The Emperor Jones was the film that established Paul Robeson (1898-1976) as a screen star. Capturing for posterity the portrayal that brought Robeson fame, Emperor was a turning point—the culmination of his early career and a groundbreaking showcase for the work of a black leading man.
Neither Robeson nor playwright Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) were strangers to the breaking of artistic barriers, although Robeson ultimately paid a great price for it. The play The Emperor Jones was a surreal tale of a man succumbing to temptation and greed. Brutus Jones (Robeson) is a Pullman porter from the backwoods, strong, handsome, ambitious, and a devout churchgoer, who gives himself over to a newfound world of fast money and loose women. He ends up on a chain gang for murder, but manages to escape while killing a warder. Jones makes his way to a Caribbean island where, with help from the corrupt Britisher Smithers (Dudley Digges), he becomes the ruler. His sins eventually catch up with him, and he dies, as Smithers remarks, “in the height of style.”
O’Neill conceived of The Emperor Jones as an experimental work for New York’s Provincetown Players. Originally titled “The Silver Bullet,” the play had its roots in stories O’Neill had heard about two Haitian leaders—President Sam, who was hacked up by his own subjects, and an ex-slave named Henri Christophe, who set himself up as ruler a century earlier. O’Neill was fascinated by the dramatic possibilities that he saw in drumming as a stage effect, and the chance to write about the hallucinogenic effect found in a tropical rain forest—which he had experienced during a 1909 Honduras expedition.
Some thought was given to having a white actor portray Brutus Jones in the play, which opened in November of 1920, but the man playing Smithers, Jasper Deeter, insisted that a black actor be used. O’Neill chose Charles S. Gilpin, who had gotten good notices in a small role on Broadway. Gilpin was inspired in the role, but he and the author began to clash, and by the time the show’s London run was scheduled, Robeson had the part.
Robeson had only begun acting at the insistence of his wife, Eslanda, who convinced him to take a part in Simon the Cyrenian in 1921, which led in 1922 to the lead in Taboo. His association with O’Neill began in 1924, in All God’s Chillun Got Wings, one of the most controversial plays of its era. The casting of Robeson as the husband of a white woman (Mary Blair) led to attacks, in the form of newspaper editorials and private threats against all concerned, and only the fact that the Provincetown Playhouse catered to subscribers and not the public prevented the City of New York from closing it down. The play enjoyed a respectable run, and established Robeson as an important new leading man. In February of 1925, he starred in a revival of The Emperor Jones at the 52nd Street Theater, and he made his London debut in the role in September of that year.
Producers John Krimsky and Gifford Cochran paid O’Neill $30,000 for the screen rights to The Emperor Jones in 1933, and brought in William C. DeMille, the brother of Cecil B. DeMille, to supervise production. Shooting took place at Paramount’s Astoria Studios, with exteriors filmed in Westchester, but the movie’s unusual look should be credited to art director Herman Rosse—his set designs forced cinematographer Ernest Haller (Gone with the Wind) to devise extremely innovative approaches to shooting. The resulting movie remains one of the most satisfying of O’Neill adaptations, and the mere fact of its existence despite the distribution problems faced by a movie with a black leading man and a script that explicitly attacked racial segregation, makes it a unique creation.
Robeson was a larger-than-life figure on screen, and as a black American, this made him new and threatening. He found his subsequent starring movie roles in England, and saw vast success as a singer and stage actor all over the world, remaining a major performer until the late ‘40s, when his pro-communist sympathies precipitated the end of his career. After years of fighting to revive his reputation, Robeson retired, to die in relative obscurity in 1976.
Three years later, producer/director Saul J. Turell sough partly to redress this injustice with the documentary Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist. Decades after the actor-singer had been crushed by the political system, his legacy was restored. Turell’s documentary delineated the triumphs of Robeson’s career as well as the inequities that blighted it, all told in riveting fashion by narrator Sidney Poitier, the first black American actor to break the barrier that Robeson had challenged. The documentary earned an Academy Award, an honor for which Robeson himself was never nominated.