By Sergio | Shadow and Act January 6, 2014 at 2:02PM
So once again I went down to the basement and searched my secret vault for those rare, forgotten or unknown black films or TV gems such as Tamango, Toxi, Coonskin, Roll Out or the Grace Bumbry Carmen opera film, to see what can I bring out into the light.
This time around it’s the 1959 United Artists film Anna Lucasta with Sammy Davis Jr, Eartha Kitt and Rex Ingram - a film I decided to discuss since it’s been mainly overlooked (especially strange as it was pretty unique at the time it came out, which I’ll get into later). Also because I found out four things about the film and the play that it’s based on, that I never knew before, which surprised me (I’ll get to those too in a minute).
And, oh yes, because it’s definitely a worthwhile film that I think needs to be appreciated again (Like you don't think I’m going to waste my time discussing a bad movie do you?).
But first, of course, as always, some background about the film and its 15 years long journey from stage to screen.
The film is based on a stage play written in the early 1940’s by the prolific Hollywood screenwriter and producer Phillip Yordan, who had, in an over 50 years long career, from the early 40’s to the mid 90’s, worked in every genre imaginable - from westerns to dramas to sci-fi (You’ll see his name as writer and producer on the credits on several of those huge roadshow 70 MM epics from the 50s and 60s, such as El Cid, The Battle of the Bulge, The Fall of the Roman Empire and 55 Days at Peking).
The play was set among an immigrant Polish family in which the daughter, who’s been working as a prostitute and tired of the life, comes back home to her family, ruled by her tyrannical alcoholic father who despises her (The original play hints that Anna was sexually abused by her father which was the reason she ran away from home and became a hooker).
However, her money grubbing brothers concoct a scheme to take advantage of this situation. Turns out that a friend of the father has a son who is arriving in town soon, to start a new job with a wad of cash, and the brothers plan to marry off their sister to the guy to get the money. Anna doesn’t love the guy, who knows about her past but doesn’t care, but agrees to marry him, seeing this as her chance to start a new life.
But the one fly in the ointment is Anna’s old regular “client” and on-and-off boyfriend, Danny, a sailor, who wants Anna for himself. However if you think you now where this film is going, you don’t because there are some unexpected twists and turns, and things don’t end up the way you think the will.
Most likely because of the subject matter, Yordan couldn’t find anyone willing to produce his play on stage. That is, until it landed on the desk of the American Negro Theater, who looked at it as an opportunity to give their actors a shot at some challenging, unexpected roles in a serious dramatic play, and not singing gospel songs as angels on a cloud in heaven, which was more common at the time.
So the ANT premiered the play in 1944 and it was a smash hit. So big, in fact, that the production later moved to Broadway and ran for three years. Later a touring company of the play was formed (with a very young Sidney Poitier in the cast – Fact I didn’t know, No. 1) and it toured for three years across the country. There was even a London production which ran for a year, and other theater companies, black and white, performed the play. At one time there was even a Yiddish production (Fact I didn’t know, No. 2).
So of course with that kind of success, Hollywood had to come calling, and Columbia Pictures bought the film rights to the play for mid-six figures (a staggering amount of at the time) and made a first film version of the film in 1949 (Fact I didn’t know, No 3).
Of course there was NO WAY that a Hollywood studio back then was going to make a dramatic film with an all-black cast, and made it instead with popular white actors of the time. And since were talking 1949, the Motion Picture Production Code (i.e. the censorship office) was going to make sure that no mention of prostitution, sexual activity, “johns” or sexual abuse were mentioned in the film.
And not having ever seen this version of the film, I can imagine that Anna is just a sweet, wayward and virginal, good girl who likes a drink now and then as her only fault.
However in 1958 some independent producers made a more faithful film version of the original play, with a routine studio director, Arnold Laven, directing, with an all back cast, as in the original stage production, with Kitt and Davis, who were, at the time, two of the biggest sensations in entertainment, starring. The film even included a dance routine not in the play, to show off Davis’ talents (as you can see in the second clip below).
Though, by this time, films had gotten “looser" in dealing with sensational subject matter, there still was a strong production code in effect, so that, while Anna is still not called a prostitute in the film, it does makes it obvious in other ways what exactly she was (As you will see in the first clip below).
The film made its premiere in, surprisingly, Chicago, Nov. 1958 and didn’t open in N.Y. or L.A. until two months alter, in January 1959. The box office wasn’t great and neither were the reviews, which especially criticized Kitt and Davis for giving weak performances.
Yet the film is a genuine rarity, a Hollywood-backed, serious, dramatic black film which was almost unheard of then back then, and even so today.
Yet the film tends to be overlooked, if not forgotten completely and I can’t say exactly why. Most likely, I suspect, because of the “sensational” material and that it’s populated with some very troubled, unhappy people with serious issues they’re struggling with, and not all of them are particularly likable either. I’m sure that turns off some people and I can already hear people saying that it’s a “negative” film, asking why couldn’t we have something more “positive”? Well that’s because life is not all positivity, sunshine and roses. It’s ugly and sad at times too.
And though it’s not a great film or some undiscovered masterpiece, it is a good film with some great performances. Admittedly the theatrical roots of the film, does result in a certain “staginess” in the action, but it’s a solidly made and involving film, with some excellent performances, specially from Kitt and Davis, who were unjustly criticized.
Both of them are very good and they give their performances a grasping, intense quality that very effectively conveys two searching and lonely people, desperately looking for love and a last chance at life, before it slips away for good.
In fact their performances are especially surprising considering (Fact I found out, No.4) that Kitt and Davis had actually, a few years before, been involved in a romantic relationship, and that they were engaged to get married before Kitt called it off. She claimed later that Davis was never really in love with her, but more in love with the publicity their relationship was getting for him.
But whatever friction there must have been off camera between them, it's surely not evident on the screen.
And the movie has never been unavailable to see either. It’s been readily available on DVD on MGM Home Video and even on now on VOD on Amazon Video, and it’s been broadcast a few times on the Turner Classic Movies channel, and will no doubt be shown again soon.
So take a shot and watch it. It’s certainly no classic for the ages, but it’s, for sure, well worth watching since it's, in so many ways, a significant film of its era.
Check out these two clips from the film: