“Murder on Lenox Avenue” - Black Cinema Situation Adventure
released in 1941
running time 63 minutes
The Actors: Mamie Smith (Hattie), Alberta Perkins (Mercedes, pie seller), Alec Lovejoy (Flivver Johnson, bartender and pianist), Dene Larry (Ola Wilkins), Augustus Smith (Pa Wilkins), Ernie Ransom (Jim Bracton), Edna Mae Harris (Juditha, nightclub singer), Cristola Williams (Rosalia, Hattie's daughter), Sidney Easton (Speed Simmons, orchestra leader), Earl Sydnor (Gregory), Norman Astwood (Mr. Marshall, crooked Better Business League leader), Herman Green (Lomax, Marshall's henchman), George Williams (Montoute), Emily Santos (Emily, showgirl), Flo Lee (Flo, showgirl), Wahneta San (Whaneta, showgirl)
The Loves, Laughs, Life, and Death on Lenox Avenue
Our adventure takes place in and around an apartment building at 119 Lenox Avenue in Harlem. The tenants include a World War One veteran and his young daughter, an aspiring jazz bandleader, a bartender and pianist, three showgirls, a lady who sells pies on the street in front of the building, and a few more vibrant New Yorkers in 1941.
Mamie Smith, as Hattie, will sing at Pa Wilkin’s birthday party, where her pregnant daughter will discover that her baby’s father is going to marry someone else. Mamie Smith was a vaudeville jazz and blues singer who became the first African-American person to record and sell jazz and blues music records. In 1920 her record company was threatened with boycott and violence if they recorded a black singer, but they still produced and sold Mamie Smith’s songs, which became extremely popular, opening the door for black performers to make and sell records. By the time she appeared in this film, she was retired from singing, and would pass five years after appearing in this story.
Sidney Easton, who plays bandleader Speed Simmons, was born in Savannah, Georgia. After playing music for a circus, and later a minstrel show, he formed his own band, and began writing and performing his own music. Ethel Waters and Pearl Baily recorded some of his songs, and he performed and composed music for fifty years. Most of his personal papers, writings and manuscripts now reside in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in the New York Public Library.
Black cinema productions from the first years of motion pictures are very rare, and good quality surviving copies are even more rare, so this peek into Harlem apartment life in 1941 is a veritable historic treasure. Pop a big bowl of white kernel popcorn drizzled with plenty of warm melted butter and enjoy the show.
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