Thursday, February 24, 2011

'The Devil's Daughter' is short, but feels long

The Devil's Daughter (1939)
Starring: Nina Mae McKinney, Ida James, Emmett Wallace, Hamtree Harrington, Jack Carter, and Willa Mae Lang
Director: Arthur Leonard
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Sylvia Walton (James) returns from the United States to Haiti after a long absence when she inherits her father's banana plantation. Her disinherited half-sister Isabelle (McKinney), who managed the plantation for several years, has vanished without a trace, and Sylvia is desperate to find her, to offer her a fair share of the inheritance. Meanwhile, two rival suitors vie (Carter and Wallace) vie for Sylvia's attention and mysterious voodoo drums are heard from the depths of the jungle... where a vengeful Isabelle plots to regain all of what she considers rightfully hers.

"The Devil's Daughter" barely runs barely 50 minutes, but it feels much longer than that. A melodrama with horror overtones--very faint overtones, as the film repeatedly makes the point that the voodoo rituals are just hoaxes to drive off Sylvia and her dippy manservant Percy (Harrington)--about a quarter of the running time is wasted on a lame subplot involving the unfunny comic relief character trying to protect his soul from voodoo spirits and later to save his boss and her sister from a crooked plantation foreman. The film is further doomed by the fact that it features some of the worst dialogue I've ever seen outside of fiction written by grade schoolers, and acting styles that were passe in films in early 1932. In fact, every thing about this movie almost everything about this movie is stilted and stagy, even during the one scene where a little cinematic energy finally creeps in.

This is a film that's primarily of historical interest. It's an example of the movies produced during the early part of the 20th century for the 700 or so movie theaters that catered to Black audiences during America's period of Segregation. It's interesting to note that the same sort of characters that get slagged as racist in movies from the same period made for general audiences can be found in this film as well, specifically the bug-eyed superstitious servant character that Mantan Moreland made his signature. In fact, the only difference between characters portrayed by Moreland and the character of Percy in this film is that Percy is fundamentally unsympathetic. (And I'm not sure he was intended to be viewed as such by the filmmakers; I suspect he was intended to be a lovable, if not very bright, rogue, but to my eyes he was an obnoxious jerk who first tried to take advantage of what he considered to be backwards islanders, only to have the tables turned on him. The cultural and political tensions between the "cultured" daughter and her servant and the "native" daughter and her supporters lends a little bit of interesting flavor to the film, but it's not enough to make up for its shortcomings and outmoded style.

Although this is a film that history has left behind in every conceivable way, the climactic voodoo sequence is a nice pay-off for sitting through it. The song performed is catchy, and a little bit of cinematic life finally finds its way into the proceedings. The scene also showcases the screen presence of Nina Mae McKinney, a talented and charismatic singer actress who was not fated for screen-stardom.

If you want to get a taste of the "race films" from the 1930s, this isn't a bad place to start. If you're looking for a look at classic voodoo-oriented horror films, you're better off with "White Zombie", "I Walked With a Zombie", or even "King of the Zombies".