An Oscar for Micheaux

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COURTESY SEPARATE CINEMA ARCHIVE

A poster for Oscar Micheaux's 1932 production of 'The Girl From Chicago'

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The shooting schedule was typically fast and furtive. Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence, authors of a very sympathetic study titled "Writing Himself into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films and His Audiences," offer this making-of anecdote: "Shingzie Howard recalled that they once went to a white neighborhood early in the morning and, with no one at home, quickly shot her at the door of an elegant house." How does an actor prepare for this? To appear in a Micheaux movie, then, was to be glimpsed in a documentary of whatever he happened to catch in that moment when the film was properly loaded the camera was running. In the harsh light of Micheaux's artlessness, the amateurs are exposed and the professionals shine.

Paul Robeson is, naturally, a revelation as the libidinous preacher in "Body and Soul"; how much more startling must it have been to see his film debut back in 1925. Of the actors in Micheaux sound films, I especially like Bee Freeman, who had been discovered by Eubie Blake for the "Shuffle Along" revue that also featured Fredi Washington and Josephine Baker. As a cat-house madam in "Murder in Harlem," she shames the competition with her lively line deliveries and ease before the camera. She has dimples, big expressive eyes, good humor and a sexual knowingness that would have shame Mae West. She also possessed an insouciance that Micheaux could have used more of in his films. A half-century later, in a tape that can be heard on the invaluable Jazz History website, Freeman recalled: "I always loved black — not as a color to be called, but something to wear."



AH LUB'S DAT MAN

Some of Micheaux's talkies are innocuous backstage musicals. "Swing!" has a plot lifted from "42nd St.": the star of a New York revue is injured and the ingénue, Cora Green, takes her place. (Micheaux liked to inject melodrama into even his breeziest scenarios: when the star breaks her leg falling down some stairs, she screams bloody murder, as if she'd been taken on a ride by the whole Ku Klux Klan.) Sure enough, they hire Green because "She's got just what this show needs. Swing!" So what does she sing? The Yiddish tune "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen." (That's not as weird as it seems. Sammy Cahn, who helped write the tune's English lyrics, first heard it sung by a black duo at Harlem's Apollo Theatre.) A white promoter is so smitten by Cora's talent, he promises to put the show on Broadway. "My only stipulation," he says, in an unnecessary racial slur that is pure Micheaux, "is that the show be called 'Ah Lub's Dat Man.' "

If you watch enough of these movies, you may gradually enter the auteur's world and world-view — a take on black life in the 30s that, if it's not appealing today, is at least coherent. Micheaux's mission was to "uplift the race" (his phrase, later borrowed by Spike Lee as the motto for his film "School Daze"). His method was by scolding and cajoling people — white and black. In the sort-of-murder-mystery "Lying Lips," a black man (Newsome) managing a night club for two white gangsters tells off his employers: "If you had any respect for the unfortunate members of my race, especially the girls who are forced to work here, you wouldn't try to make them do ugly things. But since you haven't... I quit. Good day!" Later, the singer he lost his job over (Edna Mae Harris) later sits in her bathtub and fondly soliloquizes: "I'd like to see some other colored man give up his job on account of any girl. Why, he'd throw at anybody that'd show him 50 cents, I'm sorry to say."

Say this for Micheaux's transgressive talkies: despite or because of all the loopiness, the over-ardent acting and primitive mise-en-scene, they are never boring.

Here, then, for connoisseurs and scoffers alike, are three unmissable Micheauxes:

TEN MINUTES TO LIVE (1932)
For enthralling incomprehensibility, the prize among extant Micheaux films must go to this early talkie. From the start, it's a mystery movie. The first title card announces that the film is based on "three short stories." A few moments later a "Producers Note" (Producer's Note; or maybe Micheaux and his partners were proud sirs) amends that to say it's based on two stories: "The Faker" and "The Killer."

"Ten Minutes" would be a fine introduction to the Micheaux milieu; novices could play Spot the Goofs — or, as the scholars would put it, narrative dislocations. Here's one, from "Writing Himself into History": "There is a sequence of a woman getting into a taxi cab at Pennsylvania Station in New York City ... but the shots of her traveling through the city show her in an open touring car."

Like so many other race talkies, "Ten Minutes" expends much of its running time on night-club and vaudeville acts, which it photographs, uncut and with an unmoving camera. First, eight chorines tap on a stage the size of Micheaux's directorial talent. Then Galle de Gaston and George Williams, a comedy duo in blackface (white lips, the whole deal), get off some political zingers they may have found in a Karl Marx joke book: "Gimme less liberty and more food than a whole lotta freedom and starvin' to death!" There are numbers by a strong-voiced chanteuse (I'm guessing it's Tressie Mitchell) and a startlingly cute singer-dancer (Mabel Garrett). Garrett has an inchoate charisma that could have made her a black Britney, if any mogul of the 30s had looked even half as hard for Afro-American stars as they did for Caucasians.

In between these acts, a couple is shown chatting, ostensibly at a table in the night club but having no spatial relation to the stage. Tressie and Mabel come over to chat with another patron. All this irrelevant bustle leaves about five minutes of the first 30 for the actual plot of "The Faker." It goes like this: a man and a woman argue; she pulls a gun, and when he says "What're you gonna do with that thing?" she replies, evenly, "I'm going to kill — a rat"; the struggle, a few shots are fired and he survives; another woman finds him in the night club and shoots him dead.

So far, so Micheaux: a primitive talking picture with fervid melodrama, extravagant acting and lots of musical filler. But in its second half, "The Killer," the picture goes nuts enough to place it in a class with those Surrealist masterpieces "Blood of the Poet (by Jean Cocteau) and "Un Chien andalou" (Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel).

The film now has virtually no dialogue, except when Mahon speaks with his native West Indian accent (in other scenes, Micheaux replaced Mahon's voice with his own). Most plot information is conveyed through telegrams, letters and news clippings. The action is scored to program music chosen seemingly at random: Latin music, hot jazz, the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth and, to accompany the chorus girls going native in "jungle" costumes, a hopped-up klezmer song. (Micheaux must have loved that Yiddish music.)

The "Killer" story, such as it is, involves a note that a mysterious man instructs a waiter to deliver to a woman sitting with Mahon at the night club; it tells her she has "ten minutes to live," and that when the next note arrives, she will be killed. This sequence, in ten shots, runs about a minute and a half. And then... the whole sequence is repeated! Now, this could be the error or caprice of a projectionist in one of the theaters where the movie was exhibited. The 59-min. copy of the film I saw, distributed by Something Weird Video, has been plenty battered in 70 years. But it jibes with Micheaux's policy of trying anything, especially if it doesn't work.

A flashback leads us to a train, where the threatened woman is being watched by her menacer, and to the bedroom of another woman (the menacer's accomplice) who slips in and out of her slip for no discernible reason other than to keep the customers awake. The scene shifts jarringly to the night club for a few seconds, then back to the woman's bedroom, where a telegram warns the bad guy that the "house is surrounded." He looks out the window to see one man standing watch; he immediately looks down the street in another direction and sees the same man in a different place. The baddie then strangles the woman, forcing her down to the floor. The camera pans to catch the action, but its view is partially blocked by a box that someone forgot to move out of the way.

At some point, a director's mix of ambition and incompetence can spin so wildly that it soars into cinematic delirium. For Micheaux, the second half of "Ten Minutes to Live" is that point. Call it surrealism or dementia, but it's a Guilty Pleasure worth treasuring.

THE VEILED ARISTOCRATS (1932)

At a elegant soiree for 12, with all the spiffily-dressed attendees facing the camera as if for a group portrait, one woman tells an anecdote. The others pay solemn attention. She arrives at the punch line and we hear a chorus of genial laughter, but her listeners' faces remain frozen for two seconds before the actors throw their heads back in mirth, their mouths out of synch with the sound track's laughter.

Did black audiences of the 30s laugh along with these risible scenes, or laugh at them? Or did they silently indulge them — sit them out? Perhaps they ignored a mistake like this one in "Aristocrats": The phone rings in the home of our heroine, Rena (Lucille Lewis). Cut to out hero Frank (Mahon), hanging up the receiver as if he just finished a call. Cut back to Rena, who has her conversation with him! Cut back to the same shot of Frank hanging up the receiver! Did viewers not notice that, in the final scene, Mahon has a significant slice of his hair missing, as if he'd recently had cranial surgery? And weren't they a tad miffed when Lawrence Chenault, the star billboarded on the opening credits, did not appear in the movie?

I refer to the extant 44-min. version of "Aristocrats." As with "Ten Minutes to Live," it may have been whittled to bits by censors, exhibitors, projectionists, angry patrons. (The longest Micheaux talkie I've seen is "Murder in Harlem," at 1hr.38.) But what's left of "Aristocrats" is choice: off-putting, unsettling, staggering toward emotional profundity.

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