Cast & Crew
In their run-down bus, the touring Harlem Globetrotters, the all-black "Magicians of Basketball," arrive for another sold-out game and immediately begin entertaining the audience with their comic warm-up routine. In the bleachers are All-American college basketball star Billy Townsend and his sweetheart, Ann Carpenter. After the game, which the Trotters win handily, Billy visits with Abe Saperstein, the team's coach and manager, and announces that he is available for the upcoming season. Having spoken to Billy's worried coach earlier in the evening, Saperstein thanks the confident young man for his offer but advises him to finish school before embarking on a career in professional basketball. His admonishment does not deter Billy, however, and at the next game, he tells Saperstein that he has just quit school and is determined to play for the Globetrotters because they pay "the highest salaries in the business." Saperstein reluctantly places Billy on the team, and when Billy returns to college to pack up his belongings, both Ann and Prof. Lindley, who considers Billy one of his finest chemistry students, express their disappointment in his decision. During his first day of practice, the veteran players run Billy ragged, but he remains annoyingly confident. Billy plays well in his first game, but in his second, he scores only four points. On the bus ride to the team's first big season game with the New York Celtics, sports reporter Jack Davidson interviews Globetrotter stars Marques Haynes and Reece "Goose" Tatum, then asks Saperstein about the origin of the comic routines. Saperstein explains that in the team's barnstorming days, some twenty-four years earlier, the players became fatigued by their seven-night-per-week schedule and realized that the clowning gave the players time to rest. When Billy tells Davidson that he wants more money, and then announces that he has hurt his leg, an alarmed Saperstein orders Billy to confine such remarks to the team. That night, Davidson raves about the Globetrotters in a radio broadcast, thereby prompting a gambler to bet thirty thousand dollars on the team. The all-white Celtics and the Globetrotters are equally matched, and the contest is close from beginning to end. Billy, sent in near the game's finish, scores several times. During the final thirty seconds, however, while the Globetrotters are trying to hold their one-point lead by running out the clock, he ignores Saperstein's directions and shoots. He scores, but Saperstein is angry and fines him for risking the team's victory. The other players tease Billy, suggesting that perhaps they merely "get in his way." In Duluth, Billy starts the game, and Saperstein doubles his pay. Billy is the top scorer, but the opponents play roughly, and he is slightly injured. After the game, Prof. Turner, a chemistry instructor from an all-black state college in Baltimore, visits Billy, but the arrogant basketball star considers the institution too small, calling it a "jerkwater" school. During the hours before the team's second game against the Celtics, Billy secretly leaves his hotel and marries Ann in a civil service. Afterward, he is followed by one of the gambler's henchmen and crashes into a garbage can, thereby aggravating his knee injury. The gambler passes this news to the Celtics, who shadow Billy throughout the game. During the final seconds, his overworked knee slips, and he misses the critical last shot. Billy's nonchalance about the loss angers the other players, and when Billy shrugs off his coach's admonishments, Saperstein fires him. Later, Billy signs a contract with the New York Rams, on condition that he can rest his knee for several months. During that period, Prof. Turner convinces him to work toward his degree while teaching beginning chemistry at Baltimore State, but as the third and final Globetrotters-Celtics game approaches, Billy becomes distracted. Upon learning that the school's students, teachers and even the dean plan to attend, he complains to Ann, "You'd think it was their team." Ann argues that in a way, the Globetrotters are the black school's team and gently advises her husband to think of other people once in a while. Billy takes the suggestion to heart and when he discovers that a star Globetrotter is in the hospital, he risks losing his New York contract by offering to play for him in the Celtics game. Saperstein and the players gratefully accept his offer, and Billy again plays with the team. During the closing seconds of the agonizingly close game, Billy scores the winning basket but then has to be helped off the court. His knee again weak and his new contract lost, Billy plans to return to Baltimore State, but before he and Ann depart, the Globetrotters present him with a souvenir ball from the memorable game.
William "pop" Gates
Louis "babe" Pressley
Reece "goose" Tatum
Ann E. Allen
Robert A. Davis
William H. Welsh
Winfield Scott Welch
The Harlem Globetrotters
The story follows the standard formula used in a number of genres, particularly sports and military pictures, of the brash young hotshot who has to be taken down a peg and learn the value of fair play and teamwork. The up-and-comer here is Billy Townsend, played by real-life basketball player Billy Brown, a college kid who leaves his education behind to join the Globetrotters. In the course of his misadventures, he is chided by fellow players, coach, professors, and his young bride until he learns the necessary humility and self-sacrifice to become worthy of the Globetrotters name. The team members all play themselves here, and their on-court showmanship translates into effective screen portraits as well. Saperstein is played by busy character actor Thomas Gomez, usually known for heavies, as in two of his best roles in Key Largo (1948) and Force of Evil (1948). Gomez received a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for Ride the Pink Horse (1947).
The chief interest in this cast, however, is Dorothy Dandridge, generally considered Hollywood's first African-American movie star. After more than a decade of uncredited bits, she broke through earlier this same year with her portrayal of the jungle queen in Tarzan's Peril (1951). Still just in her 20s, this was her second major role. Dandridge was cast in The Harlem Globetrotters either by producer Buddy Adler or director Phil Brown, depending on whose story you hear, and paid $500 a week for her work as Billy's sweetheart. A natural on screen, Dorothy also did much to bring out the best in non-actor Billy Brown, adding real warmth and sincerity to their scenes together. Writer-producer Al Palca later said he thought she was a bit embarrassed by the deluxe treatment given to her by Adler, who insisted she be dressed to the nines even though she was playing an ordinary middle-class girl. But her presence--and the star build-up afforded her--did much not only to advance her own career but to cast black actors in a new light. No longer a maid or entertainer or other background role, her "Ann Carpenter" in this film was beautiful, well-spoken, and intelligent.
The Harlem Globetrotters was a quiet landmark in many ways. Unlike the usual "problem" dramas associated with movies about African Americans made by major studios up to this point, this production for Columbia was treated like a mainstream entertainment, and even reviewers of the time noted how racial strife was not an issue in the story, which one critic said fostered "a good impression for the Negro race." Others noted it was "one of the finest sports pictures ever produced" and a "story of a great team with fine traditions."
The credit for getting such a subtle milestone onto the screen goes largely to Palca, a young writer-producer getting his first screen credit with The Harlem Globetrotters. Palca had seen the enthusiastic response of audiences to newsreel and documentary footage of the Globetrotters in action and decided the team would make a great basis for a fictionalized account of their success. "I'm an old lefty, and I thought I could do something to help the blacks," Palca recalled in a 1997 New York Times interview. "That mattered to me importantly. I could never write anything violent, I'm a softy in that regard, but politically I would do anything I could to help society, and as a Jewish fellow, I was for the underdog. I didn't have to do that story, but I liked that story. And I thought it had a basic commercial nut."
The idea of showcasing multi-dimensional aspects of African-American life was still very daring, but Columbia executives thought the story could draw sports fans as well as black audiences and gave it the go-ahead with a budget of either $250,000 or $400,000, depending on conflicting reports. It was shot over a period of less than two weeks by first-time director Phil Brown, with additional on-court footage shot in Milwaukee, Chicago, Scranton, and New York's Madison Square Garden, among other locations, under the direction of Will Jason. It wasn't exactly a blockbuster but did quite well at the box office and garnered highly favorable reviews.
Not convinced he had told the Globetrotters' story entirely to his satisfaction, Palca wrote and independently produced a prequel of sorts, on a $175,000 budget he had raised himself, recounting the formation of the team in the 1920s by the young Saperstein (played by Dane Clark). Go Man Go (1954) had an equally positive reception and has since become a classic among die-hard basketball fans, but it was not good news for Palca. In 1953, he was accused of being a Communist, and he had to take his name off the picture to find a distributor and pay back investors, including his father-in-law. Unlike other victims of the blacklist who were able to keep working at least occasionally through the use of "fronts" who put their names on the blacklisted artist's work, Palca's film career was finished. But in 1997, his name was finally restored to the picture by the Writers Guild of America.
Palca was not the only one involved in the production to run into career troubles. Director Phil Brown was also blacklisted shortly after The Harlem Globetrotters came out. He relocated his family to England where he continued directing and acting, a career he had begun with a featured role in I Wanted Wings (1941), Mitchell Leisen's military drama (with a similar formula of young recruits learning to be men). Brown, who died in 2006 at the age of 89, continued appearing in films up to 1999; one of his highest-profile later roles was as Luke Skywalker's uncle in Star Wars (1977).
The most tragic story, however, was that of Dorothy Dandridge. Her successes of the 1950s, including an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress (a first for a black performer) in Carmen Jones (1954), went very far toward breaking the race barrier in Hollywood, but as a black actress, she still had trouble finding work. Her last years were marked by problematic romantic relationships, dire financial woes, a stalled career, and alcoholism. She was found dead of a barbiturate overdose in her West Hollywood apartment in 1965, and was only 42 years old.
Directors: Phil Brown, Will Jason
Producers: Buddy Adler, Alfred Palca
Screenplay: Alfred Palca
Cinematography: Philip Tannura
Editing: James Sweeney
Art Direction: Cary Odell
Original Music: Arthur Morton
Cast: Thomas Gomez (Abe Saperstein), Dorothy Dandridge (Ann Carpenter), Bill Walker (Prof. Turner), Billy Brown (Billy Townsend), Angela Clarke (Sylvia Saperstein).
by Rob Nixon
The Harlem Globetrotters
The film's working title was The Globetrotters (sometimes spelled as The Globe Trotters). Reece Tatum's name was spelled incorrectly as "Reese" in the onscreen credits. With the exception of Billy Brown, the Harlem Globetrotters portray themselves in the picture. As noted in the film, the Harlem Globetrotters were formed by Abe Saperstein in 1926 and began playing as a serious barnstorming team in 1927. In 1940, the team won the world professional tournament in Chicago. Later, however, the Globetrotters switched their on-court focus from competitive playing to showmanship, captivating fans around the world and drawing enormous crowds. The players' comic warm-up routine is accompanied by the team's instrumental (and whistled) theme song, "Sweet Georgia Brown."
According to a January 1951 Los Angeles Daily News item, writer-producer Alfred Palca was inspired to undertake the film after he saw how enthusiastically theatergoers reacted to newsreel footage of the Globetrotters. The film was shot in twelve days at a reported cost of $250,000, according to the same item. Reviewers were generally impressed with The Harlem Globetrotters. Harrrison's Reports called the film "one of the finest sport pictures ever produced," while the Variety reviewer commented that Brown and Dorothy Dandridge, as well as Bill Walker "and the playing-themselves contributions of the Globetrotters, foster a very good impression for the Negro race." The Motion Picture Herald Prod Digest reviewer wrote: "It should be noted that no attempt is made to bring in any mention of race prejudice...it's simply a story of a great team with fine traditions." The Box Office reviewer added that the film "does not contain preachments along radical lines."
In a February 1951 American Cinematographer article, director of photography Phil Tannura discussed the special latensification process used during the making of the picture. The process, which effectively stepped up the film's emulsion speed, intensified the latent image on the film. Tannura also noted that the stadiums in which over a quarter of the film was shot were located in Milwaukee, WI; Zion, Evanston and Chicago, IL; Hershey, Williamsport and Scranton, PA; and in Madison Square Garden, New York City. Release of the picture was delayed for almost a year so that it would coincide with the start of the basketball season, according to Daily Variety. In 1954, a "prequel" to The Harlem Globetrotters, Go Man Go, was released by United Artists .