Feb 22, 2010

Monday Serenade: Paul Robeson


Though I like the second film version of Show Boat (1936), the rest of the movie tends to melt away every time I see Paul Robeson sing Ol' Man River. The combination of his rich, uplifting voice and James Whale's stylized direction could make this number a distinctive short on its own.

Robeson would sing Ol' Man River in concert several times over the course of his life-- often changing the lyrics to suit the surroundings or his own personal condition. In his different interpretations, he made that one song function as a downtrodden lament, an uplifting anthem and an angry protest anthem. It is a perfect testimonial to the brilliance of Paul Robeson.


  1. I agree, Robeson was an exceptional talent... and person! I wish the film industry was capable during his prime of finding an adequate showcase, but even with subpar material he made a lasting impression. I particularly enjoyed him in Borderline, an early avant garde film he shot in Switzerland in 1930. Emperor Jones was also quite a showcase even though the script and direction made his character buffoonish by the end.

  2. Yep--I've said it before--and I'll probably continue to say it until I drive everyone around me crazy, but I believe that Robeson is as close to Superman as we're ever going to get! I didn't particularly enjoy Borderline; overall, I just found it interesting to look at, but man Robeson was amazing in that one. The camera never loved him more. The ending of The Emperor Jones makes me think of those movies where the independent career gal decides to dump her career for marriage by the closing scene--you just want to forget the last ten minutes or so.