Movie review for 1951 classic Native Son with Guyanese actor Leslie Straughn. His cousin is Ramjohn Holder who played Porkpie in the British TV comedy The Desmonds.
THE SCREEN IN REVIEW; Richard Wright Plays Hero in Movie Adaptation of His Novel, 'Native Son'
Published: June 18, 1951
"Native Son," a novel stemming from passion, conviction and genius and a work that a decade ago was translated into a shattering and compelling drama, has emerged as a sincere but strangely unconvincing film. Perhaps Mr. Wright who is the ill-fated hero of this screen transcription, which began a stand at the Criterion on Saturday, is less of an actor than he is a novelist and playwright.
Obviously, his cast does not, by and large, attain the stature of his glowing words and thoughts. For their speeches merely relate this story of a sensitive Negro's revolt against social maladjustment and bigotry without depth and true feeling. And its murder melodramatics are muscular and only occasionally professional.
Since Mr. Wright fashioned mightily once, it is not odious to compare this present version of "Native Son" with those that preceded it. He is following the general blueprint laid down in the novel and the play. His Bigger Thomas is a man with dreams but these are dreams that are anchored to Chicago's "black belt," an area where one does the kind of "work that is marked out for him."
Psychologically he is a man in revolt against the brutal exploitation of the white man, but that psychological basis for his subsequent actions is never made explicit by deed or nuance. It is simply told. He attempts to engineer a stick-up and desists because he is afraid. Bigger and his cohorts let the viewer know this in a sentence and some amateurish play acting.
Although he eventually finds a tragic surcease in man-made death, his bewilderment and the motivations for his crimes are never made completely lucid. He is still a frightened youth who accidentally smothers his employer's comely daughter and then, in his panic, tries to cover up the horrible deed because "all my life I heard of black men being killed because of white girls."
The patsy he chooses in his terror is the boy friend of the deceased girl, a man who in the book was definitely leftist but now is vaguely referred to as a labor leader. But in all fairness it must be said that Mr. Wright is not confused about him. He is no bigot and a man who honestly wants to help the Negroes. As in the book, Bigger attempts to collect ransom for the supposedly missing heiress and later, when the murder is revealed by reporters—the long arm of coincidence is stretched considerably here—he flees into hiding with his singer-girl friend. And he kills her too, under the mistaken suspicion that she has led the police to his sanctuary.
Pierre Chenal, who has directed some noteworthy films in France and has worked in South America, has turned in a lackluster effort despite the fact that the offering was shot in such unusual locales as Buenos Aires and Chicago. Although the physical face of the Argentine city is not visible, the "city of the big shoulders" shows a few seamy views of itself in South Side slum areas. Mr. Chenal's direction is, with one or two exceptions, pedestrian. He has gotten some life into the climactic chase for the harried Bigger over tenement roofs, and, in the scene where Bigger's mother prays in church for her errant son, there is a glimmer of genuine anguish.
Bigger Thomas is a man freighted by fears, hates and ignorance. But Richard Wright's portrayal is a surface one. He is a frightened fugitive finally forced to fight for his life but little else. As his girl friend, Gloria Madison, a newcomer, does a song, "The Dreaming Kind," which does not make her performance memorable. But she does have a moment or two of fervent emotion in pleading with her lover against the course he has taken.
Jean Wallace is simply blonde and beautiful in the brief role of the victim; Jean Michael is perfunctory as the labor leader; Don Dean, who plays Bigger's lawyer, is never clearly revealed in court as the liberal he was in the book and play. The rest of the cast, including Nicholas Joy and Ruth Roberts, as the parents of the heiress, illustrate the opinion of one of the reporters, who in referring to the crime says, "it's the work of amateurs." The stature of "Native Son' has been reduced with this exposure of film.
NATIVE SON, screen play by Richard Wright and Pierre Chenal; dialogue by Mr. Wright; directed by Mr. Chenal; from the novel by Mr. Wright; produced by James Prades; presented by Walter Gould and released by Classic Pictures, Inc. At the Criterion.
Bigger Thomas . . . . . Richard Wright
Mary Dalton . . . . . Jean Wallace
Mr. Dalton . . . . . Nicholas Joy
Bessie Mears . . . . . Gloria Madison
Britten . . . . . Charles Cane
Jan Herlons . . . . . Jean Michael
Farley . . . . . George Rigaud
Panama . . . . . George Green
Hannah Thomas . . . . . Willa Pearl Curtiss
Max . . . . . Don Dean
Mrs. Dalton . . . . . Ruth Roberts
Buckley . . . . . Ned Campbell
Ernie . . . . . Charles Simmonds
Buddy Thomas . . . . . Leslie Straughn
Vera Thomas . . . . . Lidia Alves
Joe . . . . . George Nathanson
Scoop . . . . . George Roos
Stanley . . . . . Lewis MacKenzie
Peggy . . . . . Cecile Lezard