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One Mile From Heaven (1937, Twentieth-Century Fox)
A long time ago, when I was a little girl going to elementary school, I read a book about African-American performers and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was in this book, it mentioned that he had starred in this movie with Shirley Temple. However, being the Shirley Temple fan that I was and still am, I knew that he never made such a film with her. It has now occurred to me years later, that the author of the book could have easily mistaken the little girl in this film, who is Joan Caroll, for Shirley Temple, because her style resembles that of Shirley Temple (i.e. her mannerisms, her style of clothes, etc.). The character of Sunny (I really believe that this film was intended for Shirley Temple, but it was probably rejected due to the controversial topic and I believe the character was originally intended to be named Shirley) is just like a Shirley Temple clone (circa 1934). The plot even resembles that of a Shirley Temple film ( a little Caucasian child abandoned by her parents and raised by an African-American woman only to be with one of the parents in the end) and has a few of her co-stars from her previous films ( Claire Trevor, Ralf Harolde, Ray Walker, and Bill Robinson) in this film and is even directed by Allan Dwan who directed quite a few of the young Miss Temple's films. I really believe that this script was written in 1934 when Shirley Temple was beginning to get really popular in films and was just re-surfaced in 1937, because around this time Shirley was about 8 or 9 years old ( and getting older) and Darryl Zanuck was looking for a replacement in young Joan Caroll (who was a talented young actress in her own right), but never caught on, because there were so many child stars out around that time.
I brought this interesting film from a DVD sale in Harlem which specializes in putting rare African-American films on DVD or VHS. If you ever get a chance, please check this one out, it's a very rare and interesting piece. Also, the African-American actors in this film (Fredi Washington, Bill Robinson, and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson) certainly hold their own in this film and are not really stereotyped. Bill Robinson was even a decent actor. It's a shame that these actors were only regulated to "B-Pictures" and not really able to tell their true light shine during this period. However, it's a very interesting piece and needs to be put out on DVD by Twentieth Century Fox as soon as possible.
Claire Trevor plays 'Tex', a go-getting girl reporter. Tricked into
chasing a fake story on the wrong side of town, she stumbles onto a
more interesting tale: a local black woman (Fredi Washington) who
claims that her white daughter (Joan Carroll) is her real daughter.
As Tex attempts to scoop her bumbling colleagues on the story, she finds herself confronting issues of journalistic integrity as she befriends the woman and her policeman beau, played (and occasionally tap-danced) by Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson. Blackmailers and a wealthy couple (Sally Blane and John Eldredge) become involved before the truth is revealed.
Performances are excellent under veteran Allan Dwan's expert hand, but Fredi Washington is the clear standout, giving an intensely moving and dignified performance, assisted greatly by a touching chemistry with her on screen daughter. The promise she shows here makes it all the sadder that this was the final role of Fredi's brief screen career.
Watching films of the 1930s and 40s, you are often struck by the way that black characters are just figures in the background, barely human - servants, boot-blacks, often the butt of crude comic relief. When Claire Trevor first finds herself in the black neighborhood, we see black people as human beings, going about their business.
Though the film's rather disappointing ending is rooted in the attitudes of its time, this early scene alone, along with the heartbreaking Fredi Washington, make 'One Mile From Heaven' an important film that deserves to be more widely seen.
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