Buried Treasure At ITC 

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During most of the 20th century, movie theaters, like other public places, were segregated. (Photo courtesy of Institute of Texan Cultures)

Long-lost black films in rare public screenings

Vintage-record collectors are familiar with the term "race records," a euphemism for pre-World War II 78 rpm singles targeted at black audiences. Many of these discs, which at the time were not expected to appeal to whites, have come to be recognized as monumentally influential on the music - made by both blacks and whites - that followed.

But "race films" have yet to garner the same kind of widespread attention, perhaps because there has been less opportunity for accidental discovery. Where records can be played by anyone with a turntable and are kept in homes for later collectors to find, race films were typically shown only in segregated theaters. And they, like so many cinematic artifacts, were not typically well-preserved; if you didn't happen to see them during the Jim Crow era, chances of stumbling across them now are slim.

In 1983, the film archivists at Southern Methodist University lucked out. SMU's G. William Jones was contacted by Roy Larsen, who managed several warehouses in Tyler and had discovered a cache of old film cans that occupied 1,000 cubic feet of storage space. These cans held fragile nitrate prints of some of the estimated 400 features made for the black audience, along with shorts and newsreels from the '30s and '40s.

Eventually, money was found to digitize the collection and restore it for video release. Now SMU offers a three-DVD sampling of their holdings. Some of these titles have been available over the years in low-priced VHS editions from private companies, but they typically were issued as the kind of bargain-bin items not known for exceptional image and sound quality. The archivists at SMU have done everything they can to ensure that their prints are worth watching.

The Tyler, Texas
Black Film Collection

A Black History Month Film Series
Presented by
The Institute of Texan Cultures


Showings at 6:30 each night at the
UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures
801 South Bowie Street
San Antonio, Texas

The Girl in Room 20 (1946)
Thur, Feb 5 & Fri, Feb 20

Murder in Harlem (1935)
Fri, Feb 6 & Sat, Feb 21

Midnight Shadow (1939)
Sat, Feb 7 & Thu, Feb 19

Souls of Sin (1949)
Thu, Feb 12 & Fri, Feb 27

Where's My Man Tonight? (1943)
Fri, Feb 13 & Sat, Feb 28

Miracle In Harlem (1948)
Sat, Feb 14 & Thu, Feb 26

A Century of Black Cinema
Daily in February
Tue-Sat, 10:30am & 2pm

"Fast Forward, Rewind …
Focus on Films
Sat, Feb 21, 1pm

All events are free with regular museum admission; more info is available at 458-2253 and www.texancultures.utsa.edu.
But restoring films is expensive work, and academic institutions don't have the economies of scale available to MGM or Warner Brothers. In an effort to recoup their costs and finance future restoration and education, SMU is charging $250 for the boxed set - a price that makes sense for libraries and community groups, perhaps, but is out of reach for the typical movie buff.

Enter UTSA's Institute for Texan Cultures, which during February will be holding public screenings and other events to celebrate the Tyler collection. Beginning tonight (Thursday, February 5) and running every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of the month, the ITC will host a 6:30pm screening of movies from the series. In total, six different features will receive two screenings each, and every program will include period shorts and newsreels.

The folks at ITC couldn't be more enthusiastic about the program. Mary Grace Ketner, who with Earley B. Teal will be introducing the films, learned of their existence through G. William Jones' book Black Cinema Treasures Lost And Found: "That's actually how I found out about them: The book was in the ITC library, and after our librarian showed it to me, I couldn't put it down," Ketner said. "I work in the office right next to the library, and she and I kept running back and forth that first day as we made more and more discoveries from the book and their web site `www.smu.edu/blackfilms, where the DVD set is available for purchase`. You'd have thought we were the ones who found these lost cinema treasures!"

The plots of the films range from land swindles and murder schemes to WWII espionage and show business dreams. The casts and crews are hardly household names, but the movies are rife with historical connections: Midnight Shadow features Ruby Dandridge, mother of the legendary Dorothy; The Girl in Room 20 was directed by Spencer Williams, who played Andy Brown for the television incarnation of "Amos & Andy" and directed nine films in the '40s; Murder in Harlem director Oscar Micheaux was prolific enough to eventually earn a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame - today, not one, but two small film festivals are dedicated to him. July Jones, star of The Girl in Room 20, was a San Antonian whose real name was Robert Orr; in fact, some of that film's interiors were shot here.

For many contemporary viewers, the most intriguing thing about race films is the opportunity to see black Americans portrayed, long before the Civil Rights movement, as ordinary people living lives independent of white society. These characters are soldiers, entrepreneurs, and singers in an era when Hollywood films tended to show blacks as maids and train porters, if they showed them at all. The fact that many of these movies were also written or directed by blacks makes their perspective even more valuable.

Movie buffs have yet to take to Oscar Micheaux and his contemporaries with the enthusiasm that music lovers celebrate Robert Johnson; but thanks to such institutions as SMU and ITC, such a rediscovery may still be in the cards. •

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The Girl in Room 20 was directed by Spencer Williams, who played Andy Brown for the television incarnation of "Amos & Andy." Murder in Harlem director Oscar Micheaux eventually earned a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

More by John DeFore



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