12 a.m. – “Two Knights of Vaudeville”/”Scar of Shame” – Comedy/Melodrama
(1915/1929, Kino Lorber) Two selections from Kino Lorber’s remarkable, five-disc “Pioneers of African-American Cinema,” which showcases the largely unsung work of black artists in front of and behind the camera between 1915 and 1946. In the former short, fun-loving trio (Florence McCain and, most likely, Jimmy Marshall and Bert Murphy, all regular players on Chicago’s vaudeville scene) are booted out of an upscale music hall for their enthusiastic response to the performances (an impressive contortionist and clown/juggler), and decide to put on their own vaudeville show for their community, which proves both disastrous and inspired. And in the feature-length “Scar of Shame” – produced by the black-owned Colored Players of Philadelphia and directed by a white man, Frank Perugini – a light-skinned, middle-class composer (Harry Henderson) rescues a poorer, darker-skinned girl (Lucia Lynn Moses, a dancer at the Cotton Club) from her abusive father by marrying her, but refuses to admit the union to his class-conscious family. Though both films truck in stereotypes – the signage for the amateur vaudeville is riddled with cartoonish spelling errors – and simplistic storytelling, they also provide their cast and creators with greater depth of character and storytelling, as well as opportunities to comment on the black experience, than anything produced by Hollywood at the same time. The trio in “Vaudeville” may be loud and crass, but they’re not the sort of easily duped buffoon played by actors like Stepin Fetchit: they’re savvy enough to see through the highbrow façade of the entertainment at the (white) theater, while their audience is also smart enough to know when they’ve been hoodwinked, and show their displeasure at the half-baked production with gusto. And if the colorism at the heart of “Scar of Shame” is never directly addressed – the conflict is couched in melodrama and focused on issues of education and opportunity, terms more palatable to a broader audience – no studio product from 1929 would even acknowledge the idea of a socio-economic structure within the black community, much less devote an entire picture to it.
Lost and forgotten gems and a few diamonds in the rough make up the bulk of this impressive set, produced by DJ Spooky and Bret Wood, who present an array of features, shorts and documentaries in the set. The majority of the set showcases the work of two black directors: Oscar Micheaux, who overcame technical and budget challenges to tackl social issues like religious hypocrisy (“Body and Soul,” with the legendary Paul Robeson) and racial violence (the Klan drama “The Symbol of the Unconquered”) and managed to wedge social commentary into lighter fare like the cynical musical short “Darktown Revue.” Actor Spencer Williams (“Amos and Andy”) also gets his due with the inclusion of the surreal melodrama “Blood of Jesus” and “Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A.,” which, despite its salacious title, is a straight-faced adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s “Miss Sadie Thompson.” There’s also “The Bronze Buckaroo,” an offbeat Western vehicle for jazz singer Herb Jeffries, footage of black life in the rural South shot by Zora Neale Hurston and an ultra-rare glimpse of Orson Welles’ black-cast “Voodoo Macbeth” in a WPA film from 1937. Eye-opening and exceptional in every way, “Pioneers of African-American Cinema” is required viewing for movie, culture and history devotees alike.
2 a.m. – “Dr. Mabuse The Gambler” – Drama/Thriller
(1922, Kino Lorber) Elaborate pulp-styled thrills from director Fritz Lang, who injects a note of social commentary into the barrage of séances, murder, magic and kidnappings. The master criminal Mabuse (the beetle-browed Rudolf Klein-Rogge from Lang’s “Metropolis”) commands the gambling and counterfeit rackets in the Berlin underworld through a combination of hypnosis and mastery of disguise, which allows him to move through all strata of society. Among those that fall prey to Mabuse’s mind control are a hapless scion of industry, a jaded countess and her husband (Alfred Abel, also in “Metropolis”); opposing Mabuse are a state prosecutor, von Wenk, who brings the fight to the doctor’s headquarters. At four hours in length – the complete film is actually two full-length pictures – “Mabuse” has its sluggish moments, but these are balanced by a wealth of memorably dark characters – including Mabuse’s cocaine-addicted butler, a Follies Bergere dancer in love with the doctor, and a gang of blind men employed to flood Berlin with counterfeit money – and Lang’s talent for visual spectacle, most notably when Mabuse hypnotizes a rapt audience into believing that a caravan of camels is emerging from an image on a stage. Lang also uses the mind control and manipulation elements to make his point about how sections of society can be duped by strong individuals who understand their weaknesses; it’s certainly a prescient description of the fate that befell members of the Weimar Republic when this film was released, and rings more than a few bells for the current political atmosphere. Lang would direct two more Mabuse films, including “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse” (1933), while the character would appear in a handful of German crime/spy films in the mid-1960s. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is a 2k remaster of a 35mm restoration and includes three short featurettes ported over from a 2013 Blu-ray from Eureka, including interviews with composer Aljoscha Zimmerman, who wrote the score for the restoration, a discussion of the source novel by Norbert Jacques, and an analysis of the film featuring archival interview with Lang himself.