THE EMPEROR JONES
The Emperor Jones (1933) is based on the controversial play by Eugene O'Neill, first produced for the stage in 1920. At the time, there was little doubt that actor and singer Paul Robeson would take on the title role, having played the part after graduating from Princeton and earning rave reviews in O'Neill's All God's Children Got Wings on the London stage. The film version, directed by Dudley Murphy, was a rare attempt at a collaborative cinema between white intellectuals and black artists and, as such, divided critics over its artistic merits and issues of race. Almost everyone agreed, however, that Robeson was magnificent in the lead role and it afforded him the opportunity to sing "Now Let Me Fly," "I'm Travelin'," and "Water Boy," definitive highlights in a musical score that combined Harlem jazz with West Indies and Gullah island sounds.
The first obstacle for producers John Krimsky and Gifford Cochran in bringing The Emperor Jones to the screen was how to make it cinematic. The original play took place entirely in the jungle as Jones tries to exorcise his demons and banish the ghosts from his sinful past. This structure was appropriate for the stage, but on film it was too static so DuBose Heyward was brought in to write an opening segment which provides the necessary background on Jones' character. Additional scenes shot for the film version included a chain gang sequence (filmed in New Rochelle), a beach segment (with Jones Beach substituting for a Caribbean coastline) and a Harlem nightclub interlude.
Another cause of concern for Krimsky and Cochran was Dudley Murphy's unconventional direction. In 1924, Murphy went to France, where he produced and helped direct the experimental classic Ballet mecanique (1924). He employed some of those techniques in The Emperor Jones such as the opening credit sequence which dissolves from Haitian tribal dancers to a Deep South gospel revival in full swing. But it was art director Herman Rosse who was instrumental in the movie's unique visual design. An elaborate set dressed with mirrors, drapes, columns, painted backdrops and dense foliage was much more effective in conveying the mysterious and foreboding nature of Jones' island kingdom than any on-location shoot in Haiti could have accomplished.
For one scene in The Emperor Jones, according to Martin Bauml Duberman in his biography, Paul Robeson (Ballantine Book), director "Murphy decided to serve the cast real liquor instead of the customary tea, in order to "heighten the realism," but the scenes were never printed - the cast got drunk and proved "unmanageable." After the first days of shooting...the Will Hays office, the industry's censoring agency, insisted on seeing the rushes. Viewing the passionate footage between Robeson and Fredi Washington, Hays insisted it be reshot, lest the light-skinned Miss Washington come across as a white woman. With Hays warning that the sequences would eventually be cut if the required changes weren't made, the producers reluctantly applied dark makeup to Miss Washington for the daily shoots. The Hays office eventually settled for merely cutting two murder scenes and a shot of a woman smoking." Fearing Murphy was losing control of the production, Krimsky and Cochran hired industry veteran William C. DeMille (the older brother of Cecil B.) to supervise Murphy's direction. Some sources state that DeMille actually finished the film. At any rate, the movie was praised by many critics for its daring and for many years, Robeson considered it his greatest film, stating "O'Neill sounds the very depths of Jones' soul...Coming from the pen of a white man it's an almost incredible achievement, without a false note in the characterization." The actor would later change his opinion, voicing his dissatisfaction with elements of the movie he felt perpetuated racial stereotypes.
Yet, The Emperor Jones is significant as one of the first sound era films to feature a black actor in a starring role along with white actors. Despite his acclaimed performance in the movie, however, Robeson still had to battle prejudice and stereotypes in Hollywood after the film's release. He eventually went to Europe to look for better film roles and freedom from America's institutionalized racism. More damaging to Robeson's career though were his political choices. After The Emperor Jones made him an international star, Robeson traveled to the USSR and embraced communism. Because of this, most producers boycotted him during the communist witch hunts of the early 1950s. Sadly, Robeson's last feature film was Tales of Manhattan, released in 1942; he later died in relative obscurity in Philadelphia in 1976.
Producer: Gifford Cochran, William C. DeMille, John Krimsky
Director: Dudley Murphy
Screenplay: DuBose Heyward, based on the play by Eugene O’Neill
Art Direction: Herman Rosse
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Editing: Grant Whytock
Music: Rosamond Johnson, Frank Tours
Cast: Paul Robeson (Brutus Jones), Dudley Digges (Smithers), Frank Wilson (Jeff), Fredi Washington (Undine), Ruby Elzy (Dolly), Rex Ingram (Court Crier), George Haymid Stamper (Lem), Brandon Evans (Carrington).
by Scott McGee and Jeff Stafford