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
Originally prepared at 80 minutes, the film was subject to censorship problems immediately upon release, and cut to 72 minutes. This 72-minute version was the only version available, until the Library of Congress restored the film to a 76-minute running time (and restored as well the original blue tint in the film's finale). Several minutes of the original release are still lost, presumably forever. See more »
Now Let Me Fly
Traditional American spiritual
Sung by the church patrons and Paul Robeson See more »
The Emperor Porgy
Although purist fans of Eugene O'Neill will not be happy, a great deal of the spirit of The Emperor Jones is captured in this rather abbreviated version with an additional backstory added about how one Brutus Jones, former Pullman porter in the USA got to be the ruler of a Caribbean island and The Emperor Jones.
The original play has the white merchant character Smithers played here by Dudley Digges as the eyes of author O'Neill who narrates the first scene in flashback. Here we have a straight narrative with a backstory added. If you think that the backstory looks something like Porgy And Bess that's because the screenplay was written by Dubose Hayward the original author of that work before the Gershwin brothers set it to music.
Back in those days being a Pullman porter was a status symbol among black people, the first labor union organized that gained decent wages and collective bargaining rights for black people was the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. When Brutus Jones kills his friend in that crap game in a fight over a woman, he's not just a fugitive, he's lost a lot of standing among his peers. But in fleeing to that Caribbean island where the natives are descended from escaped slaves who still retained some animist beliefs from Africa, he's got it all over this crowd and reasserts himself with nerve, knowledge, and a little trickery and a bit of help from Dudley Digges's character.
Although he did not originate the role, Paul Robeson debuted with it on the London stage and the actor who Eugene O'Neill handpicked to originate the part, one Charles Gilpin faded into obscurity. Of course there's also no singing in O'Neill's Emperor Jones, but Robeson's bass/baritone gets a few good songs in as well, from hymns, to Negro spirituals, to some convict laments. Robeson was always a powerful performer no matter what you think of his politics.
This version of The Emperor Jones has as much Hayward as O'Neill, still what O'Neill was trying to convey comes out in a glorious triumphal performance by Paul Robeson.
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