Eastern Promises

Paul Robeson goes to New York for the path-breaking Emperor Jones
by Richard Koszarski  posted September 18, 2008
Email  |  Print  
A  A  A

Hollywood on the Hudson: Filmmaking in New York, 1920-39,
Museum of Modern Art, September 17-October 19, 2008

Historians have long admired The Emperor Jones as Paul Robeson's "finest screen role," and cited its production in the East as the reason for this success. It seems clear in retrospect that no Hollywood studio would have cast Robeson, or any other black actor, in so dominant a role. But even beyond the obvious racial issues, Hollywood narratives were so tied up in their own dramatic conventions that it would have been impossible for Paramount or MGM to "lick" the problem of adapting Eugene O'Neill's stylized narrative to the screen. MGM's Strange Interlude (1932), which at least had the benefit of glamorous stars in elegant surroundings, had been a critical and commercial fiasco. The Emperor Jones would have been even worse: Samuel Goldwyn, the only major producer to express an interest, wanted to cast Lawrence Tibbett in blackface.

In the end, the film was not produced by Goldwyn, but by John Krimsky and Gifford Cochran, two wealthy young New Yorkers who had made a great deal of money distributing the controversial German talkie, Maedchen in Uniform. (Cochran had less success with another German import, Pabst's The Threepenny Opera, whose American premiere he staged in 1933.) That season Tibbett had sung the role of Jones at the Metropolitan Opera House in Louis Gruenberg's musical adaptation, a critically acclaimed performance that obviously impressed Sam Goldwyn. Like Goldwyn, Krimsky knew there was a film here, but he could see past Tibbett, back to the original O'Neill manuscript and its best-known interpreter, Paul Robeson. The play had opened at the Provincetown Playhouse in 1920 with Charles Gilpin in the lead and caused an immediate sensation. Juggling expressionism, psychoanalysis, and repressed racial memory, it also offered the first great black role in American theatrical history. Brutus Jones, the title character, is at the center of every scene, sometimes even alone on stage, holding the audience through a series of intense, highly poetic monologues. When O'Neill replaced Gilpin with Paul Robeson in a 1924 revival ("a young fellow with considerable experience, wonderful presence and voice, full of ambition and a damn fine man personally with real brains"), the role found its ultimate interpreter, and Robeson found himself a theatrical celebrity.

Not long after his initial triumph as Jones, Robeson made his screen debut in Oscar Micheaux's Body and Soul (1925), a race movie that for decades remained all but unknown outside the African American community. The move from stage to screen was already a conventional marker of success for exciting new theatrical talent. But while Broadway might deliver occasional roles like The Emperor Jones, in this case Hollywood had nothing to offer. Robeson had given Micheaux and his film a fair chance, but the actor realized very quickly that the stunted race film market was no place for a man of his talents. An avant-garde feature shot in Switzerland in 1930 (Borderline) was no alternative, either. Given the extreme cultural prejudice of the day, a screen career was so unlikely that Robeson must have already written Hollywood off completely. Indeed, as a celebrated concert performer and dramatic actor, he would have had little time to waste contemplating the movies. When Krimsky reached him in London early in 1933 he was busy with a West End production of All God's Chillun Got Wings. But Robeson was still emotionally committed to the play that had made him a star and agreed to accept $15,000 to appear in the film, so long as he would not have to work "south of a line along the Mason-Dixon Line from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts." This clause in Robeson's contract is even stranger than might appear at first glance. On one level, it vetoed the plan, already under consideration, to film location scenes in Florida, or possibly even in Haiti. But by extending the Mason-Dixon Line across the continental divide, it also vetoed any possibility of shooting the picture in Hollywood.

While Chester Erskine's Midnight (another theatrical adaptation shot in New York in 1933) was a typical low-budget production made by inexpensive talent on a few simple sets, The Emperor Jones was a far more elaborate proposition. Exhibitors Reliance Corp., which had been set up by Western Electric to fund independent producers—and keep them away from RCA's rival Photophone system—put up $168,200, about 60 percent of the negative cost. O'Neill received $30,000 for the rights, while Robeson's $15,000 was triple the fee Noel Coward would accept to star in The Scoundrel at this same studio a year later. In exchange for this cash, Exhibitors Reliance had first call on the producers' share of the proceeds. Most histories of the American film industry would later insist that such financing developed only during the post-World War II period, when the film industry was in a very different economic position. But for the next few years this is exactly how Western Electric encouraged a constant flow of production at the old Paramount studio, which it was then operating under the name Eastern Service Studios Inc. (ESSI).

O'Neill had been approached by Dudley Murphy regarding a film version of The Emperor Jones as early as 1925. But with only his work on Ballet mécanique to recommend him (and no sound system to capture either O'Neill's dialogue or Robeson's delivery), the suggestion went nowhere. Instead, Murphy moved from avant-garde cinema to a somewhat unconventional career as screenwriter and director in New York and Hollywood. He was prone to giving interviews attacking Hollywood as "full of people, often brilliant, making compromises," and touting his own work on Ballet mécanique and a handful of "imaginative" Hollywood features, like The Sport Parade (RKO, 1932). In this context, his work on St. Louis Blues and Black and Tan (two shorts he made for RKO in New York in 1929) must be seen as sketches for the as yet unmade The Emperor Jones. Those films attempted to dramatize African American culture through an ambitious invocation of blues and jazz, straining the short musical format almost beyond its capabilities. "I like to do Negro things," Murphy told the press. "You have a chance for mood and fantasy and camera angles. Then, too, the Negro music is always interesting. Here [in The Emperor Jones], the tom-tom accompaniment will be swell."

Over the next few years Murphy proved relentless in his pursuit of O'Neill and the screen rights to The Emperor Jones. While directing St. Louis Blues in 1929 he sent O'Neill a four-page treatment of the play and a lengthy note specifically invoking his "experimental" approach to the Bessie Smith musical as an indication of the style he hoped to employ on The Emperor Jones. He apparently felt that his enthusiasm for the project was so compelling that O'Neill would be moved to contractually insist on attaching him as director if he ever did sell screen rights to the play. Perhaps he thought that his success in getting RKO to purchase O'Neill's short play Before Breakfast was enough of a sweetener—even though no film was ever made of it. In fact, it may well have been Murphy who brought Krimsky and Cochran into the project, and not the other way around. In any case, when the young producers finally succeeded in putting the film together, it was Murphy they hired to direct.

The script that Robeson approved in London in February (and that Eugene O'Neill had already signed off on) was written by DuBose Heyward, a white specialist in African Americana already famous as the author of Porgy and Mamba's Daughters. Compared to something like Midnight, it is a remarkable example of "opening up" a theatrical text without violating the integrity of the original, and clearly shows the hand of the more experienced Dudley Murphy. Where O'Neill introduces us to Jones in the palace, his throne already tottering, the first two-thirds of this film provides the backstory. And not merely how this one man got to the island, but a capsule history of the entire African American migration from the South to the cities, all underscored with spirituals, jazz, chain gang rhythms, and blues. Taking its cue from O'Neill's text, with its intimations of a racial unconscious, the script offers its own archetypal "Negro" imagery, all of which will return to haunt Jones in the final reels. That these vignettes are nearly all negative—crap shooting, knifing, carousing in Harlem buffet flats—would lead Robeson to repudiate the film in later years, although he had nothing but praise for the script while the film was still in production.

The Emperor Jones was in many ways a demonstration project intended to validate the notion of independent filmmaking and the potential of working in New York. "The thing I consider important is bringing production here," Murphy told one local reporter. "I want to emphasize that pictures can be made in the East. I particularly wanted to make this picture here because it is so easy to get actors." Beyond Murphy and Robeson, the producers had assembled a remarkable technical crew, drawing largely on local talent that had already proven itself in Hollywood. William de Mille was prominently credited as "supervisor" of the production, but seems to have had little to do on the film other than assuage the anxiety of studio executives regarding the abilities of the production team (he played a similar role on later ESSI productions).[1] An experienced stage and screen director, he had already made two films in Astoria for Paramount during the silent era. Cinematographer Ernest Haller, another New York veteran, had shot many films here for Paramount and First National during the 1920s, and had since been working for Warner Bros. on the coast. After making this one film in Astoria, Haller returned to Hollywood, where he won an Oscar for his work on Gone With the Wind. Normally the New York cinematographer's local would never have allowed someone with a West Coast card to come in and shoot an important feature, but Haller's long prior history must have stood him in good stead. The film was designed by Herman Rosse, a theatrical designer noted for the stylized, slightly fantastic settings he created for Florenz Ziegfeld and John Murray Anderson. Rosse had recently returned from Hollywood, where he had won an Academy Award for his work on Universal's King of Jazz. J. Rosamond Johnson, whom Murphy had used in a similar capacity on St. Louis Blues, was responsible for the film's complex orchestrations. Especially in the opening reels, the film would sample a variety of African American musical genres, not just to provide a series of musical interludes for the star, but as a capsule history of this entire area of American music. And film editor Grant Whytock was imported from the United Artists studio in Hollywood, a sure sign that the distributors (as well as the producers) were taking no chances with local post-production skills.

When filming began in Astoria on May 25, 1933, local reporters were again announcing the imminent revival of East Coast production. The basement stages were filled with the two largest sets, the emperor's palace and the jungle, both designed by Rosse to support the non-naturalistic flavor of the original play. The palace was decorated with assorted mirrors and baroque scenic elements left behind by Paramount, as if the slimy cockney trader, Mr. Smithers, had been pawing through the nearest furniture warehouse in response to the demands of his royal customers (it also saved a bit in construction costs). The nightmarish jungle was equally stylized: not quite real, but not a forest of paper cutouts, either. Some critics understood this. The New York Sun called it "a highly experimental tale that deserves commendation," and praised, "the forbidding jungle which was reared in the film studio at Astoria." On the other hand, for more literal-minded critics, "The jungle, in a word, looks phony. The crocodile appears to be a prop." Many were simply confused. Where the play had maintained a consistently expressionist design scheme, the film split in two: obvious stylization in the last part, but a more realistic approach in the earlier scenes invented by Heyward and Murphy. Some of these scenes were even shot on location, a quarry in New Rochelle for the chain gang episodes, and a strip of sand at Long Beach, near the Boardwalk Pavilion Hotel, for the moment when Jones washes ashore. Unfortunately, most critics, even today, prefer to feel that Haller and Rosse suffered a sudden artistic collapse during the second half of the picture, their skills falling victim to the obsolete technical facilities of the "old Astoria studio."[2]

The Emperor Jones remains remarkable on many levels: its status as a truly independent production, decades before this kind of filmmaking was common; its ambitious integration of design, text, and music at a time when such stylization was almost never seen in commercial cinema; and the real power of Paul Robeson's performance. But much of the current interest in the film situates it as a kind of race movie, grouped with the films of Oscar Micheaux as well as such objectionable drivel as Bud Pollard's The Black King (1932). Black audiences were never a primary target of this costly United Artists release, which even Robeson agreed saw itself as "an art film." But neither was there ever a chance of ignoring the film's unique status as a racially integrated drama. Even during production, the Hays Office kept this in mind as it reviewed every shot, demanding that Fredi Washington be "blacked up" during her scenes with Robeson, in case audiences thought the star might be romancing a white woman (the retakes of these scenes are remarkably careless, with Washington's face obviously much darker than her back or arms).

Smithers's groveling before the new Emperor was another sensitive point—Robeson could order the white man to light his cigarette, but the ultimate gesture was missing from most prints until a major restoration of the film by the Library of Congress in 2001. This new version also brought back the most notorious set of deletions, three dozen uses of the word "nigger," nearly all of them spoken by Robeson.[3] In 1934 this word would be forbidden by the industry's Production Code Administration, but The Emperor Jones was a pre-code film, and reveled in using it in a variety of contexts, spoken by both black and white actors.[4] Whether or not the filmmakers thought this an authentic expression of African American culture, black audiences were outraged. The Pittsburgh Courier wrote, "It is bad enough to have 'nigger' and 'darky' shouted from the stage and screen by white actors, but coming from Negro actors it is abominable....Compared to this picture, the low comedy of Amos 'n' Andy is positively flattering and only The Birth of a Nation is worse." Marcus Garvey saw the film as part of "an international conspiracy to disparage and crush...Negroes...and to impress upon them their inferiority." Eventually even Robeson turned on the film, attacking the way "scenes were changed around from the proper psychological order of the play." But while DuBose Heyward's new material may not have had the artistic or emotional weight of O'Neill's masterwork (which Robeson retained in his repertoire), most of the film's uses of "nigger" came directly from the original.

Despite all these racial, cultural, and aesthetic pitfalls, The Emperor Jones appears to have done reasonably well at the box office, quite a feat in the lean depression year of 1933. Ten months after release Exhibitors Reliance Corporation was within a few thousand dollars of recouping its principal and interest, and foreign sales and reissues were still to follow.[5]

This article is adapted from Richard Koszarski's Hollywood on the Hudson (Rutgers University Press, 2008).

[1] According to Scott MacQueen ("Rise and Fall of The Emperor Jones" American Cinematographer, February 1990), De Mille received $6,000 for his work on The Emperor Jones, nearly the same as director Dudley Murphy's $7,500. In a letter to his daughter Agnes dated August 13, 1933, De Mille claimed that the producers had come close to firing Murphy over his handling of Robeson's performance, and relented only when he, de Mille, agreed to take overt this aspect of the picture himself, a claim which is otherwise unconfirmed. See Susan Delson, Dudley Murphy: Hollywood Wild Card (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), pp. 137-39.

[2] For example, Richard Corliss, citing The Emperor Jones as just another race movie in the tradition of Oscar Micheaux, claims it was "made in a week in 1933 for $10,000." ("Black Cinema: Micheaux Must Go On," Time, May 13, 2002.)

[3] The 2001 restoration is the most recent of several undertaken on this important film since the American Film Institute made a first try in 1971. See Jennie Saxena, with Ken Weissman and James Cozart, "Preserving African American Cinema: The Case of The Emperor Jones," The Moving Image, Spring 2003, pp. 42-58. Unfortunately, this latest attempt still lacks a vision sequence in which Jones sees himself being brought to America in a slave ship and sold on an auction block, at which point he uses two bullets from his revolver to kill the auctioneer and plantation owner. His actual attack on a prison guard during the chain gang sequence is also still missing. This degree of black-on-white violence was impermissible, even during the pre-code era. Not surprisingly, the lack of these scenes has the effect of eliminating any white responsibility for the bad behavior of Jones and those around him.

[4] On October 6, 1933, only weeks after the premiere, Krimsky and Cochran responded to criticism in the African American press by announcing that "we are eliminating the word ‘nigger' from all new prints that [we] will make on Emperor Jones" ("Take Insult Out of Movies," Chicago Defender, October 7, 1933, p. 1). Regardless, the film continued to circulate in cut and uncut versions throughout its initial release. One exhibitor test-marketed both to an audience of "selected guests" before settling on the cut version (William G. Nunn, "Private Preview at the Roosevelt Is Well Received,' Pittsburgh Courier, October 21, 1933, p. A6).

[5] MacQueen cites this information from a July 17, 1934, United Artists interoffice memo. But in a subsequent letter to AC, MacQueen notes that the Deluxe lab seized the negative for non-payment of storage charges at about this same time. Remember that Exhibitors Reliance Corporation was being paid out of first money, not leaving much left over for Krimsky and Cochran. 


Fighting Words

Fighting Words
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 12, 2014

Fighting Words, Part 2

Fighting Words, Part 2
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 20, 2014

On the Margins: The Films of Patrick Lung Kong

On the Margins: The Fil…
by Andrew Chan
posted August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: A Sense of Wonder

Robin Williams: A Sense…
by David Schwartz
posted August 12, 2014

Collection of Museum of the Moving Image
Dudley Murphy's The Emperor Jones
Photo Gallery: Eastern Promises


September 17–October 19, 2008 Hollywood on the Hudson: Filmmaking in New York, 1920–39


Paul Robeson on the Web


Richard Koszarski is Associate Professor of English and Film Studies at Rutgers University and the editor of Film History: An International Journal. His new book, Hollywood on the Hudson: Film and Television in New York from Griffith to Sarnoff, reveals how the modern moving image industry was created in New York in the 1920s and '30s.

More articles by Richard Koszarski