Saturday, March 17, 2007

Film Review #89: The Proud Valley
Director: Pen Tennyson
Cast: Paul Robeson, Edwad Chapman, Simon Lack

There’s a clip in Saul Turell’s Oscar-winning 1979 documentary Tribute to an Artist in which stage and screen actor-singer Paul Robeson tells assembled reporters, “No more pretty pictures.” By 1940, when he played itinerant sailor and coal-miner David Goliath in British director Pen Tennyson’s The Proud Valley, Robeson had turned down a string of lucrative US film studio offers so he could take on roles and projects with more progressive aims, including support of the labor movement here and abroad.

Meant as an expose of harsh, unsafe working conditions in the coal mines of Wales, The Proud Valley casts Robeson as an American who has jumped a train in the countryside and landed in the village of Blaendy. As he walks up the main street, David overhears men singing. During a lull he joins in, his rich bass-baritone soaring into the second-story room where miner Dick Parry (Edward Chapman) conducts the Blaendy men’s choir in practice for the important Welsh national Eisteddfod competition. He’s not been happy with their progress. But soon David and the singers are answering one another in a sort of transplanted call and response that peaks to a shiver-inducing cascade of sound. You can see from Parry’s excited face that he must have this voice – whose owner he’s not yet laid eyes on – for that competition. This moment seems tailor-made for the internationalist Robeson, bringing together the possibilities of music as a universal language and art’s capacity to lift up the poor, overcome difference and rally the struggle against injustice.

In hindsight, the plot seems commonplace, except for the twists of realistic working class characters and a black hero at a time when mainstream US films featured stock characters of the Stepin Fetchit variety. Dick Parry takes David home for supper, rents him a room and gets him a job on his crew in the mine. Parry overcomes his wife’s resistance to taking in a stranger and his crew’s resistance to a black man. “Aren’t we all black in the coal pit?” he asks them. After an explosion in the mine injures Parry fatally, David carries him out. He works the slag pile for scrap coal after the mine closes rather than desert the family that took him in. He is among those who walk to London to persuade the owners to re-open Blaendy’s pit since England will have to fight Hitler. And in the climactic cave-in, when Parry’s decent and enterprising son Emlyn (Simon Lack) seems doomed, we all know what David Goliath will do. Robeson said later that this was the film he was most proud of.

Robeson sings often here. Besides performing Mendelssohn’s religious chorales with the real-life Blaendy choir, Robeson’s David sings the spiritual “Deep River” at Dick Parry’s funeral and the Welsh folk song, “All Through the Night” in the mine. But in tailoring this film to Robeson’s talents and political inclinations, the filmmakers also made use of a long popular tradition of choral singing and musical performance in working class communities. Other British films about the persistent hardships of workers’ lives have used the same frame. In Mark Herman’s Brassed Off (1996), the unemployment-ridden coal mining village of Grimley’s brass ensemble wins a national competition. Laid-off steel-workers changed careers in The Full Monty (1997). Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliot (2000) sets a boy’s reach for his dream of dancing in the historic coal miners’ strike of 1984.

The Proud Valley was a collaboration that grew out of Robeson’s long association with left-leaning circles in the British stage and film community. The activist Unity Theatre’s Herbert Marshall and his wife Alfredda Brilliant wrote the part for Robeson. Director Pen Tennyson had founded a film-workers union and made a boxing expose as his first feature. Tennyson made the film at Ealing – one of only three British studios that made movies throughout World War II – where dedication to “ordinary heroes” and criticism of authority had high value.

At the same time Robeson agreed to work with photographer Paul Strand and Leo Hurwitz on a docudrama about exploited workers and undermined civil liberties in the US. Besides providing songs, Robeson narrated Native Land (1942), his last film.

The Proud Valley & Native Land are part of Criterion’s new 4-disc set, Paul Robeson: Portraits of an Artist. This review appeared in the 3/7/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a weekly column reviewing films that never screened locally and older films of enduring worth.