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Warner Home Video presents
The Green Pastures (1936)

"Oh, yes, the poor little Earth. Bless my soul, I almost forgot about that. Must be three or four hundred years since I've been down there. I wasn't any too pleased with that job."
- De Lawd (Rex Ingram)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: January 09, 2006

Stars: Rex Ingram, Oscar Polk, Eddie Anderson, Frank Wilson, George Reed
Other Stars: Abraham Gleaves, Myrtle Anderson, Al Stokes, Edna M. Harris, James Fuller, The Hall Johnson Choir
Director: Marc Connelly, William Keighley

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (racial stereotyping, brief violence)
Run Time: 01h:32m:44s
Release Date: January 10, 2006
UPC: 012569676756
Genre: musical


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B+ A-BC+ A-

DVD Review

Blacks were seldom to be seen in A pictures of the 1930s except in brief servant roles or as comic relief. Certainly there were race pictures, but they were uniformly regarded as not fit entertainment for white folks. That concept was up-ended completely by The Green Pastures, adapted from Marc Connelly's Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Each and every role is played by a black actor (unusual for a time when it was commonplace for Anglo actors to play minorities in makeup), and although there are some racial issues involved in the presentation, it's quite engaging when taken in context.

The principal conceit of the story is the notion that people are happy to depict God and Heaven as in their own image, in terms that seem relevant to them. This notion is taken to the extreme for blacks living on a plantation, with Mr. Deshee (George Reed) giving a Sunday School lecture to his young charges. As they examine the stories in the Old Testament, they put the tales into a familiar context, which happens to be all black. De Lawd (Rex Ingram) is seen in a Heaven that is full of fish fries, straw hats, and picnics. The Creation story of Genesis is rendered as coming about from De Lawd needing a place to dispose of his home brew. Literally making man in his own image, De Lawd creates Adam, in the form of a beardless Rex Ingram through the magic of split screen. He also repents of his creation, and instructs Noah (Eddie Anderson) to collect various animals (especially aardvarks) onto his ark. The story of Moses (Frank Wilson) is rendered with a literal burning bush, while the Pharaoh (Ernest Whitman) and his court seem like something out of a nightclub or a lodge meeting.

Although Warner Home Video feels the need to put a disclaimer about attitudes of the time before the feature, there's not much overt racism present in the main feature (but the supplemental materials are another thing altogether). There is quite a lot of dialect humor, though. The point that may be most offensive to today's more sensitive audiences is the attitude that the black population is superstitious and simple-minded. On the other hand, Connelly certainly was onto something with the main notion, for it's indisputable that people of any race like to think of their God being the same as they are.

There are several highlights here, most notably the spiritual score performed by the Hall Johnson Choir. The songs are used as background and as commentary, rather than pushing the story forward, so it's not really a musical but more a play with music. Several cast members are particulary memorable, foremost being Rex Ingram, who has three roles. He makes an unforgettable Lawd, with both a heavenly gentleness and an Old Testament wrath just below the surface. Combined with a wonderful voice, his portrayal is first class. Eddie Anderson, best well known as Rochester on Jack Benny's radio program, is terrific as Noah, showing that he could indeed step outside of his stereotyped role if given half a chance. Edna M. Harris is entertaining as a bad girl, given to playing her ukulele instead of going to church. The one weak lead is Oscar Polk as the angel Gabriel; he seems to be asked to be play the part as a lunkhead and you can see him clearly chafing at the role.

There are certainly Old Testament parallels to the black experience in America, most notably the comparison to the slavery of the Hebrews. There are any number of levels to the presentation, with plenty of humor, music and a heartfelt expression of religious faith. If one keeps something of an open mind and recollects the situation of the period,there's plenty to appreciate and enjoy here, not least of all the ability to see some terrific actors who got all too few opportunities on the big screen.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: The black-and-white full-frame picture is decent, if not great. There is very heavy grain and a fair amount of wear present, with speckles and scratches. However, the greyscale is quite good and black levels and shadow detail look fine, and the film is reasonably clear. on the whole it's quite satisfactory.

Image Transfer Grade: B

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishyes


Audio Transfer Review: The 1.0 mono English audio is full of hiss and noise, which isn't surprising for a mid-1930s film. The spirituals sound okay, though there's not much range or presence. Ingram's velvety baritone sounds great, though.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by LeVar Burton, Herb Boyd, Ed Guerrerro
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 00h:39m:46s

Extra Extras:
  1. Two Vitaphone musical short subjects
Extras Review: A full-length commentary from actor/director LeVar Burton and authors Herb Boyd and Ed Guerrerro gives a fine appreciation of the main feature, pointing out plenty of background details and covering the racial background in depth. They also have an interesting discussion about how they themselves have changed their attitudes toward the film over the years. They do make the valuable observation that although the cast is all black, the crew is all white and the presentation is still controlled by the whites in charge of the studio, leading to some of the odder racial characterizations visible here. The trailer (3m:47s) mostly consists of Dick Powell talking about the success of the long-running Broadway play that was the source, and we get a few words from Connelly too. There's no footage from the film, though we do see that the infamous aardvarks were in fact mechanical.

Two additional all-black musical shorts are included to round out the presentation. The first of these, Rufus Jones for President (1933) is a real hoot. It features Ethel Waters and an eight-year-old Sammy Davis Jr. in a comical fantasy about little Rufus Jones fantasizing how he would run things if he were president. Waters is at the height of her powers, and Davis is utterly charming and talented as he sings and tap dances. The shorter (10m:54s) An All-Colored Vaudeville Show collects a number of song-and-dance acts, such as Adelaide Hall, the Nicholas Brothers, Eunice Wilson and the Five Racketeers performing a song. It's enjoyable as a relic of a bygone day, and some of the dance routines are fairly spectacular. Both, however, have plenty of racist material, including repeated references to stealing chickens and eatin' watermelon.

Extras Grade: A-

 

Final Comments

A slightly patronizing but good-hearted look at the Old Testament through the eyes of plantation blacks. The transfer isn't spectacular, but it's watchable. Some nifty extras make this a tempting purchase.

 


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