Friday, August 5, 2011

Lying Lips (Micheaux Pictures/Sack Amusement Enterprises, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was a recent download called Lying Lips, a 1939 “race movie” produced, directed and written by Oscar Micheaux towards the end of his career (he would make only two more films, The Notorious Elinor Lee from 1940 and The Betrayal from 1948, before his death in 1951). Micheaux was the pioneer of African-American cinema; starting with The Homesteader in 1919 he made 42 films as director, almost all of which he also produced and/or wrote (and in some cases they were based on stories he had previously published as novels), and in the silent era he was able to self-finance his films from his royalties as a novelist and shoot good-looking and thoroughly professional movies on low budgets.

Then he was hit by the double whammy of sound and the Depression; sound made production vastly more expensive — the days when you could take a silent camera and a bunch of diffusers to control the levels of light, shoot outdoors on real locations and come up with a movie visually equivalent to a major-studio production suddenly ended, and the opportunities for independent filmmakers to make movies of top quality, get them played in big theatres and win major-studio contracts (as Josef von Sternberg had in 1925 with The Salvation Hunters and Robert Florey had in 1928 with the short The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra) disappeared, not to return until the advent of video, and then digital video, democratized production again. What it meant for Micheaux was not only that he could no longer self-finance but he had to look for white backers.

Sound also affected Micheaux’ films in a bad way that was entirely his responsibility: the availability of dialogue encouraged his annoying tendency towards preachiness, towards having his characters spell out at great length in soporific dialogue Micheaux’ philosophy of racial advancement and the responsibility Negroes (the term he used at a time when the general non-pejorative reference to African-Americans was “colored people”) had to each other and their race as a whole. Like a lot of Black and racially sympathetic white filmmakers, Micheaux had been inspired by D. W. Griffith’s racist masterpiece The Birth of a Nation — Micheaux’ second film, Within the Gates, was basically intended as a response movie — and, like Griffith himself, Micheaux fell from popularity when younger Black audiences grew impatient with the static quality of his films and the unsubtlety with which he hammered home his old-fashioned moral messages. Micheaux tried to keep himself in business by grafting bits of newer Black culture into his movies — in 1938 he made a movie called Swing! but it was essentially a Jazz Singer knock-off about a Black classical violinist who’s angry with his son for wanting to play swing (and it was pretty clear where Micheaux’ own sympathies lay!) — and Lying Lips emerges as a combination musical (at least in the first half), gangster movie and melodrama.

The star is Edna Mae Harris, a singer and dancer (her two songs are the best parts of the movie!) who plays the part of Elsie Bellwood, entertainer at the Poodle Dog nightclub (and as with a lot of cheap white movies the nightclub actually looks like a real nightclub, not like an airplane hangar done up in art deco), who both looks and sounds so much like the zaftig white singer Mildred Bailey that for a moment I was wondering if it was Mildred Bailey, “passing” in reverse and getting a job in a race movie after white producers turned her down because of her size. (Like most of the “good guys” of both genders in Micheaux’ movies, Harris is light-skinned — a “high yellow” in the Black slang of the day — and his films often show the odd internal racism within the Black community of his time that the lighter you were, the more highly regarded you were. Indeed, so many of Micheaux’ films feature a light-skinned leading lady who’s thought to be white and only revealed at the end to be Black, and therefore a suitable match for the Black leading man, I wondered if Micheaux, with his French name, was mixed-race himself and whether his anxieties about it found their way into his scripts.)

The plot turns around Elsie’s refusal to entertain the nightclub’s customers (particularly its rich gangster customers) at “private parties,” a veiled metaphor for prostitution and probably a much more frank sexual reference than a white filmmaker could have got away with at the time. (Later we see Elsie undressing to take a bath — and we see quite a lot more of her than we’d have of a white actress in a similar situation in a mainstream Hollywood movie. I guess the Black theatres at which these films were shown weren’t signatories to the Production Code.) Elsie lives with her aunt and is dating the Poodle Dog’s manager, Benny Hadnot (Carman Newsome), who’s supporting her in her refusal to yield to the entreaties of Farina (Don De Leo), the Poodle Dog’s owner, and his white backer Garotti (Charles La Torre), to go to those fate-worse-than-death “parties.” [Both the American Film Institute Catalog and list De Leo as a white actor, but his hair is so heavily plastered on his face with chemicals I thought he was a light-skinned Black man wearing a “process.”] Hadnot announces he’s going to quit his job and Elsie offers to quit too, but he convinces her to stay on because she’s popular but insist that all she’s going to do for her pay is sing and dance. Hadnot can afford to lose his job because he’s in line for a better one as an investigator with district attorney Eckert (Robert Paquin).

Then the plot turns as Elsie’s aunt Josephine (Gladys Williams) is found dead in their apartment — Elsie comes home from her job at 3 a.m., thinks the old woman is merely sleeping, takes a bath, is pulled out of the bathtub by a phone call from someone who asks to speak to Josephine, and it’s only when Elsie tries to wake her up to take the call that she realizes her aunt is dead. She’s arrested and convicted of the murder, thanks to a frame-up instituted by Farina and Elsie’s cousins John (Cherokee Thornton) and Clyde (“Slim” Thompson), but Benny is convinced she’s innocent and teams up with a Black police officer, Detective Wanzer (Robert Earl Jones, father of modern-day Black actor James Earl Jones) — whereupon they end up tracing the murder back to an elaborate scheme involving the characters before they left the South and came to the large (and unnamed) Northern city where the first half of the film took place. Ned Green (Henry “Gang” Gines) was in love with Josephine, but another woman, Elizabeth (Frances Williams) — yet another cousin of Elsie (she seems to have as many cousins as Siegfried had aunts!) — told Ned that he had got her pregnant and tricked him into marrying her.

The marriage was performed by Rev. Bryson (Juano Hernandez, whose first name is misspelled “Jauno” on the credits and who later got to act in some respectable mainstream movies, including Clarence Brown’s anti-lynching drama Intruder in the Dust and John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge), who when it turned out that Elizabeth wasn’t pregnant after all advised Ned to stick it out with the marriage anyway. Ned tried to leave Elizabeth but John and Clyde traced him when he moved up north. Benny and Wanzer learn this story from Rev. Bryson and trace John, kidnap him and threaten to take him to a “haunted” house and lock him in, and out of sheer fear John admits that he killed Josephine and framed Elsie so he, brother Clyde and sister Elizabeth would collect Josephine’s $15,000 inheritance. Ben and Elsie get together, and when Ben gives Elsie the money that’s rightfully hers, she tells him to keep it, and finally (doing the pillar-of-responsibility number of a true Micheaux hero) he says he’s going to use it to start a trust fund for their children.

Lying Lips is at its best when the characters are singing and dancing — Edna Mae Harris wasn’t going to keep Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald lying awake nights worried about the competition, but she’s charming, personable and has a strong voice that does justice to her two songs, “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer (which also includes a quite beautiful acoustic guitar solo; the guitarist remains unseen but it sounds like he was finger-picking) and “I’ve Got a Heart Full of Rhythm” by Louis Armstrong and Horace Gerlach. (I’d heard the latter song from Armstrong’s 1937 recording but hadn’t realized he actually wrote it.) There’s also an unidentified dancer who auditions for a job at the Poodle Dog by singing and dancing to Shelton Brooks’ “Some of These Days” (Brooks, who also wrote “Darktown Strutters’ Ball,” was also Black, but he wrote “Some of These Days” for the white singer Sophie Tucker, whose trademark it became, though the version heard here owes a lot more to Bing Crosby’s marvelous 1933 recording of it with Frank Trumbauer’s band — the Black singer here copies a lot of Bing’s inflections, vocal moods and scat interjections — so much for the common assumption that the influence between Black and white performers ran only one way!) and later does a non-singing dance to a medley of Vincent Youmans’ “Tea for Two” and Jean Schwartz’s “Chinatown, My Chinatown.”

Alas, after Elsie gets popped for the murder (Benny and Wanzer are shown visiting her in prison, in a quite effective stylized set that for once makes a virtue out of this film’s poverty-stricken budget) the music stops — literally — and the plot drags. Lying Lips is better produced than your average race movie, and the acting is also at least marginally better (the line delivery is relatively naturalistic most of the time, and when it isn’t the fault seems to lie more with Micheaux’ stilted dialogue than with the performers attempting to make it sound like real conversation) — one doesn’t sit through this one, as one does with a lot of other race movies from the period, and wonder, “Where were all the Black people who could act?” — and as tiresome as Micheaux’ preaching gets sometimes, it’s clear that he was someone who believed in what he was doing and wasn’t just throwing a quickly written script and a bunch of low-budget performers in front of a camera and calling it a movie.