Bringing Harlem to the Prairie with Herb Jeffries The Bronze Buckaroo

Directly following The Terror of Tiny Town was another film that garnered Buell further criticism for exploitation, along with a few comments of praise for advancing the role of blacks in the cinematic West: Harlem on the Prairie (1937). The film brought the rich musical voice of Herb Jeffries to the frontier, along with a cast of black faces usually absent from the genre.

The issue of black images in the early years of film is a complex one. More than thirteen hundred African American films were produced between 1895 and 1959—feature films, both silent and sound, documentaries, soundies,

Herb Jeffries as the first African American singing cowboy, in Harlem on the Prairie.

trailers and shorts, produced by sources ranging from the U.S. government to independents to Hollywood studios (Richards 5-6). Two hundred of these films were produced in the 1930s, and two of those are credited to Jed Buell— Harlem on the Prairie and The Bronze Buckaroo (1939).

These films emerged from a social and historical context that brought forth some of the most disturbing racist images (such as The Birth of a Nation [1915] and the Rastus series [1910-1911]), as well as elegant and controversial statements about African American life (such as those found in the films of Oscar Micheaux). Mainstream cinema in the early Depression years generally provided America with a comforting set of fantasies about the natural order of race relations in economically and politically troubled times. The actors who portrayed these images (Stepin Fetchit, Bill Robinson, Eddie Anderson, Butterfly McQueen, and Hattie McDaniels) delivered highly individualized performances and developed trademark idiosyncratic personas—cast as lazy, slow-witted, befuddled, and necrophobic, yet with timing and creativity that often stole scenes from their white counterparts (see Jerome; Kisch and Mapp; Cripps; Bogle). Mammies, porters, doormen, and sidekicks were among the only suitable roles for blacks in Hollywood—at least prior to the era of "race" movies made specifically for African American audiences. As the Depression continued, black filmmakers such as Spencer Williams (Dirty Gertie from Harlem [1946], Juke Joint [1947], Beale Street Mama [1947]) and George Randol and Ralph Cooper (Dark Manhattan [1937], The Duke Is Tops, with Lena Horne [1938]) produced "all-black-cast" films through independent studios for the "Chitlin' Circuit," while white studios were producing slick, glossy products for black audiences in typical Hollywood genre formats: Westerns, musicals, mysteries, gangster sagas, and crime stories.

But in the 1930s, the cinematic West was Anglo-Saxon territory. Although there had been significant African American cowboy figures in a few "race" movies, such as A Trooper of Troop K (1917), featuring George and Noble Johnson, and Bill Pickett's Crimson Skull (1921) and The Bull-Dogger (1923), the musical Westerns that animated the West in the "talkie" era had no black hero images. Cowboy crooners like Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Fred Scott, Bob Baker, and others were vying for the attention ofWesterns' fans, while blacks were relegated to playing dizzy comic sidekicks, loyal standbys, and stereotypes of the downtrodden. This exclusion from leading roles had a significant impact on singer Herb Jeffries. Samuel Sherman writes: "Herb Jeffries likes to tell a story about cowboys in 1937. . . . He was touring at the time with Earl 'Fatha' Hines, when he stepped out into an alley between shows. A little black child was playing cowboys with a group of white children. The little boy wanted to play his favorite cowboy, but his friends stopped him, saying 'You can't be Buck Jones. Buck Jones ain't a Negro'" (37). True enough. In the 1930s, the hundreds of small but flourishing all-black movie houses all featured an exclusively white frontier.

Jeffries lobbied independent producers to film a musical Western with a black star, until Jed Buell, aware of the market potential that fell below the radar of most Hollywood producers, agreed to take a chance on Jeffries's idea. Buell claimed that he chose a script at random from a pile on the floor, intending to adapt it for a black cast and audience, but casting would prove more difficult. Finding a competent black actor who could also sing and ride a horse eliminated all potential candidates but Jeffries, who was signed as the star of Harlem on the Prairie and was billed as "Black America's first singing cowboy in the movies" (Buscombe 69). Filmed on the N. B. Murray Dude Ranch, a blacks-only dude ranch in Victorville, California, Buell's production was played out in an allblack Western frontier. Jeffries went on to make two other musical Westerns with Richard Kahn of Merit Pictures between 1938 and 1939 (although Kahn received production credit for The Bronze Buckaroo, it was the product of a collaboration with Buell) before turning in his saddle and spurs to croon for Duke Ellington in 1939.

But black America's first singing cowboy also represented and promoted the values and class views of mainstream white society in ways identical to white musical Westerns—essentially creating yet another middle-class hero. Harlem on the Prairie (also released as Bad Man of Harlem) and The Bronze Buckaroo, Jeffries's two Buell-produced films, were structurally and thematically situated firmly in the traditions of musical Westerns; the stories, plot devices, and social and economic references were largely all derivative. Jeffries was the archetypal cowboy hero, complete with white hat, shining pearl-handled revolvers, a white horse, Stardusk, and a trusty sidekick, Dusty. The films conformed to the color caste conventions of the day, with Jeffries's hero, tall and light-skinned (Jeffries's skin was actually darkened with makeup because he filmed "too white"), pitted against shorter, stouter, and darker-skinned heavies and comic figures. Even the heroines—Jeffries's romantic interests— were slim, with light complexions. The "all-black-cast" Westerns contained all the expected elements of mainstream horse opera, as well as reflections of mainstream images of blacks. The Bronze Buckaroo, for example, finds Jeffries's sidekick (played by Lucius Brooks) little more than a wide-eyed, dim-witted stereotype that could have been found in any typical white-audience film.

Having essentially populated white films with African American actors, rather than producing work that spoke to the lives and concerns of African Americans, Buell's "all-black-cast" work received significant criticism as yet another artifact of exploitation. The two films were clearly shaped by the entertainment ideology of the day, and nothing exists to indicate that Buell was attempting to make a statement about race, equality, or African American entertainment. The fact remains, however, that with Harlem on the Prairie, Buell introduced a strong black hero to the musical Western, marking the first time that an African American received top billing in the genre. Both Harlem and The Bronze Buckaroo recognized black theatergoers as viable audiences, brought musical Western entertainment into black theaters, and added diversity to the roles available to African American actors at a time when other production houses were making pictures exclusively for mainstream white audiences.

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