The Detroit Film Theatre has done a great job of helping its visitors discover lesser known parts of movie history. That effort continued on February 3, 2017, when it began a series of older films that were marketed to black American audiences and featured all-black casts. This series was presented in conjunction with the Library of Congress.
The Pioneers of African-American Cinema series began with the 1926 silent film The Flying Ace, a mystery that featured many scenes in airplanes. Accompaniment was provided by a jazz combo that included the composers of the score—bassist Marion Hayden and pianist Alvin Waddles. Also in the group were violinist Leslie Adams and drummer Djallo Djakete Keita.
The musical accompaniment provided a lively and friendly setting for this entertaining movie. Like other good silent film scores, it was both atmospheric and scene-specific. After the movie finished, the group played a short finale that was met by a standing ovation by the DFT crowd.
The audience chuckled at excerpts of the song “Whatta Man” that were used to compliment the hero of the movie, played by J. Lawrence Criner. Criner and Flying Ace co-star Kathryn Boyd also performed on stage in the 1920s as part of the Lafayette Players.
The second movie of the evening was the 1946 romantic drama Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A.. This movie was based on the W. Somerset Maugham story that was also the basis for Sadie Thompson with Gloria Swanson and Rain with Joan Crawford. It featured a sultry lead performance by Francine Everett as a dancer who stirs things up in a Caribbean island resort.
Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. played at several theaters in Detroit in 1947, including the National (118 Monroe) and the Grant (Russell near Holbrook).
The newspaper advertising for Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. mentioned an “All Colored Cast.” I searched the Detroit Free Press archives on Newspapers.com to see what other movies were advertised like this.
This kind of advertising was most prominent from 1946 to 1952. The advertised movies often starred famous jazz musicians of the era, including Louis Jordan, Billy Eckstine, Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie, and the Nat King Cole Trio. Another favorite star was the comedian Mantan Moreland, whose movies can be found on Oldies.com.
Along with the National and Grant, advertised theaters included the Apollo (Clay at Richmond), the Castle (3412 Hastings), the Chic (West Warren at Beechwood), the Columbia (50 Monroe), the Echo (9000 Oakland), the Warfield (Hastings and Farnsworth), and the Willis (4190 Hastings).
Several of these theaters were in the Paradise Valley/Black Bottom area that was later affected by urban renewal, including the construction of the Chrysler Freeway (I-75 and I-375).
Another theater that featured all-black movies was the Booker T. at Holbrook and Oakland. When the Booker T. opened, Helen Bower of the Detroit Free Press wrote on September 29, 1949:
Detroit’s newest motion picture theater is the Booker T., which opened Wednesday at Holbrook and Oakland, with a seating capacity of 1, 500 all on one floor.
Built and operated by Korman Theaters, the Booker T. will bring key-run movies to the Negro population on the east side as the Duke does on the west side.
The theater will not open until 5:30 p.m. and will remain open until 6 a.m. Located near a big industrial district, the theater thus makes it possible for those who get off work at midnight to go to the movies.
Sam Greisman, of the Korman chain, tells me there are nine Negro neighborhood theaters in Detroit.
Most of the films in the Pioneers of African-American Cinema series at the DFT were shown on February 3-5, but you have the chance to see two more:
- February 18—The Girl from Chicago (1932), by the famous Oscar Micheaux
- April 22—The Bronze Buckaroo (1939)
Copyright © 2017 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.