#356) The Emperor Jones (1933)

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#356) The Emperor Jones (1933)

OR “Ah! Wilderness!”

Directed by Dudley Murphy

Written by DuBose Heyward. Based on the play by Eugene O’Neill.

Class of 1999

No trailer, but here’s this movie’s “Take a Shot” moment.

The Plot: Brutus Jones (Paul Robeson) is a charming, albeit temperamental African-American tempted by the sinful city living he is exposed to as a porter. During a crap game, Jones stabs and kills his friend Jeff (Frank H. Wilson), and is sentenced to a chain gang. Jones escapes, and ends up on an island off of Haiti. After becoming business partners with shady trader Smithers (Dudley Digges), Jones successfully takes over the island, and crowns himself “Emperor”. The power immediately goes to Jones’ head, but a tribal revolt (and an extended monologue in the jungle) is not too far behind.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls Robeson’s performance “powerful”, and then just spoils the whole darn movie.

But Does It Really?: I’m on the fence with this one. It definitely stands out from other films of the era, with its progressive casting and (then) experimental camerawork, but the increasingly uneasy racial discussions make for an uncomfortable modern viewing. Ultimately I’ll give “The Emperor Jones” a pass as a representation of Paul Robeson for something other than belting “Ol’ Man River”. Like many early African-American films on this list, do your homework before watching “The Emperor Jones”.

Everybody Gets One: Many of the film’s supporting players were performers from Broadway, opera, and minstrelsy. Among the actors in minor roles is future legendary comedian and Chitlin’ Circuit veteran Moms Mabley! “The Emperor Jones” is currently the only film adaptation of a Eugene O’Neill play to make the NFR. My prediction: the next one will be the 1930 “Anna Christie” starring Greta Garbo (with 1962’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” a potential spoiler).

Wow, That’s Dated: The lost profession of train porter. Also the slurs. Mainly the slurs.

Seriously, Oscars?: United Artists was considered a smaller independent studio compared to the larger Hollywood studios of the day (Warner Bros., MGM, etc), and box office disappointment “The Emperor Jones” was left out of the Oscars. United Artists’ only major contender at the 1933 Oscars was a film they distributed but did not produce: English import “The Private Life of Henry VIII”.

Other notes

  • Let’s get this out of the way: most of the controversy surrounding “The Emperor Jones” – then and now – was O’Neill’s abundant usage of the word “n****r”. O’Neill based the character of Brutus off of a sailor he had known in his waterfront days, but at the end of the day this reasoning is still a white person defending their use of an offensive epithet. Charles Sidney Gilpin, Broadway’s original Brutus Jones, objected to the term and opted to substitute “negro” during his performances. When “Jones” was revived in 1925, O’Neill bypassed Gilpin in favor of a then-unknown Paul Robeson, which led to Robeson reprising the role for the film. It should go without saying, but O’Neill’s original text is restored for the film.
  • Screenwriter DuBose Heyward was a few years away from his most famous work, the libretto for “Porgy and Bess”. Everyone has a niche, apparently Heyward’s was writing super stereotypical dialogue for African-Americans.
  • Dudley Murphy got his start writing and directing shorts, including fellow NFR entries “St. Louis Blues” and “Black and Tan”, the latter also featuring “Jones” co-star Fredi Washington.
  • To the best of my knowledge there’s no singing in the original play, but we cast Paul Robeson as the lead and dammit we’re gonna make him sing!
  • Light-skinned African-American Fredi Washington had to reshoot all of her scenes when the producers determined she appeared white alongside Paul Robeson (and miscegenation in the movies was still very taboo). Ms. Washington’s reaction to these reshoots (in essentially blackface) goes unrecorded.
  • A ‘30s chain gang? Say hi to Paul Muni for me…oh no he escaped!
  • Among the countless pre-code subjects we considered taboo back in 1933 was black-on-white violence. The shot of Brutus hitting a white prison guard over the head with a shovel was removed from the final film, leaving an obvious and jarring cut. If you want to see an approximation of that scene, I feel like “Blazing Saddlesdoes the trick.
  • Once we get on the island the slurs start flying left and right. It’s a difficult viewing experience. Interestingly enough, in some scenes there are sudden cuts before and after the slurs, leading me to believe the offensive terms were deleted from various prints and restored here.
  • For all the film’s cons, Robeson is very good, and his Brutus is allowed to be a more dimensional character than African-Americans were allowed to be in the 1930s. There are good turns from the supporting cast as well, but like the original stage play, this is Brutus’ show.
  • The final third of the movie is the only part that is faithful to the stage version. The entire play is essentially an extended monologue for Brutus, and the film visualizes several scenes that are mentioned but not seen on stage. It’s definitely a tonal shift for the movie, due to Brutus suddenly speaking in O’Neill’s trademark prose. This all being said, O’Neill signed off on the film’s departures from his text.
  • If you can, make sure to watch the restored Criterion Collection version of “Emperor Jones”. If nothing else, they restore the blue tint that the jungle scenes originally had. Nice throwback to when this was commonplace in the silent era.
  • My final handwritten note sums up my overall experience with this movie: “Ohhhhhhhhkay.”

Legacy

  • The play and film version of “Emperor Jones” made a star out of Paul Robeson, one of the first African-American actors to crossover into white America. Robeson was grateful for the exposure “Emperor Jones” gave him, but struggled with its racially insensitive characterizations, forming the foundation for his subsequent political activism and involvement with the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Productions of “The Emperor Jones” saw a resurgence in the 1950s, primarily in response to Robeson being blacklisted for alleged Communist sympathies. A 1955 TV production starred a young Ossie Davis.
  • An opera based on “Emperor Jones” premiered in 1933. Although Robeson never performed in the show, he did sing selections from it in the 1936 film “The Song of Freedom”.
  • As for the film itself, its original release was limited: white theaters didn’t want to carry a movie with an African-American lead, and several black organizations condemned the movie for its language and depictions of African-Americans. “The Emperor Jones” wasn’t rediscovered and reappraised until the ‘70s when Paul Robeson started raking in the lifetime achievement awards and tributes.

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