Well, what do we have here?
I’ve said it before: I’m not a huge fan of horror films. I always thought most of the stuff put out by the Amicus and Hammer companies seemed like pulpy slasher stuff, with the exception of Dr. Who, of course. Again, not really my thing, but to each his own. What I didn’t know was that in the Hammer Company’s early days, they did some non-horror movies, one of them being 1936’s The Song of Freedom. Starring Paul Robeson, the film explores an African-English dockworker’s journey to find his heritage, all while singing his heart out.
The movie opens on the island of Casanga, off the west coast of Africa, in the year 1700. The villagers were ruled by a tyrant, Queen Zinga (Cornelia Smith), who we first see drinking something out of a jug and laughing maniacally. The tribesmen are dancing and beating on drums, and in the middle of it all is a man who is about to be executed for trying to overthrow the queen. He is her relative, and to up his humiliation, she hangs a necklace on him that identifies him as one of her family.
Fortunately, his wife intervenes, and the two of them get the heck out of Casanga, with the villagers in hot pursuit. The pair go to the African coast, where lines of people are boarding rowboats, all tied together. They’re slaves about to be shipped off to who knows where, but this couple doesn’t put two and two together. They ask to go too, and that’s the last we see of them. Time and long lines of slaves plod by like a funeral procession.
The Casanga necklace is preserved, though, and passed down from generation to generation. The titles show 1800. Then we see British abolitionists protesting the slave trade. Then it’s 1838 and the slaves are taking off their shackles. Finally, the film takes us to 1936 and the shipping ports of London, where the necklace, chipped and worn, is around the neck of Johnny Zinga (Paul Robeson), a dockworker who towers over everyone else, and laughs and jokes with his coworkers. Johnny has a sonorous baritone voice, and sings as naturally as he walks.
Johnny wants to go to Africa and find out where his people came from. His wife, Ruth (Elisabeth Welch) hesitates because the British have been very good to them. Johnny understands this, but he’s always felt out of place. Ruth worries that Johnny’s wanderlust will hurt their marriage, but he’s quick to reassure her with a song, and everyone in the neighborhood listens with rapt attention as Johnny’s voice drifts out over the night air.
Johnny isn’t destined to stay a dockworker for long. At a singalong in his local pub, Johnny wows a man named Gabriel Donzetti (Esme Percy), who promises him a job and leaves his card. Johnny and Ruth are intrigued and flattered at the offer, and go to see Donzetti at his apartment.
Donzetti turns out to be a vocal coach who tries to teach Johnny how to breathe and project like a singer. Johnny is annoyed, but he only agrees to be trained when Donzetti and Ruth both tell him working as a singer can mean travel. Sold. He and Ruth cross Great Britain, as well as Europe, and applause follows Johnny everywhere he goes. One of his projects is an operetta called The Black Emperor, which plays to sold-out crowds.
During the curtain call, Johnny is supposed to make a speech, but instead he puts words to a melody he’s always carried inside him but never understood. The song is about seeking freedom, and Johnny identifies himself as a wanderer. One of the audience members is so intrigued, he finds Johnny at the cast party. He introduces himself as Sir James Pyrie (Bernard Ansell) and asks Johnny about his heritage. Johnny doesn’t know anything about it except the necklace that he always wears. “It’s my mascot,” he tells people.
Sir Pyrie tells Johnny that his necklace is from the island of Casanga, and his melody is the king’s song. Ergo, Johnny is Casanga’s king. Sir Pyrie warns Johnny that Casanga is so controlled by witch doctors that they won’t allow the white man in. Just then, a telegram comes to Mr. Donzetti telling him Johnny has been offered a contract to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. To Mr. Donzetti’s chagrin, Johnny and Ruth inform him that opera can wait.
Johnny and Ruth sail for Casanga, with Johnny’s buddy, Monty (Robert Adams) in tow. In their white summer suits, they stick out like sore thumbs, and the local kids think Monty is hilarious. The islanders don’t take too kindly to the idea that Johnny is their king, even though he promises them knowledge. Johnny is disappointed because he hasn’t taken to his ancestral home the way he thought he would, but he resolves to help the islanders change once they accept him.
It’s a tall order. When people resist change as stubbornly as the Casanga folks, accepting whoever brings the change is not like putting on a new pair of shoes. Some of the villagers knowing how to speak English is a big plus, though.
When Paul Robeson made The Song of Freedom, he was fresh from filming Showboat with Irene Dunne. He and his wife went to Britain after the film wrapped because they believed they would be more accepted there. He wasn’t crazy-busy, but Robeson was going for quality over quantity–the few films Robeson made while in England went against the stereotypes of the era.
I watched The Song of Freedom not knowing what to expect, and what I discovered was one man’s struggle for acceptance set to music. The film’s pacing is a little uneven, and there were certain subplots, such as Johnny finding out about his necklace, that probably could have been developed sooner. It’s not a great movie, but it’s not boring either, and hearing Robeson sing is wonderful.
For more of the Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon, check in with Barry at Cinema Catharsis and Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews. Their event officially starts tomorrow, but I’m getting my entry in today because tomorrow…yes, TOMORROW is the Broadway Bound Blogathon! The blogging world is going to have a busy weekend. Actually, the whole week is going to be busy, because we have another “Shamedown” plus a “Page To Screen”. Last but not least, this is also happening:
Yes, Miss Showbiz is back! Those who would like to contribute should see Crystal for all the details. Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll join us! See you tomorrow. 🙂