Cast & Crew
At the Hezekiah Baptist Church, prayers are offered for Brutus Jones, who is about to leave town for a job as a Pullman porter. Before boarding his train, Jones bids farewell to his sweetheart, Dolly, who fears for his well-being. Her concerns prove valid when Jones's buddy, Jeff, initiates him to the very lifestyle she feared. In Harlem, Jones takes Jeff's girl friend Undine as his mistress. Later, when Jones is transferred to the car of the President of the United States, he overhears illicit monetary dealings and then blackmails a financier into investing his savings of $300. The now fashionable Jones, resolving to "travel light," drops Undine in favor of Belle La Due. When Undine attacks Belle at a nightclub, Jones leaves both women behind and encounters Jeff gambling in a pool hall. There the two men gamble in a high-stakes crap game, but when Jones discovers that Jeff is using loaded dice, he starts a fight and accidentally kills Jeff. Jones is sent to prison for the murder, but escapes after refusing to obey a guard's brutal order to beat a tortured fellow prisoner. He returns to Dolly, and after filing through his chains, discards his prison uniform and obtains work as a ship's stoker on a vessel bound for Kingston, Jamaica. On the way, Jones jumps ship and is taken prisoner by a dictator, General Peters, and sold for five dollars to Smithers, a crooked white trader and gunrunner. After gambling with the other prisoners, Jones obtains their money and, by threatening to become a competitor, bluffs Smithers into making him a partner. When the general and his treasurer complain about receiving a dishonest bill from Smithers and Jones, the general orders Jones's execution. Jones, however, foils the execution by replacing the drunken aide Quacko's bullets with blanks. Awed by Jones's apparently miraculous escape from death, and believing his claim that he can only be killed by silver bullets, the general's troops accept Jones as their new ruler. Proclaiming himself the Emperor Jones, over the next two and a half years he doubles taxes, elaborately furnishes his palace and buys ornate uniforms for his men. Jones continues to loot the country, sending money away so that he can leave a wealthy man, until the people realize his scheme and revolt. One day, when Jones orders floggings and the burning of a village for the attack on a tax collector, Jones's troops abandon him. The next evening, Jones, believing that he can find his way to the forest and escape on a French ship, becomes lost in the swamps and forest and is frightened by the sound of beating drums. After seeing and hearing scenes from his past, Jones prays for forgiveness. The sight of a voodoo figure sends Jones in a hysterical rush to the camp, where his former guards shoot him with a silver bullet.
William C. De Mille
Du Bose Heyward
J. Rosamond Johnson
Joseph H. Nadel
J. Edward Shugrue
The Emperor Jones on DVD
Independent producer/director Dudley Murphy was a white filmmaker with a strong interest in African-American life and stories. Early in the talkie era, Murphy used his access to RCA's sound recording equipment to make two short movies that became essential records of early jazz performers, St. Louis Blues (1929) starring Bessie Smith and Black And Tan (1929) starring Duke Ellington. However, Murphy's dream was a film adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's 1920 one-act play The Emperor Jones.
The future Nobel Prize-winning dramatist's play concerns the last day and night in the life of Brutus Jones, a Pullman porter from the United States who has become the brutal dictator of a small Caribbean island. Murphy long desired the property for a movie version but O'Neill's price was too high. However, as with so many at the time, the Depression put O'Neill in need of money. He sold the rights to the play for $30,000 with the single requirement that the lead be played by Paul Robeson.
Robeson, a law student who ventured into acting in the early 1920's, got one of his first breaks in a revival of O'Neill's play. His towering presence and rich, bass voice made him the most famous African-American star of the 1920's and 1930's, but racism in the United States and his own progressive politics led Robeson to move to the more genial climate of England. Robeson agreed to return to take the lead in the film version of The Emperor Jones, with the requirement that no scenes would be shot in the racially segregated South.
The resulting film, which Murphy directed with William C. DeMille, Cecil B.'s brother, was a mixed achievement. By necessity, O'Neill's short play was fleshed out, showing Jones' rise from railroad lackey to island emperor. O'Neill's play, in fact, does not begin until 51 minutes into this 76 minute film. The first third of the movie, detailing Jones' life before arriving on the island, plays like a typical movie made for black audiences of the time: speakeasies, a catfight, a knifing over a crap game. There are only two differences from the more run-of-the-mill movies Oscar Micheaux was then directing, superior camerawork from cinematographer Ernest Haller and Robeson's performance. Robeson dominates the film from his first scene; so good that the actors around him seem weak by comparison. The only actor that can begin to hold his ground with Robeson is Dudley Diggs who plays the sniveling, sweaty Cockney trader Smithers.
Robeson's great performance in this film, one of the best of the 1930's, would remain mostly unseen at the time. Few theaters in the United States would book the film and those that did demanded cuts such as a scene in which the new Emperor makes the white man Smithers light his cigarette. Meanwhile, in an effort to make the film palatable for segregated black audiences, the word "nigger," often used in the film, was physically cut out, leaving the movie a jumbled mess.
The Library Of Congress' restoration team had a time piecing it back together and even now a few scenes are missing and freeze frames appear in places to allow time for the restored, uncensored soundtrack. The picture quality on this DVD is excellent and well encoded on the DVD. However, this 76-minute film and a one-page flyer telling the history of the movie is all that is included. Otherwise, there are no extras. As much as the Library Of Congress should be applauded for restoring the film, this seems horribly meager for a DVD presentation of the sole film version of a work by one of America's greatest playwrights, containing one of America's greatest performances and with one of the few portraits of African-American life made at that time.
For more information about The Emperor Jones, visit Image Entertainment. To order The Emperor Jones, go to TCM Shopping.
by Brian Cady
The Emperor Jones on DVD
The Emperor Jones - 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
The Emperor Jones - THE EMPEROR JONES
This film marked the film debut of Paul Robeson. Publicity material for the film, preserved at the AMPAS Library, indicates that Ruby Elzy, who was an assistant to composer Rosamund Johnson, was cast as "Dolly" after helping to lead the spiritual singing in the church scene. Reviews list the role of Lem as having been played by George Haymid Stamper, while the film lists his name as George Stamp. Dudley Digges was the only non-black member of the cast. Variety noted that the film was not likely to be seen by white theatergoers in the South, and that its business, even in black theaters, was questionable due to objections of black exhibitors to the use of the word "nigger." A October 10, 1933 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that United Artists deleted the word from prints that were "destined to be shown in Negro theatres," but continued to show the original print in regular runs. Although the picture received many favorable reviews at the time of its release, three years later a conference of Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association, held in Canada, condemned the film.
According to modern sources, playwright Eugene O'Neill, who had long been interested in making a film version of his play, originally worked out a silent treatment. Producers John Krimsky and Gifford Cochran used the money they made by their sponsorship of the German film Maedchen in Uniform to finance The Emperor Jones, which was their first producing venture, and which cost approximately $250,000. Dudley Murphy reportedly convinced the neophyte producers that The Emperor Jones would make a successful film, and wrote a treatment presenting the story in chronological fashion, as opposed to O'Neill's flashback monologue, which Du Bose Heyward then completed in screenplay form. Modern sources note that although a location shoot in Haiti was originally planned, art director Herman Rosse convinced the producers that a more effective jungle set could be created in the studio. The outdoor chain gang sequence was filmed in a stone quarry near Westchester, New York. Modern sources also note that actor Lorenzo Tucker worked three days as an extra in the Harlem Cabaret scene, and that all of Fredi Washington's scenes were reshot after the producers decided that she looked too white in the early rushes. Fearing that audiences would think that Robeson was embracing a white woman, the producers had Washington made up with a thick layer of dark pancake makeup for the second round of filming. According to a biography of Robeson, he later regretted having made the picture because it deviated too much from O'Neill's play. Black actor Charles Gilpin originally played the title role in the Broadway play, marking the first time that an important black role was not played by a white actor in blackface. Paul Robeson replaced Gilpin for a revival of the play in 1924. In late 1924, Robeson performed and sang portions of the play on a New York radio program, marking the first time an O'Neill play was broadcast over the radio. A Kraft Theatre teleplay of The Emperor Jones, produced and directed by Fielder Cook and starring Rex Ingram and Everett Stone, aired on the NBC network on February 23, 1955, and a made-for-television version of the play, starring Kenneth Spencer and Harry H. Corbet, aired on the ABC television network on April 13, 1958.
Released in United States 1933
Released in United States on Video January 1994
Selected in 1999 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
Released in United States 1933
Released in United States on Video January 1994