Transcript:

Speaker Very simply, in Britain, there is a need for books about black British history, and in the broadest sense, when I grew up, there were very few books around which told us about the history of black people in this country. And for my own part, I was always interested, passionately interested in film and television, again, in the general sense. But within that interest, I was specifically interested in the portrayal of black people in films. But of course at first the interest was in American cinema because that was so dominant, you know. So I watched everything I could, Hattie McDaniel and everything she appeared into, you know, Paul Robeson and so on and so forth. Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, the whole lot and read everything I could get my hands on, which would be Lena Horne, autobiography books about Sammy Davis Jr., whatever. And I absorbed all of that, but gradually became more interested and more concerned about our British kind of contacts and really started from the very early age. And really the book started as a school project in 1976, and it's taken 22 years to finish.

Speaker But that's how long it needed me.

Speaker When was the first time you heard about Paul Robeson? What was it? Was he an ever present presence in your life or like a lot of other things you just sort of came to of late?

Speaker I can't remember specifically where I would have heard about him, but it would have been very early on, certainly from from my Aunt Esther. I heard about the experience of black film actress because my Aunt Esther's father was a Guyanese labourer living and working in London in the 1930s, and he would earn what they call pin money, just pocket money, just going to the film studios and working as film extras. You know, they got Tacheny a day, which was a lot of money, put food on the table. And so really. But I think Paul Robeson's music must have been around. I must have heard him singing. I must have heard people talk about him. But I remember the first time he had a big impact on me was when I the film Showboat, which had been missing for years because of the MGM remake, MGM had the rights to the original universal production and it was banished for many, many years. And I heard a rumor that it had been found in America and I was shown it again and then again in 1975, I think it was they showed her the National Film Theatre and that was the first chance to see it. And I was just mesmerized not only by ropes and the wonderful Hattie McDaniel, but the whole film. And strangely enough, many years later, I did a thesis for my college degree on James Whale, the director of that particular film. So I think that's kind of where it started when I was young and being interested in you, just absorbing what I could about these people.

Speaker OK, now we've been talking to a lot of people about Paul Robeson and.

Speaker And different and different context, you know, his political life, his Wale's period, his 50s period, you know, kind of thing, what I'm interested to talk to you mostly about, although not exclusively, is his film period here. I mean, in the long first, as an overview, would you say that his film career in Britain was successful in the more commercially and artistically?

Speaker How would you tell the personal commercially? Was it was he a hit here?

Speaker I think Paul Robeson was most certainly very so.

Speaker I thought that was has been put to question the character was trying to come in and say hello to you.

Speaker So I warned you. You said you wanted to come around. I would have shown so commercially, commercially, because she she she Will Smith is in the middle of it. And I yeah. In the 1930s, Paul Robeson was most certainly one of the most popular film personalities in this country. In nineteen thirty seven, for example, he was in the top 10 box office list and really his films were commercially successful partly because of his music. I mean, even though he appeared in melodramas, he always burst into song. And that's primarily why people wanted to go and see the films, because they loved Paul Robeson as a singer and he had tremendous charisma, tremendous star quality. And that came over in the films. I think the films were not necessarily what he wanted to do. I mean, he certainly tried to to to change the kind of stereotypical image of black people in films like this over. Well, so I've got to ask, is this where you're not a I?

Speaker This is not a commercially he was a hit.

Speaker And now you say that he is he didn't do everything you want to do in the film. What did he say from your reading he wanted to do in films? How did he want to participate in the film?

Speaker In order to understand what Paul Robeson achieved in his British films, one has to go back to founders of The River, which was the first feature film he made here in 1935, which he had high expectations of. I mean, he was led to believe by the producer, Alexander Calder, that the film would portray African life and culture in a positive way. Well, it didn't. Nothing could have been further than the truth. And Paul Robeson certainly disowned the film and then asked for, and I believe achieved a certain point, control over the subsequent scripts that he was offered. Well, certainly once he signed his name to the contract, he demanded and won a certain amount of control over the roles so that he was able to pursue the kinds of images that he wanted to put on the screen, which was certainly in the second film. He did hear Song of Freedom in 1936 was to portray a black man born in London, but who is yearning for his African heritage and wanting to find out more about his African heritage. Now, that was a very radical thing to put in a film at that time. American cinema wouldn't have done it. Can you imagine Stepin Fetchit going to Will Rogers saying, you know, I want to go back to Africa? No way. Paul Robeson had an understanding of his heritage and wanted to portray that in the films. The films themselves, particularly Song of Freedom, is a good example, tended to lapse into melodrama. But the game one has to understand what British cinema was about at that time. You know, it was commercial. A lot of films were low budget. You know, there were limitations. But I think Robeson in part succeeded in doing what he wanted to do. Well, now.

Speaker But he essentially, each time a film would come out, he would say, it's not what I wanted to do. I wanted to do it. But it didn't work out.

Speaker I mean, how many times do you think you can say that without raising the issue of, well, maybe he doesn't know what he wants to do or maybe it's an excuse or maybe he doesn't understand film.

Speaker I mean, that's a possibility, too. I think I think when we look back retrospectively, it's it's easier to understand what the films would do and perhaps more so than perhaps he understood at the time, because we've moved on and we can see the films in a different context. But to try and understand what Robeson was feeling at the time, certainly I feel that he was an actor, a black actor, searching for the right role. And it's possible that he didn't know what that role was. He was certainly striving towards that in his British films. I think in part he did achieve in the end with The Proud Valley. And certainly he said that was the film he was most proud of having acted in. If he had been allowed to if the war hadn't happened, if if he may have stayed in Britain, he may have made more commercial films here.

Speaker Should I stop or should I wait for you to stop, wait for me? It's not me, but I look and I'm looking at you. Yeah, yeah, yeah. If you if you know. No, no. I just want to I, I want to do now is talk. You talked a little bit about some of the.

Speaker As a first effort, how would you rate Rosen's participation in Sanders's, however, given what he said he wanted to do, given the political statements he's made at the time?

Speaker I think I think in relation to Sanders of the river, I think he was partly the problem was his naivete.

Speaker He believed so. Um, yeah. Yeah.

Speaker Um, go ahead with Sanders of the River is his first kind of British commercial film, if you like. I mean, he had high expectations and he was perhaps a little naive to believe that this producer was going to make something that was which was, you know, true to roadsigns beliefs. Again, one has to put it in the context of ropes and still learning about his heritage, learning about his politics and evolving himself, which he does in quite a short time. And I think SonoSite era certainly spurred him on towards greater political awareness from the kind of criticisms that were made of the film, particularly by people like Marcus Garvey, who was scathing. Um, but ropes and I think learn a lot of hard lessons on that film, you know, not to be manipulated in that way. He probably wasn't aware of it at the time, but he said it was during the editing stages that the film, you know, became something that he was not in agreement with.

Speaker OK, there's a very interesting anecdote that you talk about him reading other Africans on the set, which showed his, I would say, ignorance, but, you know, it showed that. Could you kind of relate that where he says he shows up in a loincloth? And the Africans say, well, why tweet, tweet? And what do you wear and tweet? Yes.

Speaker So that kind of stuff, I'll get that story right. Yeah, certainly on the set of Facebook, on the set of. So I, uh. On the set of Soldiers of the River, I mean, Paul Robeson met with the extras who some of them were African students studying in this country, people like Jomo Kenyatta. And certainly there was an incident that was recounted years later by Flor Robson where Ropes and Mats was standing there in his loincloth, met an African, you know, Absher and said, you know, we've got there.

Speaker Yeah. Sorry. Excuse criticize me for wearing the line. Yeah.

Speaker And what was responsible. Well what do you wear. It does. Yes.

Speaker Let me, let me take this photo on the set of on the set of samples of the river ropes and was criticized by some of the African extras for wearing the loincloth and putting on this savage kind of appearance. And he turned round apparently, and said to one of them, what do you wear in Africa? You know, don't you wear this on this African term? And he said, you know, no, we wear tweeds. You know, it was a shock to Robeson. And I think it's important to remember that in America they had no information about Africa. And this came out in Atlanta, Landeros and spoke African journey as she visited Africa around that time, 1935 36, and recounted that trip in her book African Journey a few years later and actually admitted that she and ropes and when they came to London, had no knowledge of Africa, had never met African people, and only knew about Africa from the Tarzan films, you know, so their perception of Africa was very limited or nonexistent. And it wasn't until they met Africans in London, they began to learn about the true Africa and the true African heritage.

Speaker Good. OK, that was nice.

Speaker OK, now back to the comment on that. Yeah. Yeah. Uh.

Speaker Marcus Garvey's reaction to Wilson as a as a figure, but also as a figure was different from his reaction to them as a movie star. I mean, really kind of like you comment on that about.

Speaker Yeah, see a lot, James as well. But you want me to mention him as a kid because he you know, that they were sort of among the. Yeah. In London in the 1930s, you had a number of kind of black critics of Rhodes and including Marcus Garvey and C.L. James, the Marxist historian from Trinidad. And although they loved and revered Robeson as a man and as a performer and as a politician, I mean, they they did criticize him openly for the acting roles that he took. And Robeson was particularly vilified by Marcus Garvey, who even published a pamphlet in London in 1937. I mean, Dan, in his films and saying that these films are slanderous and that he should not be making them. And I think roads and, you know, must have taken all this on board, you know, and try to be more selective about the role that he played in films. But in the end, I think he did take stock and stop altogether.

Speaker So, I mean, would you say then that moving on Song of the River reflects some of the lessons you think he learned song of some of the sort of freedom?

Speaker No, because the Garvie criticism came after that, really, I think Garvie hated even that film and not so much.

Speaker No, not so much. Just Garvie and James, but his experiences in the first. Yeah. You see any changes? Oh, yeah.

Speaker Oh, absolutely. That again, when you think about. The role he played in Songs of the River and the character he played Sambo, I mean, it says it all and the costumes, the words, I mean, there's a big shift in his next film, Song of Freedom, where he's playing a London born dockworker wearing working class men's clothes, integrated into a racially mixed community with a wife. It's it's a total departure from saunders' of the river and moving in a completely different direction and a direction, I think, that is keen to pursue in terms of will try and black people in a realistic way. I mean, certainly in that film, you have, you know, a loving relationship between John Zingo, the character played by Paul Robeson and Ruth, his wife played by Elizabeth Welch. Now, again, you would never have that in an American film that was not permitted. You know, black relationships were not seen on the screen unless it was Hattie McDaniel and Bojangles in the little Colonel Shirley Temple, where the kind of slaves on the plantation and buffoons basically and no ropes and, you know, managed to shift away from that in his films.

Speaker And what was the reaction of the public to that song of freedom?

Speaker What Song of Freedom was promoted as a big Western film, I mean, there's that famous picture that exists in the Plaza in London's West End Song of Freedom, starring Paul Robeson, a big portrait of him on the outside of the cinema, which is a measure of the importance of that film. And it's the way it was marketed at a mass audience, although it wasn't an expensive film, it was, I think, a relatively low budget film made by a very small studio. It wasn't made by one of the big British film companies. So it was aimed at a big audience and reached, as far as I know, a big audience. It was reissued after the war with great success. And I think the main attraction was, although it's interesting for us now to look back at it from what it's saying politically at the time it was roads and singing that brought the audiences in in this country. It brought the audiences in. And and that's what you know. And I've spoken to older generations who went to see these films they remember most is Paul Robeson singing in these films that I don't actually know.

Speaker So this is a real informational question. Was certainly a film released in America.

Speaker This is this is interesting from what I've been able to find out. Again, one has to sort of think about these films in the context of their distribution in America now, along with Josephine Baker's French films, Paul Roadsigns films had very limited distribution. And in America they were released as so-called ghetto features, along with the Black Independent Film Commission films. Those kinds of films. So they had very limited distribution. And I think, you know, Americans awareness of these films is very limited. So when you read about Paul Robeson's films in American Box, you know, the perceptions of the films are very limited, I think, and they just dismiss them by and large, instead of really taken on board the whole context of why these films were made and and where they're coming from, they're coming from another country. And you have to understand that country and what motivated this film industry to produce these films. Paul Robeson and I think a lot of work still needs to be done around that.

Speaker And too often they're dismissed, which raises the question in the long run, what was what do you think the motivation was? Was it pure profit or was it exploitation?

Speaker And what do you think when one reads about these films? You know, it's not just a clear cut question of making money at the box office because they want big commercial films. In that sense, they were. Made on a very small shoestring budgets. I think the directors, by and large, the ropes and worked with jail to Wills on Song of Freedom and big fella Pen Tenison and Pound Value were very sincere. And the writers as well, the screenwriters as well, were very sincere in promoting this black actor in a positive way. There were shortcomings, there were failings. But by and large, when you compare those films to American films of the time, there was streets ahead, you know, whereas American cinema could offer Stepin Fetchit, you know, in Britain we had Paul Robeson playing these very interesting roles. And don't forget, this is the time when the British Empire was still very strong, when Nazi Germany was very strong. So racial integration was was not approved of. And these films were made, you know, in spite of that, in spite of that climate. So in that respect, I think the films, for all their failings and shortcomings, are very important.

Speaker And it's a good point for.

Speaker Comment on big fella, would you say that's a step back or forward or sideways, if it's a field goal, can't you just talk about don't ask me why I love musicals.

Speaker Like, I think it's very interesting because it's probably the least known of the Paul Robeson films. Certainly in some of the books I've read from America, they've completely not written about the film at all. They've written about the book that it was based on, which is Banjo by Claude McKay, who was around, you know, in the Harlem Renaissance. And the plot of the book is very different to the film. So I know they haven't seen the film and really what Big Oil or big fella is on it, so.

Speaker OK, that would be fine. OK.

Speaker Now is very simply all Big Fella is is a light hearted musical and I don't see there's anything wrong with two black stars, Paul Robeson and Elizabeth Welch, playing in a lighthearted musical comedy. I don't think the role was retrogressive in any way. I think, you know, Paul Robeson is playing a charming, relaxed, you know, guy that lives on the Marcey waterfront. The plot is very silly and but that is true of many British films at the time. Again, game one has to understand British cinema of that period and an unpopular entertainment to understand what's going on there. But I think the strengths of the film are certainly Paul Robeson's lovely performance and and the camaraderie he has with his co-stars, in particular Elizabeth Welsh, and in particular as Landa, his wife, who plays a small acting part in the film and kind of puts him in his place. And it's nice. And there are two you know, there's also a lot a lot of kind of integration, racial integration in the film, which, again, you would not have had in American cinema to compare, comparing it to American musicals, its streets way. And are streets ahead in that respect?

Speaker Do you think it's a good answer? It's a very it's very I'm also interested in I wonder what the relationship.

Speaker In your book, you sort of talk about the relationship between Elizabeth and Paul as as a as a as almost sort of a.

Speaker You know, there was a white equivalent of, uh.

Speaker Husband and wife, Detective Nicanor, Charles type, yeah, yeah, yeah, I mean I mean the fact that they had two chances to build a relationship in two films. Yeah.

Speaker And, uh. The would you say?

Speaker Comment, I mean, in that regard, comment on Paul's sexuality and how that was handled in this, because obviously that's part of his attraction, I would think. Right, with being black is strong, you know? I mean, how do you think do you think that I mean, what do you think he knew about it and played to it? Do you think that the producers knew it then?

Speaker And did they hobble it or did they just shamelessly exploit it, you know? What do you think?

Speaker I don't think they did it in that respect, I think. I think one of the strengths of Sangwa Freedom and big fella especially is that it enables Paul Robeson to have. You know, fulfilling relationships with this leading lady, I mean, and even to this day, we still don't see that in films very much, you know, a black romance or black marriage in a commercial kind of entertainment films. And certainly Paul Robeson and Elizabeth Welch, OFF-SCREEN. We're very different pull ups and was very political and and outspoken. Whereas, Elizabeth, you know, politics, the way she did it in a different way. And I think each way is valid in its own, you know, and certainly on screen that the kind of love affair, inverted commas and, you know, comes through, they had a very solid start that were made here in Britain.

Speaker Do you think that he fell into any of those categories or did he manage to escape?

Speaker I don't know if I can give an answer that that's useful, I suspect not. I think there's something else going on. I'm trying to trying to put it into words. It's it's not sexuality that's being promoted, it's more I think there's a kind of respect on the part of the directors and the writers, the people making these films, that they're not out certain side of the river. They are out to exploit everything they can sing in sexuality that the lot should I say that and that? Yeah, I'm just grappling with that credit, really explore it in depth in the book.

Speaker But I noticed that in your book, you kind of made little comment.

Speaker Yeah, exactly.

Speaker And that's one you know, one thing that you do when you write a book, you touch on things and then you want to develop them later on certain instances of the river. I mean, you know, Paul Robeson is being exploited in more ways than one. You know, his sexuality, his singing, everything they can exploit. But I think really, when you come to the other films like Song of Freedom, Big Fella Jeriko, especially under Proud Valley, his sexuality isn't an issue so much, although he has relationships with women in three of those films, certainly Elizabeth Welch and Song of Freedom, a big fan of.

Speaker Do you want to start that sentence again? Which one?

Speaker Uh, certainly, I would say if you cut in the middle of a train and then start a sentence on, do you want to get help from where?

Speaker From where he sits and especially and OK.

Speaker And those three films that his sexuality was not an issue, certainly in those films and certainly in the films he made after samples of the river, his sexuality is not so much an issue. I think that the filmmakers are more interested in promoting, you know, Paul Robeson's characters in a kind of positive light, whatever that may be. But I don't think they're out to exploit him in the same way that they did in some of the river where he's exploited very crudely. And his physique is all part of that kind of character. But I think the strengths of the films after Sandras of the River, you know, certainly in the case of Song of Freedom and Big Fella and Jericho, is that Paul Robeson is able to have successful, fulfilling relationships with women, you know, and that is something that had never been shown on the screen before.

Speaker Yeah, but OK, move on to Jericho. You said it's one of the ones at least known about. Yeah, well, I didn't do a very good service in the book. I run out of space.

Speaker And again, Jericho is a very interesting film in the way that it portrays a black soldier in World War One, a heroic figure. And Robeson plays the role extremely well. And he does things in that film that the again had never been seen in films before. It is, you know, educated. He's he's in charge of other soldiers. He's in control. And there's a little bit of kind of, you know. Condescension in the early part of the film on the part of the white soldiers in the Army, but once voters free of that, I mean, he does become really one of the first superheroes or super black heroes in popular cinema. I mean, many, many years before we had Richard Roundtree in Shaft and and so on and so forth. I mean, ropes and achieved that in Jericho. And it succeeds in that way. It's just a very melodramatic, sometimes silly film. But again, what it's trying to do is very interesting and quite radical.

Speaker OK, I'm going to finish this question, I want to actually, um. OK. King Solomon's Mines, I mean, how would you how would you rate that in this way of actually enjoy the film?

Speaker But while I enjoy it, like I think King Solomon's Mines works as an adventure film, that's all it sets out to be. It's an adventure film. It's very stereotypical of its vision of Africa. I mean, you know.

Speaker OK, I just I just finished up. I'm sorry, that's still going. Oh, we're on things on his mind is an adventure.

Speaker To be King Solomon's mines is nothing more than an enjoyable adventure film. That's all I ever intended to be. And and roads and plays of all the kind of interesting kind of figure are kind of mysterious figure kind of on the sidelines who comes to the forefront once they get into the sort of, you know, um, village kind of scenes. But by and large, it's kind of depiction of Africa, very stereotypical and kind of lapsed into that kind of sounds of the river kind of mentality. But but it's still an enjoyable film because because of its kind of, you know, emphasis on adventure. And how do you relate to that?

Speaker Or do you think is that correct?

Speaker I think I think with King Solomon's mines, what was possibly the attraction for ropes and in fact, the the role of both the guide, the African guide was more human than the kind of cobbled stereotypes that he'd been offered before had played in films like Soldiers of the River. Certainly, I think the attraction was probably that, that he was going to play a much more fully rounded African character. And I think he does to a point certainly in both of his very charismatic robes and makes him so. But one can't get away from the fact that all all through the film, it's very much a kind of, you know, him to colonialism again and the British Empire. And I think that's what probably upset Robeson the most, although he was able to do something with these poor stereotyped parts, he was defeated.

Speaker What was this, the one where he offered to pick it?

Speaker No, no towers in Manhattan, towers in Manhattan, he did picket, didn't he? I've seen pictures of him with the boards outside the cinema. Yeah.

Speaker OK, now would you say that Proud Valley is essentially the culmination of all his desires and wishes and cinema? Would you say that?

Speaker I think.

Speaker Ropes and fell that of all the films he made, the proud father was the one that achieved everything that he set out to do. And I think that's probably true because he plays a kind of heroic, fully rounded kind of black character, which, again, had never been seen before, really. And he's integrated into a kind of white working class community in South Wales. And class was very important to Robeson because once he'd come to London and come to England and learn about the class system and he aligned himself with working class struggles and working class people, the film spoke to him in that way. But for myself, I mean the film that I like the most and find the most interesting and probably the most complex is some of freedom. I think that's the film that kind of, you know, embodies everything for me that Robeson is trying to do in films, being proud that he succeeds. But I think some freedom, you know, is a problematic film. I'm not saying it isn't, but I think it certainly achieves a lot of what his expectations were at that time.

Speaker How would you react to this statement? Well, in Proud Valley, here's another black guy who sacrifices himself for the way, you know, younger guy, you know, something in America that would bring catcalls to the screen. How would you react to that? I mean, would you refute that I would.

Speaker I would have reservations about condemning the apparent valley for the fact that it's, you know, the black character David Goliath played by Paul Robeson, dies at the end, you know, to save the white man. And I, I have reservations about that criticism because there is a reason why Robeson doesn't it doesn't just do it to sacrifice himself. There is there is a reason, a motivation that the father of the Walsh family died. They had given him a home, they had put a roof over his head, fed him, looked after him, took care of and welcomed him, and he sacrificed himself for the son of that man who sacrificed himself to the son could live and go back and keep that family alive. So I think there is in the script an attempt to give motivation to that. And I think you then have to balance it with the other films. Is the only film that he made in England in which he died at the end. And I think I can forgive him for that. Whereas I think, you know, historically, because so many black actors have died at the end of their films like Sidney Poitier in the novel, he didn't die, so he sacrificed himself.

Speaker Yeah.

Speaker Like so many others missing, seen that point, like so many others that came after the brown family, the black characters, you know, sacrificing themselves for look for the white man like Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones is a famous example. I think. I think you have to really look at the film in its own context.

Speaker Now, um. Oh, OK.

Speaker Does that make sense?

Speaker What have you done any any studies or even looked at a lot of roadsigns, Americans while on the show, I guess, and oh, Manhattanite tells me that.

Speaker Yeah. Um. I've seen the Emperor Jones, but I couldn't really comment on it because it's not one that's familiar with me. I've seen it a long time ago. Showboat, I think, is good in Chicago. I think, again, that's because as a director. Yeah. You want to talk about Shoba and to Manhattan. Yeah. Yeah. It is sad that there were only two commercial films made by Paul Robeson in America, Showboat and Towers of Manhattan, the only time you know that he went to Hollywood and made films that I think Showboat stands up because he's such a wonderful presence in that film, a towering presence.

Speaker And he sings Old Man River. And, you know, he's he's he's well, he doesn't say much or do much. His presence is felt. And I think the director, James Whale, has to be given some credit for the respect that he had for Robeson. I mean, Robeson's kind of battling with the very kind of stereotypical part, but it's by no means as crude as the parts that Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best and Mantan Moreland were playing in films at that time. And I think one of the great strengths of Showboat is the lovely relationship between him and Hattie McDaniel, Hattie McDaniel's, you know, feisty and outspoken. And she puts him in her place, in his place. And, you know, and they do a wonderful duet together and and they send in the whole thing up. I mean, Hattie McDaniel and Paul Robeson are sending the whole thing up and the two great artists to allow themselves to be manipulated in that kind of way. So, I mean, Hattie McDaniel has got the big earrings and the bandana and it's over the top. And I think they play, you know, together very well. And, you know, if I may say, subvert the whole thing, I can see it. And I love it. I love watching their performances in that film. Sadly, Towers of Manhattan is is the flip side of the coin. Tails of Manhattan is awful. Or rather, the segment that wrote some dance with Ethel Waters now at the waters can do no wrong as far as I'm concerned. And even in that horrible part, you know, she's she's doing what she can because, you know, she knows the game Hollywood is playing, whether she understands it.

Speaker I don't think it comes over so much in Robeson's work in that film. I don't know why, but I think and just just just does what's expected of him and doesn't even try. He's obviously disillusioned. He's obviously disappointed, but he doesn't do what after Waters and Eddie Rochester Anderson do, which is well, is another crap stereotype part. Let's, you know, do what we can to make these people will make these people human. And they succeed in a certain way, but they're defeated at the end. And I think Robeson was really can you say crap on American television?

Speaker Yeah, what do you think, ultimately, of Robson's command of screen acting craft?

Speaker That then that's an interesting question, I think.

Speaker Did he have the chops or was he just charisma? I mean, essentially.

Speaker I've looked at Paul Robeson's films very closely. I've come to a conclusion that he wasn't. Within the restrictions imposed on him, a great screen actor, we don't have evidence of that. I don't think he wasn't given that chance to stretch himself to play great parts of what Globsyn had was charisma. He had star quality in abundance, you know, like Marilyn Monroe or any any you know, anyone that came into films with with with with with a certain degree of talent, but not great expertise. And that carried them through. And I think Robeson had and that's what makes this film so pleasurable to watch in spite of the racism, in spite of the problems with the films, he's a pleasurable person to watch in films. And and I know that that's what I would say. But I don't think he was a great screen actor, and we'll probably never know if he could have been.

Speaker And let's pause, that's good to answer, yes.

Speaker Um, uh.

Speaker OK.

Speaker Uh, yeah, can you comment on the change, why there was a change of ending in Crown Valley or what was the change and why did it happen?

Speaker Originally, the Proud Valley had a very radical ending in which the miners, including Paul Robeson, took over the mine themselves and ran it as a collective, which in those days, I mean, it was a very, you know, radical thing to put on the screen. But because of the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 interrupted, you know, the production of the film, the emphasis then had to change. And that came from the producer, Michael Boeken, who refused to allow this very radical kind of ending to happen and then sort of forced a change in the script, which then said, you know, the mine owners would allow and permit the mine to continue with the miners work. And so it was favorable to the mine owners then. And so the mine, the miners themselves didn't take take ownership, you know, for patriotic reasons.

Speaker I think that's why Michael Boeken force that ended on the film. What, what.

Speaker Yeah, yeah, yeah. What were the what shall I am curious. What was proud Valley universally acclaimed by critics, oh.

Speaker Something harmed the success and distribution of the power value, which was Lord Beaverbrook, who was a famous and very powerful newspaper magnate at that time, refused to film any mention in his newspapers because Robson had made some pro-Russian comments in public, I think, and and Beaverbrook took offense at this and, you know, hated ropes and fought for it. And, you know, because there was no mention of the film in those papers, it harmed its kind of success. But it was still a successful film insofar as, you know, ropes and still made it into the top 20 in the box office list that year. So it did get seen. And certainly the critics that did get to review it, you know, reviewed it very favorably.

Speaker Um, with the exception of crying over the exception of Graham Greene, I go want to you've about three hours.

Speaker Yeah.

Speaker Yet it was a very famous critic at the time called Graham Greene, who wrote for a journal called The Spectator, and he he had already written a rather perceptive, I thought, review of summer freedom. But with the Proud Valley, I mean, he didn't like it at all. And he certainly criticized Robeson for portraying what he called, quote, a big. Fat Polyana, you know, bringing goodness and into this kind of mining village. I thought, you know, it's rather scathing, rather unfair of Graham Greene to have done that. But I think it's interesting that, you know, not everyone thought that Robeson was.

Speaker The great one. Yeah, you know, in America, the reaction to that, too, it's called the positive image theory. Yeah, yeah. Either like bad. I think that's what Graham Greene was trying to get at that. We shouldn't be in black.

Speaker I've got it in. Listen, I don't think it's a black. I don't think you would have said black and white was a big fat, but he might have done well. But my question is, uh. It looks it looks as if. Yeah, it looks as if I mean ropes and just took on everybody, I mean, essentially, you know, he he tried to he tried to form get the scripts that he wanted. He acted in the films. And at the last minute, you know, the distribution was jammed up. And then publicity. I mean, uh. In your research, did he tell you to be honest about his efforts?

Speaker I think yeah, I think I think it's important to remember the Paul Robeson was an independent film star. He wasn't under contract to a big studio, and all the stars of that time were under contract. Even in Britain, you know, the same as Hollywood, they were under contract seven year contracts to big studios with lots of money being spent on them. I mean, there's that famous quote that I know who said it, but when ropes and went to Hollywood to do Showboat, he demanded but didn't get approval over the final cut. And somebody in Hollywood turned around and said, well, even Greta Garbo doesn't have that. You see, Robeson was an independent figure. He moved from one little British studio to another and in some cases, Ealing, which was a big studio. But he never had kind of consistency. He never had, you know, a studio chief, you know, like Louis B. Mayer watching over him and nurturing him. And so, you know, Robeson had every reason to feel frustrated with each film that he made because he wasn't being cared for in the way the other kind of movie stars had been being cared for at that time.

Speaker Yeah, it's a good.

Speaker So given all that, so you're bringing things out of me that I should have put in, given that he feels really healthy, I mean, yeah, that's that's why I'm saying that's what I feel about the films that in spite of all the reservations he had, that he did succeed. And we should we should applaud him for that. In spite of the reservations he had, in spite of the problems that we have with the films, from today's perspective, he did succeed. And there's a lot to be learned from that.

Speaker That's good. That was nice, huh? Oh, yeah, ask me about the relationship. Yeah. What? Uh, actually, I really I really want to know is Roseanne ran around with a lot of women, was Elizabeth was one of them?

Speaker No, she denied any relationship with him.

Speaker Oh, officer. Neighbors want to play the drums.

Speaker OK, here we go.

Speaker I think the. There was this announcement, a question again, well, well, essentially, what was the relationship between Elizabeth and Paul Wellstone? I mean, they had nice chemistry. Yes, that's the screen. Yeah. Was it also that way?

Speaker Yeah, I think yeah, definitely. The relationship that Paul Robeson and Elizabeth Welch portrayed on the screen spilled over into their friendship off screen. I mean, they were, you know, very respectful of each other. There was a mutual admiration and that carried on right through to when Robeson last saw her in 1963, when he came to see her and to say goodbye. And she knew this was the end. I mean, you know, they had great respect for each other and great love for each other. There was nothing between them. There was no love affair. Elizabeth has put that on record. She said Atlanta would never have allowed it anyway. But it's it's so maybe, you know, they might have done that. I don't know. But certainly, you know, what you see on the screen is a true reflection of the relationship they had offscreen. And it's certainly very interesting because of, you know, the difference in them politically that Elizabeth said, I am from four peoples. The when Paul Robeson challenged her and said, why don't you do something for your people, speak out against racism? She said, well, what people said, I'm Native American Indian, I'm African, I'm Scottish and I'm Irish. She said, I can't make a stand for all of them. You'll have to excuse me. And Paul Robeson's response wasn't, oh, how dare you say that? You just roared with laughter and they hugged each other and just got on with their friendship. And I think that's a wonderful kind of union and contrast of two very famous black personalities of that time.

Speaker Great. What what do you think the music started now?

Speaker Yeah. Do you know much about the last time when he went backstage to say goodbye? Yeah, I quoted in the. Could you tell me about that? It seems kind of poignant, it seems, because she says, well, do you want that? Could you hear that?

Speaker Yeah. Upwards of.

Speaker Yeah, because you tell me about that.

Speaker Yeah, yeah, yeah, there was a long period when Elizabeth and Paul didn't see each other because of his exile in America. He was not allowed to travel. And so really the last time they made contact was in 1963 when Paul came back stage in London's West End to show that Elizabeth was appearing and at that time, really just to say goodbye. And Elizabeth was surprised to see him. She hadn't seen him for a long time. She said he looked very frail, very ill, very worn out. And, you know, everything would have been knocked out of him. And she was very, very sad. But again, she was thrilled to see him and they hugged each other and kissed and cried. And but she knew once he left the stage door, that was the last time she she would ever see him because because, of course, then he went back to America. And I don't believe he ever traveled abroad again after that. So that was the final part in. And for her, it was a very moving and an emotional, you know, part in.

Stephen Bourne
Interview Date:
1998-07-27
Runtime:
0:47:17
Keywords:
None
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
cpb-aacip-504-g44hm5358z, cpb-aacip-504-251fj29t92, cpb-aacip-504-m32n58d775
MLA CITATIONS:
"Stephen Bourne, Paul Robeson: Here I Stand." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 27 Jul. 1998, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/1156
APA CITATIONS:
(1998, July 27). Stephen Bourne, Paul Robeson: Here I Stand. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/1156
CHICAGO CITATIONS:
"Stephen Bourne, Paul Robeson: Here I Stand." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). July 27, 1998. Accessed January 25, 2022 https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/1156

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