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The RKO musical Way Down South (1939), set in the antebellum South, was a rarity for its day as a film planned for general release by a major distributor that was written by black screenwriters: Langston Hughes, the noted poet and leader of the 1930s Harlem Renaissance; and Clarence Muse, an actor-writer known for speaking up against derogatory portrayals of blacks. Critics of the film have complained that it takes a gentle look at plantation life, portraying slaves as being supportive of their white masters and generally content with their lot in life. Its supporters, however, point out that the white slave owner extols the virtues of black people and their culture -- sentiments not often expressed in Hollywood movies of the 1930s.
Way Down South was designed as a vehicle for child star Bobby Breen, then 12 years old, whose career would come to an abrupt end as he hit puberty and his soprano singing voice did not mature well. Breen plays Tim Reid, an orphan who wants to assume control of his late father's Louisiana plantation, which has been taken over by crooked attorney Martin Dill (Edwin Maxwell) and his greedy mistress (Steffi Duna), who want to sell the slaves and skip off to Paris with the proceeds. Tim is able to set things straight with the help of a Cajun innkeeper (Alan Mowbray); kindly slave Uncle Caton (Muse); and Gumbo (Little Rascal Matthew "Stymie" Beard), a slave boy who is Tim's age.
The melodramatic plot leaves plenty of time for musical numbers, which include two songs written by Hughes and Muse -- "Good Ground" and "Louisiana" -- plus such old-time spirituals as "Nobody Knows the Trouble I Seen," "Peter, Go Ring Dem Bells," "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" and "Lord, If You Can't Come, Send One Angel Down." The film won an Oscar® nomination for Victor Young's musical scoring.
Way Down South marked one of the first times a black performer -- Muse -- received star billing in a film. According to some reports, he also shared directing chores on the movie with Bernard Vorhaus. Muse (1889-1979), was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and played some 150 roles in feature films in addition to his work as a theatrical entrepreneur, director, songwriter, playwright and television actor. Some segments of the black community have complained that, early in his career, Muse portrayed demeaning representations of black characters. But, in the words of Donald Bogle, a historian of black cinema, "The fact that [Muse] played ["Uncle Tom"] characters cannot be denied. The fact that he played them with great intelligence and thoughtfulness has often been overlooked."
Hughes (1902-1967) wrote critically acclaimed poetry, novels, short stories, plays, operas, essays, works for children and two autobiographies. A few of his works were adapted for the screen, including his autobiography The Big Sea, which was filmed as Salvation (2003). His poetry and fiction centered on the lives of African Americans, promoting equality and celebrating black culture, humor and spirituality.
Director Vorhaus had an interesting history of his own. Born in Germany in 1898, he fled the Nazis to settle in the U.S., where he enjoyed a successful filmmaking career until he was named a communist, blacklisted and brought before the House Un-American activities. This time he fled to London, where he lived until his death -- at the age of 102.
Producer: Sol Lesser
Director: Bernard Vorhaus
Screenplay: Langston Hughes, Clarence Muse
Cinematography: Charles Edgar Schoenbaum
Art Direction: Lewis J. Rachmil
Original Music: Langston Hughes, Clarence Muse, Victor Young Editing: Arthur Hilton Cast: Bobby Breen (Tim Reid), Alan Mowbray (Jacques Bouton), Clarence Muse (Uncle Caton), Ralph Morgan (Timothy Reid), Steffi Duna (Pauline), Sally Blane (Claire), Edwin Maxwell (Martin Dill), Charles Middleton (Cass), Matthew "Stymie" Beard (Gumbo).
by Roger Fristoe