Mill Creek Musings: Paradise in Harlem (1939)

Lem Anderson (Frank H. Wilson) is a Harlem club performer whose real dream is to be a dramatic actor. Tired of hoofing his way through comedic skits and musical numbers every night, he’s waiting for the big break that will allow him to explore his acting talents on a different type of stage — the Shakespearean stage.

But when Lem is witness to a mob hit, his dreams are shattered. Scared of what the mob will do to him and mourning the death of his wife, who was ill, Lem decides to leave town. Relying on alcohol to ease his mental anguish, Lem moves from town to town.

But Lem can’t stay away forever when an opportunity comes a-knocking that puts his serious acting dream on the path to fruition: he may be able to join a stage production, playing the role of Othello. But to do so, he must return to Harlem and the mob dangers that await him there.

(Image via hytam2 on Flickr)
(Image via hytam2 on Flickr)

Paradise in Harlem mixes musical comedy with crime drama. The film was directed by Joseph Seiden. The script was written by Vincent Valentini from a story by Frank L. Wilson.

This film appears in Mill Creek’s 50 Classic Musicals boxed set. The print is slightly fuzzy with some (relatively infrequent) additional grain and distortion. The sound quality is ever-so-slightly muffled. But overall, not a bad print for the public domain.

Paradise in Harlem has a lot of great music to offer. Just as it mixes genres of film, blending musical comedy and crime drama, the film also mixes genres of music, including blues, jazz and gospel. The musical numbers are very simply staged rather than lavish, but they’re a lot of fun to watch and listen to. The duets are my favorites of the bunch.

(Image via Movie Poster Shop)
(Image via Movie Poster Shop)

As for the story, it’s above average for a film of this type. I expected more of a “musical showcase” picture, with an underdeveloped plot and no real criminal intrigue, as I’ve become accustomed to seeing as an avid viewer of low-budget, public domain musicals.

The film’s story isn’t packed with action or complexity, but it is much better-developed than anticipated and leads up to a high-tension turning point.

The film’s entire premise also creates an implicit societal critique, with Lem struggling to be taken seriously as a performer when the only gigs he can get are comedic shows in which he must perform in the heavily made-up “minstrel” caricature.

The crime story and Lem’s journey to the Shakespearean stage together make for a very interesting watch. The story is told realistically, with good performances and a steady (not break-neck, not turtle-y) pace. I enjoyed Paradise in Harlem quite a bit. The score: 4/5

 

Advertisements