The Emperor Jones
By all accounts, to see Paul Robeson in his early 20th-century heyday was to witness the brilliance of a startlingly complete renaissance man the likes of which have not been produced since. An All-American in football at Rutgers, where he was the third African-American to attend the school, he also was an assertive intellectual, becoming increasingly involved in politics, and, eventually, the Communist Party, which hastened his self-imposed exile to Europe in the 1940s after he refused to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Today, he is still most closely associated with his indelible performance of "Old Man River" in James Whale's 1936 Show Boat, which, while wonderful, is cruelly under-representative of his wide ranging genius. Though far from being a complete demonstration of his talents, a better accounting of his acting mastery can be found in Dudley Murphy's film version of Eugene O'Neill's short play, The Emperor Jones (1933), in which Robeson played the lead on Broadway eight years prior. Murphy, a co-director on the groundbreaking experimental 1924 short film "Ballet Mecanique," wisely opened up O'Neill's work and made a proper movie out of it, whereas most directors of the day would've been content to let the material's staginess unimaginatively restrict and, inevitably, retard the narrative flow. Murphy's ambitions extended to the unprecedented depiction of the tale's protagonist, Brutus Jones, as an arrogant, upwardly mobile black man unafraid of blackmailing his crooked railroad employer. When Jones realizes there's no way he'll be allowed to advance with the same brazenness as his white superiors, he quits his job as a porter and moves on to low-stakes scheming with a pair of crooked dice. When this results in a fatal scuffle with his one-time friend Jeff (Frank H. Wilson), Jones is arrested and consigned to a chain gang. But Jones, who has no interest in toiling under the sweltering for the rest of his life, quickly escapes by killing a prison guard, and, after a brief gig as a stoker on a steam ship, winds up on a Caribbean island. It's here that he's purchased by a British expatriate named Smithers, whom Jones quickly bullies into subservience as he plots to assume total rule of the island, which he cleverly accomplishes by fooling the natives into thinking he's immortal. This, it turns out, is just another brief stop for Jones, who plans to govern for six months before absconding with the nation's riches. But the mighty Jones is too much the tyrant, and eventually turns his people against him. The film's final sequence has Jones fleeing into the jungle where he flashes back on all of his misdeeds before ultimately being shot down by the people he brutalized. As a socio-political allegory, The Emperor Jones is horribly dated, but Robeson is absolutely magnetic as the hubristic title character. Though his performance is somewhat hampered by his overly theatrical performance style, one gets a thrilling sense of how powerfully he could dominate a stage with his booming baritone and imposing presence. If only there had been more roles, audiences might've had the opportunity to watch one of America's most profoundly gifted artists refine his acting to become one of the day's most luminescent stars. But a largely unenlightened society just wasn't ready for him, and the cultural loss is frustratingly incalculable. Image Entertainment presents The Emperor Jones in its original academy scope (1.33:1) aspect ratio, transferred from a print painstakingly restored by the Library of Congress. Audio is Dolby 1.0, and its muddiness is an unavoidable example of that era's technical limitations. While there are no extras on the disc, there is a brief, but helpful essay by the Library of Congress's Jennie Saxena that discusses the extent of the film's restoration. Keep-case.
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