Saturday, 8 August 2009

The Devil's Daughter (1939)

An often overlooked aspect of American movie history is the existence of the all-black movie during the 1930s and 1940s. Small studios churned out quite considerable numbers of movies with entirely black casts, intended for entirely black audiences. There were all-black musicals, and even all-black horror movies such as this The Devil's Daughter. Although whether this one can truly be described as a horror film is perhaps debatable. It’s more of a romantic melodrama with a suggestion of horror.

Sylvia Walton (Ida James) has been living in Harlem, but returns to Jamaica to take possession of her father’s plantation. Her half-sister Isabelle (Nina Mae McKinney) has been managing the plantation and had expected to inherit. Isabelle isn’t well pleased at missing out, and plans to frighten Sylvia into running back to Harlem by making her think she is practising obeah (which is similar to voodoo). As an added complication the two sisters are in love with the same man. There’s the inevitable - this was the 1930s - comic relief sub-plot involving Sylvia’s chauffeur (Hamtree Harrington) being tricked into thinking his soul has been transferred into the body of a pig.

It’s a fairly bad movie, although no worse than the average Poverty Row feature. The main problem is that there’s just not enough plot to fill even the very modest running time of around an hour. The pacing is uneven. The ending is contrived and feeble.

Despite its major flaws, the movie is worth seeing for other reasons. These all-black films gave black actors the very rare opportunity to play leading roles, rather than supporting roles as servants. They were not required to conform to racial stereotypes. Even Hamtree Harrington as the comic relief isn’t a racial stereotype, and he isn’t portrayed as being stupid. He’s just a city boy who finds himself the target of good-humoured fun at the hands of country people. The other players speak in educated tones, since they are after all playing characters who are wealthy, powerful and well-educated.

The movie doesn’t even resort to showing the Jamaicans as superstitious natives believing in magic, since not even Isabelle truly believes in obeah.

Nina Mae McKinney was a talented actress (known as the Black Garbo) who was unable to break through the barrier of prejudice to achieve a real career in Hollywood. Ida James is a little bland but her performance is acceptable, and the rest of the cast is adequate. Given a better script they could undoubtedly have done rather better, and given more opportunities they could have gained sufficient experience to handle major roles with more success.

The movie seems to have been cut, and given it obscurity it’s possible that a complete version no longer exists. The loss of around ten minutes of its running time might explain some of the problems with the plotting. The use of constant drumbeats, which are present throughout the movie right from the very beginning, is quite effective in building atmosphere. Overall it’s more a movie to see out of historical interest than for its entertainment value, but it’s still worth a look, and it’s public domain and can be legally downloaded for free.

No comments: