Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A tall, black, bewinged Gabriel steps up at the heavenly fish-fry picnic and announces to the gathered angels, "Gangway for de Lawd God Jehovah!" At first glance The Green Pastures appears to be everything that's uncomfortable about ethnic stereotyping. It's a chronicle of the Old Testament told in a twisted kind of "plantation folk" idiom that we know of mainly through films that don't get shown much any more - George Pal Puppetoons with the little blackface boy puppet being tempted by the jive troublemaker scarecrow, or Al Jolson singing "Goin' to Heaven on a Mule" in a racist paradise with little black cherubs eating watermelon.
The Green Pastures actually comes from a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Marc Connelly and all the references to stereotyped behavior are put into the service of bible stories. Connelly's drama has its jokes, but they're mostly at the expense of our religious preconceptions of a heaven based on an all-white cosmology. When Hollywood conceived of heaven, as in Dalton Trumbo's questionable A Guy Named Joe, it was not only an all-white establishment, but also restricted to U.S. citizens and their allies. The Green Pastures' all-black cosmology sees heaven through the (admittedly condescending) view of Southern gospel folklore, on the level of a Sunday school lecture. Taken with all of those qualifiers, on its own terms the play is sincere and touching -- and probably more reverent than the majority of so-called 'spiritually enlightened' productions.
Bible teacher Mr. Deshee (George Reed) explains the Old Testament to a chapel-ful of cute black kids: De Lawd (Rex Ingram) needed more 'firmament' for his custard recipe, and created the Earth, moon and sun almost as an afterthought. He creates Adam in his own image (Ingram again) and gives him Eve (Myrtle Anderson) but the next time he visits he finds that Cain (Al Stokes) has committed murder. Several generations later, the offspring of Adam's later son Seth have turned the Earth into a land of sin, as De Lawd discovers when he visits and finds Zeba (Edna Mae Harris) laughing at the idea of attending church. Except for gamblers praying for lucky sevens, the only praying is being done by Noah (Eddie Anderson), a worthy preacher. After a dispute about how many kegs of spirits to carry aboard the Ark, De Lawd destroys everything so that Noah and his family have a clean slate on which to re-start the human race. De Lawd also intercedes to help Moses (Frank H. Wilson) lead his people out of Egypt, and inspires the soldier Hezdrel (Ingram once more) to conquer the Holy Land. Finally, realizing that humans only learn through suffering, De Lawd offers up his own son to show his flock the way to the Kingdom of God.
Savant can't pretend to understand an African-American response to The Green Pastures but I think it would likely be split between discontent and a certain kind of admiration, mostly for the talent involved. The faith pictured here is as innocent as a Sunday school sermon and takes us back to our first basic understandings of Bible stories.
It's all amusing, and purposely so. "De Lawd" is like a country preacher, delighted to see his angels happy in their fish fry and patiently disapproving when he's mocked by a loose-living girl who sings on the sabbath (Edna Mae Harris). He sets up Moses with a whole heap 'o fancy miracles to bamboozle that dat evil Pharoah, whose Egyptian palace is essentially a crooked Shriner's hall. De Lawd sits at a roll-top desk in an ordinary office up in Heaven, and relies on Gabriel (who keeps that apocalyptic trumpet ready to blow) to be a combo secretary and go-between to the rest of the heavenly organization. The angels are decked in stage wings (white wings, if you're curious) and an old-fashioned plantation gate marks the spot where heaven ends. The Earth can be seen below.
In the most famous scene, and a classic of comedy, Eddie Anderson's Noah doesn't hesitate or ask questions when De Lawd instructs him to build an Ark. But when the subject comes up on how much fermented spirits to load on the Ark, the two of them get into a deadpan exchange. Noah suggests two barrels, and De Lawd answers, just one. Noah says two barrels can be put on either side of the Ark, to help balance the ship. De Lawd says one barrel in the middle will do fine. Noah thinks of another objection, but De Lawd is firm: "One barrel, Noah."
For those of us straining to remember our Bible lessons The Green Pastures quickly shapes up into a rich experience. Again, Savant isn't African-American and doesn't want to be presumptuous, but I like to think I'm sensitive to racist content, and to some extent this show transcends that concern. The actors are playing God's creatures both noble and sinful. If one is predisposed to resent as demeaning blacks portrayed in religious drama, that might be an issue as well. For what it is , The Green Pastures comes off as a picture with dignity and integrity. 1
In 1957, George Schaefer directed a teleplay version of The Green Pastures for NBC, which won awards. William Warfield starred; Butterfly McQueen was in the cast.
Warners' DVD of The Green Pastures is a good transfer of an excellent B&W element. Images only look grainy in opticals and stock shots of stormy skies. The fluffy white clouds that part to reveal the heavenly fish-fry look great. The gospel choral music ( by the Hall Johnson Choir) that forms the soundtrack is handsomely orchestrated and well-recorded.
The extras are quite remarkable. Two musical short subjects show the best of Warners' Vitaphone black short subjects. A relatively slim Ethel Waters sings several numbers in Rufus Jones for President, a comedy stacked with offensive jokes. Little Sammy Davis Jr., aged seven, sings and dances up a storm ... he looks as if the head of the adult Sammy Davis were grafted onto a kid's body. An All-Colored Vaudeville Show shows top black talent doing their stuff, including singer Adelaide Hall (very classy) and the Nicholas Brothers as children. Again, the context is decidedly racist - one lively band plays in front of a scenery backdrop representing a giant watermelon. Warners' use of a text disclaimer on this disc was definitely a good idea.
Black Cultural Scholars Herb Boyd and Ed Guerrero provide a lively to-and-fro in their commentary. They have a sense of humor about some of the eye-opening dated material on screen yet maintain a reasoned critical attitude that's easier to digest than the somber disapproval registered by Dr. Todd Boyd on other discs in this month's African-American oriented disc releases. Actor LeVar Burton adds his own thoughts about the film, which are less specific in nature but sincere and honest. He mentions attending fish frys in Kansas as a kid and having a good reaction to the heavenly one that opens The Green Pastures. He's also excited about seeing all of the old talent - he remembers his own pride and excitement when black performers began to get roles on television shows in the 1960s, like Nichele Nichols on Star Trek.
The show also comes with a trailer. The Green Pastures is not the easiest show to release in today's Politically Correct climate; if it were not for Turner and TCM it probably would have been kept on a back shelf, unseen since the days when broadcast stations showed movies through the nights and weekends. A lot of politically oriented films become obscure that way -- The Atomic City, Five, Red Planet Mars -- Savant's always on the lookout for them.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Green Pastures rates:
Supplements: Commentary, two Vitaphone musical short subjects, trailer (see above)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 19, 2006
1. Savant has learned a few lessons about old movies and African Americans. I showed a black co-worker Mildred Pierce thinking she might identify with the hard-working character played by Joan Crawford. I'd forgotten that the movie had Butterfly McQueen's ineffectual and irrelevant ditz flitting about, a dullard unworthy of serious consideration. I'm told that black Americans ignore old movies or are very selective about what they watch -- one can't be expected to identify with too many old pictures, when one's entire race is either unrepresented or grossly demeaned. I'd like to know if The Green Pastures would be accepted, even a part of it, by a general African-American audience now.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson