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‘The Crowning Experience’ – One Of Many Lost Black Films In Need Of Rediscovery… That Is, If You Can Find It

'The Crowning Experience' - One Of Many Lost Black Films In Need Of Rediscovery... That Is, If You Can Find It

One of my pleasures of late has been reading my used copy of the New York Times Film Reviews 1959-1968 Volume 5, which contains literally every single film review that appeared in the newspaper during that decade. They are reprinted in the book the way they actually appeared in the newspaper, with the same typesetting, photos and captions.

It’s a heavy, huge book, well over 700 pages, and we’re talking THOUSANDS of movie reviews. It’s going to take me a while to get through it, to say the least. And I have the New York Times Film Reviews 1969-1970 Volume 6 to get though next. 

Why do you ask? Because 1) it’s fun, and 2) literally EVERY SINGLE FILM that was made and released during the 1960’s opened in N.Y., even if it played for just one week, and never opened in other parts of the country, which was common back then. 

But the other important reason is that, I firmly believe that the 1960s to the mid 70s were the most important period of filmmaking ever! That was the period when filmmaking was, at least for me, at its most interesting and innovative. Boundaries were crossed. Taboos were broken. Movie studios and independent producers were willing to take risks. Cinema was more “adult.” And it was during this period that the MPAA movie ratings system was introduced – in November 1968 to be exact (TRIVIA: the movie The Split, which starred Jim Brown, was the first film to be rated “R”). Filmmaking changed forever – for better and for worse.

Reading though the book, I’ve discovered countless movies that I’ve never heard of before; and I thought I had heard of everything. But one film that really stood out when I read the NY Times review of it, which was totally unknown to me, was the black dramatic musical film, The Crowning Experience, which opened N.Y. in late October 1960. The film did originally open months earlier in Los Angeles, in February, that same year. But I could not find any information on whether it ever played anywhere else in the country, nor could I find a single video clip from the film. It’s been lost to faded memory.

The film was actually based on a touring stage play, which itself was based on the life of Dr Mary McLeod Bethune, the pioneering educator and civil rights activist who became an adviser to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, although, in the film, she’s called Emma Tremaine and is played by Muriel Smith.

The film has an unusual back-story. It was produced, financed and self-distributed by a pacifist, anti-Communist religious group (some called it a cult) known as Moral Re-Armament, that was based in Mackinac Island, Michigan – a group that believed that people needed to be armed, not with guns, but with a “new moral outlook.

The film was directed by three directors: Rickard Tegstrom (a cinematographer, who shot at least one film, titled Freedom, which was made in Nigeria in the late 50’s and written by Nigerian screenwriters), Harold Schuster (who had already directed a few features, including a Tarzan movie and some TV episodes), and Marion Clayton Anderson (an actress who appeared in a few Hollywood movies, but also acted in several plays produced by Moral Re-Armament).

The lead actress, Muriel Smith, played the original Carmen Jones on Broadway in the early 40s (long before Dorothy Dandridge in the 1954 film version), and did some voice-over singing work for movies where her voice was dubbed in for actresses in musical numbers. The Crowning Experience was one of only three movies she actually appeared in, and her only starring film role.

Other than that, the film is a complete mystery to me. That is, except for the two still images within this post, the one below captioned: “Communist agents plotting to destroy an American Negro university by subverting top students.

If that doesn’t make you at least a tiny bit curious to see this film, then I don’t know what will. But it definitely makes one wonder how many other black films were made during that time period, that are now lost and forgotten, never to be seen again since their, no doubt, very limited initial theatrical releases. 

I can think of some just from the 1970’s alone. They’re now faded prints in some warehouse or basement somewhere, slowly rotting away; that is, if there is a print of them that still exists. Some of them could be real gems, hoping to be one day discovered once again.

And for the record, The N.Y. Times gave The Crowning Experience a favorable review.

If anyone reading this was present for the film’s theatrical release in 1960, or has had the fortune to have seen the film since then, chime in with your thoughts. 

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