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On Denaturing Racial Elements in Two '50s-era Films

Two fascinating bits of Americana, Black Gold and Face of Fire, are defined by racial themes, yet tackle the subject quite differently.

Black Gold

Director: Phil Karlson
Cast: Anthony Quinn
Distributor: Warner Archive
Year: 1947
USDVD release date: 2015-04-21

Face of Fire

Director: Albert Band
Cast: James Whitmore, Cameron Mitchell
Distributor: Warner Archive
Year: 1959
USDVD release date: 2015-03-31

Now available on demand from Warner Archive are two fascinating bits of Americana defined by racial themes. Both are ambitious, high-minded items emanating from the low-budget studio Allied Artists, and both distort their source material in different, telling ways, according to the social context of their eras.

Monogram was a low-budget studio that churned out B films, but it had high yearnings. It founded the subsidiary Allied Artists in 1946 for relatively higher-budgeted films, and Allied's first color production was Black Gold, shot in the two-color Cinecolor process often used by low-budget studios. Although there are a thousand films about training a horse for the big race, this one's unusual elements mark it out from, as it were, the common run.

It opens with a startling scene that remains timely. A Chinese-American boy, Davey (Ducky Louie of Back to Bataan ), is attempting to help his Chinese father get into the US from Mexico illegally, as escorted by a white guide and the guide's nephew. Now that he's been paid, the guide shoots the father dead and tries to shoot the son ("Dead Chinese don't talk"), but the latter is rescued by a reservation Indian rancher named Charley Eagle (Anthony Quinn).

Charley and his stoic wife Sarah (Katherine DeMille, Quinn's real-life wife) adopt the boy, and the rest of the story concerns their filly Black Hope, who wins some local races, and that horse's colt, Black Gold, who won the 1924 Kentucky Derby as ridden by their adopted Chinese son. Almost incidentally, they become wealthy when oil is discovered on their land.

As this outline indicates, the script by Agnes Christine Johnson addresses ethnic and racial issues, including both white racism and the anti-white hatred engendered from it, that a Hollywood film would typically have avoided. Their presence here can't be attributed to a true story, because the facts (as per Wikipedia) often differ. The points of accuracy seem to be that the owner's wife was an Osage woman who lived on the reservation, struck oil, and won the Derby, and also that there was an incident involving a "claiming race" in Mexico. This film is therefore an early example of the race-conscious "problem films" (though largely subsumed by the horse story) that became a minor Hollywood trend of the late '40s, although it's also another example where Indians aren't played by actual Native American actors.

In this context, the name Black Hope (invented for the film) is especially evocative, since it inverts the common phrase "great white hope" as first heard in boxing circles during the Jack Johnson era. Davey and Charley define their horse-racing agenda as a way of getting back at white people, but Charley also wishes to teach Davey that there are good white people.

Davey refers to the killers as "Americans", apparently forgetting his own status, to which Charley identifies himself as "first American". He explains that his own father was killed by a white man and this sent him into a depression from which he emerged by hard work on his own land. His implication is that despite their different ethnicities, their non-caucasian status unites them and effectively erases other cultural differences, and that the solution has something to do with ownership.

Standing by as token good (if bland) white folks are the beautiful teacher (Elyse Knox), the oil engineer (Kane Richmond) who must literally drill the virtues of excessive money into the Indian's head, the Southern Colonel (Thurston Hall) who says he doesn't judge horses by their color, a senator (Jonathan Hale) who accepts the invitation of the newly wealthy, an initially forbidding judge (Charles Trowbridge), and the trainer (Raymond Hatton). Bad white folks include a crooked dealer (Moroni Olsen) and a taunting schoolboy (Darryl Hickman). Nipo T. Strongheart was an Indian technical advisor, presumably for Charley's final mystical scene, one of several personal elements that stand out; he seems to be the Indian in the crowd watching the Derby.

Quinn, born in Mexico, played as many ethnicities as he could get away with. A key physical over-actor, he embodies Charlie as a big smiling simple goofball who talks in telegraph-English like Charlie Chan, referring to himself in the third person, and whose ingratiating gestures can abruptly switch to otherwise repressed anger in defense of Indians.

The Canadian-born DeMille (adopted daughter of filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille), often cast in what Ephraim Katz calls "darkly exotic leads", walks about stiffly, barely cracking a smile, and at one point "wishes she were a white woman so she could cry". She's educated and speaks like a patrician, while her husband is illiterate as well as never learning his articles.

Director Phil Karlson, who would become known for his tough crime films, shows himself comfortable with sentimental Americana, albeit with hard edges; the Derby sequence is directed by serial specialist B. Reeves Eason. Harry Neumann shoots the Cinecolor to pretty effect, making this a visually pleasing and restful film in contrast to the continual thematic sense of threat and disturbance created by the story. This tonal tension is another key to the movie's unique quality, as we always feel that more is at stake than what happens to a horse. The film conveys the sense that its triumphal arc, which the audience knows in advance, comes only after a history of pain longer than the screen time.

Black Gold (1946)

While this movie loads in more racial elements than existed in its source material, Face of Fire, made more than ten years later in the middle of the Civil Rights era, follows the opposite (and more common) approach of denaturing the racial elements of its source material. This film was picked up by Allied Artists after Monogram had officially changed its name to that moniker in the early '50s.

Albert Band's Face of Fire is an unusual piece of Americana adapted from Stephen Crane's story "The Monster". That title was probably avoided for fear of giving audiences the wrong impression, for this isn't a horror movie in any conventional sense. Set in 1895 in Crane's fictional small town of Whilomville, New York, it depicts a cozy community until likable handyman and self-confident beau Monk Johnson (James Whitmore) suffers a disfigured face and partial brain damage from spilled acid while rescuing the son of a doctor (Cameron Mitchell) from a fire. From that point, most of the town shuns him and gradually begins to boycott the doctor when he takes Johnson into his household.

One thing to notice about the opening credits is that most of the names are Swedish. Yes, Band made this picturesque American film there, and one of the few signs is an overhead shot of the town's main street that shows its cobblestones. Another sign is that the doctor's blond child (locally cast Miko Oscard) doesn't even faintly resemble his parents.

That's probably not the whole explanation for why this American town is devoid of African Americans; Band and writer/co-producer Louis Garfinkle significantly changed the thrust of the story by making Johnson a white man instead of the story's black man, whom Crane described as having previously conformed to genial minstrel stereotypes to charm the white folks before finding himself ostracized. Erasing the racial divide between Monk and the town makes their sudden rejection of his scarred face a certain degree less credible than if it were a matter of latent dislike being unleashed.

The film changes Johnson's first name from Henry to Monk, possibly because he goes from dating the girls to a monk-like existence and possibly so that the film can open with children's voices singing "The Animal Fair" with its repetition of "the monk, the monk, the monk".

According to Wikipedia's article on Crane's story, some critics speculate that he may have been inspired by a notorious case of the only black man to be lynched in New York during the 1890s, which occurred in the town of Port Jervis that served as the model for Whilomville. This is the only one of Crane's Whilomville stories to adopt a dark and bitter tone, which the film mostly maintains until tossing in a perfunctory and unconvincing resolution that still doesn't mean the town has changed its mind.

All this means that in order to perceive the racial element, which no longer exists on the surface, you must use metaphorical X-ray vision to scan the story's original palimpsest. The movie has avoided being a specifically racial "problem film" by the skin of its skin and now looks like a weird anticipation of The Elephant Man, although Whitmore's role is more absent than present, even when wearing a veil.

Band had co-scripted John Huston's film of Crane's The Red Badge of Courage and was clearly taken with Crane. Band's visual approach is as strong and expressive as his previous film, I Bury the Living, and the production is meticulous in conjuring a similary oppressive, fatalistic air.

The closer you look and listen to it, the more the film feels like a distant cousin to Ingmar Bergman and even the Ibsen of An Enemy of the People. Erik Nordgren, who scored Bergman films, offers music that's generally understated or absent. Edward Vorkapich (son of great montage artist Slavko Vorkapich) did art direction and photography; the former is convincing and the latter is lilting yet dry and foreboding, which Tom Weaver's article in Bryan Senn's A Year of Fear: A Day-by-Day Guide to 366 Horror Films ascribes to overcast weather while filming. It's effective.

The large, well-handled gallery of supporting players, sometimes directed to talk over each other, includes Royal Dano, Bettye Ackerman, Robert F. Simon, Richard Erdman, and Howard Smith. Lois Maxwell (James Bond's Miss Moneypenny) plays a gleeful Teflon shrew who dismisses all contradiction with bemusement. The result is a picture of a quaint, idyllic, bucolic American town of yesteryear where you wouldn't want to live -- but possibly do.

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