“Two-Gun Man from Harlem” (1938) creates a world for us that is both strange and familiar, an image placed over another image. We see a separate world, but it is our world and we are at home here, even if we are not cowboys, even if we are not black, even if we are not white.
This movie is one of a handful of B-westerns starring Herb Jeffries, and the first of a series of three featuring him playing the cowboy called Bob Blake. We discussed Mr. Jeffries in this previous post, how his stature as The Bronze Buckaroo, the Singing Cowboy of the Black Cinema in the 1930s put him on par with the likes of Gene Autry and a posse of others who were all white and all more famous.
The Bronze Buckaroo traveled in somewhat different circles. He rode the range in movie houses that played to African-American audiences. General audiences, i.e. theaters where patrons were either mostly white, or, as in the South, all white, were not shown these films.
They missed out on something big, those white patrons. A simple message a lot of them would have to wait another 20 or 30 years to hear, and under much more turbulent circumstances. If they had only seen Herb Jeffries riding into town on his white horse to save the day, heard him sing “I’m a Happy Cowboy”, one wonders if the battles for social justice fought in the streets and on the back of the bus, and at the lunch counter would have been necessary.
Not that “Two-Gun Man from Harlem” was the greatest movie in the world. It wasn’t even the greatest movie in the small neighborhood movie houses where it played. It was typical B-western.
That is its charm, and the very magic of its power.
Miss Whitten is the guardian of her younger brother, Matthew “Stymie” Beard, who you’ll recognize as one of the Little Rascals. Here, he’s a funny, talkative, know-it-all kid who hero-worships Herb Jeffries.
And who wouldn’t?
That’s all pretty standard for a B-western. The writing is stilted and corny. The acting isn’t the best. The production values are distinctly low budget. Even the fight scenes are funny because they lack proper choreography, and the sound effect of the punching sounds a lot somebody slapping a tennis ball against a garage wall.
previous post with a clip of his “Let My People Go” in “Sullivan’s Travels”), plays the sheriff.
He is a man of authority, no-nonsense, steely-eyed, but fair. You can put your life in his hands. He always gets his man.
Films exhibited for “general” audiences did not show dark-skinned sheriffs. Nor dark-skinned rapacious landowners paying off henchmen. Nor dark-skinned cowboy heroes.
Which is why when offered a chance to “pass” in the movies, light-skinned Herb Jeffries, who was of mixed African and European heritage on his father’s side, and Irish on his mother’s side, refused. He did one better and wore darker makeup on screen. Mr. Jeffries reasoning was:
White audiences, however, missed out on a revelation. The hero, the villain, the pretty girl, the hero-worshiping little boy were all people they knew very well. They saw them all the time at the movies. The only difference -- the only difference -- was skin color.
About ten minutes into the movie, one sees that is no difference at all.
Powerful stuff, and not what some people wanted to hear.
For more on Herb Jeffries, have a look at his website.
Wishing you a meaningful Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.