The Emperor Jones

Last year, Peter and I got on a Eugene O’Neill kick, mostly because I thought it would be cool to check out the playwright’s local former home, which is now part of the National Parks Service. To that end, I thought it would be wise to check out a few of O’Neill plays, especially considering he’s one of America’s most important playwrights.

We saw an excellent rendition of A Long Day’s Journey into Night at our favorite local playhouse, The Pear. That’s about as good as Eugene O’Neill gets actually, but we didn’t know it then. As I wrote earlier, other plays he’s written, which we saw translated to a screen version, are good. But they’re also massively depressing, and involve the consumption of massive amounts of hard liquor. I’m pretty sure I left The Emperor Jones off to a later date, because Peter and I felt that if we watched any more Eugene O’Neill, we’d have to start drinking hard.

Well, time passed and The Emperor Jones finally rose to the top on our Netflix list. emperor-jones.jpgLet me just say that it was as bad as A Long Day’s Journey into Night was good. It did intrigue me, though. For one thing, it starred Paul Robeson, an awesome singer from the golden age of cinema. And for another, I think it was filmed during Prohibition, so how could Eugene O’Neill’s tragic characters pickle themselves, as they always do?

To answer my last question, O’Neill got around it by moving the action to a Haitian island, one with lots and lots of rum. But the movie was a total mess. For one thing, as I found out later, in the play, the main character, Brutus Jones, is running through the jungle, fleeing from his enraged, rebelling subjects, and is haunted both by ghosts and flashbacks of the rotten, thieving life he led. In the movie, the story is told chronologically, so you’re not sure whether Brutus Jones is a formerly bad guy trying to make good, as it seems at the beginning, or just a thoroughly rotten guy, as it turns out he is. It doesn’t help that Paul Robeson is terribly charismatic, especially when he breaks out his wide smile. You just can’t believe his Brutus Jones is evil: when Robeson wears the role, Jones can never be anything more than a mischievous scoundrel. But Peter and I knew from having seen lots of Eugene O’Neill plays, that when O’Neill makes a character bad, that character is very, very bad indeed.

So Robeson was a miscasting, which gets even worse as the producers of the movie wanted to showcase his singing as well. Sometimes it works, such as when Robeson sings with his church choir at the beginning of the movie, and sometimes it really doesn’t, as when Robeson is hiding and hungry in the woods, and suddenly bursts into full-throated song. Dude, what part of hiding do you not understand?

And the more of the time did get in the way. For instance, when Brutus is at a brothel, he orders refreshments, and seems to get a pitcher that pours water into a tea cup. Are we supposed to pretend it’s Scotch, because we also have to pretend no one in the U.S. sells alcohol any more? And both Peter and I found the opening, which has people dancing in a circle at a black Baptist revival morphing to a Haitian tribal dance, really racist, and we’re people who resist most of the clamor about found (or imagined) racism.

The story was like a blackface version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King. Now before you get all shocked at the implication that Eugene O’Neill was plagiarizing anyone, you also have to know that most of Eugene O’Neill’s early plays were based on classic stories. It doesn’t matter that you already know the story: O’Neill makes it compelling by exploring the psychology between the characters. Believe me, the people in Mourning Becomes Electra are a whole lot nastier than the ones in Sophocles’ Electra. Sophocles’s characters killed each other; O’Neill’s destroy, mangle and cripple each other for eternity.

Emperor Jones was also famous for being one of the first movies with an all-black (well, almost all) cast. But this is an example how not to do it: the blacks are almost all rubes, and the only white people in the movie, two men, are surprised at Jones’ cunning ways, and smart enough to support him. Later movies, with all-black casts, like Carmen Jones, were far superior. And I can’t believe Eugene O’Neill would have written his characters, black or white, as cartoonishly as they are in the Emperor Jones movie.

I guess the most telling part of the movie was what we saw even before the credits: it had been revived from video obscurity by the Smithsonian, that is, the government. If there’d been any solid fan base behind its rescue from video obscurity, it would have been moved to DVD by a commercial firm.

Oh, and we still haven’t gone to see Tao house yet. All we can think of it now is that it must have a pretty big bar and liquor closet. And we’re probably just a little too Eugene O’Neill’d out.

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