So once again I went down to the basement and searched my secret vault for those underseen, forgotten or still relatively unknown black films or TV gems, to see what could I bring to light.
This time around it’s the 1959 United Artists film “Anna Lucasta” with Sammy Davis Jr, Eartha Kitt and Rex Ingram – a film I decided to discuss since it’s still an overlooked work, which is especially strange as it was pretty unique at the time it came out. Also because there are a number of things about the film, and the play that it’s based on, that aren’t widely known and will surprise even some of those who are familiar.
But first, of course, as always, some background about the film and its long 15-year journey from stage to screen.
The film is based on a stage play written in the early 1940’s by the prolific Hollywood screenwriter and producer Phillip Yordan, who had, in an over 5-decade-long career, from the early 40’s to the mid 90’s, worked in every genre imaginable – from westerns to dramas to sci-fi (You’ll see his name as writer and producer on the credits on several of those huge roadshow 70MM epics from the 50s and 60s, such as “El Cid,” “The Battle of the Bulge,” “The Fall of the Roman Empire” and “55 Days at Peking”).
The play was set among an immigrant Polish family in which the daughter, who’s been working as a prostitute and tired of the life, comes back home to her family, ruled by her tyrannical alcoholic father who despises her (the original play hints that Anna was sexually abused by her father as the reason why she ran away from home and became a hooker).
However, her money grubbing brothers concoct a scheme to take advantage of this situation. It turns out that a friend of the father has a son who will soon be arriving in town with a wad of cash, to start a new job, and the brothers plan to marry off their sister to the guy to get the money. Anna doesn’t love the guy but agrees to marry him, seeing this as her chance to start a new life.
But the one fly in the ointment is Anna’s long-time regular “client” and on-and-off boyfriend, Danny, a sailor, who wants Anna for himself.
That’s pretty much the set up; and if you think you know exactly where this film is heading, you really don’t because there are some unexpected twists and turns, and things don’t end up the way you think they will.
Most likely because of the film’s subject matter, writer Phillip Yordan couldn’t find anyone willing to produce his play on stage. That is, until it landed on the desk of the American Negro Theater (ANT), who looked at it as an opportunity to give their actors a shot at some challenging, unexpected roles in a serious dramatic play, and not just singing gospel songs as angels on a cloud in heaven, which was more common at the time).
So the ANT premiered the play in 1944 with a black cast and it was a smash hit; so big a hit that the production later moved to Broadway and ran for three years, and was followed by the forming of a touring company for the play (with a very young Sidney Poitier in the cast; something that likely isn’t widely known), and it toured for three years across the country. There was even a London production that ran for a year; and other theater companies, black and white, performed the play. At one time there was even a Yiddish production (another potential piece of trivia).
So of course with that kind of success, Hollywood had to come calling, and Columbia Pictures bought film rights to the play for mid-six figures (a staggering amount of at the time) and made a first film version of the stage work in 1949, a decade before the more popular 1959 film starring Sammy Davis Jr and Eartha Kitt (another likely mostly unknown fact).
Of course there was no way that a Hollywood studio back then (1949) was going to make a dramatic film with an all-black cast, and so produced it instead with popular white actors of the time; also a period when the Motion Picture Production Code (i.e. the censorship office) made sure that no mention of prostitution, sexual activity, “johns” or sexual abuse were included in the film.
And not having ever seen this 1949 production of “Anna Lucasta,” I can imagine that, in that version, Anna is probably just a sweet, wayward, virginal girl, whose occasional alcoholic drink is her only fault.
However, and thankfully, in 1958 a group of independent producers decided to make an “Anna Lucasta” film that was much more faithful to the original source material, with a routine studio director, Arnold Laven, directing an all back cast, as in the ANT stage production. Of course Kitt and Davis, who were sensations in entertainment at the time, starred in the production. The film even included a dance routine that’s not in the play, to show off Davis’ talents (as you can see in the second clip below).
Although, by this time, while films had gotten “looser” in terms of how they handled what was deemed sensational subject matter, there still was a strong production code in effect so that, even though Anna is not explicitly called a prostitute in the film, it does make it known in other ways what exactly she does for a living (as you will see in the first clip below).
This version of “Anna Lucasta” made its premiere in, surprisingly, Chicago, in November 1958, and didn’t open in N.Y. or L.A. until two months alter, in January 1959. The box office wasn’t
great and neither were the reviews, which especially criticized Kitt and Davis for what the writers felt weren’t strong performances. Although that’s all very debatable.
But the film is a genuine rarity – a Hollywood-backed, serious, dramatic black film which was almost unheard of then back then, and, sadly, still is a rare occurrence almost 60 years later.
Yet the film tends to be overlooked, if not mostly forgotten and unrecognized, and I can’t say exactly why. I suspect it’s most likely because of its “sensational” material, and that it’s populated with some very troubled, unhappy people tackling serious issues; and not all of them are particularly likable either. I’d assume that may turn off some people; I can already hear certain audiences dismissing it as a film that depicts black people in a “negative” light, whatever that means. Life doesn’t always come up roses; it’s downright ugly and tragic at times too. We need every kind of representation.
And though it’s not some undiscovered masterpiece, it is a good movie with some great performances. Admittedly the theatrical roots of the film does result in a certain “staginess” in the action, but it’s a solidly made and engaging work; Kitt and Davis are an especially captivating, intense pair who very effectively convey two lonely people desperately looking for love and a new chance at life and living, before it all slips away for good. They were unjustly criticized by film critics when the film was first released decades ago. I should note (it may not widely known) that Kitt and Davis had actually, a few years before the making of the film, been involved romantically, and were engaged to get married before Kitt called it off. She claimed later that Davis was never really in love with her, but more in love with the publicity their relationship was getting for him. As you watch “Anna Lucasta,” you wonder how much of their real life relationship affected their performances. I would argue that whatever friction existed between them off camera surely isn’t evident on the screen.
Thankfully, the film has never been unavailable to see. It’s been on DVD on MGM Home Video for years, and it’s been broadcast a few times on the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) channel (it will no doubt be shown again soon). At one time a year or so ago, you could stream it on Netflix, but it’s not available to stream currently. However, you can rent it on DVD if you have a Netflix DVD account, or a subscription to any online or offline movie rental service. You can stream it on Amazon as a $2.99 VOD rental. It is also on iTunes. So you have several options and no excuses if you haven’ seen the film.
So take a shot and see it. It’s certainly no classic for the ages, but it’s, for sure, well worth viewing since it’s, in so many ways, a significant film of its era.
Check out these two clips from the film: