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Paul Robeson: Bigger Than Bigger Than Life.


slaytonf
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If you sat down to create the life of someone, and freed your imagination to consider the wildest possibilities and the widest extremes of adversity and success, despair and exaltation, acclaim and condemnation, you could come close to what Paul Robeson actually was.  The list of his achievements might take up more space than there is room for it here, but here goes:  University scholarship student; debating and public speaking champion; phi beta kappa; all-star athlete, lettering in multiple sports; class valedictorian; polyglot; renowned actor on the New York and London stage; motion picture star; touring singing sensation; labor and human rights activist; lawyer; professional football player.  His accomplishments and actions would require the lives of any three regular people to make up.  And he did this as an African-American in a time of virulent racism and segregation.  He was a hugely popular performer in plays, originating and popularizing roles, and as a singer, live and recorded, all around the world.  But because of his outspokenness on the topics of racism in America, and his unapologetic support for communism, he was unrelentingly pursued and persecuted by the federal government, blacklisted by the entertainment industry, and vilified in the press--even in instances by African-American papers.  Today, he is remembered, if at all, for only an infinitesimal part of his work:  his rendition of "Ole Man River" in James Whale's adaptation of Showboat (1936), and his portrayal of Emperor Jones in the 1933 movie.  It highlights how our understanding of the past is skewed and distorted.  It seems like someone needs to actually live through a time to understand it, and even then you can't be sure.  Or you could say the power structure of the country at the time, the fbi, the congress, the state department, and the entertainment industry were successful in suppressing the man, his prominence, and his message.

But this is a movie site, and so, his movies.  I have watched a lot of his movies on YouTube, but not in a long time, so my memory of them is dim.  Due to social conditions in America, Robeson lived for many years in England, thus a lot of his movies are British.  His best known, is as I noted above The Emperor Jones (1933).  It's the story of a black rogue's rise to power in a Caribbean island and his downfall, helped by white rogues, both ways.  Out of roguery Robeson extracts magnificence.  A lot of his movies put him in stereotypical pejorative roles, like Saunders of the River (1935), Showboat (1936), and Tales of Manhattan (1942), the last of which finally decided him to abandon movies, disenchanted with their portrayal of African-Americans.  But many portrayed him in a positive light, like Song of Freedom (1936) where he plays a dockworker who becomes a singing star and later discovers he is heir to the throne of an African island nation (hey, it's the movies), and The Proud Valley (1940) where he plays a seaman who jumps ship in Wales to become a coal miner who sings and helps to save trapped miners. 

Paul Robeson, Star of the Month

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Thanks for highlighting the truly astonishing talents and accomplishments of Paul Robeson.  I’ve long thought that he was one of the most impressive people I’d ever heard of.   I’m glad that TCM is featuring this amazing man as the Star of the Month.

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1 hour ago, slaytonf said:

If you sat down to create the life of someone, and freed your imagination to consider the wildest possibilities and the widest extremes of adversity and success, despair and exaltation, acclaim and condemnation, you could come close to what Paul Robeson actually was.  The list of his achievements might take up more space than there is room for it here, but here goes:  University scholarship student; debating and public speaking champion; phi beta kappa; all-star athlete, lettering in multiple sports; class valedictorian; polyglot; renowned actor on the New York and London stage; motion picture star; touring singing sensation; labor and human rights activist; lawyer; professional football player.  His accomplishments and actions would require the lives of any three regular people to make up.  And he did this as an African-American in a time of virulent racism and segregation.  He was a hugely popular performer in plays, originating and popularizing roles, and as a singer, live and recorded, all around the world.  But because of his outspokenness on the topics of racism in America, and his unapologetic support for communism, he was unrelentingly pursued and persecuted by the federal government, blacklisted by the entertainment industry, and vilified in the press--even in instances by African-American papers.  Today, he is remembered, if at all, for only an infinitesimal part of his work:  his rendition of "Ole Man River" in James Whale's adaptation of Showboat (1936), and his portrayal of Emperor Jones in the 1933 movie.  It highlights how our understanding of the past is skewed and distorted.  It seems like someone needs to actually live through a time to understand it, and even then you can't be sure.  Or you could say the power structure of the country at the time, the fbi, the congress, the state department, and the entertainment industry were successful in suppressing the man, his prominence, and his message.

But this is a movie site, and so, his movies.  I have watched a lot of his movies on YouTube, but not in a long time, so my memory of them is dim.  Due to social conditions in America, Robeson lived for many years in England, thus a lot of his movies are British.  His best known, is as I noted above The Emperor Jones (1933).  It's the story of a black rogue's rise to power in a Caribbean island and his downfall, helped by white rogues, both ways.  Out of roguery Robeson extracts magnificence.  A lot of his movies put him in stereotypical pejorative roles, like Saunders of the River (1935), Showboat (1936), and Tales of Manhattan (1942), the last of which finally decided him to abandon movies, disenchanted with their portrayal of African-Americans.  But many portrayed him in a positive light, like Song of Freedom (1936) where he plays a dockworker who becomes a singing star and later discovers he is heir to the throne of an African island nation (hey, it's the movies), and The Proud Valley (1940) where he plays a seaman who jumps ship in Wales to become a coal miner who sings and helps to save trapped miners. 

Paul Robeson, Star of the Month

Class.

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I've long admired Paul Robeson.  Not just for his fine voice and insightful acting, but his character and activism too.  Sure, we can belabor the sadness of his embrace of communism.  But it's  concrete proof that America's attempt to eradicate communist sympathizers  in our country was gone about all wrong.

Jailing, deporting and otherwise ridding the country of their presence wasn't the way.

But ridding this country of the reason for their gravitation towards communism  should have been essential.   

Paul Robeson tried his damnedest to get that across with sadly, little success.  

He was certainly someone who deserves a special month for ANY damn reason.  And a whole month for sure.

Sepiatone

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Paul Robeson as Othello, with Uta Hagen as Desdemona, appeared in a production of Othello which opened in 1943 and which to this day remains the longest-running production of a Shakespeare play ever on Broadway. There is an audio of the production. Robeson and Hagen were not pleased with the recording, but it's a treasure for those of us who couldn't see their performances. Margaret Webster (the daughter of Dame May Whitty and Ben Webster) directed. Here's an excerpt. Btw, the stories of the tour of that production are hair-raising and can be read about in Martin Duberman's biography of Paul Robeson.

 

 

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12 hours ago, slaytonf said:

If you sat down to create the life of someone, and freed your imagination to consider the wildest possibilities and the widest extremes of adversity and success, despair and exaltation, acclaim and condemnation, you could come close to what Paul Robeson actually was.  The list of his achievements might take up more space than there is room for it here, but here goes:  University scholarship student; debating and public speaking champion; phi beta kappa; all-star athlete, lettering in multiple sports; class valedictorian; polyglot; renowned actor on the New York and London stage; motion picture star; touring singing sensation; labor and human rights activist; lawyer; professional football player.  His accomplishments and actions would require the lives of any three regular people to make up.  And he did this as an African-American in a time of virulent racism and segregation.  He was a hugely popular performer in plays, originating and popularizing roles, and as a singer, live and recorded, all around the world.  But because of his outspokenness on the topics of racism in America, and his unapologetic support for communism, he was unrelentingly pursued and persecuted by the federal government, blacklisted by the entertainment industry, and vilified in the press--even in instances by African-American papers.  Today, he is remembered, if at all, for only an infinitesimal part of his work:  his rendition of "Ole Man River" in James Whale's adaptation of Showboat (1936), and his portrayal of Emperor Jones in the 1933 movie.  It highlights how our understanding of the past is skewed and distorted.  It seems like someone needs to actually live through a time to understand it, and even then you can't be sure.  Or you could say the power structure of the country at the time, the fbi, the congress, the state department, and the entertainment industry were successful in suppressing the man, his prominence, and his message.

But this is a movie site, and so, his movies.  I have watched a lot of his movies on YouTube, but not in a long time, so my memory of them is dim.  Due to social conditions in America, Robeson lived for many years in England, thus a lot of his movies are British.  His best known, is as I noted above The Emperor Jones (1933).  It's the story of a black rogue's rise to power in a Caribbean island and his downfall, helped by white rogues, both ways.  Out of roguery Robeson extracts magnificence.  A lot of his movies put him in stereotypical pejorative roles, like Saunders of the River (1935), Showboat (1936), and Tales of Manhattan (1942), the last of which finally decided him to abandon movies, disenchanted with their portrayal of African-Americans.  But many portrayed him in a positive light, like Song of Freedom (1936) where he plays a dockworker who becomes a singing star and later discovers he is heir to the throne of an African island nation (hey, it's the movies), and The Proud Valley (1940) where he plays a seaman who jumps ship in Wales to become a coal miner who sings and helps to save trapped miners. 

Paul Robeson, Star of the Month

Thank you for enlightening me on the work and life of Paul Robeson in your post - an amazingly talented and courageous person.  I just watched the documentary about his life on TCM and I thought it was really interesting.  I will be watching more of Paul Robeson on TCM.  Not to mention, Paul Robeson's singing voice is really extraordinary.

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19 hours ago, Sepiatone said:

But ridding this country of the reason for their gravitation towards communism  should have been essential.   

The communist sypmathizers were dupes about how racist the communists were.

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I've always thought Body and Soul was the most interesting of the Robeson movies that have survived, and that's probably because it features an all-Black cast and is directed by Oscar Micheaux.   

(Now that's someone I'd love to see TCM honor with a SOTM or at least a day in SUTS.)

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22 hours ago, Swithin said:

Paul Robeson as Othello, with Uta Hagen as Desdemona, appeared in a production of Othello which opened in 1943 and which to this day remains the longest-running production of a Shakespeare play ever on Broadway. There is an audio of the production. Robeson and Hagen were not pleased with the recording, but it's a treasure for those of us who couldn't see their performances. Margaret Webster (the daughter of Dame May Whitty and Ben Webster) directed. Here's an excerpt. Btw, the stories of the tour of that production are hair-raising and can be read about in Martin Duberman's biography of Paul Robeson.

 

 

 

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7 hours ago, Sepiatone said:

I thought it was about how racist the communists weren't;) Which might have been a draw for Robeson.

Sepiatone

"..........His friends in the anti-imperialist movement and his association with British socialists led him to visit the Soviet Union.[134] Robeson, Essie, and Marie Seton traveled to the Soviet Union on an invitation from Sergei Eisenstein in December 1934.[135] A stopover in Berlin enlightened Robeson to the racism in Nazi Germany[136] and, on his arrival in Moscow, in the Soviet Union, Robeson said, "Here I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life ... I walk in full human dignity."[.........

Robeson's belief that trade unionism was crucial to civil rights became a mainstay of his political beliefs as he became a proponent of the union activist and Communist Party USA member Revels Cayton.[194] Robeson was later called before the Tenney Committee where he responded to questions about his affiliation with the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) by testifying that he was not a member of the CPUSA.........

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Robeson#1933–1937:_Ideological_awakening

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I've always liked him in King Solomon's Mines (1937).  The movie is flawed in a few ways, but it allows him stature, and lets him save the white people at the end.  But one unfair thing I'd like to note is that his is robbed of an important triumph by the moviemakers having Curtis kill Twala.

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15 hours ago, mr6666 said:

"..........His friends in the anti-imperialist movement and his association with British socialists led him to visit the Soviet Union.[134] Robeson, Essie, and Marie Seton traveled to the Soviet Union on an invitation from Sergei Eisenstein in December 1934.[135] A stopover in Berlin enlightened Robeson to the racism in Nazi Germany[136] and, on his arrival in Moscow, in the Soviet Union, Robeson said, "Here I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life ... I walk in full human dignity."[.........

Robeson's belief that trade unionism was crucial to civil rights became a mainstay of his political beliefs as he became a proponent of the union activist and Communist Party USA member Revels Cayton.[194] Robeson was later called before the Tenney Committee where he responded to questions about his affiliation with the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) by testifying that he was not a member of the CPUSA.........

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Robeson#1933–1937:_Ideological_awakening

My family was long involved in trade(or labor)unionism since before WWI and never once considered themselves "communists" in the Soviet sense.( or any sense).   Trade union's racially inclusive doctrines no doubt seemed radical enough to an institutionally racist U.S.A. at the time that making them and anyone associated with them seen as "communist" and therefore against good, solid American "principles" .

Sepiatone

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Paul Robeson starred in a very early Hammer film called "Song of Freedom" in 1936.

It was directed by J. Elder Lee, who also directed Anna May Wong in "Tiger Bay".

It has a fascinating plot with Robeson playing the son of African immigrant parents in London. As a dock worker, he sings while he works and is discovered by an opera impresario. He is successful yet at the same time he's haunted by a melody. That's the Crux of the plot not to give away anymore, he returns to Africa to find out more about the past of his family and perhaps something about this song.

This was an outstanding chance for Robeson to play something substantial outside of what was being offered black performers in Hollywood movies in the 1930s.

And as a performer it gave him a chance to please the audience with some singing, while at the same time it's not a musical and he actually is performing a dramatic role.

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As we learned, the Kordas played a bait-and-switch game, changing the script from what Robeson expected it to be.  He was disappointed and regretted his participation.  Still, even with the heavy-handed bias toward the British, you can pick out worthwhile things.  Robeson's character comes off as capable, courageous, devoted, not cringing or supplicating.  And this movie also affords Nina Mae Mckinney a substantial role.

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In his closing remarks to King Solomon's Mines (1937), Ben Mankiewicz stated that Paul Robeson never claimed to be a communist, though he praised the soviet union.  That's a distinction I overlooked in reading about him.  Re-reading I find that he associated himself with organizations that were labeled as communist, but was not a member of the communist party.  I guess it's a distinction people could debate.  Practically, it made no difference.  Those who sought to persecute him for his public comments would consider it an unimportant detail.

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