The Bootleg Files: Minstrel Man

BOOTLEG FILES 688: “Minstrel Man” (1944 musical).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On public domain labels.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright.

No one is rushing to digitally restore this title.

When one thinks of the 1940s musicals, few people will automatically cite the Poverty Row mini-studio Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC). Indeed, that cheapo endeavor gained a belated cult following for its thrillers, horror flicks and Westerns, but not for musicals. However, this scrappy little operation created at least one notable musical that snagged a pair of Oscar nominations and brought together an unlikely band of talent.

The film in question is “Minstrel Man,” a 1944 production that could easily qualify as one of the most politically incorrect creations of Hollywood’s Golden Era. That’s because the film offers a nostalgic consideration of the hoary old minstrel show traditions of white performers going on stage in burnt cork make-up designed to caricature African-Americans. Yet, if you can look beyond the uncomfortable tenets of this antiquated form of amusement, there is a diverting little B-grade endeavor that is deserving of a peek.

“Minstrel Man” opens in the 1920s and focuses on the Broadway star Dixie Boy Johnson, who is in the spotlight of a Broadway minstrel show. When Dixie Boy’s wife Caroline is ready to give birth, he is forced to stay on stage while his wife is at the hospital. As luck would have it, she dies during childbirth and he is the last to know. Emotionally wrecked by this tragedy, he is not interested in the baby daughter who was born and dumps her on his friends Lasses and Mae White while he departs to Europe. We know he is in Europe thanks to a montage that show the Eiffel Tower, the Monte Carlo casinos and Britain’s Grand National Steeplechase.

Dixie Boy returns to America at the end of the 1920s, only to discover that the public interest in minstrel shows has waned. However, he manages to get some less than stellar gigs thanks to his hustling agent, and he winds up in Havana to headline a cabaret show. But an unexpected remark from a club patron sparks a depression about his dead wife, so Dixie Boy quits and takes a ship home to New York. The ship winds up in an accident and sinks, enabling Dixie Boy to fake his death and start life anew under a false identity. But his agent locates him playing in a crummy San Francisco bar and brings him back to New York to see his now-16-year-daughter headlining in a Broadway show with a blackface act as Dixie Girl Johnson. With no rehearsals, Dixie Boy gets into blackface and joins his daughter in the show’s grand finale.

The great thing about “Minstrel Man” is that it runs a crisp 70 minutes, so it never wears out its welcome. And despite PRC’s penchant for ultra-low-budget productions, the film’s musical numbers look fairly elaborate and are expertly choreographed. Granted, no one would mistake this for an Arthur Freed MGM epic, but this is certainly a better-than-average song-and-dance show from a studio with no track record in the genre.

“Minstrel Man” is notable as the only starring role for Benny Fields, a vaudeville veteran with a scant filmography. He was best known as the partner for his wife Blossom Seeley, and he was appreciated by his show business peers for his vocalizing and charisma. One critic appraised Fields’ on-screen performance as offering “a talent, voice, and personality the screen’s been too long without.” But Fields was not comfortable working in films – indeed, his dramatic acting is never as steady as his musical numbers – and the remainder of his career was focused on stage gigs and an occasional guest shot on television.

“Minstrel Man” also features Gladys George as the woman who raises Dixie Boy’s abandoned baby. George was a popular star of the 1930s, earning an Oscar nomination for the 1936 melodrama “Valiant is the Word for Carrie,” but by 1944 her career shrank to supporting parts in PRC films. Still, she maintained a degree of dignity that was rare for Poverty Row performances. Also in the cast was a young John Raitt, who was two years away from Broadway stardom in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical classic “Carousel,” and character actor Jerome Cowan, who was best known as Sam Spade’s ill-fated partner in the 1941 masterpiece “The Maltese Falcon.”

Perhaps the most intriguing cast member in the film was Judy Clark as Dixie Girl Johnson. A vivacious blonde, she looked and sounded like Betty Hutton, but lacked that star’s career good fortune. She never managed to ascend from small roles in minor films, which is a shame since she was a distinctive talent and should have been a bigger star.

Behind the camera, “Minstrel Man” was directed by Joseph H. Lewis, who would gain a cult following for his direction of the B-grade classics “Gun Crazy” and “The Big Combo.” Columbia Pictures recognized his work in this PRC flick, as the studio tapped him to direct the musical numbers for its 1946 extravaganza “The Jolson Story.” Edgar Ulmer was originally tapped to direct the film, but the assignment was given to Lewis five days after shooting began. Some sources claim that Ulmer shot the stage sequences, which (if correct) means that Lewis got his work on “The Jolson Story” by taking credit for Ulmer’s work.

“Minstrel Man” was the rare PRC release to receive notice from the Academy Awards. It received two nominations, for Best Original Score and for Best Song on “Remember Me to Carolina.” Alas, composer Walter Donaldson claimed that song was too familiar to his “Did I Remember?” for the 1936 MGM film “Suzy” and sued the composers for plagiarism. The matter was settled out of court.

As with most PRC films, “Minstrel Man” saw its copyright lapse into the public domain. Today, the film can only be seen in crummy dupe prints, and the blackface aspects of the film will scare away any P.C.-focused folks from trying to digitally restore it. That’s a shame, as it is one of the more unusual PRC releases and its obscurity is not truly deserved. But, hey, even a crummy public domain print is better than nothing at all.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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