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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

THE GREEN PASTURES (1936)

When Marc Connelly’s ‘All-Colored’ Old Testament fable finally made it to DVD, it came with a warning foreword on the film’s racial stereotypes. (One of a series of releases to display it.) But unless you take exception to the word ‘Negro,’ the film, though very much of its day, is unlikely to offend, retaining much of its original charm & wide-eye naiveté as it re-imagines Biblical stories thru the eyes of a little girl at Sunday School, dictated by her own life experience. (Chaplin did much the same when his Tramp imagined heaven in THE KID/'21)  Not an up-to-date treatment; how could it be?; why should it be?, but loaded with substantial opportunities for Black talent rare at the time. As film artifact, it’s less in the tradition of ’30s All-Black productions like PORGY AND BESS (opening that year on B’way), CABIN IN THE SKY or THE ‘HOT’ MIKADO; more in line with Warner Bros. hankering for a prestige stage spectacular a la the Shakespeare/Reinhardt A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT DREAM/’35. As with that production, an original stage director co-megged with a more tech savvy film director (here Connelly & William Keighley); each was atmospherically shot by Hal Mohr; both with Erich Wolfgang Korngold on music (in DREAM, arranged Mendelssohn, here just two short cues - THE CREATION and THE FLOOD between spirituals from the Johnson Hall Choir); and both films turning up among the year’s top-grossers. (MIDSUMMER’s flop rep was due to excessive expense.) The show doesn’t avoid a sentimental/condescending view of poor Southern Blacks, built not only into the material, but into the Progressive fabric of the day, yet too effective & affectionate to read as cultural putdown.

DOUBLE-BILL: Three of the leads (Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson, Rex Ingram & the marvelous Oscar Polk) are also in Vincente Minnelli’s CABIN IN THE SKY/’43, so too the Johnson Hall Choir.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: The last Warners release to have a Black lead must have been BIG BOY/’30, a mere six years back, yet starring Al Jolson in BlackFace.

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