I watched The Emperor Jones starring Paul Robeson this afternoon, a movie from 1933 based on Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play. I’d never actually seen a Paul Robeson movie before, and this one was pretty interesting, especially as it was pre-code and contained a lot of salacious tidbits that would not have been allowed when the production code started being enforced the following year.
The Emperor Jones features a predominantly black cast and is a notable example of both black cinema and pre-code cinema. I’ve become really interested in a lot pre-code films from the ’20s and ’30s, when “adult themes” were acceptable to the movie-going public. For instance, in this film, Paul Robeson’s character is an arrogant guy who works as a Pullman porter and envisions a life of wealth and extravagance. He cheats on his wife with prostitutes. He gambles. He kills a guy. He escapes from a chain gang. He finds himself on a Caribbean island where he rises from slave to self-proclaimed emperor. He orders that the imperial residence be decked out with mirrors so that he can vainly admire himself and his ridiculously ornate uniform whenever he desires. (I’m not sure how many other Deadly Sins he commits, but it’s a LOT.) He eventually becomes the despot you always knew was bubbling under the surface, and he begins to treat his subjects … despotically. When he realizes an insurrection is imminent, he flees into the jungle where he begins to hallucinate and is, ultimately, killed in a barrage of silver bullets (which were, ironically, made from the melted-down silver coins once used to purchase him as a slave).
People usually think of old black-and-white movies of being sort of … naive and charming, and more than a little removed from gritty and nasty reality. So it’s always a shock to see movies made before Will Hays ruined the fun and began enforcing the censorship code that cleaned up all that stuff that was perverting America. Fortunately, this movie was made before the Hays Code went into effect. It had:
- A guy who cheated on his wife … repeatedly
- A whorehouse full of prostitutes and a madame who appeared to be a cross-dressing lesbian (played by Moms Mabley!)
- Two prostitutes in a knock-down drag-out fight — in evening wear — in a Harlem nightclub
- Lots of gambling (craps galore)
- A guy getting killed and his body being left in the middle of the floor in a crowded room, ignored with business-as-usual going on around it, because no one wanted to be fingered for the crime
- A lawman being hit over the head with a shovel
- The emperor ordering an entire village be burned to the ground because a handful of people protested the ever-increasing taxes that were bleeding them dry and making him rich
Okay, so he gets his come-uppance in the end, but it was a pretty unapologetic journey getting there.
It was also a little shocking to hear a movie that used the N-word so liberally. Over the years the movie has had dialogue edited out to appease audiences offended by such things (even though the language is true to O’Neill’s play). The version I saw was restored to its original version by the Library of Congress. The restored version also includes lengthy, blue-tinted scenes in which Robeson delivers a soliloquy during which his character becomes a hunted animal and descends into madness. I’m not really sure why the scenes were tinted blue, but I suppose it helped add to the other-worldliness of this climactic part of the film.
Paul Robeson was one good-looking man. There were lots of opportunities for him to strip off his shirt in this movie (another thing the Hays Code frowned upon). Even though he was a despicable character, he was still handsome and charming. I know he was famous for his singing, but since I’m not a fan of musical numbers in movies, I ended up fast-forwarding through several musical interludes (I’m sure Eugene O’Neill, himself, raised an eyebrow more than once at these unnecessary deviations from his play). There were a couple of really good rousing gospel numbers at the beginning, but every time things started veering dangerously close to “Old Man River” territory I hit the fast-forward button.
Not a great movie, but a very interesting one.