Friday, August 3, 2012

#373: The Proud Valley

(Pen Tennyson, 1940)

Like The Emperor Jones, The Proud Valley is hopelessly melodramatic, a relic of an earlier time both in terms of plotting and of acting technique. A great many movies from the 30s and 40s transcend their era and manage to remain both relevant and accessible to a modern audience, but The Proud Valley was never able to let me forget that this was a movie - and a clunky, old-fashioned one at that.

Robeson is still magnetic in the film, but what I'm starting to realize with this set is that despite his star power and natural gifts he remained locked into a certain level of quality in what were essentially B movies. Although no one would argue that women had it easy in that era, the fundamental difference in terms of how far you could rise in the film industry was that women were a necessity in almost all storytelling, while black people could quite easily continue to be relegated to the also-ran category. Although as of The Proud Valley - which was made in the second phase of Robeson's film career, when he moved to Great Britain - he still hadn't really shed his theatrical style (something someone like Humphrey Bogart had figured out by then), I don't doubt that, provided with the right material and the right directors and actors surrounding him, Robeson could have become a major star on the level of Grant, Stewart, or Fonda. That's just how commanding he is on screen and how easy it is to immediately sympathize with his characters.

Unfortunately, however, even though it appears that Robeson was able to choose his own work by this point (at least to a certain degree), he was never able to make that jump into the great pictures of the time. It makes what by all accounts was a legendary and impressive career seem like a great disappointment in comparison to what could have been. For black Americans, sadly, it's not a story that belongs to any one person, but Robeson is perhaps film's best example of these missed opportunities.

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