‘Way Down South’ - A Film You Have to See To Believe That Made Film History Too
Photo Credit: S & A
Features

‘Way Down South’ - A Film You Have to See To Believe That Made Film History Too

‘Way Down South’

And even then you still won’t believe it…

So I’m sure you’ve had the experience of watching a film

so bizarre and preposterous that you say

to yourself: What were they thinking when they made this? Well that goes double for the film Way

Down South, a film that I can’t get enough of.

It’s a truly strange and laughingly idiotic film which

takes established stereotypes to a whole other realm, as well as making, from

what I have deduced, some black film history and film history in general.

But I’ll get to that in a minute…

The film was released in 1939, the same year as MGM’s

Gone with the Wind, by RKO

Pictures, which, from the early 1930’s until it went out of business in the

mid 1950’s, was one of the major Hollywood studios of the time, equal to other

major studios such was Warner Bros, MGM,

Paramount and Fox. The film was conceived as a showcase for the high-pitched child actor and signer Bobby Breen who RKO saw as their answer

to Fox’s hugely popular child star Shirley

Temple. Except while Temple’s Fox movies were high class, top-of-the-line “A” pictures, Breen was stuck in low rent, low budget “B” movies like Way Down South.

Set in the antebellum, pre-Civil War period, the premise is

a doozy. Set on a Louisiana plantation with, of course, happy, content slaves, Breen’s father

is the kind, benevolent Massa, as were all slave-owning plantation lords of the manor in these

types of films. Though Breen’s slaves must be the most happiest and content slaves

in movies, even singing and dancing their hearts out because they love working

the land and Massa treats them so kind. In other words, this is no 12 Years A Slave. It sure isn’t Django Unchained and it’s light years

away from Mandingo.

Things kick off (as you can see in the film clip below)

when the slaves have their jubilee celebration, dancing, singing and even

jitterbugging some 90 years before that type of dance even existed. However all

the music, dancing and wanton, unbridled sexuality going on gets Massa’s horses all riled up, and when he tries to calm them down, they knock him down and

trample him to death.

Cue the weeping, wailing and moaning slaves lamenting

their kind Massa’s death…

The now orphaned Breen discovers that his father has incurred

massive debts and, according to his crooked lawyer, to keep the plantation in

the family he may be forced to sell off his slaves.

This development provides the film with its most memorable

scene when the devoted slave Uncle Caton (played by Clarence Muse), who’s in the room when Breen is told the bad news, is stunned at this new development and turns to Breen to say: “You

mean you is going sell us Massa?

The shock of being sold and taken away from his beloved

Little Massa is simply too much for good and loyal until all eternity Uncle Caton, and all the other slaves to bear. However, it turns out that the lawyer is actually planning

to double cross Breen by getting control of his slaves, and selling them off so that he and his mistress can fly off to Paris.

Finding out his devious plans, it’s up to Breen, Uncle

Caton and another boy slave Gumbo (Matthew

“Stymie” Beard from The Little Rascals)

to come up with a crazy plan to stop the lawyer, which includes Muse, as you can

see above, dressing up in drag (long before Tyler Perry or even Flip

Wilson) as Breen’s grandmother for

most of the second half of the film, covering his face and hands so as not to give

himself away. Needless to say hijinks and hilarity ensue, all resulting in a happy

ending where the lawyer’s plan is thwarted and Breen’s slaves can stay on the plantation

to sing and dance until kingdom come

But if that isn’t enough, what makes this film even more

special was that the screenplay was written by Muse and Langston Hughes. Yes THAT Langston Hughes. The “My

soul has grown deep like the rivers” Langston Hughes. Poet, writer, political activist, one

of the earliest 20th Century proponents

of Black consciousness and cultural nationalism, and one of the great black authors

of the last century. What is he doing writing a script like Way Down South?

It is a fact that Hughes, back during the 1930’s, wanted to

try his hand at screenwriting, and though he might have written other screenplays

that went unproduced, Way Down South is the only one he wrote that was actually made. But how could he have written a movie so laden with stereotypes and as

farfetched as this one?

I have two theories. Either: 1) Hughes and Muse originally

wrote something that was more serious and realistic and the studio, horrified at

what they had written had some screenwriter hacks under studio contract totally rewrite

it into something more acceptable to the front office; or 2) that Muse and Hughes

actually wrote what was shot, but that it was intended to be a satire, a spoof,

of other similar antebellum happy slave movies being made at the time such as Paramount’s So Red The Rose (in which

Muse also appears in). And if one squints their eyes and looks at the film

sideways you can kind of see what they intended. However the overly broad and flatfooted

handling by the film’s director Bernard

Vorhaus completely failed to see the satire that the writers were aiming

for.

But to go back to the history making aspect of the film,

I’ve searched to make sure that I was correct in my assumption; and it seems

that I am correct in saying, with Muse’s

and Hughes’ involvement, the film is indeed the first Hollywood studio feature

film that was written by black screenwriters.

Of course there was Oscar

Michaeux, Spencer Williams and a few others who wrote “race” films targeted

to black filmgoers in the 1930’s and 40’s, but all those films were independently made and distributed totally outside

the Hollywood studio system.

And to split hairs, there were a series of black short musical

films produced by Paramount around the advent of sound in 1929 and 1930, written by Spencer Williams. But as I said, those were short films. So I stand

by my claim that Way Down South was the first feature length Hollywood studio movie

to be written by black screenwriters.

And on top of that, it has been written in articles

about the film that Clarence Muse also co-directed (uncredited of course) the

film with Vorhaus, which is not too hard to believe since it is known that Muse

did co-direct or direct sequences on other small independent race films that he

appeared in. So if this is true, then more film history is made, making Muse the

first black director of a Hollywood studio film some 30 years before Gordon Parks got the credit for doing

so on his first feature for Warner Bros, The

Learning Tree released in 1969.

Now I suppose you’re wondering where you can see this cinematic

wonder. Well it is available on DVD, but the Turner Classic Movies cable channel does

show the film from time to time every

year, but almost always very early in the morning. But it’s worth to get up at 5AM to see it I promise you.

Yes it is embarrassing, stereotyped and degrading. But as I’ve

said here before, about other films, it must be seen because how can you know where you’re going,

if you don’t know where you’ve been?

So check it out next time TCM schedules it; but in the meantime, here’s that clip of that scene I told you about earlier,,,

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

© 2022 Shadow & Act. All rights reserved.