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I liked everything about this forgotten, unpretentious, good-natured, well-made film ahead of its time regarding "the race problem". It delivers far more solid good time than many a famous films. It's a thrill to see nothing but unknown actors, all of them good. Bobby Breen is also an exceedingly confident and accomplished singer.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
WAY DOWN SOUTH is for all it's low-budget "B"-ness, a remarkable and
amazing film, a story with slavery at the fore front, written by two
black screenwriters in a film apparently mainly meant for white
audiences in 1939. That alone makes it a historic film but it is worth
viewing for many additional reasons.
Child star Bobby Breen stars as the only child of a widowed plantation owner (Ralph Morgan) in the Old South. Morgan may be the "Master" of many slaves but he is kindly and treats them kindly, providing them nice homes on the plantation and allowing them to marry whom they choose. When he is killed in an accident, his evil executor comes in and opens a new era of terror for the slaves, taking their homes and beating with a whip one slave for the slightest "disobedience". Bobby Breen is aghast at the whipping and tells him his father never beat any of the slaves which the executor dismisses. When the devoted house servant, Uncle Caton (Clarence Muse) "dares" to speak up and confirm this, the executor is outraged and demands Muse be sent to auction block the next day. Bobby overhears this and takes Muse in his buggy off to New Orleans so he can escape and take a riverboat to the North. Meanwhile, the executor has decided to sell off all the slaves and other properties of Morgan so that he and his mistress Steffi Duna can take the funds and move to France. Meanwhile in New Orleans, Bobby turns to kindly hotel owner Alan Mowbray for help in somehow stopping the executor from his wicked plans.
Screenwriters Clarence Muse and Langston Hughes have a delicate tightrope to walk and they generally do it admirably if not always successfully. The movie may have a black stereotype or two but it is notably sympathetic to the slaves and their terror of mistreatment and being torn apart is quite real and most unusual for a film from the period. This dramatic film does have a number of musical numbers, most of them showcasing the black cast to a degree unparalleled in "white" films of the period. This was the first time I ever saw Bobby Breen, like many child stars he gets raked over the coals by some latter-day film historians but he is very acceptable in the lead and not at all brash, he also boasts a fine soprano voice. Clarence Muse is both co-screenwriter and co-star here and while he does have a "spooked" moment and at one point disguises himself in drag (face and hands covered as well to play a "white lady"), the role is a fairly dignified one. One does regret lovely Sally Blane has a role that is little more than a bit here, one of her last films. Langston and Muse may not have written a radical film but it is a trailblazing one for the era with sympathy for blacks enslaved and a corrupt "master" apparently punished in the end.
This small, unpretentious, but very wonderful film from the combined
pens of Langston Hughes and actor Clarence Muse is one of the very few
films that deals with slavery and from the point of view of the slave.
Remarkable also that this came out in the same year as Gone With The
Wind which dealt with the lost Confederacy which founded on the notion
of keeping slavery alive in North America.
Muse and Hughes also borrowed a great deal from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn in developing the relationship of the young master Bobby Breen and house servant Muse. Breen while still a minor child inherits father Ralph Morgan's plantation and unfortunately an executor in the person of Edwin Maxwell.
Maxwell wants to basically loot the estate, in the meantime he hires a very cruel overseer in Charles Middleton. When Muse does voice some mild objection to new policies instituted, Maxwell says he'll sell him. Breen and Muse make an escape worthy of Huck Finn and Jim and with Muse in drag and a veil they check into a posh New Orleans hotel operated by Alan Mowbray who is a Creole character out of Charles Dickens. Eventually they learn that Maxwell just wants to sell all the slaves and take the profits and run. Of course the slaves who have families don't have any say in the matter. In fact some whippings are dished out by Middleton though we never actually see one.
The Hall Johnson Choir play the plantation slaves and they have several numbers singing Negro spirituals both happy and sad depending on the mood of the film. Breen also sings some songs like Oh Dem Golden Slippers and Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child with the Choir. Also at Mowbray's dinner table Breen sings Stephen Foster's Some Folks Do which was my favorite musical number.
This film should be seen and revived as a great treatise on the slave experience. There is some stereotyping, but it's done in the context of the condition and servitude of the slaves and there is never any demeaning of anyone in this film. And when you've Langston Hughes and Clarence Muse taking some inspiration from such authors and Twain and Dickens you know this film is something special.
A lot of people in this cast from Bobby Breen on down got career roles here. Way Down South should be bought or rented at Amazon, it's a wonderful and moving viewing experience.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Handsomely presented, this "B" musical drama has boy soprano Bobby
Breen as the wronged heir to the estate of a Southern Plantation owner
whose attorney uses his power ruthlessly to change the happy slaves
from singing Öh, Dem Golden Slippers" to "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've
Seen". Breen's father (Ralph Morgan, brother of Frank, the "Wizard"),
had been making lots of money on his peanut plantation, so he felt he
owed a lot to his hard working slaves, treating them more like
servants. But after Morgan is accidentally killed in a tragic accident,
the ruthless attorney (Edwin Maxwell) begins to beat and sell the
slaves, something Morgan had made Breen promise he would never do.
Breen disguises the black butler (Clarence Muse) as a veiled white
woman, and they escape, utilizing the help of a kindly innkeeper (Alan
Mowbray) and a Scarlet O'Hara like actress (Steffi Duna) to get back
his birthright and right the wrongs so the slaves can pick peanuts
happily ever after while singing their sunny spirituals.
The Johnson Hall Choir is utilized to show the happiness and gloom of the large stable of slaves, and is performed beautifully. The obvious flaw of the film is the stereotypical manner of the black actors and singers, but the film is set in 1854 and was released in 1939, the same year as the epic Civil War drama of the sagging south, "Gone With the Wind". That somewhat justifies the structure, and there are more white people fighting for justice for Breen's slaves than evil ones. If the film is not entirely historically accurate, it more than makes it up in being pure entertainment, and Breen does a nice job after being a bit cloying in his earlier films.
At times this movie is brilliant beyond my powers of description to
note. At other times it turns stupid. Langston Hughes' poetry and
powerful images dominate some scenes. At others we have the sight of
Clarence Muse in a dress and veil, or Bobby Breen advancing the plot
while Alan Mowbray does his best to make it interesting by a little
judicious mugging. Even the musical numbers are erratically
choreographed. The last may have been an attempt to either appease
white audiences who would never see this movie or a choreographer
utterly ignorant of jazz dancing. In 1939? It doesn't make sense.
Perhaps it was shot, edited, tested and then someone else went back to
do some ham-handed reshooting.
The problems I have with the execution of this movie cannot be denied, but its strengths are likewise undeniable. Take a look at it and bear in mind that this was released in he same year as GONE WITH THE WIND.
"Way Down South" is based on a story by Langston Hughes and the
screenplay was written by Clarence Muse--who also was a major character
in the film. "Way Down South" is bound to play a lot differently today
than when it debuted in 1939. The notion of happy and well-fed slaves
is far from politically correct and I am sure many will blanch at this
antiquated view of the Old South. While I am sure some slave owners
were more benign in how their treated blacks, they still were slaves!!
Oddly, Hughes and Muse were black men and, in an odd way, the film was
progressive for its time as it promoted fair treatment of blacks...but
they still were slaves!!
The film stars one of the more unusual stars in Hollywood history, Bobby Breen. Breen was a child star who only appeared in nine films--though they were starring roles. His AMAZING voice cannot be described--you just need to see and hear him for yourself. The films he made were mostly pleasant but forgettable pictures--though it's easy to like the boy in the films as he always seemed incredibly nice.
When the film begins, Bobby is very happy and the family's slaves on the plantation are equally happy. In fact, Bobby's best friend is one of the slaves (Stymie Beard of the Our Gang films)! But, when Bobby's father dies unexpectedly, his father's executor comes in and dramatically changes the place--selling slaves and beating them soundly. But Bobby can't stand to see his friends treated that way. Plus, what he doesn't know is that the executor actually is planning on taking EVERYTHING for himself! What's to happen of Bobby and the happy slaves?! This is an odd film in that it IS entertaining but it is a bit uncomfortable as well due to the odd subject matter. Well made but weird...that's for sure!
Way Down South (1939)
** 1/2 (out of 4)
Interesting race picture from RKO features two black writers (Clarence Muse, Langston Hughes) doing the screenplay. Set before the Civil War, a plantation owner dies leaving his farm and slaves to his young son (Bobby Breen). Soon an executive comes into play and tries to sell the slaves but the young kid won't stand for this as the slaves are his only friends. It's interesting to see a Hollywood picture from this era treating blacks with any sort of respect and in many ways it's more respectful than many of the other race pictures that I've seen, which were made by black directors. The film only runs 61-minutes so the drama of slavery isn't ever really looked at and the film would later be criticized by the NAACP for showing "happy slaves". The films main goal is to have a spotlight for the young Breen and he's pretty good here, although his musical numbers aren't anything special.
The modern idea that the antebellum South was made up of Simon Legrees
and mistreated slaves is balanced by this story of a plantation owner
and his son whose loving and familial relations with the servants led
the servants to love their work and their master. This was dramatised
for the movie, but is not unlike many of the working relationships that
existed at the time. One sees a love between men and women of different
races that is not very evident today.
This movie is a rare gem of nostalgia, presenting a story that is uncomfortable for many today who want the story to be that blacks and whites have always hated each other. That has not always been so, and I pray that this kind of loving respect (not slavery) would return to our land; that men and women of every race and station would show respect one to another and not succumb to the modern idea that they must resent who they are and feel like victims.
The cane harvest party hosted by the plantation owner and enjoyed by the owner and workers was quite common in the South. Good movie. Great singing!
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