Saturday, December 28, 2013

Movie of the Week: Miracle in Harlem (Review)

This week, I watched the 1948 film, Miracle in Harlem starring Sheila Guyse, Stepin Fetchit, and Hilda Offley.

From Movie Poster Shop

Julie Weston (Sheila Guyse) and her aunt, Hattie (Hilda Offley), own and operate a candy-store in Harlem. A wealthy business man, Albert Marshall (Lawrence Criner), and his wayward son, Jim Marshall (played by Kenneth Freeman), swindle the women out of the store. Later, Albert Marshall is found murdered, and there are several suspects, including Marshall's secretary and a blackmailer. [IMDb]

Miracle in Harlem is one of the best of the "race movies" of the 20s, 30s, and 40s (particularly the 30s and 40s). The movie has been well-preserved, showcasing some better-than-average cinematography. The plot was a common one, but with a bit of a (for lack of a better term) "flavor". The movie overall could have been better (probably would have been in a different time, as I often allude to), but it was still good.



I wouldn't say that the storyline was "basic", but it doesn't seem like an uncommon storyline for any murder-mystery: bad guys swindle good guys, one of the bad guys is murdered--the good guys are accused. However, the Harlem-setting and all-Black casting is what makes the film unique--adds that certain "flavor" to it. We get to witness the acting and musical performances of some of American Entertainment's unsung talents--including that of the movie's star, Sheila Guyse. There's Gospel, there's Jazz--the stuff that really made Harlem what it was "back in the day". 



Sheila Guyse as 'Julie Weston'

From a poster on

Sheila Guyse is one of those women who has a way of keeping your eyes locked on her by doing very little. Not only is she beautiful, but there is something about her presence on the screen that draws you in. A lot of her film roles were that of "good girls" and one can see that the kindness and gentleness of her characters were not just performance. She brings this quality to the role of 'Julie Weston'--a well-written character who displays a wide range of emotion and personality. Unfortunately, although Julie is supposed to be the film lead's character, I felt that other characters were given more control of the narrative than she was. 


Unlike a lot of shoestring-budget movies of the time, the acting in Miracle in Harlem was pretty good. It wasn't great, but it wasn't bad either. Although Stepin Fetchit is highly credited in this film (being the only established Hollywood/movie star on the set and all), we don't really see him often. When we do see him, he gives his usual "Stepin Fetchit" performance, which actually made me laugh a bit. 

Other standout performances were given by, of course, Sheila Guyse; Kenneth Freeman (as no-good Jim Marshall) and Sybil Lewis as the Marshalls' secretary and scorned family friend. 

Miracle in Harlem also features the performances of some of the music's finest entertainers, including Juanita Hall and her choir (Juanita Hall Choir), Norma Shepherd, and more.



There may have been a little bit more money in the production of this film than there was in other race movies...or, the director may have been a bit riskier. Whatever the reason, there were some really good shots in this movie--shots that really captured actor/character emotion--made it apart of the story. If characters weren't written with layers, the actors gave them layers with standout facial expressions and gestures,as actors should do, anyway, but the thing is, the creative people behind the scenes actually took time to acknowledge these little expressions and movements, despite the fact that, again, most of these movies were made with the kind of budget that didn't leave wiggle room for mistakes, improvisation, or pauses that lasted longer than a millisecond. 


 I would mention how stylish the costumes were, but I'm convinced that everyone who earned at least minimum wage during the 1940's came out of the womb sharply dressed. I refuse to believe otherwise. 



Overall, I really liked Miracle in Harlem. The acting performances were good, the musical performances were great, and while the story wasn't difficult to keep up with (it didn't get with muddled 500,000 musical acts or unorganized writing like some murder-mysteries do)--it still kept you guessing. In fact, the revealing of the culprit(s) also reveals a big plot twist that I personally did not see coming at all.


Check out Miracle in Harlem on Youtube! 


Also, please keep Ms. Sheila Guyse, her family, and her friends in your thoughts and prayers. [View Post]

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