When watching this movie, I immediately had to put myself in a 1930s, "race film" mindset. I was first hit with a name on a marquee in the beginning of the film had a band named "The Cotton Pickers". Just when that sunk in, I had to wrap my mind around the fact that the main character--Lem Anderson (played by Frank H. Wilson), a performer would be doing most all of his performances in blackface (we never see him perform actually, just getting ready for performances). I understand that times and things like that usually don't bother me and it didn't this time; I was just thrown off a little bit.
One must understand that "race films"--films created with all-black casts for black audiences were usually low-budget films. Most times they were produced and directed by white men, other times they were directed, produced, and written by black men, like Oscar Micheaux. Frank H. Wilson, who as previously was the star of Paradise in Harlem also wrote the original story, but the story would be written for the screen by a Vincent Valentini and directed by (based on his credits, I want to assume he was Jewish) Joseph Seiden. I'd like to think that Wilson's story was bent all kinds of ways for the script, but I can't say I know this for sure.
Along with the blackface and "Cotton Pickers" band, I also noticed that when scenes were set in Harlem in this film, the majority of the women in the scenes had fair/yellow skin, which was typical in black cinema of the past. However, when scenes were set in the South, there were plenty of brown/dark women! I found this strange, but hey, what the heck. After these scenes, when we return to Harlem, more brown women showed up. This was sort of strange to me and I wanted to point it out.
I must say, I was easily distracted while watching this movie. I believe it may be easy to be distracted when watching movies on the internet though. The movie had a great storyline and could have been made into a big motion picture, but unfortunately race got into the way of that, therefore money got in the way as well. There were some parts in the film that were somewhat unrealistic (too focused on wanting the colored people relate I guess)--like an audience breaking out into song-and-dance in the middle of a play o_O and not just any play--Othello.
Despite the small cloud of racism that hung over the film, I did like the movie and its potential. I understand the time in which it was made and how it was made, but perhaps if it were made just a few years later when Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky and other all-black cast films like that were being made during the 1940s, it would have been a success.
I did enjoyed the film's music! Blues great Mamie Smith graced the movie with her voice and so did singer Juanita Hall in the end (with one of my favorite hymns "By and By 'Til the Mornin' Comes" and another song--both in that unnecessary break into song-and-dance I talked about).
The acting in the film was great as well! There was a little bit of coonery from some characters, which is expected as I stated before, but they played their parts *shrugs*. I must tip my hat to the black actors who paved the way for black actors of today by taking on such roles. Everyone was great in their role, but I was especially impressed with Norman Astwood's performance as the macho gangster; and Merritt Smith's performance of a loving and concerned nephew. This was also my first time seeing Francine Everett's acting as well, something I've been really anxious to see. She was great in her role and has a beautiful singing voice!
However, the people who stuck out to me the most: The Alphabetical Four! The four man singing group sang with Mamie Smith in a scene and their harmony was beautiful. I plan on learning more about them and finding more of their music.
I'd give Paradise 'N Harlem (or Paradise in Harlem) 2 1/2 out of 4 stars and I'd recommend it for those who are interested in Film History, Black History, and Black Film History. It was quite an interesting watch.