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An examination of the life of actor and singer Paul Robeson, from his first major triumphs on the stage in the 1920s through his gradually increasing social activism in the 1930s and 1940s,... See full summary »
Saul J. Turell
At a Baptist prayer meeting, the preacher leads a prayer for Brutus Jones, who is leaving to become a railway porter. Jones joins the congregation in a spiritual. Once on the train, Jeff, a porter, shows Jones the ropes. Jones secretly takes up with Jeff's girl, Undine. He makes some money in a deal with a rich businessman on the train. Jones proves to be a cunning manipulator and a good liar. In a crap game, Jones stabs Jeff over a pair of loaded dice. Now doing hard labour, Jones kills a white prison guard and escapes. Shovelling coal on a ship in the Caribbean, Jones swims to an island. He is brought before the island's ruler, where Smithers, a crooked white trader, buys his freedom. Jones schemes his way into a partnership in Smithers' business, then finally control of the entire island through a touch of witchcraft, or so it seems. Brutus declares himself to be The Emperor Jones... Smithers reports on the unrest that Jones' rule is causing. One morning, the palace is empty of ... Written by
The jungle scenes were originally to be shot in the swamps of the American South, but when Paul Robeson signed for the film, he had a clause inserted in his contract that specifically prohibited filming in the South, due to that area's violent racist history and strict racial segregation. The scenes were filmed on a studio set in Astoria, Queens, New York. See more »
[Jones prepares to escape into the jungle]
Give my regards to any ghosts yer 'appen to meet!
If dat ghost have money, I tells him never to haunt you lessen he wants to lose it!
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As charismatic and talented as any star of the era, Paul Robeson's filmography is mostly low rent productions made on the cheap. Eugene O'Neil's short play, The Emperor Jones, made by an independent New York company, was shot entirely in New York and while it does an admirable job with it's bare bones sets and limited amount of takes it does not do justice to the bravura larger than life presence of Robeson who gives an awe inspiring performance as he goes from Brutus Jones, Pullman porter to chain gang prisoner to Emperor of his own Caribbean Island.
The sound quality is poor (an abominable affront to Robeson's magnificent baritone singing Waterboy) and director Dudley Murphy for the most part keeps his camera static with uninspired composition as Robeson electrifies from scene to scene. Whether brimming with confidence or desperately trapped he is a man in full. It is painstakingly evident that this enormous talent deserved MGM treatment and his loss is ours as well. Uglier things were happening in America back then in terms of institutional racism but the shabby handling of this man's incredible abilities is a clear example of prejudice in another form.
While Robeson holds the center if not all the film, Frank Wilson as Jeff, a veteran porter that shows Brutus the ropes spars well with him especially in one of the film's better ensemble scenes in a juke joint crap game down South. Dudley Diggs as Smithers the surly white trader he outsmarts has some decent lines but for the most part is pure English vaudeville.
The Emperor Jones may be a rickety production but it remains valuable in displaying the qualities of a mighty talent, tragically wasted by the "American Way" of the times.
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