by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I ran the 1940 movie Gang War, an all-Black “race” movie by the ridiculously misnamed “Million Dollar Productions” studio, which didn’t have anybody of any lasting importance in the cast — the only names are recognized were Ralph Cooper, the lead (and him I only knew because he’d previously starred in the film The Duke Is Tops with a female singer who did achieve lasting importance, Lena Horne) and Maceo B. Sheffield, who’d played the lead in one of the earliest all-Black Westerns (in which Herb Jeffries was the villain before they promoted him to hero status in the later films in the series). Surprise: the film actually turned out to be pretty good, afflicted with a poverty-row budget that made the studio name not only inappropriate but laughable and hissy sound (two sound men, Earl Cille and Lambert Day, are credited, but given the great fog of surface noise through which we hear this film’s dialogue, or try to, it’s anybody’s guess why anyone would want to take credit for recording it), Gang War was produced by Harry C. Popkin (who later made classic noir movies like D.O.A. and Impact) and directed by his brother Leo.
What separated this from other race movies we’ve seen was the competence of the cast — nobody here, with the possible exception of Jesse C. Brooks as police lieutenant Holmes, who both looked and sounded so much like James Earl Jones I found myself wondering if they were related, is a genuinely powerful actor, but they’re all fully competent; there aren’t any of the halting, porn-like deliveries we’ve seen in other race films — and the pace of the direction. Though there are way too many montages of newspaper headlines taking the place of scenes that should have been shown (and no doubt would have been had the filmmakers been able to afford it), there are a few genuine action scenes that do appear on screen, and Leo Popkin moves the film along at a smart, quick pace that helps zip us past the plot holes too fast to notice them and makes the film at least as entertaining as your average white movie from a studio like PRC or Monogram.
The plot is essentially a Black version of Little Caesar: aspiring gangster Bob “Killer” Meade (Ralph Cooper) aims to rise to the top of the Harlem rackets no matter how many people in his way he has to kill. First he gets the men of gangster “Bull” Brown (Maceo B. Sheffield) to throw in with him; they take the gang away from Brown and Meade murders Brown personally; the crime is witnessed but, much like the Black gang-bangers of today, Meade is acquitted because witnesses and jurors are intimidated by his omnipresent posse. After killing a few other small fry, Meade sets his sights on Lew Baron (Lawrence Creiner), and the bulk of the film consists of the brutal war between them in which each orders the other’s men knocked off at the slightest provocation, or none at all. Just how the gangs in Harlem make their money is only hinted at in this film — the only racket we actually see in operation is the sale of jukeboxes — but there’s a plot twist that, though not exactly original, gives this film a rather odd aura: Meade has a chorus-girl girlfriend, Maizie “Sugar” Walford (Gladys Snyder, probably the role Lena Horne would have played if she hadn’t moved out of the “race” world and into white showbiz by then, first as Teddy Wilson’s band singer and then at MGM), who is totally clueless about his gang involvement and heatedly denies that Meade has ever killed anyone.
Among the most interesting features of the movie is the actual footage of Harlem as it appeared in 1940, by both day and night — including glimpses of such legendary nightspots as Small’s Paradise and the Savoy Ballroom (where I think Jimmie Lunceford was playing at the time — that’s what it looked like during a brief shot of the marquee) — the use of real locations rather than studio fakes being one of the few good aspects of the limited budget on which this film was made. There’s also a very long production number that supposedly takes place at a nightclub where Meade takes Maizie on one of their dates — and it’s impressively produced, a deep-Congo sort of thing that looks surprisingly like one of the numbers from Josephine Baker’s musicals (and also is reminiscent of Marshall Stearns’ account in his book The Story of Jazz of what the Cotton Club productions Duke Ellington’s “jungle” music accompanied) — before the plot hurtles towards resolution: Maizie turns Meade in to the cops rather than let him murder Baron, and it seems as if he’s going to give himself up to Lieutenant Holmes — only at the last minute Meade knocks Holmes down and attempts an escape across the rooftops before he’s shot down and falls to the ground to his death.
Though hardly a great movie, this version of Gang War (a title that was used for some white gangster movies, too) is a pretty good one, a fast-moving piece that still holds up as entertainment (which most race movies don’t unless they have someone in the cast who either had been a major entertainment star earlier, like blues pioneer Mamie Smith, or would be one later, like Paul Robeson, Herb Jeffries and Lena Horne).