Tag Archives: Paul Robeson

Pullman Porters on Screen, Part 1 (Pre-1960)

The legacy of Pullman porters and the labor union eventually formed by them  – the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters – is an important one in American and labor history. Correspondingly, Pullman porters have left their imprint on American film in many different ways through the years, though the volume and type of those depictions might be wanting.

Pullman Porter

Pullman porter Harry Lucas (Margaret Bourke-White/Time and Life)

When George Pullman ventured in to the business of sleeping class accommodation on the railroads after the Civil War, he made a decision to hire only black porters – attendants for all aspects of the sleeping car experience – owing to several factors: a large, newly available labor pool willing to work; the ability to pay lower wages to black men; and to recreate – for the white middle classes who would ride the train – the upper class experience of being waited on by paid servants.  Working conditions were long, tough, and underpaid, and yet it was an available job for black men systematically excluded from much of the labor force, which meant something.  In 1925, under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was formed and, and conditions and pay for the profession began to improve.  The Pullman porters, aided by the BSCP, have been seen as contributors to the black middle class that grew between the 1920s and 1960s in America (excuse my brevity – you can read more in many places, including here, here, here, and here).

Pullman ID Card

The first black film company – the Foster Photoplay Company – was formed in 1909 and put out two shorts The Pullman Porter (1910), and The Railroad Porter (1912), which are often credited as the first films directed by a black director with an entirely black cast.  The slapstick films were generally considered to posit African Americans positively and not in the racist archetypes of the day (these films came out a few years before D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation), and featured Pullman porters in both.  The latter film is also credited with having the first chase scene in film history.

Pullman porters made it into the peripheries of many other films in the silent era, all too often, unfortunately, against a reductive and racist backdrop.  For example, Fast Black (1924), features two white characters, one of whom has his face accidentally blackened by a car’s exhaust pipe, and responds to an ad for a ‘colored Pullman porter.’  According to IMDb, the rest of the film is driven by “mistaken identity due to accidental blackface.”  Unfortunately, many of these films have now been lost – we know, very little, for example, about Roscoe Arbuckle’s 1919 ‘The Pullman Porter’ except that it starred white actors.  Al Jolson, whose relationship to African Americans and race in America was much more complex than initial appearances, used Pullman porter tropes and archetypes in his 1913 album and song Pullman Porter’s Parade, promoting the song with blackface material.

Al Jolson's promotion photo for Pullman Porter's Parade

Al Jolson’s promotional photo for Pullman Porter’s Parade

In the Talkies era, the ubiquity of the Pullman porter in American life is perhaps most visible through scanning over the filmography of Dudley Dickerson.   Dickerson, who appeared in around films beginning in 1932, played a Pullman porter (or some type of role on a train) in the following titles:  The Alligator People (1959), The Opposite Sex (1956), Tonight We Sing (1953), Everybody Does It (1949), It’s a Great Feeling (1949), The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949), It Had to Be You (1947), Hold That Lion (1947), I’ll Be Yours (1947), Rolling Down to Reno (1947), The Falcons Adventure (1946), One Way to Love (1946), The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), A Guy, a Gal, and a Pal (1945), Together Again (1944), His Wedding Scare (1943),  George Washington Slept Here (1942), Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942), Spy Smasher (1942), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), All-American Co-ed (1941), Knute Rockne All American (1940), On Trial (1939), The Sisters (1938), Broadway Musketeers (1938), The Adventurous Blonde (1937), Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936), and Polo Joe  (1936). A scan of Dickerson’s filmography (here) has him cast in a vast array of servile roles as a minor or supporting actor, and he is often not credited. Below is Dickerson in Hold That Lion (1947), a short with the Three Stooges franchise (Dickerson’s spot begins at 4:05).

However, not all films featuring Pullman porters were consigned to base and stereotypical motifs at the peripheries of films.  For example, Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play The Emperor Jones was adapted twice – in a 1933 screen version directed by Dudley Murphey (starring Paul Robeson), and a 1955 made-for-TV film produced by Kraft Television Theatre (starring Ossie Davis).  The Emperor Jones tells the story of a Pullman Porter who eventually becomes the emperor or a Carribbean island.  The story is certainly not without its criticism – frequent use of the word ‘nigger’ and plays on sexual myths about black men among them – though it certainly cuts against the grain of films featuring Pullman porters at the time.

Emperor Jones

Still, the imprint of Pullman porters on American film is more than just depictions of Pullman porters on screen.  Oscar Micheaux was a Pullman porter before becoming one of the most successful black directors in the silent and talkie era.  As a porter, Micheaux was able to travel across and see the country, establish relationships with wealthy people who would later finance his films, and learned how to manage business operations.  We’re quite thankful it helped launch his career in film, and the Lincoln Motion Picture Company.

Lincoln Motion Picutre Company

~Jonathan Jenner


Paul Robeson, the Spanish Civil War, and the Oliver Law Film That Never Was

Paul Robeson, the consummate renaissance man, is known as well for his amazing talent (an athlete, polyglot, orator, intellectual, singer, actor) as for his political involvement and passion for social justice.   His involvement in the Spanish Civil War[i] on the side of the Republican forces, though less well known, stands out as an episode that brings together Robeson’s multitude of talents, and shows his backbone in the worldwide struggle against fascism.

After the fascist coup attempt and ensuing breakout of war across Spain in July of 1936, Robeson’s support of the democratically elected Spanish Republic against grew strong.  He explained his support for the effort at a rally in London’s Albert Hall on June 24th, 1937:

The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery.  I have made my choice.  I had no alternative.  The history of the capitalist era is characterized by the degradation of my people: despoiled of their lands, their culture destroyed, they are in every country, save one, denied equal protection under the law, and deprived of their rightful place in the respect of their fellows.

May your inspiring message reach every man, woman, and child who stands for freedom and justice.  For the liberation of Spain from the oppression of fascist reactionaries is not a private matter of the Spaniards, but the common cause of all advanced and progressive humanity.

Robeson recorded speeches and broadcast them to rallies in Spain (in the speech excerpted above, Robeson raised $8,000).  He recorded songs that were sent to troops of the Republic and of the International Brigades.  Above (a photo montage video), Robeson sings The Four Insurgent Generals, a hymn of Spain’s betrayal. And here, a version of the Peat Bog Soldiers (Moorsoldaten) –  a song that was written by communist prisoners in a Nazi camp in 1933, which has become a popular protest song for the international left – that Robeson recorded for the war effort.

Still, Robeson felt that he wasn’t helping the effort enough, and in 1938, he ventured to Spain to visit troops and lend support with his wife, Essie.  She recorded the details of the journey in her diary (available in The Undiscovered Paul Robeson), where she records how the Robesons first heard of Oliver Law while driving across Spain.

Oliver Law (left) serving in Spain.

Oliver Law was a black man from Texas who joined the American Communist Party during the Great Depression and later, signed up with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight against the fascists in Spain.  Law rose to the rank of battalion commander (according to Essie’s diary, “Many officers and men considered him to be the best battalion commander in Spain”), before he was shot and killed near Madrid.

Back in the U.S. in 1938, Robeson began to pursue the idea of making a film about Law that would detail Law’s life and the injustices lying behind Depression-era America and Spain.  The film, which Ernest Hemmingway was reportedly interested in helping write, never got any funding, and fed Paul Robeson’s growing contempt for Hollywood.  He commented in an interview that “the same interests that block every effort to help Spain control the motion picture industry.”

Robeson (second from left), in Spain

Robeson’s experience with the Spanish Civil War and the failure of the Oliver Law film project only seemed to strengthen his resolve and commitment to working for justice and freedom.  A young Harry Belafonte (here, speaking to veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades) looked up to Paul Robeson as an exemplary model of activism and celebrity. Are the recent comments of Belafonte, on the lack of social responsibility and activism of black celebrities today, not that much more actual in the shadow of Paul Robeson?

And will someone please pick up the Oliver Law film?


[i] Check out this wonderful comic that covers Robeson’s time in Spain, printed by The Volunteer, a publication of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades Archive