Hats off to a Happy Cowboy
Salute to Herb Jeffries
©2004. Donna L Halper, Boston, Massachusetts
Herb Jeffries’ next film, from Merit Pictures, was
“Two Gun Man from Harlem,” which was originally entitled “New Trail
Ahead.” It featured many of the
same cast-members as his first one, including music by the Four Tones (who were
compared by several critics to a black version of the Sons of the Pioneers).
The movie was directed by another white director who had done his share
of B movies, Richard C. Kahn. In this 1938 film, Herb played good guy Bob Blake,
framed for a murder he didn’t commit. The
plot alternated between Harlem and Wyoming, but again, the evidence is that the
movie was shot at the Murray family’s dude ranch in California. As he had done
previously, Mantan Moreland provided some of the comedy; this time, he played a
character named ‘Mistletoe’, who loved to brag about his cooking skills.
There was also an appearance by Matthew ‘Stymie’ Beard of the “Our
Gang” series. Spencer Williams Jr,
who would appear in all of the Herb Jeffries movies, played “Butch Carter”
in this one, and Margaret Whitten
played Herb’s love interest, “Sally Thompson.”
Bob Blake’s theme song was “I’m a Happy Cowboy,”
and this song expressed the love that Herb Jeffries had for the western genre.
(“With my rope and my saddle and my horse and my gun, I’m a happy
cowboy...”) Herb had grown up
watching Tom Mix and others, and he seemed to genuinely enjoy portraying a
western hero. He said in many
interviews that for him, the cowboy represented honesty, hard work and fair
play. Cowboys didn’t discriminate
and they judged people by the way they acted, rather than by their ethnic
background. While this may be an
idealized view, the western hero certainly struck a chord with audiences,
perhaps because in a complicated world, the cowboy stood for what was good and
always triumphed over what was evil. And
in an era when the black characters were seldom heroes, Herb adopted the symbols
that were familiar to any movie audience: to
make sure people knew he was the good guy, he too wore a white hat.
As for critics who said that he was just imitating the white cowboys, he
would explain that while he admired Tom Mix, Gene Autry and other Hollywood
cowboy stars, he always tried to make his own character unique.
The other two western films that Herb starred in were
“The Bronze Buckaroo” and “Harlem Rides the Range.”
In both of these films, Herb’s sidekick and comic relief was Lucius
Brooks, who played the character of “Dusty”.
Both films came from Hollywood Productions and were directed by Richard
C. Kahn, who also wrote the screenplay for “The Bronze Buckaroo.”
Spencer Williams Jr. and Flournoy Miller wrote the screenplay for
“Harlem Rides the Range.” Williams, who is a story himself, played the villainous “Pete” in “The Bronze Buckaroo”
and the ranch-owner “Mr. Watson” who hires Bob Blake in “Harlem Rides the
Range.” He had worked in
vaudeville, and was a sound technician at Christy Studios during the late 20s,
where he helped to write several screenplays. After his roles in the Herb
Jeffries movies, Spencer Williams starred in and directed a number of low-budget
films during the 40s. He is also known for playing the role of Andy Brown when
“Amos ‘n’ Andy” had a short-lived run on early 50s television.
One interesting cameo in “The Bronze Buckaroo” is
that of Earl J. Morris, the drama editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, an
influential black newspaper. His
columns also appeared in the Chicago Defender.
Morris noted in one of his columns in late October 1938 that Spencer
Williams was now an executive at Hollywood Productions and very much involved in
the decision-making process. He
also praised the Murrays dude ranch as the ideal location for shooting westerns,
noting that the horses used in both “The Bronze Buckaroo” and “Harlem
Rides the Range” came from the Murrays ranch, which also had plenty of cattle
and barnyard animals that could make a western more realistic.
For the most part, the critics were kind to “The
Bronze Buckaroo,” noting that it was entertaining and fun, with good
cinematography, although Film Daily expressed the prevailing view of the
mainstream press that it would only be popular with ‘colored’ audiences.
“Harlem Rides the Range” was the last of the films that Herb made,
and Film Daily thought it was the best of the series, saying it was
‘exceptionally good’— high praise for a black film of that era.
By 1939, when the movie came out, Herb had made a number of appearances
dressed up in character and signed countless autographs.
But it was becoming obvious that being a black film star was not
especially lucrative, even if it was rewarding.
Herb had never entirely abandoned his musical career.
In mid December of 1938, he made history in Long Beach CA when he was
among the stars of the first all-black produced and directed radio show, which
was broadcast from the new Bill Robinson Theater in Los Angeles via station KFOX.
Herb was identified in the newspaper publicity for the radio show as
“America’s Number One Negro Singing Cowboy.”
In early January of 1939, The Chicago Defender
wrote that Herb Jeffries had signed a five year managerial contract with John
Levy, identified as a “prominent New York sportsman.” The article noted that Jeffries was “loved by children
throughout America as their gallant singing cowboy hero...” By the end of February, black newspapers were reporting that
Herb would soon begin an extensive tour, making personal appearances throughout
the country in support of his movies. But
at some point, things changed. While
making an appearance in Detroit, he met the great Duke Ellington, and the rest
is history. Herb would win
millions of fans during the years that he was Ellington’s vocalist; and if you
are a record collector, perhaps you have the original of his biggest hit,
“Flamingo”, which was released in late December of 1940 on the Victor label.
While the black westerns were ground-breaking, modern
critics have remarked about something troubling in them.
Although they were well-intentioned, they seemed to make use of the
common racial stereotypes of the era. For
example, Herb, a light skinned man, was the hero; and his love interest was
usually an actress with light skin. Meanwhile,
the darker skinned black actors were relegated to familiar roles as buffoons or
villains. And the darker skinned
characters, no matter how educated they were in real life, tended to speak
‘black English’, whereas Herb’s English was (and is) flawless.
In fairness, it has also been pointed out that there is a big difference
between seeing stereotypic black characters being humiliated by whites in a
Hollywood film and seeing black characters playing the comic roles in a film
where there are also black heroes, black good guys, and black villains.
And while the darker skinned characters were often comedians, that
didn’t mean they were depicted as stupid.
Bob Blake’s sidekick Dusty may have been perpetually hungry and often
tried to avoid doing any work, but he also helped our hero to defeat the villain
— in fact, in a shoot-out during the climactic scene of “The Bronze
Buckaroo”, it was Dusty who killed the bad guy.
Perhaps black audiences felt more comfortable with the stereotyped
characters because they were balanced off by more positive portrayals.
As I write this in early 2004, Herb Jeffries continues to record, perform and give interviews. He has kept up with the trends in communication: he had his own radio show, then acted in a number of TV shows, did voice-overs for cartoons, and these days, he has his own web-site (www.herbjeffries.com). He was the subject of tabloid gossip when in the late 50s, he married an exotic dancer named Tempest Storm, from whom he eventually got divorced in 1969. These days, there isn’t much gossip— He lives on the west coast with his wife Savannah, and makes a lot of personal appearances, talking about his long career.You may have seen him in a Turner Home Video documentary from 1994 called “The Black West,” narrated by Danny Glover, in which Herb discussed the importance of the black cowboys and why he wanted to make films that honored their legacy. He has not only made appearances throughout the USA but in Europe and Australia. “I’ve performed for kings, and for presidents,” he told me, “and I still get letters from fans all over the world. But the one thing I don’t understand is that these days, most of my fans are white. The young black audiences these days don’t seem very interested in movie history or the black films [of the Golden Age].” But Herb is glad he participated in those films, and so are the fans who have rediscovered them. African-American historian Robert J. Booker, a columnist for the Knoxville TN News agrees that these movies deserve to be remembered, despite their flaws. Booker saw some of these movies when he was a kid, and recalls them fondly. “[...Although] many of these films were done on the cheap...I didn't realize it. I was too busy rooting for the good guy and watching how he treated his horse. I have learned to watch "The Bronze Buckaroo" and other early black movies with that same attitude.”
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