Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Scar of Shame (1927)

Director: Frank Peregini                                    Writer: David Starkman
Film Score: Philip Carli                                     Cinematography: Al Liguori
Starring: Harry Henderson, Norman Johnstone, Ann Kennedy and Lucia Lynn Moses

I had known of the existence of all-black films made in the early thirties, but hadn’t been cognizant of those made during the silent era. The Scar of Shame was produced by the Colored Players Film Corporation, which was based in Philadelphia and had been founded by screenwriter David Starkman. It deals with the theme of bigotry among blacks themselves, a subject that could never have been explored by a white film company. But what emerges forcefully from this well-done production, as one views it, is how little difference the final result would have been had the actors been white. Rather than dealing with skin color, of which there was certainly bigotry in the black community, it simply deals with social status, which transcends culture. It’s ultimately a strange story, though, and difficult to see what the moral is at the end but it is no less compelling for it.

The film begins at the dinner table of the boarding house of Ann Kennedy, with a typical cross section of borders that include Norman Johnstone as a sort of well-dressed criminal who runs a bar in town, and from the educated part of society Harry Henderson who is studying to be a pianist and composer. One night Henderson hears screaming from out is window and sees William E. Pettus beating his daughter Lucia Lynn Moses and runs out to protect her, fighting off Pettus and bringing Moses into the boarding house where Kennedy agrees to put her up. But Johnstone knows Pettus and tries to get Moses out of the house to work at his bar, raising Henderson’s ire and getting himself kicked out instead. When Henderson proposes to Moses and marries her, Johnstone and Pettus hatch a plot to get her back by sending a telegram from Henderson’s mother saying she is sick and kidnapping her. They know he won’t take his wife with him because she is from a lower social class than his family, and they are right.

It’s here that the story takes a turn for the melodramatic and a major misunderstanding causes the happy couple to go in very different directions. The first thing one notes is that the idea in the script comes from a decade earlier, like a D.W. Griffith drama with Lillian Gish. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a interesting story and well acted. The principals are very good. Henderson is appropriately brooding, though it’s puzzling how good he is with his fists for a pianist, not only beating up William E. Pettus but frightening away Johnstone as well. As for Johnstone, he’s equally jovial and manipulative and believable as the instigator of the plot. Lucia Lynn Moses is great as the young abused woman and is a nice surprise when she makes the transition of character halfway through the film. She also went to a lot of effort making the film as shooting took place in Philadelphia and she had to commute back to Harlem every night to work as a dancer at The Cotton Club.

One of the most obvious examples of the artistry of the picture is the direction of Frank Peregini, whose use of close-ups is tremendous. He’s incredibly effective at conveying information though them, such as when he shows Henderson’s hand on Moses’s shoulder squeezing ever so slightly to show his affection for her, or when he shows her feet shuffling on the floor when her father comes to kidnap her and seeing Henderson’s reaction to the sound from the floor below. Though it was not on the cutting edge of film production at the time, the Colored Players Film Corporation did an admirable job of maintaining solid production values and hiring good actors to come up with a quality product. Unfortunately the audience just wasn’t there, and attempting to compete with the majors ultimately broke them. The Scar of Shame was the last film the company made, but what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in artistry.

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