This is a film that modern audiences may approach with mixed feelings. The 1936 film adaptation of Marc Connelly's musical stage play, "The Green Pastures," was a reasonable success in its day, but for a lot of folks, its day may have come and gone.
Those viewers of a politically correct bent may be offended by the movie's all-black cast portraying various degrees of racial stereotypes; viewers of a nonreligious disposition may be turned off by the movie's Biblical characters and stories; and viewers of serious contemporary drama may be displeased by the movie's rather old-fashioned storytelling. On the other hand, "The Green Pastures" offers a charming moral tale, any number of memorable characterizations, some touching moments, and a good deal of enjoyably high-spirited music. The trade-offs can be worth the experience.
The premise of the film is that a country preacher (George Reed) is telling the stories of the Bible to his youthful Sunday School class and explaining the stories and the Biblical characters in terms the children can most readily understand. Playwright Connelly based his Broadway stage production on the tales of author Roark Bradford, as collected in his book "Ol' Man Adam and His Chillun." These brief sketches provide the substance for a series of episodes involving God's creation of the world, His subsequent displeasure with Adam and Eve, the Cain and Abel conflict, the wayward people of Noah's time, Moses and the Exodus, and the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem.
The movie stars Rex Ingram, who pretty much carries the show, along with the exquisite singing of spirituals by the Hall Johnson Choir. Ingram would gain further fame a few years later as the genie in "The Thief of Bagdad," and in "The Green Pastures" he plays three roles: De Lawd, Adam, and a humble man of the people, Hezdrel. Ingram is nothing short of amazing, conveying the dignity of the Lord as well as the naïveté of the two humans. If some of the other acting seems stilted, even awkward compared to today's styles, Ingram is never short of perfection no matter what the role. He's the strength that holds the movie and its episodic structure together.
You might not have known it without seeing the play or the movie, but Heaven is a picnic ground, a place of fish fries and ten-cent cigars (for the adults); and God created the firmament to provide more substance for his custard pies. However, finding he created too much firmament, He needed a place to drain it off and so He created the Earth. "Dat's always de trouble wid miracles," says De Lawd. "When you pass one, you always gotta r'ar back an' pass another." Then, because he didn't want His good work with the Earth to go to waste, He created Man to take advantage of it. And since He created Man in His own image, it's appropriate that Ingram play Adam and Hezdrel as well.
Oscar Polk portrays Gabriel, De Lawd's right-hand man, and it's here the movie runs into trouble. Polk played essentially the same character in many of his movie parts; you may remember him as Pork in "Gone With the Wind." It isn't so much the movie's Southern Louisiana bayou dialects that have come under fire over the years as it is portrayals like Polk's; he's the image of the clichéd, servile, slow-moving, slow-talking black man. It is a sympathetic role, but it's one that may make even the most tolerant viewer occasionally cringe.
A stronger and more rewarding character is Eddie Anderson's Noah, a characterization of strength and humility. Anderson was best known as comic Jack Benny's longtime sidekick, "Rochester." As the preacher Noah, Anderson and his raspy voice are filled with conviction, even when he's trying to argue with De Lawd about bringing two cases of liquor rather than one aboard the Ark. In referring to himself, Noah modestly declares, "It ain't much, but it's all I got."
After viewing how Mankind turns out, God becomes disappointed and almost asks Gabriel to pack it all in with a sound of his horn, until a He strikes upon a final plan, one involving His love for Mankind and the necessity for both mercy and suffering. It's a fine and fitting conclusion to a parable of passion and kindness.
"The Green Pastures" holds up today as an entertaining and largely inoffensive film, one whose innocent demeanor and sincere sentiments overcome its obvious stereotypes. It's also the kind of movie that a listener can easily play without the picture, just to hear that admirable choir at work.
Interestingly, while Connelly wanted the play opened up through location shooting in the deep South, Warner Bros. insisted upon filming it almost entirely inside their soundstages and on the WB lot, just as they did with most of their movies. It makes the picture feel a bit more cramped and stage bound than if it had been shot on location, but it also makes the stories seem more intimate and, ultimately, more personally involving. Marc Connelly is the first credited director, but he no doubt got expert advice from his co-director, William Keighley, who would go on to do "The Man Who Came to Dinner," "The Fighting 69th," and co-direct "The Adventures of Robin Hood."
It would be another quarter of a century before people like Sidney Poitier would open up starring roles for African-American actors in Hollywood films. These days one hopes that audiences no longer think of a Will Smith, a Don Cheadle, or a Halle Berry as black or white or any color at all, but simply as actors in a movie. "The Green Pastures," for all its obvious limitations and apparent contradictions, helped to pave the way for a more open-minded view of black film actors as actors, plain and simple.
The most obvious drawback to the film's otherwise good image quality is the amount of grain inherent to the original print. Although Warner Bros. probably did their best to clear up any minor age marks, there isn't much that modern technology can do to eliminate intrinsic grain. Nor would we want it cleaned up in any case; the grain is a part of the film's legacy and a part of its appeal. There's nothing wrong with a film actually showing its age, so long as that age is not due to deterioration. In "The Green Pastures" you'll find very few examples of actual damage to the film stock, with hardly a line, a scratch, or a blemish in sight except in the last few minutes of the movie. Black-and-white contrasts are more than adequate and object delineation is fine.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural processing undoubtedly improves upon the film's original soundtrack, but there is only so much that can be done with seventy-year-old audio. You'll find a fair degree of background noise, most noticeable during quieter passages or during times when the volume is turned too high. Moreover, the frequency and dynamic ranges are limited. Other than that, the midrange sparkles with clarity, and the voices and choir come through with excellent definition.
There's a decent package of extras accompanying the movie. The first item is an audio commentary with actor LeVar Burton and black cultural scholars Herb Boyd and Ed Guerrero. Naturally, they spend most of their time discussing the film's depiction of black culture and the film's effect on later black moviemaking. They rightly refer to the film as belonging to the "Plantation Idyll," pastoral scenes of rural, Southern simplicity, which would also include things like "Gone With the Wind" and "Jezebel." The second and third bonus items are vintage musical short subjects: "Rufus Jones for President," a twenty-one minute, 1933 short with Ethel Waters and Sammy Davis; and "An All-Colored Vaudeville Show," a ten-minute, 1935 short with Adelaide Hall and the Nicholas Brothers. Then, there's a theatrical trailer that Warner Bros. appears to have pitched expressly to white audiences of the period, with a lengthy introduction by WB star Dick Powell. The extras wrap up with twenty-six scene selections, but no chapter insert; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
It may seem like "The Green Pastures" is pretty tame stuff today, but in its time many movie theaters in the South refused to show it because of its black cast, and people of all colors criticized its portrayal of African Americans as simple (but never simpleminded) folk. Yet modern audiences recognize a sweet fable in these stories of the black Southern culture of a bygone era. There can be no questioning the uplifting moral fiber of the tales, the infectious spirit of its music, or the genuine affection brought to their parts by the actors involved.
Along with "The Green Pastures" Warner Bros. studios have simultaneously released two other early movies with all-black casts. "Hallelujah," a King Vidor film from 1929, was the very first all-black feature from a major studio; and "Cabin in the Sky," a Vincente Minnelli film from 1943, was Hollywood's first all-black feature and all-black musical after "The Green Pastures." Critical reaction to the three films has been mixed over the years, but audience response has always been positive. It's good to have these films on DVD.