Harlem Rides the Range
Tag Line for Harlem Rides the Range
"Hi ho, Stardusk!" was the cry as Herbert Jeffries rode his trusty horse for the fourth and last time in this rare all-black Western released in 1939. Despite the title, the only hint of Harlem in Harlem Rides the Range was to be found in the low comedy provided by Jeffries' sidekicks, Lucius Brooks and F.E. Miller, vaudeville veterans who first made their name in all-black theatres. For the rest, the film was a clear imitation of the low-budget westerns of the time, with an emphasis on talk, music and one of the staples of the genre, the chase.
Harlem Rides the Range is a race film, a low-budget picture made specifically for black audiences and shown primarily in segregated theaters. The tradition had begun in the silent days when African-Americans responded to the vicious racial stereotypes in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) by producing movies of their own with more positive images of black life. By the sound era, most of them were produced by white men like Richard C. Kahn, the man behind Harlem Rides the Range. Yet they still served an important purpose. They gave black performers an alternative to the demeaning roles they had to play in most Hollywood films while also giving black writers like Spencer Williams and Francis Miller, who wrote and acted in Harlem Rides the Range, a rare chance to work in the movies. Williams was one of the few black filmmakers of the era who got to do more important work. In 1941 he moved into directing, creating The Blood of Jesus, a powerful look at the role of religion in rural black life that has been added to the National Film Registry. (Williams would achieve his greatest fame with white audiences as Andy in the television version of Amos and Andy, 1951.
Unlike The Blood of Jesus, however, Harlem Rides the Range was a more commercial venture. Jeffries was a cabaret singer who had first jumped into the saddle two years earlier for Harlem on the Prairie. A year later, Kahn cast him as Bob Blake for the first time in Two Gun Man From Harlem, followed by The Bronze Buckaroo. Each had a simple, formulaic plot, with the light-skinned Jeffries saving the leading lady from darker-skinned villains while also singing a few songs. Jeffries took his Western stardom seriously. He even imitated Hollywood Western stars by outfitting his car with bronze Western motifs for personal appearances. Unfortunately, his films didn't catch on in northern theatres (they did better in the South), and Harlem Rides the Range was the last of the Western race films. Jeffries switched from white hat to black tie when he joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra, then moved to France to run a night club. More recently, he has appeared in documentaries about the history of black film and, in 1996, released The Bronze Buckaroo Rides Again, a country/western album.
Producer/Director: Richard C. Kahn
Screenplay: Spencer Williams, Jr. & Francis Miller
Cinematography: Roland Price & Clark Ramsey
Art Direction: Vin Taylor
Music: Lew Porter
Cast: Herbert Jeffries (Bob Blake), Lucius Brooks (Dusty), F.E. (Francis) Miller (Slim Perkins the Cook), Artie Young (Miss Margaret Dennison), Clarence Brooks (Bradley), Spencer Williams (Mr. Watson).
By Frank Miller