Sunday, June 3, 2018

Minstrel Man (PRC, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last May 29 Charles and I watched another item from the Mill Creek Entertainment box of 20 public-domain musicals: Minstrel Man, a 1944 oddball from PRC (the little studio that made a few genuinely great movies — Edgar G. Ulmer’s Bluebeard, Strange Illusion and Detour, Steve Sekely’s Lady in the Death House, Frank Wisbar’s Strangler of the Swamp) but also put out so much garbage that Hollywood wags joked that the studio’s initials, which officially stood for “Producers’ Releasing Corporation,” really meant “Pretty Rotten Crap.” Despite the intrinsic awfulness of the concept — an ode to the joy and staying power of minstrelsy — and the rather odd casting of Benny Fields as the lead minstrel (he looks the part, somehow being more attractive in blackface than he is out of makeup, but his thin, whispery voice seems odd if your concept of a minstrel is Al Jolson), Minstrel Man emerges as a pretty good film. It had an unusual level of talent both in front of and behind the camera: the director is Joseph H. Lewis, who would return to the world of minstrelsy two years later in a far more prestigious production — he directed, uncredited, the musical numbers in the biopic The Jolson Story (Alfred E. Green got sole credit but apparently did only the plot portions), and the writing committee included Martin Mooney from Detour, who co-wrote the story with Raymond L. Schrock; and Pierre Gendron from Bluebeard, who co-wrote the script with Irwin Franklin. The actors include Gladys George as Mae White, long-suffering wife of Lee “Lasses” White (Roscoe Karns), manager of minstrel man Dixie Boy Johnson (Benny Fields —his real first name, if he has one, is never used). Ironically, there was a real Lee “Lasses” White who’s also in the movie, in a minor role; Jerome Cowan also appears as Johnson’s agent, Bill Evans (reuniting him and George from the cast of the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon); and Alan Dinehart, the marvelously slimy villain of 1930’s minor classics like A Study in Scarlet and Supernatural, turns up in a sympathetic role as Johnson’s producer, Lew Dunn (a name probably derived from the real-life Lew Dockstader, in whose minstrel company Al Jolson got his start). 

The film opens in the 1920’s —though we don’t learn when we are until much later, when Johnson attempts a comeback and is told that talking pictures have killed the demand for all forms of live entertainment — with Johnson performing on opening night of his new show, Minstrel Man, singing a song called “Remember Me to Caroline” (sometimes sung as “Remember Me to Carolina”) which he supposedly wrote in honor of his wife, who’s about to have his baby. Johnson would rather be with his wife in the hospital than on stage, but it’s opening night and The Show Must Go On. Through hand signals and lip movements Mae White tells him while he’s in the middle of his song that the delivery went well and his child is a girl, but then things take a turn for the worse and the daughter lives but mom dies. Broken-hearted and traumatized by the loss of his wife on the day which should have been the happiest of their relationship, Dixie quits the show and decides to tear around the world — or at least as much of it as PRC had stock footage of — and blows all his money in casinos. Meanwhile Lee and Mae White take his baby daughter and raise her as their own, naming her Caroline after her late mom. Five years later Dixie returns home and tries to re-establish a relationship with his daughter, but the Whites say no, you abandoned her and you can’t just come smashing your way back into her life as if you never left. Dixie gets a job singing in a movie theatre as the fourth of five acts performing between showings of the film (a common practice in the 1930’s; major stars like Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra got important career boosts from gigs like this) but decides he can’t bear to be in New York any longer. 

He gets a job at a club in Havana — a location which strains the resources of PRC’s set department — but freaks out and walks off in mid-performance when the audience demands he sing his big song, “Remember Me to Caroline,” which he can’t bear to do because of the memories it brings back. Then he takes another trip to Europe and goes home on the Morro Castle, whose real-life disaster (the ship caught fire at sea and sank) was at the time this film was made probably the second most famous accident on a tourist ship, after the Titanic. Dixie Boy Johnson’s name appears on a newspaper list of the dead passengers (both Charles and I were amused when his is the only name that isn’t accompanied by an age, as if he’s maintaining his actor’s vanity to the end), but he really survives and finds whatever work he can as “Jack Carter.” A quick dissolve from Caroline’s seventh birthday cake to her 15th (which looks absolutely identical except for the change in number and the extra candles) indicates the passage of time, and Caroline has unknowingly followed in her dad’s footsteps, sneaking out of her bed at night miming to her dad’s records. At some point — the writing committee is maddeningly vague as to when — she’s learned that the legendary minstrel performer Dixie Boy Johnson is her father, and she practices for her own career by miming, singing and dancing along with his records. She’s got good enough (and the actress playing her as a teenager, Judy Clark, is good enough at both singing and acting she should have had more of a career than she did) that producer Lew Dunn decides to revive Minstrel Man in an updated version and star Caroline White as “Dixie Girl Johnson.” Bill Evans finds out and persuades Dixie Boy Johnson to quit his gig at a seedy nightclub in San Francisco, come to New York and sue for a share of the proceeds, but Dixie Boy drops any intent of suing the show when he learns his daughter is the star, and there’s a Show Boat-like reunion sequence between father and daughter at the end as she triumphs. 

The big final number features Dixie Girl’s spectacular dance and a solo by a male vocalist — John Raitt, later a Broadway star (he played Billy Bigelow in the premiere production of Carousel and quite frankly did the big “Soliloquy” better than anyone since) and father of blues singer/guitarist Bonnie Raitt. Minstrel Man seems like an unimpressive movie in synopsis, and like Trocadero (the last musical Charles and I watched from this 20-film Mill Creek Entertainment box) it’s the sort of movie in which you’re a reel or two ahead of the writers as they trot out familiar cliché after familiar cliché to keep their plot moving, but it’s done surprisingly stylishly, thanks largely to Lewis’s direction. In his early days as a director in Universal’s “B” Western unit Lewis had acquired the nickname “Wagon-Wheel Joe” for bringing a set of various sizes of wagon wheels to the location and aiming his camera through them every time he had to shoot a dull dialogue scene and wanted to liven it up visually. There are plenty of examples of that trademark in Minstrel Man, including a scene in the Whites’ home in which he suddenly cuts to an outside location so he can film their conversation through a window, and another at the end of Judy Clark’s dance number in which he frames her by shooting through a gap in an ornate railing used as part of the stage set. Though Benny Fields’ singing is oddly somnolent and one misses the energy and verve Jolson could have brought to this part (but even at this low point of his career Jolson was too big a “name” for PRC to afford!), and in these more racially sensitive times it’s hard to take the assertion Lew Dunn makes in the last reel that minstrelsy’s appeal will never die, Minstrel Man is a surprisingly well-done movie with a real sense of pathos and charm … even if it does seem like we’ve seen it all before.