Thursday, April 9, 2009

Let My People Go

Cecil B. DeMille’s lavish, lusty spectacle of the story of Moses in two versions of “The Ten Commandments” is not the only movie view we may take in remembrance of Passover. Here is another one.

Our friend Citizen K recently posted this clip on his blog, and so, remorselessly I steal it today. It’s from the 1941 comedy “Sullivan’s Travels”, and though there is much to discuss on this film and its stars Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake at another time, this day is for this scene.

Towards the end of the film, Sullivan has found himself a miserable victim of injustice, bound helplessly to a backwater prison chain gang. In a remote rural church, the minister ends his service and prepares the congregation for a treat, an evening’s entertainment where they are to watch movies, starting off with a cartoon, on a sheet.

The prisoners in the chain gang are their invited guests. We hear the minister remind his flock to welcome the prisoners with compassion, and to take care they not display any attitude of superiority over them, so as not to hurt their feelings. We see the ragged clothes of the congregation, the plain, dim church and its rough wooden benches, and we may wonder how such poverty stricken people need to guard against feelings of superiority. Then the prisoners enter, shuffling in their chains, eyes cast downward, bone-tired and suspicious of any kindness.

The congregation saves the best seats for their guests, and led by the majestic voice of their pastor, the indomitably soulful Jess Lee Brooks, welcomes them with a song whose message cries out over the millennia, a song of enslavement, of seeking relief and justice.

Let my people go.

These descendents of African slaves sing an old song, taken from the ancient story of Jewish slaves, re-worked into one of most famous in the canon of Negro spirituals, and given as a gift to this rag-tag bunch of convicts.

The Jews of the Book of Exodus were freed by a miracle and the tenacity of a prophet. The slave forebears of this congregation were freed by a war, and the legislation it engendered. The convicts will taste a little bit of freedom tonight, laughing at a cartoon.

A rollicking slapstick comedy suddenly stops short, and soberly kisses us on the cheek with a reminder of our own humanity, and our innate human dignity, even in the oddest of the places and the lowliest of circumstances.

It is a magical scene, one of the few in Hollywood's heyday where a simple but powerful message truly transcends race or religion.

A blessed Passover then, to all who commemorate the wait, and the hope, and the blessing, and the freedom.


Kate Gabrielle said...

Sullivan's Travels is my favorite movie, and I think this one scene packs such a punch, about human misery and suffering; love and kindness; it's just so touching. I'm glad you stole the video, because I really enjoyed watching it :)

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Kate. I love "Sullivan's Travels" too. It gives us a lot to think about on many levels. It's also just plain fun.

K. said...

I'm flattered that I helped inspire such an insightful analysis.

I invite you to read my review of Otto Friedrich's City Without Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s. The book includes an account of Preston Sturges' career.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, K. I'll look forward to reading your review on Friedrich's book.

John Hayes said...

This is such a moving scene, & you write about very well. Excellent post, & a really worthwhile Passover remembrance.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, kindly, John. The scene doesn't really need any explaining; it's eloquent beyond words. I just wanted to point out why I was bringing it up for Passover.

Anonymous said...

I have been searching for months along with a couple of friends for a total masterpiece of music. Go down Moses (let my people go) it is an old black and white film about the old south. thought at first it was the old 1939 Huckelberry Finn from Paramount but no. It features a male slave in the fields I beleive a steamboat was involved. The music is very beautifull. The voice is rich and baritone. If anybody knows the movie and especially the singer, please e-mail me at Thank you

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

At the moment I'm drawing a blank, but I hope in time we can help you find the movie you're looking for, Friend.

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