Monday, January 16, 2012

Two-Gun Man from Harlem - 1938

“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.

Herb Jeffries is the hero. We know that because he’s jaw-droppingly handsome, he’s taller than everybody else, and he wears a white hat. He’s no great actor - none of the singing cowboys were, although in this movie he gets to play a dual role. As the gunfighter “The Deacon” he looks like he’s having a blast.

Manton Moreland is his shorter, funnier brother. He is sly and loyal, and a lot smarter than most cowboy sidekicks. He tells a story to divert the bad guys, about Lot’s wife. Only in his rambling version, Salt Lake City is the result of the biblical curse.

Mae Turner is the ranch owner’s wife, who is unfaithful and tries to lure our Herb. Failing that, she frames him for murder. Unlike most of the other awkward and wooden performances here, Miss Turner had stage training at the University of California, and played Lady Macbeth among her professional roles. She knew how to do evil ladies.

Spencer Williams, who would go on to write and produce in Black Cinema, played Butch, the bad guy who did the bidding, for a hefty fee, of Clarence Brooks. He gives a quite natural performance and has great screen presence.

Mr. Brooks played the head bad guy, a man of means and just plain mean. He tries to buy the love of the beautiful young ingénue, played by Marguerite Whitten. He is as oily as Snidely Whiplash.

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.

But look again. Jess “Jesse” Lee Brooks, one of the finest actors and singers of his generation (see this 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:

"In those days, my driving force was being a hero to children who didn't have any heroes to identify with," Jeffries says in a quote from his website. "I felt that dark-skinned children could identify with me and, in The Bronze Buckaroo they could have a hero. Many people don't realize (to this very day) that in the Old West, one out of every three cowboys was a Black... and there were many Mexican cowboys, too."

The familiar image of the B-western types: the hero, the villain, the pretty girl, the hero-worshiping little boy, and the loyal sidekick, they are all played out here by black people. African-American audiences could enjoy the same storybook sagebrush fare as the “general” audiences without fear of being demeaned or stereotyped, this time.

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.


Caftan Woman said...

It was very disappointing last summer when TCM's salute to singing cowboys did not include showing the Herb Jeffries pictures in Canada. Handsome heroes with nice singing voices are a particular favourite of mine.

Thank you for another illuminating post.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, CW. I think he has one of the better singing voices of all the cowboy heroes.

I have wondered how TCM's schedule might differ in Canada, and more to the point, why?

KimWilson said...

Jacqueline, a lot of these films are lost to the African American community today. They have been told for countless years that Hollywood just made movies that ignored or stereotyped blacks, but aren't told about these type of films. Instead they watch blaxploitation films from the 70s--that's what I find most sad. Nice profile of this film.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Kim. I wonder how many of these kinds of films featuring all-black casts have been preserved. I'll bet a lot have been lost.

Yvette said...

I agree Jacqueline, I'll bet a lot of these films have been left to turn to dust on some backshelf.

I agree with Kim, these films have just not been shown to kids where it might make a difference. Black kids today probably aren't even aware that there were black cowboys.

I admit I'd never heard of these films and I was a big film goer as a kid and later. I read nothing about these films in movie magazines or in books.

It's up to the internet now, I guess, to open some eyes to the truth of the past.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Yvette. Hurray for the Internet and TCM. There are a few videos on YouTube of Herb Jeffries. Had a quite a career as a jazz singer as well, and I think continues to perform occasionally. Our hero will be pushing 100 years old in a couple of years. Gives us something to shoot for.

Squonk said...

Interesting post. I'll have to seek out some of Jeffries' films. Especially looking forward to seeing Stymie outside of Our Gang.

Caftan Woman said...

When a film doesn't run in Canada, the network says it is because they haven't purchased the right to broadcast it in this country. This includes all early Laurel and Hardy flicks to "Since You Went Away" and the Herb Jeffries movies. Legal red tape standing in the way of ME watching movies. It's enough to make one seriously consider anarchy.

In TCM's Now Playing guide they indicate "not playing in Canada" by a symbol of the maple leaf with a slash through it. It's like a knife to my heart!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

My word, that maple leaf with a slash through it symbol sounds ghastly. verboten.

Strange to think such old material (sure, classics, but let's face it, just plain old) would have restrictions like that.

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