The Resurrection of 'Native Son'
The story of Bigger Thomas, an impoverished 20-year old black man who finds himself dropped into a nightmare after he accidently kills a young white
woman, is as much a page-turner as a James M. Cain novel. Wright and playwright Paul Green adapted the novel into a stage play produced by Orson Welles
and John Houseman in 1941 (with Canada Lee as Bigger), but the novel’s violent and propulsive plot seemed to beg for the film noir treatment.
Of course, such a treatment was unthinkable in the Hollywood
system. Wright would have to wait another ten years before he saw the
book adapted into a film by producer Jamie Prades and director Pierre
Chenal. The film, shot mostly in Argentina, would star Wright himself
as Bigger. Banned in many places, chopped up by careless censors, and
dismissed by the critics, the film was greeted as an oddball failure.
In recent years, however, thanks to the efforts of film historian
Fernando Martin PeЦa, scholar Edgardo Krebs, and the Library of
Congress, the film has been brought back from the dead and returned
to its original form. The restored film made its debut at the
New York Film Festival on October 8, 2012, and it will be featured
in the Film Noir Foundation’s 2013 NOIR CITY programs in San
Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, DC.
The film itself is an undeniably fascinating piece of work. In
adapting the novel, Chenal, Prades and Wright crafted a full-on film
noir. From gorgeous sweeping camera shots to a hauntingly surrealist
dream sequence, Chenal utilizes a style that would not seem out of
place alongside Welles’s The Lady From Shanghai (1948) or Hitchcock’s
Spellbound (1945). And to add to the noir atmosphere, there
are familiar faces like Jean Wallace and Charles Cane.
In the sharpness of its social critique, the film would make a
strong companion piece to Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948). Bigger
Thomas stalks the streets of a Chicago that is broken by poverty and
strewn with trash, a destitute place walled in on all sides by unscalable
walls of institutional racism. If Bigger is a man who makes his
own tragic choices, he is also a man shaped by forces beyond his
comprehension. Like Polonsky’s film or Endfield’s Try and Get Me
(1950), Native Son is the rare kind of film noir that seems to stick all
of American society under its microscope. It’s one of the few movies
that could be categorized as epic noir.
It is worth pointing out that the film is not perfect. Wright is
a limited actor and the occasional cheap back projection mars an
otherwise handsome production. It is also worth pointing out that
the film is a wholly unique exploration of American racism, what
Film Noir Foundation President Eddie Muller regards as “an incredibly
significant ‘missing’ piece of cinema history, an actual African-
American film noir made during the classic era.” It is a potent and
often powerfully jarring counterbalance to the vast majority of films
of the era which either featured grotesque racial caricatures or simply
rendered black Americans invisible by excluding them from the
One of the key figures in the recovery of Native Son is the Argentine social anthropologist Edgardo Krebs. I had a chance to talk with Mr. Krebs about the film and its restoration. Jake Hinkson: Do you know how Pierre Chenal got involved in the project? In a piece you wrote for Film Comment (“Native Son, Lost and Found”), you say that he was ready to direct the film when “the opportunity arose”—does that mean that he had been actively looking to make an adaptation of Wright’s book? Edgardo Krebs: During his WWII exile in Buenos Aires, Chenal had seen the Spanish version of the Orson Welles theater adaptation of Native Son. As Chenal himself tells the story, four years later, when he was back in Paris, the producer Jaime Prades approached him with the idea of doing a film for an Argentine studio. Chenal and Prades (who was from Uruguay) had worked together in Se abre el abismo (Pampa Films, 1944), one of four films Chenal directed in Argentina between 1941 and 1945. The terms of Prades’ proposal were quite broad. The US had embargoed the exports of stock film to Argentina during the war, with the pretext that the government in Buenos Aires would favor the production of propaganda films sympathetic to the Axis powers. In fact, there was a commercial reason behind the embargo: the popularity of Argentine films in Latin America. They were competing favorably with Hollywood for that market. The embargo was devastating. Several studios had to close down, and the production of Argentine films per year was decimated to one third. It was the end of the Golden Age of the Argentine film industry… and the beginning of the Golden Age of Mexican films, since Americans put a lot of money to develop their studios. Prades told Chenal that Argentina Sono Film was desperate to produce a film, and that he could choose the topic. And Chenal saw this as an opportunity to realize “an old dream” of his: making Native Son into a movie. Wright’s literary agent, Madame Bradley, was very skeptical about the chances that an American studio would take Native Son to the screen. So that was the initial spark. Wright,
who by then was also living in Paris, agreed to do it. It was also an old dream of his to make this film.
JH: Do you know how Jean Wallace got involved?This film comes at a troubled time in her life—between her suicide attempt in late 1949 and her divorce from Franchot Tone in late 1950—so I’m interested to know if you can tell us anything about her involvement in the picture.
EK: According to Michel Fabre, author of several books on Richard Wright, the role was offered first to other Hollywood actresses (he gives no names) who “refused to appear on the screen in the arms of a black man.” As you mention, Jean Wallace was facing many problems in her private life and her acting career was at an impasse. These circumstances may have decided her to take the risk. Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who was assistant director to Chenal during the filming of Native Son, told me that she was very professional and liked by the crew. And that she got along well with Richard Wright. Wallace was only in her mid-\twenties but had gone through a lot already. The story of how the cast was assembled is one of several stories within the story that turn the making of Native Son (or Sangre Negra, as it was titled in Spanish) into such a rich archive on the history of the 1950s, across a number of sensitive subjects.
JH: One source of contention in the reception of the film has always been Wright’s casting as Bigger. Do you have a sense of why a) Chenal wanted to cast him, and b) why Wright accepted?
EK: Wright wrote an essay on the lack of opportunities for blacks in the movies, on how poorly they were represented as human beings, with complex lives, a worldview, opinions, problems, joys. When Chenal was looking for black actors in Chicago for the cast of Native Son, Wright told him that he would not find them. Perhaps in Hollywood? “Aside from singing, dancing and playing music” he added, “blacks have the doors closed to any other artistic
activity.” Wright had been trying in vain
for over a decade to interest Hollywood studios in producing scripts he had written on topics like the Underground Railroad, or a travelling group of singers during Reconstruction, all of them former slaves. These themes allowed Wright to display his cinematic imagination on meaningful stories that were central to black history. But nothing materialized. So he was very hands-on when the chance of making Native Son came up. The first choice of both Chenal and Wright was to cast Canada Lee in the role of Bigger Thomas, but he refused the offer. Chenal then began to think that Wright himself could act the part. It was during the course of discussions with him about the logistics of the film that Chenal noticed that “something strange” was taking place: while explaining things, “Dick was turning into Bigger Thomas, the hero spoke through the mouth of its creator.”
There were other details, having to do with Wright’s personality and body language: the high-pitched voice, the attitude, certain gestures. So Chenal posed the question: would you consider playing Bigger Thomas? Wright laughed and responded “But man, I am no actor!” Chenal insisted. “You do not need to pretend to be one,” he said, “just live Bigger’s nightmare.”
Several critics who never saw the complete film, only the brutally censored one, have come down on Wright because of his age: he was too old to play Bigger Thomas to begin with. They also wondered ruefully what could have happened if Canada Lee had played the part. But Canada Lee was a year older than Wright! If you see Lee in qCry, the Beloved Country , which was filmed roughly at the
same time as Native Son, one has to wonder how would have Chenal managed to make him into a convincing Bigger. I think that critics remembered Lee from the Orson Welles theater adaptation, where he turned out an extraordinary performance. But ten years had passed. Wright accepted the role because Chenal gave him the confidence that he could do it. And Chenal was not making things up. He saw something in Wright that he could work with.
JH: How influenced was the film by the Welles/Houseman production?
EK: Very influenced. If you compare certain pictures of the play with
photographs of the movie the resemblances are striking. Chenal and
Wright worked directly on the text of the Welles/Houseman production.
Even though Paul Green was involved in delivering a first draft,
neither Houseman nor Wright himself were happy with the results.
Green had taken out, or tinkered with, several passages at the heart of
the novel. These were important to Wright, who was very concerned
that the authenticity and power of the story would not be lost. So he
and Houseman reworked Green’s draft in secret. The same happened
with Chenal and Wright. They took the play as a starting point and
worked together to turn it into the script for the film.
JH: Do you know anything about the magnificent shot of Bigger and
Bessie climbing the stairs in the abandoned building?
Is that a crane shot on a gigantic set? Unless I miscounted, they climb four full floors!
EK: The shot you mention, it was one of the many feats of Gori Munoz, who designed the sets for the film, and got awards for doing so. Chenal and Wright, as I mention in my answers, were adamant about authenticity. Chenal took many pictures in the South Side of Chicago (I wish that they may exist somewhere, and that they will surface one day) and also recorded the sounds of the L-train—all of this with the aim of reconstructing the atmosphere of Bigger Thomas’s neighborhood as faithfully as possible in Argentina Sono Film’s studios. The scene you mention was done by traveling: the camera raised together with Bigger and Bessie, following the characters as they climbed the stairs. When criticisms of the mutilated version blamed a wobbly production for the quality of the film, an
irritated Chenal let it be known that he had everything he needed to do Native Son, all the technical means and resources, at a level comparable to what a studio in France or Hollywood could offer at that time. So, the scene you liked was shot in a studio, and Gori Munoz (responding to Chenal’s needs) was responsible for engineering it.
JH: Even in its mutilated form, was there an audience for the film?
Do you think the film would have been more financially successful
had it been shown uncut?
EK: There was certainly an audience for the uncut version in Argentina.
It opened at the biggest theater in Buenos Aires, and tickets
sold out for the first two weeks. The critical reviews were also very
good. However, Chenal had always thought that the film, although
produced in Buenos Aires, was destined to an international market.
And certainly that’s how Argentina Sono Film executives and
Richard Wright himself understood the project. It was the first film
done entirely in English in Argentina. Success in the local market was
encouraging and a vindication, but all the great expectations were
placed on the American and European markets. Argentina Sono Film
planned a fancy premiere on board a Pan Am flight. But what Chenal and all the others underestimated was how dead serious some American politicians were in their resolve to stop a film that was critical of segregation. To make things worse, Wright had been linked with the Communist party, and these were the McCarthy
years. Argentina Sono Film did not anticipate either the cold reception that Europeans would give to Native Son. The Marshall Plan was in full application, and that France or Italy or Germany would put at risk the economic aid they needed by making a fuss about this
polemical film may have been naХve. Argentina Sono Film had tried
to make a deal with Paramount for the international distribution of
Native Son, but failed. They finally signed a contract with Walter
Gould’s agency, Classic Pictures. The studio kept the rights for three
countries only: Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. I assume that only
in those three countries the film was seen uncut.
In the US, Walter Gould had recurrent problems with the Boards
of Censors in several states. The outcome was a badly cut version of
Native Son. Thirty-two minutes were chopped off. The equivalent,
as Chenal graphically described it to Wright in a letter, of 800 meters
of celluloid. That mutilated version was dragged through several
theaters in the US, and also shown in Spain, Italy, Great Britain, Sweden.
… But it was a maimed artifact, a sort of Elephant Man spectacle.
Chenal was livid. He even considered withdrawing his name
from the credits. Wright understood that the film had been killed,
and turned the page.
I think we have to assume that the film would not have been
successful in the 1950s, because it could not. Chenal argued, in a
letter to Wright, that the European public could not be inferior to
the Argentine public. If Peron had not censored the film, why would
Europeans do it? It finally sunk in for him that the film would fail in
“Democracy No. 1” and he resigned himself to the cuts and the bad
reviews there. But as long as the copy released in Europe was identical
to the one shown in Buenos Aires he remained confident about
the success of the film. Gould did not follow that path. He even
wrote an incredible letter to Wright, arguing that the mutilated copy
was better than the original, and that he should pay no attention to
Chenal’s combative defense of the “Buenos Aires” version.
What interests me is to see how film historians, cultural critics
and intelligent viewers will react now to the complete film; how will
they judge and reappraise it. And that means also looking at its history,
at how it was reviewed in the 1950s in Europe, and in places
like Brazil. The subject deserves a documentary that teases out all
these strands and explores the context in which the film was shot.
I am working on that with Ted Thomas, director of Walt and El
JH: I read something by Michel Fabre that said Wright had a special
love for film noir. Do you have any sense that Wright or Chenal conceived
of the film as a film noir—or not so much as a “film noir” per
se, because the term wasn’t in general use at the time, but as a film in
the style that we would come to define as film noir? Were there films
they patterned their production after?
EK: Wright was a film addict, a fan, particularly of film noir. Some
scenes of Native Son take place in a movie theater, and they were
essentially kept in the film version. When Gabriel Garcia Marquez
learned, in 1949, that a film adaptation of the novel was being produced
in Buenos Aires, he wrote an article for a Colombian newspaper
wondering whether Chenal would be faithful to the cinematographic
feel of the book. And as I mentioned before, in the forties
Wright kept trying to negotiate with Columbia Pictures the purchase
of film scenarios he had written. He also contacted John Grierson.
He wanted to work for him at the National Film Board.
As for Chenal, he began doing short documentaries. Then he
wrote a book on the influence of Surrealism and Dadaism on film.
But when he moved into directing fiction one of his first projects was
a version of Crime and Punishment (1935). Soon after that he made
the first film adaptation of James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings
Twice (1939). Chenal had an affinity for, and was a pioneer of, film
noir. He liked the essential formula of a transgression, the commission
of a sin and the events triggered by it. He then observed the
characters trapped in those circumstances, how they reacted. There
are a number of similarities between Postman and Native Son. In
both films the men playing the bad guy end up in jail and accepting
their fate with a sort of redemptive calmness. Native Son, the novel,
is what it is, a classic of American literature.
I subscribe to what the philosopher Richard Rorty said about the
value of ethnography and fiction, giving the work of Richard Wright
as one of the examples. “Coming to see other human beings as ‘one
of us’ rather than ‘them’ is a matter of detailed description of what
unfamiliar people are like, and of redescription of what we ourselves
are like.” Theory does not accomplish this. Good ethnographies and
good novels do.
I think that Native Son, the film, is an incredible repository of that
process. It shows both the merits of the novel, of a good description
of a social situation, and also the reaction to the description, the impulse
to suppress it so that the ‘unfamiliar’ remains unfamiliar, and
outside our moral frame of reference. The film works for me as film,
but more interestingly—because of how it was made and how it was
subsequently massacred by censorship—as a sort of museum installation
of all the issues related to race, prejudice and segregation that
Richard Wright boldly addressed in the novel.
JH: Do you know how long production lasted? I’ve read that Wright
spent most of ’48-’49 working on the script, and spent from October
’49-June ’50 shooting it. To the best of your knowledge, is that correct?
If so, do you know why it would have taken so long?
EK: Yes, that sounds correct to me. It took that long because it was
not a straightforward project from the very beginning. Chenal had
problems finding a cast. He had problems shooting in Chicago—
which he did without permits, illegally. Then, according to Sanchez
de Lozada, the source of the money for making the film (I have not
been able to search yet for corroborating documents), came from
retentions the Peron government established for the box office tallies
of Hollywood films shown in Argentina. This was a sort of retaliation
for the film stock embargo during the war. Prades had somehow
gotten access to one of those pools of money.
This would explain to me the many complications some authors
describe Richard Wright had in drawing contracts and subcontracts
for the film. They had to sidestep government controls. Finally, even
though Chenal had seen possibilities in Wright as an actor, in the
actual process of shooting Chenal was quite demanding and some
scenes required several takes. One of the reasons that Sanchez de
Lozada [Editor’s Note: Sanchez de Lozada would go on to become
the 74th and 77th President of Bolivia] was quickly promoted to
assistant director (having started the shoot as the person in charge
of continuity) was his good English. Chenal needed him in order to
communicate fluidly with Wright.
JH: Perhaps you could also confirm or disconfirm something for me:
I’ve read that Wright had problems with producer Jamie Prades and
director Chenal during filming (particularly because Chenal wanted
to make larger departures from the novel).
EK: I think that the problems with Prades stemmed from the peculiar
origin of the funds. Prades has gotten quite a bad rap from
Wright’s biographers. They may be right; I have no privileged insight
about his personality and methods. But it is clear to me that he was a
pro. He went on to strike a very successful partnership with Samuel
Bronston, with whom he produced films like King Of Kings (1961),
El Cid (1961), 55 Days In Peking (1963). … The relationship between
Chenal and Wright was cordial. They understood each other.
They both wanted to make the best film possible. And respect the
book. Chenal showed the complete film—except for the credits—to
Wright, as soon as it was available, and before he left Argentina.
Wright was very happy with it, and pleasantly surprised with how he
had done as an actor.
JH: Can you tell me how Fernando Martin PeЦa uncovered the long
lost 16mm print?
EK: It is a picaresque story, and Fernando should tell it himself because
I do not have all the details lined up as he does. We need to
start by saying that when Laboratorios Alex burnt down in 1969,
many of the negatives of Argentina Sono Film disappeared—those
of Native Son included. Fernando learned in the early ’90s that an
eccentric film collector miraculously had a 16 mm copy, and that he
was showing it at a cine club in Buenos Aires. In 1999 the collector
was in dire straits and offered to sell the copy to Fernando. He
bought it, and quickly realized that he had a complete version of
Native Son, the same one that opened in Buenos Aires in 1951, and
the one that Chenal repeatedly put forward as the only valid version
of the film.