures of Black Cinema is Gang War. In the tradition of The Public Enemy (1931) or Scarface (1932), an ambitious criminal, Bob "Killer" Meade (Ralph Cooper), takes over an organized crime operation and establishes his own empire. The film is a relatively engaging drama because producer/director Leo C. Popkin was obviously well acquainted with the cinematic vernacular of the genre. Gang War contains all the essential elements of a Depression-era gangster pic, most notably the swirling montages of spinning headlines, careening police cars, champagne glasses and gangland violence. And Bob follows the tragic trajectory of other classic gangster anti-heroes, before and since. When Bob begins to lose control of his dynasty, we know it is because he is drunk on power and has strayed too far from the values of his youth. The level-headed neighborhood cop from Meade's childhood (Jesse Brooks) shows up to make sure this idea is clearly conveyed. Again, a song-and-dance number is not-so-subtly woven into the story to provide maximum entertainment value.
There are some indications that The Devil's Daughter (a loose remake of George Terwilliger's jungle thriller Ouanga ) is supposed to be a horror film, but since it never achieves any real level of suspense, one cannot be sure. At other times it has the congenial, frothy air of Elvis Presley exotica such as Fun in Acapulco (1963). Because it wiggles free of any clearly-defined genre, The Devil's Daughter is really the most fascinating (and peculiar) title in the collection.
Ida James stars as Sylvia Walton, a New York woman who arrives in Jamaica to take over control of a banana plantation owned by a dead relative. Sylvia is coolly hosted by her half-sister Isabelle (Nina Mae McKinney, best remembered as the villainous Chick in Hallelujah), who attempts to scare the rightful owner back to Harlem by convincing her she is the victim of a supernatural curse. The plot of the film is clumsily handled (in the end Isabelle confesses her scheme to Sylvia for no apparent reason), but it remains fascinating for its treatment of the occult. While it follows Hollywood convention to some degree -- using the steady pounding of drums to signal an imminent voodoo uprising, for example -- it also reveals a more sophisticated awareness of the subject matter. Rather than using the hackneyed term "voodoo," the characters refer to the supernatural belief with the more culturally-specific word "obeah" or "obi" (associated with Caribbean locales). The climax of the film is a prolonged ceremony of song, dance and incantation designed to convince Sylvia she is under the control of the spirits. The ceremony is unlike anything ever performed in a Hollywood picture, and the authentic tropical locale leads one to surmise that the sequence was actually shot in the tropics, with the assistance of genuine obeah practitioners. The curse spoken by Isabelle is so poetic and powerful that it could not possibly have been written by the same people responsible for The Devil's Daughter's stilted dialogue:
Let her beauty become disfigured, Let the roundness of her limbs become flat and the strength of her young body become parceled and old. Let the icy touch of thy fingers, oh Great One, cause the warm blood in her breasts to become chilled. Let her pulse beat slower and slower. Let her living breath become shorter and shorter. Dissolve the flesh from her bones, oh Great One, and transform her into the ghastly image of death -- death -- death.
One other clever twist that elevates The Devil's Daughter out of the realm of the routine is that the Harlemites -- not the Jamaicans -- are the truly superstitious ones. Hamtree Harrington co-stars as Percy Jackson, a jive-talking urbanite who is convinced that his soul has been transferred into the body of a piglet, much to the amusement of the local banana farmers.
The nature of comic relief is an intriguing element in Treasures of Black Cinema, and one is at a loss as to how, exactly, it should be interpreted. For example, in The Bronze Buckaroo, Bob's sidekick Dusty (Lucius Brooks) is always stumbling into embarrassing situations, such as being sold a talking mule by a cunning ventriloquist (F.E. Miller). Brooks's clownish comic relief might today be considered insensitive, had it appeared in a Roy Rogers or Gene Autry movie. Its presence in a film tailored to black audiences indicates either the degree to which African-American films subscribed to the "inocuous" racism of white comedy... or perhaps might indicate that what may seem inappropriate to one generation was quite acceptable as comedy by another.
A departure from the black-cast film, Up in the Air is offered as "an extra bonus feature." This Monogram B-Picture is noteworthy for having African-American comedian Mantan Moreland in a primary role. Up in the Air is a bit more slick than the other films in the collection, being produced on a greater budget within the machinery of an actual studio (albeit a Poverty Row studio).
Frankie Darro stars as a fast-talking page at a radio station where the featured singer (Lorna Gray) is shot in the dark during a rehearsal. As a bumbling detective (Clyde Dilson) investigates, Frankie and his janitor pal Jeff Jefferson (Mantan Moreland) attempt to sniff out the killer, while Frankie woos the station's new receptionist (Anne Mason).
Up in the Air is clearly a vehicle for Darro, former juvenile star at Warner Bros. who had developed into an effective leading man in B-pictures, a low-rent Cagney injected with the zany energy of Mickey Rooney. Viewers of 2006 may cringe at some of Moreland's antics: his eyeballs bulging whenever someone mentions corpses or ghosts, not understanding why he can't be a tap-dancing star on the radio, or having an inexplicable fear of microphones. Although there are a great many jokes at Moreland's expense, it was genuinely progressive to see a black comic as sidekick and pal to a white character in 1940. And there are occasional moments when Moreland and the filmmakers chose a more clever route than the comedic low road. In one scene, Darro dons blackface so he and Moreland can perform an Amos 'n' Andy-style sketch on radio. When Darro assumes a gruff "black" voice, Moreland looks at him seriously and says, "You don't expect me to speak in no dialect do you?" "No, you just speak plain, you're the straight man." The viewer is allowed to breathe a sigh of relief.
One significant explanation for so many films' lack of interest in matters of race is that, more often than not, they were made by white directors. The black film market was a lucrative one, especially to those adept at turning out movies inexpensively, and attracted the kinds of filmmakers who were just as comfortable with black independent film as they were with controversial exploitation films or Poverty Row Westerns. Director Richard Kahn (The Bronze Buckaroo), producer/director Popkin (Gang War, The Devil's Daughter), director Howard Bretherton (Up in the Air) were all white, and worked in a variety of genres -- not just black-cast films. One white filmmaker, Mississippi-born producer Alfred Sack (The Devil's Daughter, The Bronze Buckaroo), devoted himself almost exclusively to the black-cast film (making 21 features between 1930 and 1947).
The films in Treasures of Black Cinema are presented in the best quality masters that can be expected. Because these films do not have studio caretakers, the prints that survive are battered and spliced (usually exist only in 16mm elements). Gang War seems to have suffered the most physical damage, the victim of frequent splices that are loud and often interrupt the visual continuity of the scenes. That being said, Retromedia has done an excellent job of cleaning up the elements up and creating crisp, well-balanced masters.
Roudtree's introductions provide a brief but suitable context for each film. The otherwise no-frills DVD contains no scene selection menus or any other special features. Curiously, the direction of the Roundtree intros is credited to Fred Olen Ray, a low-budget independent filmmaker himself, who achieved some notoriety in the late 1980s for a series of unapologetically trashy straight-to-video features (such as Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers ), which he continues to make today.
For more information about Treasures of Black Cinema, visit Image Entertainment. To order Treasures of Black Cinema, go to TCM Shopping.
by Asa Kendall Jr.
Treasures of Black Cinema - TREASURES OF BLACK CINEMA, Vol. 1 on DVD
The film opens with a montage of long shots depicting violent gang warfare, followed by a newspaper headline that reads "Gang War-Local Police Seem Unable to Stem New Crime Wave." (This same headline reappears at the end of the picture.) An inset of presenter Harry M. Popkin against the newspaper comes next. The story opens with another montage of gang violence, and further montages of newspaper headlines show Bob's rise to criminal prominence. The picture also includes a collage of Harlem nightlife prior to the nightclub scene. The Variety review comments that the use of numerous montages "seems a particularly bad technique in view of a prospective audience which is notoriously slow in reading and uninclined to it, while many Negroes in the South are actually unable to read." Variety also notes that the picture deserves "a merit rating only in comparison with other output of the Negro picture makers." According to modern sources, Gang War was reissued in the 1940s by Toddy Pictures under the title Crime Street.