Southerner Jean Stratton (Anise Boyer) is willing to go to any lengths to find work in Harlem—even making a wish under the legendary “Tree of Hope” (the story goes that an actor did this under the same tree and learned upon returning to his boarding house a producer had a part for him). Unfortunately, a few innocent inquiries to male passersby about how long she must wait for this job leads to a mix-up with the law, convinced that “going to any lengths” part involves the world’s oldest profession. Jean is rescued by an observer in the crowd, “Money” Johnson (James Baskett), who offers her a position as a showgirl at his Acme Theatre (though he has ulterior motives, natch).
|Anise Boyer and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson|
in Harlem is Heaven (1932)
Harlem is Heaven is a terrible film…but that doesn’t mean it’s without merit. The (always reliable) IMDb notes that this is the film debut of Bill Robinson, but this is simply not true…unless that tap-dancing gentleman in Dixiana (1930) appropriated Bojangles’ name for his own nefarious purposes. I’ve stated a previous criticism that the direction in Dixiana does Robinson a tremendous disservice but it’s freaking Orson Welles compared to Harlem is Heaven. The only bright spot with Robinson’s footwork in Harlem (and a rare departure from Franklyn’s “I’ll-just-point-this-camera-at-the-stage” style) is an amazing staircase dance executed by Bill, which is some ways a blueprint for the later number he did with TDOY bête noire Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel (1935). The World Cinema Review blog notes: “[I]n the original the simple set consisting of a small staircase of five steps up and five steps down better reveals his amazing footwork, and stunningly points up his simple but graceful dancing. And unlike the second ‘Step Dance,’ he does not have to play an old ‘darky’ to get the opportunity to strut his stuff.”
|Yes, it's TDOY fave Juano Hernandez in an uncredited bit as the cop who tries to run Anise Boyer's Jean in.|
The opening cast credits of Harlem is Heaven note “The Following Players By Special Arrangement With ‘The Cotton Club’.” Bob Sawyer and Alma Smith (as Johnson’s spurned girlfriend) don’t get much of an opportunity to make an impression, but James Baskett (billed as “Jimmy Baskette”) went on to a not-too-shabby movie career, culminating with winning a special Oscar for his performance as “Uncle Remus” in Walt Disney’s still controversial Song of the South (1946). (Baskett passed away in 1948.) I don’t know what Henri Wassell did after Harlem (this was his only film) but I hope he was able to make a living at something other than acting because he’s weak and embarrassing as Chummy. Anise Boyer, on the other hand, continued her singing and dancing career and can be glimpsed in later films plying her trade including Stormy Weather (1943—which also features Robinson) and Carolina Blues (1944). An IMDb commenter notes that there were people who thought Boyer was even more of a knockout than Lena Horne. (I don’t wish to live in a world where the majority thinks this, by the way. But it’s a shame Anise never made it into mainstream films since she’s very, very good here…though I strongly suspect she would have been saddled with a lot of “domestics” roles in a studio system.)
|Spencer Williams and Edward Thompson in The Melancholy Dame (1929)|