Notice of Online Archive

  • This page is no longer being updated and remains online for informational and historical purposes only. The information is accurate as of the last page update.

    For questions about page contents, contact the Communications Division.

Lafayette will inaugurate a series of major conferences on the history and culture of civil rights and civil liberties with a three-day conference entitled “Paul Robeson: His History and Development as an Intellectual” on campus April 7-9. (See conference schedule.)

A festival of Robeson’s films will include Body and Soul (1924), Borderline (1930), The Emperor Jones (1933), Sanders of the River (1935), Show Boat (1936), Song of Freedom (1936), King Solomon’s Mines (1936), Big Fella (1937), Jericho aka Dark Sands (1937), Proud Valley (1939), and Tales of Manhattan (1942). Some films will be shown in their entirety; in other cases excerpts will be screened. Films will be shown each day of the conference beginning at noon in Limburg Theater, Farinon College Center. (See film schedule below.)

“Paul Robeson’s films are important for a number of reasons. They bring to life the personality of Robeson, adding another dimension to the scholarly aspect of him,” says John T. McCartney. “That puts life on the bones.

“The films also give us an idea of the time, some idea of how blacks were viewed, an idea of where blacks have gone and where they need to go. They provide that perspective,” adds McCartney, professor and head of government and law at Lafayette and director of the College’s April conference on Robeson’s history and development as an intellectual.

Samuel A. Hay, visiting professor of government and law at Lafayette and a key organizer of the conference, covered Robeson’s acting career extensively in his book African American Theatre: A Historical and Critical Analysis.

“Paul Robeson wasn’t a trained actor when he started his career,” Hay says. “He learned technique later. By the second time he played Othello on stage, we see he knew technique. We see that same growth in his films. Robeson was a considerably better actor than modern, contemporary athletes-turned-actors.”

It wasn’t until Robeson studied the Stanislavsky Method in the late ’30s under the tutelage of the Unity Theatre, a left-wing people’s theater in London, that he received any significant training, Hay explains. He stresses the importance of Robeson’s scholarship to his acting.

“Every time he prepared for a role, he did the greatest preparation,” Hay says. “He read the history of the author, subject, people, and culture. He did this for any role.”

Helping make the festival possible is Paul Schlueter, who is providing Robeson films from his personal archives and locating the few he does not own. His extensive film library is just one part of Schlueter’s Robeson collection, which includes more than 100 recordings, many books, autographed theater programs and photographs, and an extensive clipping file, the result of Schlueter’s respect for Robeson, whom he calls a “giant of a figure.”

Schlueter taught college English for many years, specializing in modern British and American literature. He has written or edited 10 books, including four in conjunction with wife June Schlueter, Lafayette’s provost and Charles A. Dana Professor of English, and contributed to many others, including major reference works. His journalistic credits include publishing several thousand book, theater, and classical music reviews, as well as travel articles and profiles.

Though he never directly focused on Robeson during his academic and literary career, Schlueter has written about and lectured on Robeson through “personal dedication to what the man stood for.”

“I was very impressed with Robeson as far back as high school [in the late 40s],” Schlueter says. “I grew up in the congested south side of Chicago, so I was aware of the injustice and inequality in the world.”

Schlueter’s introduction to Robeson came as a result of hearing “Ol’ Man River.” Schlueter has many versions of the song, whose lyrics Robeson continually changed to reflect his increasingly aggressive activism. Finding that he shared many of Robeson’s views, Schlueter began reading extensively about him.

“The films give tangible expression to Robeson’s acting and singing gifts,” despite the stereotypical roles Robeson was forced to play in many of them,” Schlueter says.

McCartney adds that Robeson did what he could to bring dignity to any character he played.

“He didn’t play completely to stereotypes. He tried to play each role in a way that elevated blacks. And he made a point not to take roles that were excessively denigrating,” McCartney says. “Robeson laid the groundwork for actors such as Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, and the late Ossie Davis and gave them an example by which to measure their own achievements.”

Hay sees a firm connection between Robeson’s acting career and his intellectual development and political consciousness.

“Robeson’s intellectual development was tied to his artistic development,” Hay says. “The arts are a vital key to understanding who he was.”

Thursday, April 7

Body and Soul (1925), noon
Robeson, in his first film appearance, plays both a corrupt clergyman who preys on a young woman and the clergyman’s honest brother. Censors required director Oscar Micheaux to eliminate scenes of the clergyman gambling and drinking and to have him redeemed (and thus worthy of the heroine’s love) at the silent film’s end.

Borderline (1930), 1:45 p.m.
This silent film stars Robeson, his wife Eslanda, American poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), and director Kenneth MacPherson’s wife, writer Winifred Bryher, in an inter-racial romantic triangle with unusually complex psychological explorations of racism and sexuality.

The Emperor Jones (1933), 3:05 p.m.
This adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s play, directed by Dudley Murphy and also starring Rex Ingram, portrays the rise and fall of a Pullman porter who escapes from a chain-gang to become king of a Caribbean island not unlike Haiti and his eventual downfall.

Friday, April 8

Show Boat (1936), excerpt, noon
Robeson plays Joe in this version of the Oscar Hammerstein/Jerome Kern musical, based on Edna Ferber’s novel, directed by James Whale, and starring Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Helen Morgan, and Hattie McDaniel, about life on a Mississippi River show boat during Reconstruction; Joe is a lazy hand on the boat who sings “Ol’ Man River.”

Sanders of the River (1935), 12:15 p.m.
Robeson plays an African chief who is recruited by a colonial British officer to help put down a rebellion in director Zoltan Korda’s treatment of Edgar Wallace’s story.

Song of Freedom (1936), 1:55 p.m.
As John Zinga, British dockworker whose singing talents are discovered by an impresario, Robeson becomes a concert artist who after discovering his royal ancestral roots in Africa returns to save his tribe from corrupt leaders; directed by J. Elder Wills.

King Solomon’s Mines (1937), 3:15-4:35 p.m.
An adventure directed by Robert Stevenson in which the fabled mines are sought by Robeson (as a native guide), Cedric Hardwick, John Loder, and others in a safari that encounters sand-storms, volcanic eruptions, and attacks by hostile Zulus.

Saturday, April 9

Big Fella (1938), noon
Loosely based on Claude McKay’s 1929 novel Banjo, this film (directed by J. Elder Wills) has Robeson as Joe, a Marseilles dockworker who is asked by police to find a young white boy missing from an ocean liner. When Joe finds the boy, who has intentionally escaped from his rich but distant family, he takes him to cafe-singer Miranda (Elisabeth Welch), the two becoming surrogate parents who help the boy mature.

Jericho aka Dark Sands (1936), 1:15 p.m.
Robeson portrays Jericho Jackson, a corporal in a black unit of the U.S. Army in World War I who accidentally kills a sergeant in a fight, is court-martialed and sentenced to die but escapes to join a north African desert tribe before being captured. Directed by Thornton Freeland and also starring Henry Wilcoxon and Wallace Ford.

Proud Valley (1939), 2:35 p.m.
In a Welsh coal-mining town beset by a mine shutdown, Robeson, a sailor, is an inspiring newcomer who helps the miners at the cost of his own life; directed by Pen Tennyson and starring Rachel Thomas and Edward Chapman.

Tales of Manhattan (1942), excerpt, 3:55-4:15 p.m.
Five-segment anthology film about the gradually diminishing status of a men’s tailcoat and its effects on its successive owners; Julien Duvivier’s film includes many major stars (Charles Boyer, Rita Hayworth, Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton, Ginger Rogers, Edward G. Robinson, George Sanders, Cesar Romero, and, in some prints, W. C. Fields), but only the last segment features Robeson, as a poor southern sharecropper who helps his townsfolk (including Ethel Waters and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) distribute money found in the coat, which ends up on a scarecrow.

Categorized in: News and Features