Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Midnight Shadow (1939)

My notes on Midnight Shadow (1939)

‘Is browbeating defenceless women a part of your job?’

This mystery, a typical no-budget product of the marginalised ‘race’ film industry which co-existed with the luxury of Hollywood, opens with a screed that essentially justifies an all-black cast by claiming the US harbours ‘certain communities’ where ‘these people of darker hue have demonstrated their abilities in self-government by the orderly processes of law of which they are capable when unhampered by outside influences’. In all probability, this was necessary to explain even to black audiences in 1939 why the film depicts (in fairly minor roles) African-Americans in positions of authority like oil company executive and homicide detective, while mostly dealing with more familiar dignified family folks, foolish comedy relief bumblers and turbanned fraudster.

Prince Alihabad (John Criner), a slimy charlatan , makes a heavy play for Margaret (Frances Redd), sweet daughter of decent, slow-talking Dan Wilson (Clinton Rosemond) and his worrywart wife Emma (Ollie Ann Robinson). With the sort of foolishness only potential murder victims are capable of, Dan happens to tell the bogus mind reader that he intends to give the deed to some oil-rich land he owns to his daughter on her wedding day. The Prince tries to persuade Margaret to come on an ocean cruise with him, but she refuses – uncinematically, in a letter she leaves lying around – for fear of upsetting her parents.

Meanwhile, Margaret’s regular boyfriend Buster Barnett (Edward Brandon) seethes in a suspect manner, though cliché conventions which run through mystery movies down to this level rule him out as a suspect. Dan is murdered and the deed vanishes, whereupon Junior (Richard Bates) and Lightfoot (Buck Woods), funnymen who fancy themselves as detectives (Junior owns a deerstalker hat) get on the case, to the annoyance of the official cop (Jesse Lee Brooks). The clods do get the bright idea of hanging around the office of an oilman John Mason (Pete Webster) on the assumption that the killer will try to peddle the deed – whereupon (spoiler!), in a turn guaranteed to have audiences then and now up in arms, a total stranger with no character name (or billing) arrives with the deed and is apprehended as the killer. Buster gets to sock Alihabad on the jaw, but that still doesn’t compensate for bringing on someone who hasn’t been established as a suspect as the culprit.

Director George Randol (who acted in one of the rare mainstream all-black films, Green Pastures) doesn’t exactly have resources to hand – it’s shot on underfurnished interiors that make the average PRC or Monogram old dark house look lavish, with one-take performances, an uncredited script which offers neither suspense nor humour and a sluggish pace that doesn’t make 54 minutes fly by. Some cast members (Brandon, Redd, Criner) have a degree of charisma which suggests they’d have been bigger stars in an unsegregated industry. Race movie convention decrees lighter-skinned black people play romantic leads while folks of a darker ‘darker hue’ do comedy face-pulling.


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