Saturday, January 26, 2013

Junction 88 (Century Theatrical Productions, 1947)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually watched an interesting movie last night: Junction 88, a 1947 “race” movie directed by Gordon Quigley from a script by Augustus Smith, who’s also in the movie as the father of the hero, Buster (Wyatt Clark), who is the musical director at the local Black church in Junction 88. I’d assumed from the title that Junction 88 was either a highway intersection or a nightclub located at one, but it’s actually the name of a small Southern town with — at least as far as we see — an all-Black population. Buster has assembled a “choir” of five people who sing at the church during its services, but he’s also pursuing a career as a secular songwriter and sending a Black publisher, Bob Howard (playing himself — or at least a character with the same name as his own), his songs under the pseudonym “Hewlett Green.” Howard and his sidekick Piggy — played by the marvelous Black comedian “Pigmeat” Markham, who made comedy albums for Chess Records in the 1960’s (including one recorded live at the Apollo Theatre that famously teamed him with Jackie “Moms” Mabley, the brilliant Black comedienne from whom Whoopi Goldberg ripped off almost her entire act) and in the early 1970’s did the famous “Here Comes the Judge!” routine that was showcased on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and recorded on Soul Records, a Motown subsidiary. With opening credits listing no fewer than seven original songs with music by Augustus Smith and lyrics by Herbert Junior (“Junior” actually seems to be his last name!), who’s also in the movie, and a running time of only 48 minutes in this download (though the original duration was 55 minutes), it had to zip through its plot fast and wrap it up in a breathless resolution that had me wondering if we’d got the whole movie (some of our downloads from this source have ended early), but what there was of a plot to this movie was essentially yet another reworking of The Jazz Singer. 

Buster’s dad wants him to take a regular nine-to-five job while his mom (Abbie Mitchell, whose performance is authoritative enough that for once in a race movie we get to see a Black person who could act) wants him to keep working on his music. Buster is also dating Lolly (Marie Cooke), who’s inspiring his secular love songs and occasionally singing them with him — though her dad thinks Buster is a layabout and she should instead marry local hanger-on Onnie (Herbert Junior), since at least he has a regular job — to which Buster’s mom points out that Onnie “drinks like a fish.” All gets resolved when bandleader Noble Sissle (playing himself, and for some reason billed in the credits as “Sissel”!) ends up stranded in town when his band bus breaks down, and he and his musicians — some of them, anyway; the conceit is that his band was traveling on two buses and so only Sissle himself and a small group drawn from his band are there (obviously this plot gimmick was used only because the producers, a company called “Century Theatrical Productions” whose work was distributed by the old reliable race-movie distributor, Sack Amusement Enterprises, couldn’t afford to pay Sissle’s whole band). Marie Cooke does a solo number with Sissle’s band (or what there is of it in this movie) which was pretty wretched and made it all too clear that she was not going to follow Sissle’s most famous previous singer, Lena Horne, into superstardom (Horne and Sidney Bechet were Sissle’s two biggest stars in the 1930’s, and though Horne made her recording debut with Sissle her records with him were a bit dull and squarely phrased versions of not very good songs; she didn’t make the explosive impact the young Ella Fitzgerald, making her first records with Chick Webb’s band around the same time, did).

 Junction 88 is a decently entertaining movie, and Wyatt Clark has a nice voice even though it’s the sort of high Black tenor that had been popular in the 1930’s (Pha Terrell, the singer with Andy Kirk’s band, had been the first to have hits in that style, and he was copied by Harlan Lattimore with Don Redman, Orlando Robeson with Claude Hopkins, and ultimately Herb Jeffries with Duke Ellington) but by 1947 had been superseded by the jazzier, more incisive style of Nat “King” Cole and the deeper, richer Black baritones like Billy Eckstine. The best song in the show is the arrangement for the church “choir” of the old spiritual “In the Time of Saul,” and the conflict between religion and a secular music career is very much there in the film (Buster’s dad questions whether Buster can have a career in music and still stay true to Biblical principles and lead a moral life, and his mom tries to reassure her husband that he doesn’t have to worry about Buster keeping his principles because he holds them too strongly to give them up), though like virtually all the dramatic issues raised it’s pretty much forgotten on the way to Buster’s final triumph — Bob Howard signs him to a contract as a songwriter and the last shot is him and Lolly in a clinch. Junction 88 is late in the day for the race movies, and it’s marginally better acted and noticeably better recorded than most of the earlier ones, but the script still suffers from that weird internal racism within the African-American community that held that the lighter-skinned you were, the more status you had: genuinely dark African-Americans in movies like this were usually either villains or, like “Pigmeat” Markham here (who’s genuinely amusing but doesn’t have enough material to be all that funny), the comic relief.