1 July 2009 | rhoda-9
Robeson unmissable, but criminally wasted
The great Paul Robeson sings several songs in this British comedy, but the plot and production values are so modest as to be almost nonexistent. "Marseilles" is clearly no further south than an English studio, and is full of cockneys. Robeson's character is asked by the police to help find a missing English boy (who, when he turns up, is such a brat with such a precious public-school accent that you want him to get himself lost again). He agrees and turns to leave, but the policemen point out that he will need to know what the boy looks like! Why is Robeson, who was a brilliant student as well as a singer (he graduated from law school at the top of the class) portrayed as an idiot? The songs are lacklustre and lazy--"scheming" rhymes with "dreaming," etc. and, when not singing them, Robeson, although nominally a waterfront worker, never does anything except sit on a barrel at the dock or drink in a café where Elisabeth Welch sings. It is delightful to see her at the beginning of her career, not only for her singing but her appealing, warm personality, but, again, the script is so simpleminded that she is not well used.
All the characters just have one trait each, which they tiresomely display over and over, and the humour is elementary. One rough, tough character is ridiculed over and over for having a kitten that he cares for. What's so funny about that? When the boy is reunited with his parents, none of the problems that led to his running off is touched upon, much less resolved.
But, but, but--there is Robeson, and when he sings, "Oh, my baby, my curly-headed baby," you just melt. What a crime that one of the few film documents we have of this great man and his gorgeous voice is so feeble, but it is an even worse crime that America's racism prevented Robeson from having the memorials he deserved.