The Emperor Jones (1933)

80 mins | Drama | 29 September 1933

Director:

Dudley Murphy

Writer:

Du Bose Heyward

Cinematographer:

Ernest Haller

Editor:

Grant Whytock

Production Designer:

Herman Rosse
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HISTORY

This film marked the film debut of Paul Robeson. Publicity material for the film, preserved at the AMPAS Library, indicates that Ruby Elzy, who was an assistant to composer Rosamund Johnson, was cast as "Dolly" after helping to lead the spiritual singing in the church scene. Reviews list the role of Lem as having been played by George Haymid Stamper, while the film lists his name as George Stamp. Dudley Digges was the only non-black member of the cast. Var noted that the film was not likely to be seen by white theatergoers in the South, and that its business, even in black theaters, was questionable due to objections of black exhibitors to the use of the word "nigger." A 10 Oct 1933 HR news item noted that United Artists deleted the word from prints that were "destined to be shown in Negro theatres," but continued to show the original print in regular runs. Although the picture received many favorable reviews at the time of its release, three years later a conference of Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association, held in Canada, condemned the film.
       According to modern sources, playwright Eugene O'Neill, who had long been interested in making a film version of his play, originally worked out a silent treatment. Producers John Krimsky and Gifford Cochran used the money they made by their sponsorship of the German film Maedchen in Uniform to finance The Emperor Jones , which was their first producing venture, and which cost approximately $250,000. Dudley Murphy reportedly convinced the neophyte producers that The Emperor Jones would make a successful ... More Less

This film marked the film debut of Paul Robeson. Publicity material for the film, preserved at the AMPAS Library, indicates that Ruby Elzy, who was an assistant to composer Rosamund Johnson, was cast as "Dolly" after helping to lead the spiritual singing in the church scene. Reviews list the role of Lem as having been played by George Haymid Stamper, while the film lists his name as George Stamp. Dudley Digges was the only non-black member of the cast. Var noted that the film was not likely to be seen by white theatergoers in the South, and that its business, even in black theaters, was questionable due to objections of black exhibitors to the use of the word "nigger." A 10 Oct 1933 HR news item noted that United Artists deleted the word from prints that were "destined to be shown in Negro theatres," but continued to show the original print in regular runs. Although the picture received many favorable reviews at the time of its release, three years later a conference of Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association, held in Canada, condemned the film.
       According to modern sources, playwright Eugene O'Neill, who had long been interested in making a film version of his play, originally worked out a silent treatment. Producers John Krimsky and Gifford Cochran used the money they made by their sponsorship of the German film Maedchen in Uniform to finance The Emperor Jones , which was their first producing venture, and which cost approximately $250,000. Dudley Murphy reportedly convinced the neophyte producers that The Emperor Jones would make a successful film, and wrote a treatment presenting the story in chronological fashion, as opposed to O'Neill's flashback monologue, which Du Bose Heyward then completed in screenplay form. Modern sources note that although a location shoot in Haiti was originally planned, art director Herman Rosse convinced the producers that a more effective jungle set could be created in the studio. The outdoor chain gang sequence was filmed in a stone quarry near Westchester, New York. Modern sources also note that actor Lorenzo Tucker worked three days as an extra in the Harlem Cabaret scene, and that all of Fredi Washington's scenes were reshot after the producers decided that she looked too white in the early rushes. Fearing that audiences would think that Robeson was embracing a white woman, the producers had Washington made up with a thick layer of dark pancake makeup for the second round of filming. According to a biography of Robeson, he later regretted having made the picture because it deviated too much from O'Neill's play. Black actor Charles Gilpin originally played the title role in the Broadway play, marking the first time that an important black role was not played by a white actor in blackface. Paul Robeson replaced Gilpin for a revival of the play in 1924. In late 1924, Robeson performed and sang portions of the play on a New York radio program, marking the first time an O'Neill play was broadcast over the radio. A Kraft Theatre teleplay of The Emperor Jones , produced and directed by Fielder Cook and starring Rex Ingram and Everett Stone, aired on the NBC network on 23 Feb 1955, and a made-for-television version of the play, starring Kenneth Spencer and Harry H. Corbet, aired on the ABC television network on 13 Apr 1958. More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Film Daily
16 Sep 33
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
24 May 33
p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter
15 Sep 33
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
16 Sep 33
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
10 Oct 33
p. 9.
Motion Picture Daily
16 Sep 33
p. 4.
Motion Picture Herald
23 Sep 33
p. 33.
New York Times
16 Jul 1933.
---
New York Times
20 Sep 33
p. 26.
Newsweek
23 Sep 33
p. 32.
Time
25 Sep 33
p. 31.
Variety
26 Sep 33
p. 15.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Photog
ART DIRECTOR
Art dir
FILM EDITOR
Film ed
MUSIC
Incidental mus comp and dir by
Synchronization
SOUND
PRODUCTION MISC
Prod mgr
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the play The Emperor Jones by Eugene O'Neill (New York, 1 Nov 1920).
SONGS
"Emperor Jones," music and lyrics by Allie Wrubel
"Now Let Me Fly," "I'm Travelin'" and "Water Boy," composer undetermined
and other songs.
COMPOSER
DETAILS
Release Date:
29 September 1933
Premiere Information:
New York opening: week of 19 September 1933
Production Date:
25 May--late July 1933 at Eastern Service Studios, Inc.
Copyright Claimant:
John Krimsky and Gifford Cochran, Inc.
Copyright Date:
29 September 1933
Copyright Number:
LP4347
Physical Properties:
Sound
Western Electric Noiseless Recording
Black and White
Duration(in mins):
80
Length(in reels):
9
Country:
United States
Passed by NBR:
Yes
SYNOPSIS

At the Hezekiah Baptist Church, prayers are offered for Brutus Jones, who is about to leave town for a job as a Pullman porter. Before boarding his train, Jones bids farewell to his sweetheart, Dolly, who fears for his well-being. Her concerns prove valid when Jones's buddy, Jeff, initiates him to the very lifestyle she feared. In Harlem, Jones takes Jeff's girl friend Undine as his mistress. Later, when Jones is transferred to the car of the President of the United States, he overhears illicit monetary dealings and then blackmails a financier into investing his savings of $300. The now fashionable Jones, resolving to "travel light," drops Undine in favor of Belle La Due. When Undine attacks Belle at a nightclub, Jones leaves both women behind and encounters Jeff gambling in a pool hall. There the two men gamble in a high-stakes crap game, but when Jones discovers that Jeff is using loaded dice, he starts a fight and accidentally kills Jeff. Jones is sent to prison for the murder, but escapes after refusing to obey a guard's brutal order to beat a tortured fellow prisoner. He returns to Dolly, and after filing through his chains, discards his prison uniform and obtains work as a ship's stoker on a vessel bound for Kingston, Jamaica. On the way, Jones jumps ship and is taken prisoner by a dictator, General Peters, and sold for five dollars to Smithers, a crooked white trader and gunrunner. After gambling with the other prisoners, Jones obtains their money and, by threatening to become a competitor, bluffs Smithers into making him a partner. When ... +


At the Hezekiah Baptist Church, prayers are offered for Brutus Jones, who is about to leave town for a job as a Pullman porter. Before boarding his train, Jones bids farewell to his sweetheart, Dolly, who fears for his well-being. Her concerns prove valid when Jones's buddy, Jeff, initiates him to the very lifestyle she feared. In Harlem, Jones takes Jeff's girl friend Undine as his mistress. Later, when Jones is transferred to the car of the President of the United States, he overhears illicit monetary dealings and then blackmails a financier into investing his savings of $300. The now fashionable Jones, resolving to "travel light," drops Undine in favor of Belle La Due. When Undine attacks Belle at a nightclub, Jones leaves both women behind and encounters Jeff gambling in a pool hall. There the two men gamble in a high-stakes crap game, but when Jones discovers that Jeff is using loaded dice, he starts a fight and accidentally kills Jeff. Jones is sent to prison for the murder, but escapes after refusing to obey a guard's brutal order to beat a tortured fellow prisoner. He returns to Dolly, and after filing through his chains, discards his prison uniform and obtains work as a ship's stoker on a vessel bound for Kingston, Jamaica. On the way, Jones jumps ship and is taken prisoner by a dictator, General Peters, and sold for five dollars to Smithers, a crooked white trader and gunrunner. After gambling with the other prisoners, Jones obtains their money and, by threatening to become a competitor, bluffs Smithers into making him a partner. When the general and his treasurer complain about receiving a dishonest bill from Smithers and Jones, the general orders Jones's execution. Jones, however, foils the execution by replacing the drunken aide Quacko's bullets with blanks. Awed by Jones's apparently miraculous escape from death, and believing his claim that he can only be killed by silver bullets, the general's troops accept Jones as their new ruler. Proclaiming himself the Emperor Jones, over the next two and a half years he doubles taxes, elaborately furnishes his palace and buys ornate uniforms for his men. Jones continues to loot the country, sending money away so that he can leave a wealthy man, until the people realize his scheme and revolt. One day, when Jones orders floggings and the burning of a village for the attack on a tax collector, Jones's troops abandon him. The next evening, Jones, believing that he can find his way to the forest and escape on a French ship, becomes lost in the swamps and forest and is frightened by the sound of beating drums. After seeing and hearing scenes from his past, Jones prays for forgiveness. The sight of a voodoo figure sends Jones in a hysterical rush to the camp, where his former guards shoot him with a silver bullet. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.