Feb 17, 2010

The Devil's Daughter (1939)

This drama set on a banana plantation in Jamaica isn't great, but I watched it to get a dose of Nina Mae McKinney, and came away satisfied in that regard.

The first scene is dedicated to an extended song and dance number performed by the natives, which is amusing in itself, but utterly confusing as an opening. Then there is an equally drawn out cockfight where we at least get introduced to a couple of secondary characters.

With the musical interlude and fowl out of the way, the story begins to take shape. Sylvia, played by the placidly wooden Ida James, is a young woman just returning to Jamaica from New York. She traveled to the city to complete her education, per the wishes of her now-deceased father. In Sylvia’s absence, her half-sister Isabelle (McKinney) has been running the plantation. Though the plantation has been willed to Sylvia, Isabelle feels she has earned the right to the property, and she is not pleased when Sylvia offers to share. She is equally angered that the man she loves has proposed marriage to Sylvia.

And how does Isabelle plan to get what she wants? By performing an Obeah blood dance ritual, and scaring her sister back to New York. Though she has no idea how to conduct such a ceremony, she drugs Sylvia, and puts on a good show for the natives. Add to this a subplot about a servant who thinks his soul has been stored in a pig for safe-keeping, an awkwardly-staged fistfight, and an abruptly sunny ending, and you’ve got a long, but strangely fascinating hour.

James pretty much recites her dialogue, and she’s always looking off into space, as if she’s reading her lines off a cue card. Aside from that, there are a few nice elements; the locations are surprisingly lush for an independent “race” production and the tribal music has a feeling of authenticity.

McKinney is the real reason to watch this film. It’s too bad it takes fifteen minutes for her to appear, because she has enough charisma to compensate for the rest of the cast. Even with a terrible script and a few wooden moments herself, she holds herself like a star.

Seeing what McKinney could do with such poor material, I wondered what it would be like to see her in one of Bette Davis or Joan Crawford’s early career gal roles. With her smart, no-nonsense manner, she could have added real bite to those parts. As it is, I’m happy to have at least gotten a glimpse of the fabulous Nina Mae.

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