Saturday, July 30, 2016

ONE MILE FROM HEAVEN (1937)

This 20th Century Fox movie is an energetic newspaper drama that stars Claire Trevor as the one woman reporter in a room full of poker-playing male reporters.  Of course, she turns out to be the smartest one in the room -- even after they pull a fast one on her just because of her sex.  They basically send her up to Harlem on a fake story.  But while in Harlem, she comes across something that her reporter's instinct tells her could be a story.  She investigates.  She's right about her hunch. It's front page news. 1937's ONE MILE FROM HEAVEN clips along at about 1 hour and 5 minutes.  It's fascinating to watch for its racial angles and images.              
1937 is also the year Trevor would be seen in William Wyler's social issues drama, DEAD END.  In that, she'd play the once dewy-eyed girlfriend of a guy who also grew up in the poor part of Manhattan in the same tenement area.  Poverty turned him to a life of crime as a Most Wanted gangster.  Poverty turned her into a hard-edge hooker.  Humphrey Bogart played the gangster.  Trevor would get the first of her three Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations for DEAD END.  Opposite Claire Trevor in ONE MILE FROM HEAVEN is the real punch of that well-produced 1937 newspaper story.  Trevor's co-star was Fredi Washington.
Washington was the black actress who gave such a memorable performance as the racially conflicted daughter in the original 1934 version of IMITATION OF LIFE.                         

Had the Motion Picture Academy's category of Best Supporting Actor and Actress existed then, Fredi Washington should have been the first black actress to get a supporting Oscar nomination before Hattie McDaniel broke ground with 1939's GONE WITH THE END.
1937's ONE MILE FROM HEAVEN is Fredi Washington's next and last big movie after 1934's hit, IMITATION OF LIFE.  Shame on Hollywood for being so mentally blocked on the race issue that it had no more good scripts for this talented black actress.  Bravo to 20th Century Fox for getting it together during the days of the Hollywood Production Code and making this film with more dignified images of black people than were usually seen at the time.  We see a black policeman, a black seamstress and a black professional photographer.  Keep in mind this same studio had released earlier films in which moviegoers saw and/or heard the word "nigger" used casually in the first five minutes. The two films were 1931's DADDY LONG LEGS starring Janet Gaynor and 1933's THE BOWERY starring Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper.  ONE MILE FROM HEAVEN co-stars Fredi Washington as the lovely, refined light-skilled black woman whom claims to be the mother of a little girl who appears to be white.  The child certainly behaves as if this kind woman is her mother.  She calls her "Mommy."  There is deep affection between the two.  The woman is Flora Jackson, known to the folks in town.

The lady reporter, Lucy "Tex" Warren takes a cab to the Harlem area and quickly realizes that the guys in the office pulled a joke on her.  But "Tex" walks alone down the avenue after getting out of the cab, relaxed among all the black residents and pedestrians, as is she's getting a feel for the neighborhood and the local culture.
 

There's a gruff older shopkeeper played by Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. Extremely popular as a co-star on Jack Benny's hit radio sitcom, this was a character type Anderson would repeat as a servant in 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND.  Compare it to his youthful, dapper and sexy valet to Benny to 1940's comedy BUCK BENNY RIDES AGAIN.  Here's Anderson on the left with Bill Robinson on the right.

Flora, a widow, is devoted to the happy child, Sunny Jackson.  Flora's sweetheart is a cop played by Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.  The little girl calls him "Officer Joe."  He patrols the streets, he knows the law, he's armed ....and he can tap dance.  Robinson was a major dance star at the time.  I agree with one person who wrote that ONE MILE FROM HEAVEN is a good Shirley Temple movie -- only it didn't star Shirley Temple, the little 20th Century Fox box office champ who delighted audiences as a Bill Robinson dance partner in her movies.  Bill Robinson dance numbers are incorporated into ONE MILE FROM HEAVEN.  It's odd to see them there, but the numbers are very entertaining.  The studio obviously was capitalizing on Robinson's popularity as a dancer.

The child's real mother had been romantically involved with a known hoodlum who died in an accident.  She thought her child, then a baby, had died with him.  She has since married into society and now other hoods are trying to extort big money from her with their knowledge of the child.  How will the clever and compassionate reporter handle all this, get a scoop and not wreck the black woman's life?
Fredi Washington is the heart of movie.  Like Trevor, she is made up, photographed and outfitted beautifully.  She has several scenes with Trevor and the actresses work well together.  This minor but well-made and rarely talked about Hollywood movie gives you a deeper understanding of Lena Horne's glamorous frustration while under contract to MGM in the 1940s.  The singer debuted as an actress in 1943's CABIN IN THE SKY, an all-black musical comedy directed by Vincente Minnelli.  Eddie "Rochester" Anderson was the leading man.  Throughout her MGM years, as was detailed and noted in her biography, STORMY WEATHER: THE LIFE OF LENA HORNE by James Gavin, Horne was featured in A-list MGM musicals but she was never allowed to act and do scenes with the studio's A-list white talent.  You never saw Lena Horne act in a scene with Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, or Gene Kelly -- even though they were in same productions.

In this 1937 newspaper yarn, there's Fredi Washington in scenes with the white actors as a key character in the story.  And she's not playing a maid.  The sweet little girl who played her daughter was Joan Carroll.  Joan Carroll would act in a classic MGM musical a few years later.  She'd played one of younger sisters opposite Judy Garland in Vincente Minnelli's MEET ME ST. LOUIS (1944).

Hollywood had no more quality script offers for Fredi Washington after this 1937 film.  Hollywood's color barrier was Hollywood's loss.  ONE MILE FROM HEAVEN was director by Allan Dwan.  He directed three Shirley Temple hits -- HEIDI (1937), REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM (1938) and YOUNG PEOPLE (1940).

I don't want to give any the ending, but notice that Flora and Officer Joe both get professionally get a bump upscale at the close.  That was definitely different for black film characters in those days.  Here's more about Fredi Washington:



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