Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Joe Louis, matinee idol

David Margolick's Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink is a terrific book. Feels like I've learned something new on every page, which makes me about 250 items smarter than I was when I started. Could've and probably should've blogged about a dozen of those things along the way, instead of the just once so far before today, but here's a fact that caught my imagination and won't let go, because it's something I feel I should have known about before.

Joe Louis starred in a movie. It was released in 1938, while he was gearing up for his fight with Jimmy Braddock (which he would win, making him the champ, but not the undisputed champ. He became that when he knocked out Max Schmeling later in the year.) That's not the something, not the whole something at any rate. The something is that the movie, Spirit of Youth, was intended for a particular niche audience, African-Americans.


Louis, meantime, bowed on the screen when Spirit of Youth opened in black movie theaters. He followed the premieres up the eastern seaboard, appearing before thousands of feverish fans in Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. Many couldn't get seats or, even if they did, were too busy staring at the live Louis in the audience to watch the filmed Louis on the screen. That may have been just as well, for the critics, white and black, were not kind about the film, which, with its tale of a young fighter falling for a nightclub actress, breaking training, and giving lip to his managers, sounded too much like 1936 [when Louis lost his first fight with Schmeling---a lot of people, including his manager and trainer, thought Louis had loafed and played around during his training for that fight---LM] and reportedly had [fight promoter] Mike Jacobs squirming in his seat. Louis was a great fighter and a good guy, but as a screen lover he was "a dud, with a capital D," the Afro-American delcared. But an Afro columnist thought most wives would like Louis anyway. "His awkwardness will remind them of their husband and they will feel perfectly at ease," he wrote.

In the 30s, Hollywood used to turn over its studios and sets and scripts at night to the making of movies in Spanish for distribution in Mexico and South America. The films employed Spanish-speaking actors and were essentially remakes of the movies being made in English during the day. I've seen scenes from the Spanish version of Dracula and, shot on the same sets and using the same script, it's visually more interesting and sexier than the Bela Lugosi version that was filmed at the same time. I don't know how long this practice lasted or how many Spanish doubles of what are now American classics got made.

Now I'm wondering if there was something similar going on for black audiences here at home.

Margolick reports that Spirit of Youth had an all-black cast but he doesn't go into the making of the movie at all, so I don't know if this was a one-shot deal or if it was filmed as part of a side-industry of movies made specifically for African-Americans.

(Cabin in the Sky had an all-black cast but it was a major studio production and shown to all audiences.)

Does anybody know? Can you recommend any books on the subject? Mr Wolcott, sir, next time you bump into Mr Magolick around the Vanity Fair offices, would you give him my compliments and ask him what he knows about this? Seems amazing that there could have been a forgotten Hollywood counterpart to the Negro League.


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