Star of the Month: Paul Robeson

August 25, 2021
Star Of The Month: Paul Robeson

Sundays in September / 11 Movies

Paul Robeson, honored as TCM Star of the Month for the first time this September, was a man of immense talent and ability – actor, singer, academic, athlete, public speaker and civil rights activist. It was his efforts in the last-named capacity, along with his leftist politics, that further hampered his career in an age when opportunities for Black performers were already limited.

Robeson was a towering presence both physically and dramatically. He stood 6’3” with a robust baritone/bass voice and a stirring sense of bravado in both his singing and acting. British historian Arthur Bryant wrote that “No one who has seen him act or heard that wonderful voice is ever likely to forget the experience.” In addition to his achievements in film and theater (including on Broadway), Robeson enjoyed a successful recording career covering a wide range of genres including folk tunes, spirituals, pop standards, classical works and political songs.

With his screen career limited by racial prejudice and the Red Scare, Robeson still managed to leave behind a legacy of a dozen films in which he demonstrated his oversized talent, either in starring or supporting roles.

TCM is screening 10 of these movies, along with a short biographical documentary.

Paul Leroy Robeson was born on April 9, 1898, in Princeton, New Jersey, the youngest of five siblings. His father, William Drew Robeson, was a clergyman who had escaped from slavery and created controversy with his sermons about social injustices. Paul’s mother, the former Maria Louisa Bustill, was a schoolteacher whose family had been involved in the struggle for African-American civil rights. When Paul was six, she died from burns suffered after a coal from the stove fell on the skirt of her dress.

His father moved the family to Somerville, NJ, where Paul proved himself an outstanding student and athlete even though he had to take part-time jobs to help support the family. By the age of 12 he was serving as a kitchen boy and later worked in local shipyards and brickyards. Paul earned top grades, sang in the school chorus and at his father’s church, and excelled in baseball, basketball, football and track and field. He acted in high school Shakespearean productions and was named class valedictorian.

At age 17, Robeson won a scholarship to Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. He was the third African American to attend the university and became one of its prize pupils, winning top honors in oratory and debate along with 15 letters in varsity sports. Robeson excelled in football, playing defensive end and being named All-American twice. Also, while at Rutgers, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and again became class valedictorian. His speech to the graduating class reflected his concerns with fairness and equality.  

Robeson continued his studies at the Law School of Columbia University from 1920-23, paying his tuition by teaching Latin and playing pro football on weekends. He had also begun earning money for singing engagements. He wed fellow Columbia student Eslanda (“Essie”) Cordoza Goode in 1921. She would become a histological chemist (and the first Black woman to head a pathology laboratory), an actress and her husband’s personal assistant, spokesperson and essentially manager of his career. Their son, Paul Jr., was born in 1927.

In the same year of their marriage, Eslanda Robeson convinced her husband to perform in Simon the Cyrenian at the Harlem YMCA. This led to his stage debut the following year in the leading role in Taboo, which he also performed in London. The play itself was not well-received critically, but Robeson won praise for his magnetic performance.

Robeson completed his law degree and served for a short time as an attorney with a law firm in New York, quitting after he was subjected to racial prejudice within his own company. His wife encouraged him to turn his energies to performing full-time.

Soon afterwards, he joined the prestigious Greenwich Village theatrical group the Provincetown Players. Included in its membership was the illustrious playwright Eugene O’Neill, who in 1924 personally invited Robeson to play the leading role in his play All God’s Chillun Got Wings at the Provincetown Playhouse.

O’Neill also asked Robeson to take on the title role in the playwright’s first big theatrical success, The Emperor Jones. Robeson refused the role at first because he felt it portrayed the Black character of the title in a negative way. But he reconsidered and agreed to play the part in the play’s 1925 revival. In the role originally played by Charles S. Gilpin, Robeson portrayed a ruthless Pullman porter who bluffs his way into a position as emperor of an impoverished Caribbean island. Robeson created a sensation with his powerful performance as Jones in both New York and London, and a star was born.

Robeson’s film debut came in a double role in Body and Soul (1925), a silent “race film” written and directed by pioneering Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux and based on Micheaux’s novel. Demonstrating his screen potential as both villain and hero, Robeson plays a scheming convict who poses as a preacher, as well as his more sympathetic twin brother.

 That same year, Robeson began work as a singer and radio and recordings of his songs helped make his vibrant bass voice a known commodity across the Atlantic. Following his Emperor Jones success in London, he scored there again in what would become a signature performance in a 1928 production of Show Boat, playing dock worker Joe and performing “Ol’ Man River.”

By now, with limited opportunities in the U.S. because of his political activism, Robeson had settled with his family in Great Britain. He appeared in Borderline (1930), a silent film about an interracial love triangle directed by Scottish filmmaker Kenneth MacPherson. Robeson’s stage vehicles during this period included Othello and The Hairy Ape. Though on-screen work was limited, he was becoming known as an international presence on the concert stage. In 1932, he returned to New York for a revival of Show Boat.

Robeson recreated his tour-de-force performance as The Emperor Jones in a 1933 film of O’Neill’s play adapted by DeBose Heyward, shot in New York and directed by avant-garde filmmaker Dudley Murphy. The New York Times called the film “a distinguished offering…with a compelling portrayal by Paul Robeson.”   

His next film, Sanders of the River (1935), was shot in London for Zoltan Korda and set in colonial Nigeria. Robeson plays a native chief who assists a British officer (Leslie Banks) in his struggles with gun runners and slavers. The movie was a critical and commercial success, although Robeson reportedly was unhappy with the completed film’s apparent sympathy with British imperialism.

Robeson returned to Hollywood for Universal’s film version of Show Boat (1936), directed by James Whale and starring Irene Dunne and Allan Jones. Robeson’s screen time is brief, but he makes it count with his powerful delivery of “Ol’ Man River.”

Robeson’s next several films were made in Great Britain. In Song of Freedom (1936), released through British Lion Films, he stars as a London dockworker who becomes a concert artist and attempts to reclaim his African heritage. The film was based on a novel, The Kingdom of Zinga and directed by J. Elder Wills. Robeson had final-cut approval on Song of Freedom, an unusual privilege for any actor at the time, and was said to have been pleased with the finished film.

Big Fella (1937, TCM premiere) is a musical comedy-drama in which Robeson plays a dock worker in Marseilles who befriends a runaway English boy who doesn’t wish to return to his parents. Elisabeth Welch provides the love interest, and Eslanda Robeson has a role as the owner of a café where Welch’s character sings.      

King Solomon’s Mines (1937), one of several movie versions of the H. Rider Haggard novel set in Africa, stars Cedric Hardwicke as great white hunter Allan Quatermain, with Robeson as native chieftain Umbopa. In this adventure film directed by Robert Stevenson and Geoffrey Barkas, Robeson sings three songs – beautifully, of course. This film was thought lost for many years.

Jericho (a.k.a. Dark Sands) (1937), a British-made adventure film set during World War I, stars Robeson as Jericho Jackson, a medical student serving as a corporal in the U.S. Army. Jackson saves the lives of fellow soldiers when a troop ship is torpedoed but is court-martialed after a sergeant is accidentally killed in the melee. Along with the heroics, Robeson gets a chance to sing several songs. He once again had approval of the film’s final cut and assured that his character was presented with appropriate dignity and stature.    

Robeson’s next film was The Proud Valley (1940), an Ealing Studios production shot in Wales. The story has his character, a young choir singer, being befriended by citizens of a Welsh village and becoming a hero in a mining disaster. Robeson also had a real-life affinity with the people of Wales and loved filming there; this movie became his favorite among all the movies he made.

He returned to Hollywood for his final movie, Tales of Manhattan (1942). This episodic, all-star film has five separate stories. Robeson has star billing alongside the likes of Charles Boyer, Rita Hayworth, Henry Fonda and Ginger Rogers. He ends the movie with a stirring rendition of “Glory Day.” But Robeson was disappointed in the results of his episode of Tales, which costarred Ethel Waters and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. He had hoped it would shed a revealing light on the plight of poor rural blacks, but instead found it “very offensive to my people. It makes the Negro childlike and innocent and is in the old plantation hallelujah-shouter tradition.”

Included in TCM’s salute is the 30-minute Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979, TCM premiere), an Oscar-winning look at his life and career written and directed by Saul J. Turell and narrated by Sidney Poitier. Also included is The Tallest Tree in Our Forest (1977), a documentary written and directed by Gil Noble and made a year before his death. The documentary features interviews from Robeson, Harry Belafonte, Dizzy Gillespie and Robeson’s son.

With the outbreak of World War II, Robeson remained in the U.S. and worked on behalf of the war effort. He continued to speak out against racism and in favor of organized labor and improved relations between the U.S. and the USSR. Robeson was accused by the House Un-American Activities Committee of being a Communist, leading to blacklisting by the film industry and the cancellation of many of his concerts. In 1950, the U.S. revoked his passport, cutting off any opportunities to perform abroad.

Shakespeare’s Othello had become one of Robeson’s important roles; he had played the role in London’s West End in the early 1930s and toured with the play beginning in the mid-1940s. In 1959, with his passport restored, he played the part with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Great Britain.

Robeson published his autobiography, Here I Stand, in 1958. He embarked on a world tour and gave his final concerts in 1960 in New Zealand and Australia. Suffering from ill health, he retired from public life in 1963. After the death of his wife in 1965, he lived with his son’s family in Harlem and then with a sister in Philadelphia.

Following complications from a stroke, Robeson died on January 23, 1976, in Philadelphia. His pallbearers included Harry Belafonte, and he was interred in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, NY. Robeson had said in the 1960s that his single purpose in life was “to fight for my people that they shall walk this earth as free as any man” and activist Mary McLeod Bethune described as “the tallest tree in our forest.”