Is there such a thing as a feel-good film about slavery? Judge Bill Gibron believes that this misguided mess of a musical tries to be that elusive entertainment entity, thanks to the racially intolerant Hollywood of the 1930s.
Thank you, slaves!
On the Reid Plantation, life is different. Master Reid is a caring, giving man who treats his slaves like family. During the annual Sugar Cane Dance, the compassionate Confederate is trampled by his horses and dies instantly, leaving his already motherless son Tim (Bobby Breen) behind. Now in the charge of a scheming shyster lawyer, Tim watches as this executor plans on selling off his closest friends. Hoping to help his buddy the butler, Uncle Caton, escape, the pair concocts a crazy plan. They will travel to New Orleans, then help Caton stow away on a steamboat. What method will they use to keep up this ruse? Why, our elderly black gentleman's gentleman will disguise himself as a white woman. During a stay at a local inn, Tim befriends the flamboyant owner. When he learns of the impending slave sale, the hotelier goes to a powerful judge to overrule the auction. Hopefully it can be stopped before the entire farm goes under the block, leaving Tim alone, penniless, and adrift Way Down South.
Arriving four years after Shirley Temple mined similar scandalous territory with her racially intolerant Civil War shamefests, The Littlest Rebel and The Little Colonel, her minor male counterpart, Bobby Breen, soiled his cherubic child stardom with Way Down South. In a typical Tinseltown depiction of slavery circa 1850, we witness what has to be the happiest plantation in the entire South. On this anomaly of an antebellum farm, no slave is beaten, no slave is sold, and all of the slaves are as happy as cows chewing on their cud. Their owner is so liberal-minded that modern Democrats are attempting to channel his spirit to make an attempt at regaining the congressional majority in the 2006 midterm elections. Heck, he doesn't even care if he makes a profit off the backs of his human property. After all, he'll just pour it back into the workforce. He'll build new housing for his "helpers," give them plenty to eat and drink, and, in lieu of the whip, he'll make sure they get first crack at the sugar cane drippings. It's no wonder his personnel get goofy when this "massa" up and dies. He's managed to remove them from the otherwise gulag-like existence of life on a real Louisiana agricultural estate. Even we, the audience, find this version of indentured servitude kind of comforting. No one is ever truly unhappy.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this entire fantasy-like journey into the heart of the Confederacy is that Way Down South was penned by two men of color. One was actor Clarence Muse, a longstanding member of the Hollywood minority community. The other was renowned poet and playwright Langston Hughes. Naturally, one has to assume that the studio chiefs were paying nothing but lip service to the literary efforts of these men. While Stepin Fetchit is nowhere to be found, the notion of slow, shiftless slaves is slathered all over this film. No matter what attempts to humanize or culturally complicate the 19th century African, this is still a movie made by a racially intolerant system that can only envision minorities as servants, no matter the moral or material implications and realities. Anyone who considers themselves enlightened or even remotely angered by the treatment, historically, of non-whites in this world will take one look at Way Down South and wonder when the set piece featuring a burning cross arrives. Between the problematic pidgin English and the tainted tribal tendencies of the dance sequences (there is a fine line between heritage and hatred), there hasn't been this much stereotyping since D. W. Griffith gave "birth" to a nation.
With Temple, her undeniable talent helped circumvent some of the ever-present prejudice. All she had to do was tap, tap, tap her little tootsies and some (but not all) was forgiven. Bobby Breen, on the other hand, has as much screen presence as a pot of pickled okra. With his mop of curly hair and a dopey "duh" look on his face, it is easy to see why he was huge on the radio. Unlike our modern American Idol, the wireless didn't mandate you sing well and look good doing it. Breen is basically an Our Gang brat with operatic tendencies. He belts out bland musical numbers here with a boys' choir cadence, but as an actor, he emotes like a Vegas lounge act. Even when he arrives at a prayer meeting to reassure his slaves that they won't be sold, he sings "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" with a surreal smile on his face. His line readings sound garbled and locked in his chest like he's afraid to speak too loudly less he ruin his cash-creating chops (Breen made his name as a regular on Eddie Cantor's show). Believe it or not, Breen left the movies to concentrate on a nightclub crooner career—and we all remember how successful that was (oh, wait, that's right, we don't).
Overall, Way Down South is not really much of a movie. At 60 minutes, it barely qualifies. Much of the narrative is taken up with pointless melodious interludes and Ralph Morgan makes such a minor impression as Bobby's beneficent slave-owning dad that when he dies, nobody really seems to care much. Even Breen barely registers a RIP emotion. As for actor/scribe Clarence Muse, his obvious stance against racial intolerance didn't serve him well in the role of Uncle Caton. When he's not bowing and belittling himself for some pompous, bloated white guys, he's dressing in drag and trying to pass himself off as a woman. The plot doesn't percolate as much as poot and the finale doesn't rely on realism or rationality. All the characters have to do is get the gouty judge good and liquored up and he'll agree to anything. Had there been anything here beyond the typical tasteless view of human hatred (even with all the faux happiness thrown in), we might have been able to look past its bigotry, but boredom is a funny thing. It allows the stifling stench of segregation to flow right through. No matter who was supposedly involved, Way Down South is a low-down dirty shame.
The Roan Group, known to many as the corner-cutting Criterion, likes to fancy itself a preserver of Hollywood's past. Frankly, many of the films they "rescue" truly deserved to die off. As for the transfer here, Way Down South looks mighty good for a movie made nearly 70 years ago. Granted, it is a little faded and there are several startling jump cuts where dialogue and action simply "skip" over to the next narrative bit. However, the 1.33:1 full-frame print has a nice monochrome mellowness, capturing the sweltering summer haze of a Louisiana day quite nicely. The sound, however, is a mess. The level of distortion in the Dolby Digital Mono is distracting. We can barely make out the lyrics to many of the songs. As for extras, Roan offers an interesting intro by New York Post critic Lou Lumenick, a completely horrendous scene of the blackface version of Amos and Andy (from something called Check and Double Check), and an odd featurette on child star Bobby…Winckler. That's right, instead of focusing on Breen, Winckler's son Bill offers his hearsay stories about the life of a young child star in Hollywood. It's interesting, but has very little to do with the movie at hand.
Sometimes, a movie gets wrongly pegged as prejudiced. The Green Pastures has its problems, but is probably the most honest film about faith ever made. Even an effort like Temple's Rebel makes reasonable attempts to put its racism in historical context. There is no such attempt with Way Down South, though. It stands by its wistful view of slave life and doesn't apologize for any of its more disturbing aspects. Unless you think that life on a plantation was all peaches and cream, you'll be roundly offended by this figment of Tinseltown's twisted imagination.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Roan Group
• "Life of a Child Star" Featurette with Bill Winckler
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