Here's what I'll read tonight in case you can't make it! (And I will post my complete program notes later.)
The Vitaphone Studios, a division of Warner Bros, located in Brooklyn, NY, was a prolific producer of short films during the transition to sound starting as early as 1926. Vitaphone technology was a sound-on-disk process where audio was recorded separately onto 16” wax records during filming and synchronized mechanically with the projected footage. The films, many of which were preserved by UCLA, are a record of popular entertainment of the period and they include many ethnic and black themed acts (including, famously, Al Jolson’s pre-Jazz Singer short A Plantation Act), blackface and black-voiced minstrel shows, as well as all black-cast shorts subjects.
A uniquely arty or ART-FULL Vitaphone musical short, Yamecraw: A Negro Rhapsody is based on a symphonic jazz composition by African-American composer, and pioneer of stride piano, James P. Johnson (famous for writing “The Charleston” and other popular tunes of the era) and is reminiscent of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.
(You can listen to a recording posted above. There's a link to the film but the copy is terrible)
A brief “African-American tone poem”, the scenario is similar to that of King Vidor’s Hallelujah. A young man seeking fortune in the city is distracted by urban excitements and tempted by a city woman, only to be crushed by it all. Chastised, he returns, welcomed back home by his devoted wife, to his family’s rural shack. Yamecraw, despite the racist signifiers of this period of cinema -- like watermelons, cotton-picking, and mammies -- is an imaginative and concise presentation of a black migration narrative aided by the restrained performances of the actors that mixes operatic, modernist and folk expression.
Native Son (1951), the first of two movie versions of Richard Wrights’acclaimed 1940 novel, is an odd but compelling international hybrid. It was helmed by a French director, Pierre Chenal, shot in Buenos Aires and, fascinatingly, cast with the middle-aged, African-American author, Richard Wright, playing his 25 year old protagonist, Bigger Thomas. (For a treat look up Wright’s screen tests on youtube)
A NoirCity Magazine interview with scholar Edgardo Krebs, notes that Chenal first wanted to cast Canada Lee, who turned down the role, after which he considered Wright:
“…Chenal posed the question: would you consider playing Bigger Thomas? Wright laughed and responded “But man, I am no actor!” Chenal insisted. “You do not need to pretend to be one,” he said, “just live Bigger’s nightmare.”
Bigger’s nightmare --violently portrayed in both the novel and the adapted film--was that of many post-migration African-Americans and each begins with Bigger and his family already trapped by brutal poverty in a racially segregated city.
Towards the finale of Native Son in true noir fashion, Bigger recounts his dream of escaping imprisonment and his ensuing execution by fleeing the impoverished Chicago streets back to his southern home, a rickety cabin shown floating in a surrealistically designed cotton field. This fantasy, which quickly transfigures into a grim hallucination, initially resembles the strange, pastoral landscape seen in Yamekraw and might suggest that Bigger's unconscious has been influenced by the imagery he has absorbed as a black movie-goer.
By showing two films by white directors adapting works by black artists, in tandem, I hope to demonstrate the duality of black migration narratives and of “home” pictured through generic (and sometimes problematic) film images; first a musical short with a heavenly, happy ending followed by a racially charged thriller, where “return” can only be attained through death.
As Bigger intuits describing his dream:
“All around me everything was white. I was back in the farm where I used to live when I was a boy. I felt free. I wasn’t scared no more… I was back home again.”
program notes written by ina archer
YAMECRAW (1930) Warner Bros. (as The Vitaphone Corporation). DISTRIBUTED BY: Warner Bros. (1930) (USA). DIRECTED BY: Murray Roth. STORY: Stanley Rauh. MUSIC BY James P. Johnson (initially uncredited) and Hugo Mariani (musical score). PHOTOGRAPHY: E.B. DuPar. ART DIRECTION: Manuel Osman.
NATIVE SON (1951) Argentina Sono Film S.A.C.I. DISTRIBUTED BY: Argentina Sono Film S.A.C.I. (1951) (Argentina), Classic Pictures (1951) (USA). PRODUCED BY: Walter Gould, Jaime Prades. DIRECTED BY: Pierre Chenal. SCREENPLAY: Pierre Chenal, Richard Wright (novel). PHOTOGRAPHY: Antonio Merayo. FILM EDITOR: Jorge Gárate. MUSIC: Juan Ehlert (as John Ehlert). SET DECORATION BY: Gori Muñoz. COSTUME DESIGN BY: Eduardo Lerchundi. CAST: Richard Wright (Bigger Thomas), Gloria Madison (Bessie Mears), Willa Pearl Curtis (Mrs. Hannah Thomas), Jean Wallace (Mary Dalton), Charles Cane (Det. Britten). FORMAT: 35mm. RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes. ORIGINAL RELEASE: Italy 1951 (Venice Film Festival). Argentina, March 2, 1951. USA, June 16, 1951 (New York City, New York)
'Whereas New York is always sharply in focus and instantly recognizable from almost any camera angle, the movie argues, Los Angeles is hazy and hard to get right, a series of neighborhoods “joined together by mutual hostility.”'