Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Look at Poverty Row part 7, The Blood of Jesus

Part 1       Part 4
Part 2       Part 5
Part 3       Part 6

The Blood of Jesus (1941, Sack Amusement Enterprises)

Here we follow the travels of a woman accidentally shot to death by her husband. She's done well and is on her way to heaven, if she can reject the devil first.

The coolest thing about The Blood of Jesus is the physical presence of the divine. It's a quality in a lot of Baptist religious films from the era - like 1936's The Green Pastures, in which Rex Ingram plays a god as hands-on as those of the Ancient Greek pantheon.

Physical contact with Godliness.

Miracles occur with regularity, humans co-mingling with God and Angels in a way you just don't see in film often. Perhaps it's a side effect of film being such an immediate medium. Filmmakers as a rule shy away from literal depictions of religious symbols unless they're couched in fantasy like the audacious Immortals or in history like The Passion of the Christ. But Spencer Williams's willingness to present unambiguous divinity alongside everyday life gives his film a classical power. Combine that with the classic Gospel soundtrack washing over nearly every minute of the film, and you have something irreplaceable and lovely - the kind of film they just plain don't make anymore, and hardly ever did.

The b/w is essential - it feels at times like an etching.

Director/writer/star Spencer Williams is probably best known as Andy in the 1951-1953 TV show Amos 'n' Andy. That's the last version of that long-running program, heavily controversial and protested by the NAACP since day one. He served under Pershing in World War 1, died in 1969, and in between managed to direct and write a handful of race films.

The Heavenly Choir, suppliers of the lovely Gospel score.

The Blood of Jesus, made for 5 grand, is generally considered his best. It's the first of a religious trilogy Spencer Williams directed - I wish I could remember who pointed out that Williams and Orson Welles were the only directors of the era with total creative control. It was a big success, followed by the now-lost Brother Martin: Servant of Jesus and the underwhelming Go Down, Death!. It's seldom seen nowadays, but among those who are aware of it, The Blood of Jesus is still held in high regard - it turns up on Time Magazine's surprisingly good list of The 25 Most Important Movies on Race, for one, and it's part of the National Film Registry.

Simple and direct religious choices abound in the film - unlike the neurotic Christian films to come, you can be a good person.

The entire rest of the cast is a mystery. They all appeared only in this one film. It's a shame; Cathryn Caviness is a lovely presence. Producer Alfred Sack specialized in Black Cinema - he produced 15 touchstones of the genre (including Edgar Ulmer's touching Moon Over Harlem) between 1930 and 1947. There's not much else I can tell you about the man.

Mysterious crew, mysterious cast. Complex and controversial figurehead. It's all fascinating but it's all secondary to the eerie, sparse, majestic power of The Blood of Jesus.

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