Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Devil’s Daughter (Lenwal Productions, Domino Films, Sack Amusement Enterprises, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Devil’s Daughter, a 1939 “race” production made by a company alternately identified as Lenwal Productions and Domino Film Corporation, and released through Sack Amusement Enterprises — the largest and most extensive distributor of these all-Black productions for showings in theatres in African-American areas. It was set in Jamaica and, according to the American Film Institute Catalog, was actually filmed there — the first and only time a Black film company went there. Like a lot of white “B” movies, the race films were cast with people on their way up (Paul Robeson, Herb Jeffries, Lena Horne) and, as in this case, people on their way down — the star of The Devil’s Daughter was Nina Mae McKinney, 10 years after her memorable performance as the “bad” girl in King Vidor’s Hallelujah!

This time she’s playing Isabelle Walton, daughter of a planter in Jamaica whose father left her in charge of the banana plantation while he and his other daughter, Sylvia (played by Ida James, a quite talented singer who doesn’t get a chance to sing here — her only other film appearances were in a 1944 “Soundie” with the Nat “King” Cole trio on Louis Jordan’s hit “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?,” during which she magnificently holds her own in a vocal duet with Cole; a 1944 “B” musical called Trocadero, in which she sings another Jordan song, “Shoo Shoo Baby,” and a 1947 Cab Calloway vehicle called, almost inevitably, Hi-De-Ho, in which she joins Cab and Augustus Smith on a song called “Don’t Falter at the Altar”), moved to New York so Sylvia could get a white person’s education. When the film begins, dad has just died and has told Sylvia on his deathbed that his will stipulates that she and Isabelle will co-inherit the plantation, but Isabelle wants the plantation all to herself and so she and her overseer, Philip Ramsay (Jack Carter), have hatched a scheme to start a phony “obeah” (an alternative name for “voodoo”) cult and scare Sylvia away from the island.

There’s also a bit of a romantic quadrilateral in that Sylvia briefly abandons her American boyfriend John Lowden (Emmett Carter), who came down from New York with her, to fall for Ramsay — who, we’re not at all surprised to find out later, is really a crook who’s been skimming from the plantation — while for some even less explicable reason Isabelle decides she loves John. As Charles pointed out, the biggest mistake the movie makes is letting us know almost from the outset that the voodoo cult is a fake — not that we actually get to see much of it, though the soundtrack is drenched in voodoo drums (and has very little other music aside from some of the same sort of “West Indian” pop instrumental stuff Sidney Bechet and Willie “The Lion” Smith recorded around this time in an album for Moe Asch’s Stinson label, and a rather shrilly recorded song sung by McKinney); about all we see of the cult in action is a silly gag involving the comic-relief character Percy Jackson (James Carl “Hamtree” Harrington), who’s told by Isabelle that in order to keep his soul safe from the cultists, they will transfer it to a pig — though the downside of this, as it’s explained to him, is if the pig dies he will die too. There’s one dorky shot during the representation of this ceremony in which Isabelle refers to the pig as “he” — only the shot of the pig herself shows her upside down, a long row of nipples in place, and thereby “outs” her as female. (Well, I guess if a male dog could play Lassie … )

The climax shows Isabelle attempting to drug Sylvia’s drink so they can shock her by doing an “obeah” death ritual on her and having her come to in mid-ceremony — only John keeps her from drinking the spiked drink and the film ends with John beating up Philip, Philip confessing all and fleeing so he doesn’t get prosecuted for stealing from the plantation, John and Sylvia reuniting and the remaining principals sitting down to a dinner of roast pork once Percy is convinced that his soul really wasn’t transferred to its porcine receptacle. The Devil’s Daughter was promoted on (from whence we downloaded it) as a “race” horror film, but it’s really a not very thrilling thriller set in an exotic location, though one thing that can be said for it is that it’s a quite sophisticated piece of filmmaking for a race movie. Stuck with a plot (George F. Terwilliger is credited with the original story but no one ’fessed up to writing the actual script) that offers little opportunity for action, suspense or thrills ( identifies the film as a remake of an earlier all-Black voodoo drama, Ouanga, but I remember that as a much better movie than this!), director Arthur Leonard and cinematographer Jay Rescher liven it up with moving-camera shots, traveling-car shots and an interesting attempt at an exotic atmosphere that probably looked a good deal better in 1939 than it does in the murky prints that are all that survive of The Devil’s Daughter.

It’s too bad that the acting doesn’t live up to the visuals: Ida James is barely competent — she reads all her lines in a first-day-of-drama-school monotone — and Nina Mae McKinney, despite her history of having been in the first all-Black movie done by a major studio (and acquitting herself beautifully in it), doesn’t seem that much better. Also, even more than most “race” movies The Devil’s Daughter uncomfortably mirrors the racist attitudes of white producers towards Blacks: the light-skinned Blacks are the leads while the dark-skinned Blacks are relegated to villains or comic-relief parts — and Hamtree Harrington does the same stupid servant stereotype he’d have been playing if he’d landed a part in a white movie in 1939. Also, though the film was originally released at 67 minutes, a 52-minute version is all that survives. It’s an engagingly quirky movie but also one of those annoying films that should have been better than it is.