- The Emperor Jones (1933 film)
name = The Emperor Jones
Paul Robeson Dudley Digges
September 29, 1933
amg_id = 1:15741
imdb_id = 0023985|
"The Emperor Jones" is a 1933 film by
Dudley Murphybased on the play by Eugene O'Neill. The film featured Paul Robesonand also Dudley Digges, Frank H. Wilson, and Fredi Washington. It was adapted for film by DuBose Heyward, directed by Dudley Murphyand filmed at Kaufman Astoria Studios. Robeson had starred in the O'Neill play on stage, both in the United States and England, a role that had helped launch his career.
The film is based rather loosely on the play, adds an entire backstory before O'Neill's actual play begins, and includes several new characters that do not appear in it (such as Jones' wife, and a friendly priest who advises him to give up his evil ways). Some people consider the movie to be just a vehicle for showing off Robeson's musical talent (he sings a number of times in the film). However, the film does provide what may be Robeson's greatest dramatic performance in a movie, considered by many to be worthy of an Oscar nomination that it did not receive.
In the film version, the opening shots are of an African ritual dance, staged to represent the "primitive" black world to which Brutus Jones will eventually revert. A quick dissolve takes us into a Baptist Church in the American South, where the dancing of the congregation presents an image that argues for a continuity between the "savage" Africans and the ring-shout Baptists. Such suggestive editing may be the kind of element that causes viewers to suspect the film of racism.
Similarly, the film makes copious use of the word "nigger," as did O'Neill's original play. African Americans criticized O'Neill's language at the time, so its preservation and expansion in the film present another cause for critique. Given Robeson's subsequent career as a Civil Rights activist, the spectacle of his character using the term so frequently in regard to other blacks seems shocking today.
As for the plot, Brutus Jones has just been hired as a Pullman Porter, a job that served the upward mobility of thousands of African American men in the first half of the twentieth-century. Jones proudly shows off his uniform to his girlfriend Dolly (and the film's audience), setting up the contrast with the later scenes in which "the Emperor Jones" parades around in overdone military garb. But Jones is quickly corrupted by the lures of the big city, taking up with fast women and gamblers. One boisterous crap game leads to a fight in which he inadvertently stabs Jeff, the man who had introduced him to the fast-life and from whom he had stolen the affections of the beautiful Undine (played by Fredi Washington).
A stint on the chain-gang allows the film its first opportunity to show Robeson without his shirt on, an exposure of male nudity unusual for 1933 and certainly for a black actor. Here and later the director plays on Robeson's sexual power and, implicitly, on cultural stereotypes about the libidinal power of black men. Jones escapes the convict's life after striking a white guard who was torturing and beating another prisoner. Making his way home, he briefly receives the assistance of his wife before taking a job on a steamer headed for the Caribbean. His occupation shoveling coal into the ship's furnace yields more shots of his naked torso, as does the jump into the sea that allows him to swim to the shores of a small island.
The island is under the crude rule of a top-hatted black despot who receives merchandise from Smithers, the dilapidated white colonial merchant who is the sole Caucasian on the island. Jones rises to become Smithers partner and eventually "Emperor." He dethrones his predecessor with a trick that allows him to survive what appears to be a fusillade of bullets, creating the myth that he can only be slain by a silver one. Jones's rule of the island involves increasing taxes on the poor natives and pocketing the proceeds.
The highlight is a twenty-five minute spoken monologue taken directly from O'Neill's play, in which Brutus Jones (Robeson), hunted by natives in revolt, flees through the jungle and slowly disintegrates psychologically, becoming a shrieking hysteric who runs right into the path of his pursuers.
Recent Recognition and DVD Release
In 1999 the film was deemed "culturally significant" by the United States Library of Congress, and selected for [http://www.filmpreservation.org/preserved/filmdesc.php?id=281 preservation] in the
National Film Registry. The film is in the public domain now, and can be purchased at many online outlets. A newly remastered version (with commentary and extras) was released on DVD by the [http://www.criterion.com/asp/release.asp?id=370 Criterion Collection] in 2006.
* [http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?_r=1&res=9B05E4D61430EF3ABC4851DFBF668388629EDE&oref=slogin Original 1933 New York Times review]
*imdb title|id=0023985|title=The Emperor Jones
* [http://www.eoneill.com/texts/jones/contents.htm Text of the original Eugene O'Neill play]
* [http://www.criterion.com/asp/ The Criterion Collection]
* [http://www.edu-cyberpg.com/Teachers/DavidGoldenberg.html David Goldenberg] A founding member of the
VitaphoneProject, a group of collectors devoted to saving early movie sound tracks, Mr. Goldenberg made a significant contribution to film preservation when he provided the Library of Congress with the only complete sound-track discs for the classic 1933 film The Emperor Jones.
* [http://amazon.imdb.com/title/tt0023985/ The 1933 film on IMDB]
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