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The Bootleg Files: Paradise in Harlem

BOOTLEG FILES 785: “Paradise in Harlem” (1939 all-Black feature).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO:
On public domain labels.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An absence of a copyright dooms the film to endless public domain duping.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely.

From the 1910s through the late 1940s, there was a distinctive cinema geared exclusively to Black American audiences. These films starred all-Black casts and were distributed only to theaters in predominantly Black neighborhoods.

Known as “race films,” these productions gave Black entertainers to move beyond the narrow stereotypical roles that limited their careers in Hollywood. While there were some films made by Black creative artists, most notably Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams, most of these films were made by White directors and producers. These films mostly focused on escapist subjects and rarely delved into the socioeconomic challenges facing Black Americans during the Jim Crow era – after all, local censorship boards were still in power and could easily shut down any film that was considered the slightest bit provocative.

Most of these race films, quite frankly, were not that special – they were burdened with tiny budgets and poor direction, and often felt like cheapjack versions of B-level Hollywood fare. However, they carry a historic importance because they offered opportunities for talented entertainers who were mostly marginalized by the mainstream film industry.

Typical of these features is the 1939 “Paradise in Harlem.” The film is anchored in the Harlem nightclub and theater scene, which offers an opportunity for several musical and comedy performers to shine on screen. It also provides a rare spotlight on Frank Wilson, a Black actor who never enjoyed the career he deserved.

Wilson came to fame on the New York stage in the 1920s in productions of the Eugene O’Neill dramas “All God’s Chillun Got Wings” and “The Emperor Jones” and in the title role of “Porgy,” the non-musical forerunner of “Porgy and Bess.” Hollywood had no place for Wilson – outside of playing Moses in the 1936 all-Black feature “The Green Pastures” and a bit part as a butler in the 1943 “Watch on the Rhine,” the major studios ignored him.

But Wilson was able to find a niche in the race films as both an actor and screenwriter – he co-authored the “Paradise in Harlem” script. In this feature, Wilson plays a Harlem nightclub comedian who, oddly, works in burnt cork make-up. When he witnesses a fatal shooting by mobsters, he is pressured by the killers to get out of town. Wilson’s character heads south and falls into alcoholism, but is able to turn his life around and return to New York to headline in a Harlem theatrical production of Shakespeare’s “Othello.”

“Paradise in Harlem” was directed by Joseph Seiden, who mostly focused on independently-produced Yiddish-language films. Seiden included some on-location footage in Harlem, which offers an interesting view of what the community looked like in 1939. He also incorporated lengthy musical interludes featuring singer Mamie Smith – who was making a career comeback here – and bandleader Lucky Milliner. The film also includes the Juanita Hall Chorus, although Hall – who later achieved greater fame as Bloody Mary in the Broadway musical “South Pacific” – is difficult to locate on screen.

Also featured here are two great beauties of the race film genre: Edna Mae Harris, who was also the leading lady in Oscar Micheaux’s “Lying Lips” (1939) and “The Notorious Elinor Lee” (1940), and Francine Everett, who sizzled in Spencer Williams’ “Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A.” (1946). In a more progressive environment, they would have been the equals of the Hollywood glamor girls of their era.

As for the film itself – sadly, it is something of an enervated effort in the drama department, although the musical interludes are lively and the charms of Harris and Everett are certainly invigorating. Wilson deserves kudos for conceiving a part that allows him to display his comic, melodramatic and Shakespearean skills, but the flabby screenplay and Seiden’s dull direction never enables the actor to properly shine.

As with all of the race films, “Paradise in Harlem” is in the public domain. The original film materials disappeared a long time ago, and the film exists solely in duped prints. It is unlikely there will be a proper digital restoration of the work, so anyone who might be interested in exploring this feature will have to tolerate the many less than pristine versions circulating online and on public domain DVD labels.

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.

Listen to Phil Hall’s award-winning podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud, with new episodes every Monday. Phil Hall’s new book “Jesus Christ Movie Star” is now available from BearManor Media.