"The Crowning Experience" - A Lost Black Film No One Knows About

by Sergio
April 24, 2012 2:16 AM
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One of my weird pleasures of late has been reading my recently bought used copy of the New York Times Film Reviews 1959-1968 Volume 5 which contains literally every single film review that appeared in the newspaper during that decade. They are reprinted in the book they way they actually appeared in the newspaper with the same typesetting, photos and captions.

It's heavy, huge book well over 700 pages and we're talking THOUSANDS of movie reviews. It's going to take me a while to get through it to say the least. And I have the New York Times Film Reviews 1969-1970 Volume 6 to get though next. 

Why do you ask? Because 1) it's fun and 2) literally EVERY SINGLE FILM that was made and released during the 1960's opened in N.Y., even if it played for just one week and never opened in other parts of the country which was common back then. 

But the other important reason is because I firmly believe that the 1960's to the mid 70's were the most important period of filmmaking ever. That was the period when filmmaking was, at least for me, at its most interesting and innovative. Boundaries were crossed. Taboos were broken. Movie studios and independent producers were willing to take risks. Cinema was more "adult". And it was during that period when the MPAA movie ratings system was introduced - in November 1968 to be exact (TRIVIA: The Split starring Jim Brown was the first film to be rated "R") Filmmaking changed forever - for better and for worse.

Reading though the book I've discovered countless movies that I've never heard of before and I thought I had heard of everything. But one film that really stood out when I read a review of it, but totally unknown to me, was the black dramatic musical film The Crowning Experience which opened N.Y. in late October 1960. However the film originally opened months earlier in Los Angeles in February that same year. But I could not find any information if it ever played anywhere else in the country, nor could I find a single video clip from the film. It's been lost to faded memory.

The film was actually based on a touring stage play based on the life of Dr Mary McLeod Bethune, the pioneering educator and civil rights activist who became an advsior to  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, though in the film she's called Emma Tremaine played by Murial Smith.

The film has an unusual backstory. It was produced, financed and self-distributed by a pacifist anti- Communist religious group (some called it a cult) known as Moral Re-Armament that was based in Mackinac Island, Michigan and which believed that people needed to be armed not with guns, but with a  "new moral outlook"

And the film was directed by three directors, Rickard (that's the way it's spelled) Tegstrom (who was a cinematographer, including one film Freedom, which was made in Nigeria in the late 50's and written by Nigerian screenwriers), Harold Schuster who had directed a few features before Experience including a Tarzan movie and some TV episodes and Marion Clayton Anderson who was an actress who appeared in a few Hollywood movies, but also acted in several plays produced by Moral Re-Armament.

The lead actress, Murial Smith, played the original Carmen Jones on Broadway in the early 40's (long before Dorothy Dandridge in the 1954 film version) and did some voiceover singing work for movies where her voice was dubbed in for actresses in musical numbers. Experience was one of only three movies she actually appeared in and her only major role of substance.

Other than that the film is a complete mystery  That is, except for this other still from the film which is captioned: "Communist agents plotting to destroy an American Negro university by subverting top students"

If that doesn't make you at least a tiny bit curious to see this film, then I don't know what will. But it definitely makes one wonder how many other black films were made that are now lost and forgotten, never seen again since their, no doubt, very limited theatrical release. I can think of some just from the 1970's alone. They're now faded prints in some warehouse or basement slowly rotting away. That is if there a print of them that still exists. Some of them could be real gems hoping to be one day discovered once again

And for the record, The N.Y. Times gave The Crowning Experience a favorable review.

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  • tolly devlin | March 8, 2014 10:46 AMReply

    I never saw this movie but I remember the souvenir book from it because my grandmother & aunt went to see it when it played in NY (they had souvenir books from most of the big road show films that played in that era like Ben-Hur & Lawrence Of Arabia). I have been trying to find some info about this film for years. I had always thought Claudia McTeer played the title character & wondered why it was not listed in her filmography. Thanks for bringing forth this info.

  • Unpleasant Film | February 25, 2014 10:44 AMReply

    It's a horrible movie in which they do not acknowledge Dr.Bethune! She was a chocolate woman not of caramel complexion. A Few things were misleading, I currently attend her university and they showed us this film. I'm watching it as I type and I am highly upset with it.

  • Bertha Hines | February 24, 2014 10:23 PMReply

    I saw this movie many times as a child. We had movie nights at my church in Watts, CA and this movie along with a movie titled "The Rafer Johnson Story" was a staple. I would love to own a copy of this movie....I still sing the "sweet potato pie" song to this day!

  • David Hume | February 22, 2014 4:27 PMReply

    Back in 1960 I was on the lighting crew that filmed The Crowning Experience and later was in Los Angles for the opening there.
    There could not be a more appropriate film for todays America - and what do you think I found in a cupboard in my living room at home: a perfect CD of the film!
    I will make enquiries about converting it to a DVD and sit back and enjoy it again!
    I will keep in touch with any developments: it would be great if we can get it on the web somehow.
    Good for you Sergio!
    David Hume

  • John Oliver | March 8, 2014 7:19 AM

    I too want to see this movie again. Looking forward to developments with your project!

  • Alexis | October 4, 2013 10:34 PMReply

    I too had the privilege to see this outstanding move as a child. My family along with their other friends (maybe of that circle and I say that because I knew no others that saw it or heard of it) went for a special showing at our local movie theater when it first came out in Washington, DC. And what Zelda said was true, it was something a little secret about and it was shown late at night but my mother said it was something that I need to go to (Mom also took me to the March on Washington lol. And I returned last month 50 years later). I remember feeling a bit special to have seen it even though I was only around 7 or 8. I can remember the movie it as if it were last week, yes and even some of the songs. We had the book and album and I as a child played that record until it was scratched. I didn't really understand at the time the connection between Emma Tramaine and Mary McCloud Bethune until the end. And I think I remember Mahatma Gandhi somewhere in it too maybe a picture or something. When it was over I knew that I wanted to see it again but never had the opportunity. Over the years it has come to mind to try and find it. Different words, name or phrases bring it back to mind such as rearmament and I’m back on the search again. I am so glad to have Googled and found others that have seen it. I am not alone.

  • Janice Marie Jones | July 1, 2013 1:23 AMReply

    Seregio: I had a first hand up close and personal experience with this movie. The directors came to Berkeley, California looking for young black children to play parts of students in the movie. I was chosen and a limo came to pick me up every morning at 5:30 a.m. and drove me to the set. It was filmed in "Russell City, California". i remember having black rubber cement being put on my feet, because we had to be barefooted while filming. We had to eat sweet potatoe pies everyday, as selling sweet potatoe piets along the railroad tracks helped to build this school. The movie premiered in San Francisco, CA. The cast party was given at the home of Bing Crosby's family home in Atherton. I have a book called the crowning Experience. If you would like more info about the movie please feel to contact me via email. It was a movie that meant a lot to Black people at the time it was filmed. Thank You for finding this movie.

  • Trishia Avery | April 3, 2013 3:42 PMReply

    I saw this film and have been looking for it ever since, I use to have a record with the songs and everything on it and would love to find one of those also, it was a wonderful film and the people in it were awesome.

  • David Hume | February 24, 2014 11:53 AM

    Hi Trishia
    I don't know about the record but I have found a tape of the film and will get it onto DVD for general distribution!
    Keep in touch for more news of this event

  • Harold | December 11, 2012 4:11 AMReply

    I saw this film about a dozen times as a kid. Wonderful music, beautifully shot. I still remember some of the songs, "The World Walked into My Heart Today", "We Never Give a Damn What Some Folks Say", "Sweet Potato Pie".

    It would truly be tragic if there are no surviving prints of this film.

  • David Hume | February 24, 2014 11:57 AM

    I've found one! At least, it is a tape in excellent condition and I plan to get it onto a DVD soon so keep looking at this message in hope!

  • Zelda | January 28, 2013 7:47 AM

    Growing up in the apartheid error, this movie was banned and was shown only once at our local cinema and it was a 10h00pm. Tickets had to be booked in secret. My gran took me - I was only 10 years old. The audience laughed and cried. After the movie, we all hushed out and quickly made our way home. Would love to see it again

  • Cheryl Scott Southard | July 23, 2012 4:43 PMReply

    My mother took me to see this movie and I never forgot it. That is why I looked it up today. I have asked many people if they remembered the film and no one does.

  • David Hume | February 24, 2014 11:59 AM

    I do! And I plan to get it on line some time soon I hope

  • Cynthia | April 24, 2012 9:36 PMReply

    Hmm...I'm curious as well. Good info Sergio.

  • MiddleMyatt | April 24, 2012 3:55 PMReply

    I would love to see this film -- thanks for making us aware of it! I've also been searching for a Black film called "Cool World" -- to no avail.

  • MIDDLEMYATT | April 24, 2012 10:54 PM

    Very helpful information, NEZIAH -- thanks again!

  • Neziah | April 24, 2012 9:25 PM

    No problem, just check back at that site every hour or so, you'll get in eventually. Make sure you keep pressing the register button every time you go back. If I had an invite, I'd give it to you. Good luck.

  • MIDDLEMYATT | April 24, 2012 4:32 PM

    Good looking out, Neziah -- I'm there! (I knew someone on this blog would come thru with info on that classic!)

  • Neziah | April 24, 2012 4:02 PM

    Try Cinemageddon, I got it from there. Shirley Clarke was a great filmmaker.

  • Akimbo | April 24, 2012 11:35 AMReply

    The book sounds really cool; got me wondering if there are editions that cover earlier time periods. The "communist agents" make the movie seem a little silly, but I guess every film generation has its go-to bogeyman.

  • sergio | April 24, 2012 11:45 AM

    Yes there are. There are editions to go back to 1914 the year the Times first started publishing film reviews in the paper. And they still come out with new editions every other year. You can find used copies for sale on Amazon or Ebay with prices ranging from under $10 to over $200. They're becoming real collector items

  • Neziah | April 24, 2012 2:34 AMReply

    I've discovered many lost and obscure black films through several different sources, and I've found a lot of great stuff that way. Many of these films quickly became some of my all-time favorites. Most don't realize that our people have made so many amazing films (especially if the conversation is open to black African cinema), so it makes me sad that many serious film buffs will never get the chance to see the majority of them.

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