And even then you still won’t believe it…
So I’m sure you’ve had the experience of watching a film
so bizarre and preposterous that you say
to yourself: “What were they thinking when they made this?”
Well that goes double for the film “Way
Down South,” a film that I can’t get enough of.
It’s a truly strange and laughingly idiotic film which
takes established stereotypes to a whole other realm, as well as making, from
what I have deduced, some black film history and film history in general.
But I’ll get to that in a minute…
The film was released in 1939, the same year as MGM’s “Gone with the Wind,” by RKO
Pictures, which, from the early 1930’s until it went out of business in the
mid 1950’s, was one of the major Hollywood studios of the time, equal to other
major studios like Warner Bros, MGM,
Paramount and Fox. The film was conceived as a showcase for the high-pitched child actor and signer Bobby Breen, who RKO saw as their answer
to Fox’s hugely popular child star Shirley
Temple. Except while Temple’s Fox movies were high class, top-of-the-line “A” pictures, Breen was stuck in low rent, low budget “B” movies like “Way Down South.”
The premise is
a doozy. Set in the antebellum, pre-Civil War period, on a Louisiana plantation with, of course, happy, content slaves, Breen’s father
is the kind, benevolent Massa, as were all slave-owning plantation lords of the manor in these
types of films. Although Breen’s slaves are the happiest and most content slaves
in movies, even singing and dancing their hearts out because they love working
the land and Massa treats them so kind. In other words, this is no “12 Years A Slave.” It sure isn’t “Django Unchained” and it’s light years
away from “Mandingo.”
Things kick off when the slaves have their jubilee celebration, dancing, singing and even
jitterbugging some 90 years before that type of dance even existed. However all
the music, dancing and wanton, unbridled sexuality going on gets Massa’s horses all riled up, and when he tries to calm them down, they knock him down and
trample him to death.
Cue the weeping, wailing and moaning slaves lamenting
their kind Massa’s death…
The now orphaned Breen discovers that his father has incurred
massive debts and, according to his crooked lawyer, to keep the plantation in
the family, he may be forced to sell off his slaves.
This development provides the film with its most memorable
scene when the devoted slave, Uncle Caton (played by Clarence Muse), who’s in the room when Breen is told the bad news, is stunned at this new development and turns to Breen to say: “You
mean you is going sell us Massa?”
The shock of being sold and taken away from his beloved
Little Massa is simply too much for good-and-loyal-for-all-eternity Uncle Caton, and all the other slaves to bear. However, it turns out that the lawyer is actually planning
to double cross Breen by getting control of his slaves, and selling them off so that he and his mistress can fly off to Paris.
Finding out his devious plans, it’s up to Breen, Uncle
Caton and another boy slave named Gumbo (Matthew
“Stymie” Beard from “The Little Rascals”)
to come up with a crazy plan to stop the lawyer, which includes Muse, as you can
see above, dressing up in drag (long before Tyler Perry or even Flip
Wilson) as Breen’s grandmother, for
most of the second half of the film, covering his face and hands so as not to give
himself away. Needless to say, hijinks and hilarity ensue, all resulting in a happy
ending where the lawyer’s plan is thwarted and Breen’s slaves can stay on the plantation
to sing and dance until kingdom come.
But if that isn’t enough, what makes this film even more
special is that the screenplay was written by Muse and Langston Hughes. Yes THAT Langston Hughes. The “My
soul has grown deep like the rivers” Langston Hughes. Poet, writer, political activist, one
of the early 20th Century proponents
of Black consciousness and cultural nationalism, and one of the great black authors
of the last century. What is he doing writing a script like “Way Down South”?
It is a fact that Hughes, during the 1930’s, wanted to
try his hand at screenwriting, and though he might have written other screenplays
that went unproduced, “Way Down South” is the only one he wrote that was actually made. But how could he have written a movie so laden with stereotypes and as
farfetched as this one?
I have two theories. Either: 1) Hughes and Muse originally
wrote something that was more serious and realistic and the studio, horrified at
what they had written, had some screenwriter hacks under studio contract, totally rewrite
it into something more *acceptable* to the front office; or 2) that Muse and Hughes
actually wrote what was shot, but that it was intended to be a satire or a spoof of other similar antebellum happy slave movies being made at the time, such as Paramount’s “So Red the Rose” (in which
Muse also appears). And if one squints their eyes and looks at the film
sideways, you can kind of see what they intended. However, the overly broad and flatfooted
handling by the film’s director, Bernard
Vorhaus, completely failed to see the satire that the writers were aiming
But to go back to the history making aspect of the film,
I’ve searched to make sure that I was correct in my assumption; and it seems
that I am correct in saying, with Muse’s
and Hughes’ involvement, the film is indeed the first Hollywood studio feature
film that was written by black screenwriters.
Of course there was Oscar
Michaeux, Spencer Williams and a few others who wrote “race” films targeted
at black filmgoers in the 1930’s and 40’s, but all those films were independently made and distributed totally outside
the Hollywood studio system.
And to split hairs, there were a series of black short musical
films produced by Paramount around the advent of sound in 1929 and 1930, written by Spencer Williams. But as I said, those were short films.
And on top of that, it has been written, in articles
about the film, that Clarence Muse also co-directed (uncredited of course) the
film with Vorhaus, which is not too hard to believe, since it is known that Muse
did co-direct or direct sequences on other small independent race films that he
appeared in. So if this is true, then more film history was made, making Muse the
first black director of a Hollywood studio film some 30 years before Gordon Parks got the credit for doing
so on his first feature for Warner Bros, “The
Learning Tree” released in 1969.
Now I suppose you’re wondering where you can see this cinematic
wonder. Well it is available on DVD, but the Turner Classic Movies cable channel does
show the film from time to time every
year, but almost always very early in the morning. However, you can watch it right now below, as I found it on the video sharing site, Daily Motion, in its entirety.
Yes it’s embarrassing, stereotyped and degrading. But as I’ve
said here before about other films, it must be seen; how can you know where you’re going,
if you don’t know where you’ve been?