The Emperor Jones (1933) Reviews
September 3, 2010
I didn't watch the whole movie, I got bored. If you want to see a good old African American film, you may find this one interesting, but other than that, it's kind of boring.
August 15, 2013
Paul Robeson gives one of his greatest film performances in this arty, dated, but interesting 1933 adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's play.
July 18, 2014
An interesting film, mainly for Paul Robeson's excellent performance in an otherwise unbelievable film. Look closely and you'll spot an uncredited Billie Holiday in a nightclub scene.
September 25, 2014
This tale of a despot's rise and fall is well-acted and well-written, but it feels rushed. The film would have benefited from a longer run time.
September 7, 2014
In this cinematic adaption of the Eugene O'Neil play, Paul Robeson is remarkable as the conniving and commanding Brutus Jones. Most of the movie explores the backstory the play only mentioned, including his journey from womanizing and gambling railroad porter to murderer to Emperor of a Caribbean island. The movie also adds many opportunities for Robeson to showcase his admittedly incredible singing voice. The final half hour of the movie is the bulk of the play itself, as Emperor Jones finds out he has pushed the people of his domain too far.
I found myself confused at first by Jones, mostly because Robeson is so likable in the role and it was hard to tell that he was depicting a not so honorable man. It becomes much more clear who the character really is after a crap game gone wrong. There are several differences between the play and the movie, including new characters and situations in the backstory, and an abbreviated version of his encounters in the woods, including a particularly conspicuous cut scene. The reverse recapitulation of the history of Africans and their descendents in the Americas is less apparent in the movie because of this and I think it makes Jones a little less sympathetic.
One of the advantages of the play only referencing what happened to him in the past is the limiting of set pieces to his palace and the island woods. The first hour of the movie greatly expands on the set pieces. Without dramatizing the backstory, the movie would have been much, much shorter, but I think this dramatization causes the story to lose some of its urgency. However, once Emperor Jones finally embarked on his journey in the woods, the movie came alive for me, and it was very similar to how I visualized it when reading the play.
September 29, 2011
"I'll take this blooming nigger off your hands for you, your highness. Here, here's five silver dollars for him, lock, stock and barrel."-Smithers (Dudley Digges)
If that sounds racist to you, it's because it is. If you were to take a shot every time the 'N' word was muttered, you'd finish off a handle of liquor easy. But hey, I guess the film is an important installment of American culture. I also found it to be slightly boring myself.
July 16, 2008
IMDB has on its list a 1938 version listed as being made for TV. That's simply astonishing to me. I mean, yes, there was TV at the time, if just barely, but to adapt a Eugene O'Neill play that quickly, that early--and one that would take a lot of staging, at that--is awfully impressive. There is also a 1955 TV version starring Ossie Davis, but we are concerned here with the original, the 1933 theatrical release starring Paul Robeson, one of those actors I've heard of but not actually seen in much of anything.
Brutus Jones starts out as a Pullman porter. He ends up as a porter in the president's car. (I think it's the president of the railroad, but I could be wrong on that.) He gives some advice, makes some money at it, and goes a little crazy. He abandons his hometown girl and goes for one of the "fancy" girls she's warned him against. He gambles and drinks. And he ends up killing someone in a bar fight. He's sent to a chain gang; he escapes, killing the sheriff while he's at it. He ends up stoking a ship's boiler, then escapes [i]that[/i] and eventually becomes the "emperor" of a small Caribbean island. I think it's there that we rejoin the original play; apparently, there's only about 45 minutes of it in the movie. Robeson said that he regretted taking the role because so much was changed from the play.
I haven't read the play. Ergo, I cannot say what is changed. I will say that Robeson's final scene is striking. It goes on for quite some time, and it is quite chilling in places, not least because of the blue tint on the film. (This is from the original print, painstakingly restored for the DVD version.) Robeson rails at his past ghosts, you see, and he has a lot to rail against. In a bad actor, it would be overdone and ridiculous, but Robeson is not a bad actor. Since he is quite a good actor, the scene is eerie and intense.
Okay, bits of the story don't really make sense; maybe it's that I wasn't paying attention, but I'm not sure how he ended up on the ship. I suspect a lot of that has to do with the changes between stage and screen. (Then again, I've never read [i]any[/i] O'Neill, so maybe I'm wrong.) His switch from his beloved hometown girl to his "fancy" woman in town is a little abrupt, too. But these are relatively minor problems, overshadowed, I think, by the fact that not everyone can act so well as Robeson.
TMC has, at the moment, a list of classic films ([i]The African Queen[/i], for example, and [i]Quo Vadis?[/i]) that are not currently available on DVD. (At least one on their list, so far as I know, is--but perhaps it's not a very high-quality DVD.) It would be nice if some of them got the same treatment as this one.