Before the 1970’s, there are few films with all African-Americans. There were ‘race’ films that were produced especially for a black audience in the 20’s and 30’s. There is an informative article about it HERE on the Amoeba Blog.
But there was a time when if there was a black character, there was a possibility that the film would not even get shown in the South. It wasn’t until the success of CARMEN JONES and PORGY AND BESS that there was a market for films with primary all-black casts but with stories that appealed to the mainstream white cinema-going audience. Somewhere lost in time is this very bizarre film ANNA LUCASTA.
ANNA LUCASTA started out as a play by Philip Yordan. (Yordan had a varied career in films writing screen plays for JOHNNY GUITAR, THE MAN FROM LARAMIE, DETECTIVE STORY and DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS). The plot concerns a young girl who is thrown out of her home by her father. She then becomes a prostitute. Years later her family, trying to get the dowry of a rich man, takes her back in order for her to seduce him into marrying him. It’s a poor man’s Eugene O’Neil opus that probably played well on the stage in the forties. Every character is given a chance for a monologue and a chance to tear at the scenery, throw a punch, scream and yell and generally overplay their parts.
Eugene O’Neal Meets Amos and Andy
The play was filmed once before in the late 1940’s with Paulette Goddard playing the lead and the characters changed to a Polish-American family. I was surprised to learn that the play was written for an all-black cast, because my first thought was that it must have been written for an Italian family. The story has a universal appeal that could play to any ethnicity. In fact, it was remade in the 1970’s with a Greek cast.
However, as probably a concession to the studio, most of the cast are very light skinned, to the point where Anna’s rich suitor looks more Latino or Middle Eastern than black.
The too-good-to-be-true gentleman caller…
Overall, the production is first-rate, with some nice deep focus black and white cinematography and a constant and bizarre score by Elmer Bernstein. Bernstein’s score switches from frantic jazz to bizarre circus music to snippets of what seem like leftovers from ON THE WATERFRONT. Sometimes the music matches what is going on the screen, sometimes its just seems to playing for another movie.
There is a disturbing unspoken subtext that the father had been seduced by Anna.
The one and best reason to see this film is to see the one-of-a-kind Eartha Kitt. It is a shame that she didn’t have a bigger film career. She is a natural, modern actress. In fact, the film falls flat on its face whenever she is not in it. The other highlight is a good dramatic turn by Sammy Davis Jr. as Danny the no-good, good-time sailor. With a better director this film might have risen above the melodrama, but Arnold Laven (THE CREATURE THAT CHALLENGED THE EARTH) doesn’t seem to know if he is directing Tennessee Williams or an episode of Sanford and Son. The film shifts back and forth between the goofy family and Anna’s noir existence so haphazardly that I was dizzy; Some moments are bleak and dramatic, some moments felt like they were missing a laugh track.
But rising above the whole thing are Eartha and Sammy. One highlight is when they go out on the town on a bender and suddenly the film becomes a dipso dream with Eartha hallucinating a musical dance number with Sammy. It comes out of no where and is classic 50’s cinema.
I’m surprised that this film hasn’t gotten more attention, if only for historical significance.
Despite its many faults ANNA LUCASTA is definitely worth a streaming look.