Monday, July 21, 2008

“Little black sheep…come back home…”

The Sunday Athens Banner-Herald had a nice write-up by Julie Phillips yesterday on the late Hall Johnson, a native of the city who achieved a great deal of fame as a musician and composer beginning in the 1920s with his founding of the Hall Johnson Choir:

Hall Johnson walked the streets of Athens long before the indie rock musicians who came after him, and his musical talent as a composer, arranger and choral director put him in the international spotlight first.

But outside of academic and choral circles - and perhaps those of serious classic film buffs - Johnson's name isn't one enough people know.

This serious classic film buff was trying to remember where he had seen Johnson’s name when I read further on and discovered the movies among his filmography: The Green Pastures (1936), Lost Horizon (1937) and Cabin in the Sky (1943). Since I stayed up to watch Cabin last Wednesday, I was immediately able to answer my own question. Cabin is one of my favorite M-G-M musicals, with so many memorable songs (Takin’ a Chance on Love, Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe, Shine) and I’ve written about the movie elsewhere, so I’ll try not to rehash it here…but it’s Johnson’s Little Black Sheep that tends to linger in the memory for days on end…it’s that infectious.

I also learned at the end of the movie (you know, where Robert Osborne offers up trivia tidbits that you sometimes—trust me on this—have to fact-check) that Dooley “Sam” Wilson, the performer who originally played the part of Joe in the stage version of Cabin, was passed over for the role in favor of Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. Now, I am a tremendous fan of Anderson’s work (he’s got a small role in Red Skelton’s The Show-Off [1946] that caused me to shout out “Rochester!” when I watched the movie last Friday…resulting in a pair of daschunds staring at me, wondering what the commotion was all about) but I have to confess, I would have loved to see Wilson play the part. (As a consolation prize—though a pretty small one—Wilson does sing Shine in Casablanca.)

Speaking of The Show-Off, I have this to say. There’s not a whole lot of plot in this one and some folks might even think it a bit corny…but I have to chalk this one up in Red’s “win” column. I thought he gave a magnificent performance (striking the right balance between braggart and buffoon), and the supporting cast—Marjorie Main, George “Gramps” Cleveland, Marilyn Maxwell, Virginia O’Brien, Leon Ames—are first-rate as well. Unfortunately for my friend in the Hoosier state, I didn’t make time to watch The Clown (1953)—I’ll have to look for it again when it comes around.

1 comment:

The Baby said...

Yeah, Johnson was one of the best. He's in my chapter, "Methodists in Hollywood", which I think I was telling you about. Mentor of the always-fantastic Jester Hairston. Both did a lot for mainstreaming Black choral music.