Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The Devil's Daughter

Director: Arthur Leonard
Writer: George W Terwilliger
Producer: Harry M Popkin
Cast: Nina Mae McKinney, Ida James, Emmett Wallace
Country: USA
Year of release: 1939
Reviewed from: US DVD (Alpha)

There is a tendency to think of early zombie films and voodoo movies as one and the same thing. There are plenty of books and websites and magazine articles which mention White Zombie, Zombies on Broadway and Revolt of the Zombies but which skip over the fact that such films tended to be the more extreme versions of a larger subgenre of Caribbean-set mystery and horror.

Actually, calling The Devil’s Daughter ‘horror’ would be a bit strong but it is a full-blooded voodoo movie (sort of). It is also less than an hour long and features an all-black cast, topped off by 26-year-old Nina Mae McKinney as Miss Isabelle, who has grown up in Harlem but now returns to Jamaica to inherit her father’s plantation. Known as ‘the Black Garbo’, McKinney was never the huge star she deserved to be but she made about 20 movies in the 1930s and 1940s, including Sanders of the River with Paul Robeson, and toured North America and Europe extensively. From this film, two things are evident: first, she was a pretty good actress, and second, she was stunningly beautiful. Apparently McKinney was cast in the 1938 musical The Duke is Tops but had to drop out for health reasons and the part went instead to Lena Horne, setting her on the way to becoming America’s first glamorous black star, a position which could so easily have been McKinney's.

Miss Isabelle’s half-sister, Miss Sylvia (Ida James) has been running the plantation since their father died and has now disappeared. In fact, she is plotting to kidnap Isabelle and subject her to a voodoo ceremony which will scare her so much that she leaves Jamaica entirely, allowing Sylvia to regain control of the plantation. There is a four-sided love triangle between the sisters and two men, Philip Ramsay (Jack Carter: Charlie Chan’s Courage) and John Lowden (Emmett Wallace, whose amazing career included singing with Ella Fitzgerald’s band, writing literally hundreds of songs and starring in Guys and Dolls in the mid-1970s - and he is still alive in his mid-nineties), one of whom turns out to be a bad’un...

Contrasting with this is a comic relief romance between Sylvia’s maid Elvira (Willa Mae Lang) and Isabelle’s servant Percy Jackson, a delightful performance from Hamtree Harrington who manages to play the part as broad comedy without descending into Stepin Fetchit-style grimaces and stupidity. Elvira persuades Percy that, in order to prevent his soul being stolen, he should let Sylvia transfer it into a piglet, which then disappears, much to his consternation.

Throughout the film, which features some lovely shots of 1930s Jamaican scenery, the sound of drums is building, although the sound quality on this disc is very poor and you would be forgiven for thinking it was just a juddery soundtrack. The Devil’s Daughter kicks off with a fairly lengthy sequence of the plantation workers singing and dancing joyfully but by the movie’s end the same workers are singing voodoo anthems and wearing masks as a drugged Isabelle is forced to participate in - well, it’s not exactly clear. But it’s black magic in every sense. (Except, as Sylvia eventually admits, it’s no such thing. There is no actual supernatural activity in this film.)

The short running time means that the story clips along at a fast pace and truth be told the film is rather enjoyable, not just for its novelty value either. The characters are mostly well-drawn and the comic relief is not only not irritating, at times it’s genuinely funny. “Will you come and see me soon?” asks a coquettish Elvira. “Soon?” exclaims Percy. “Sugar, I’m practically there already!”

Director (and associate producer) Arthur Leonard’s other films include crime drama Straight to Heaven (with Carter and McKinney) and musicals Boy! What a Girl! and Sepia Cinderella (with Carter). This seems to be the final credit for gloriously named writer George W Terwilliger whose career started around 1910 and encompassed nearly a hundred films including a 1911 version of Little Red Riding Hood with Mary Pickford and another 1930s voodoo picture, Ouanga. Producer Harry M Popkin also produced both the 1945 version of And Then There Were None (with Walter Huston and Mischa Auer) and the 1965 version (with Shirley Eaton and Stanley Holloway).

Alpha’s version of The Devil’s Daughter (allegedly also known as Pocomania although I have no idea why) is in pretty poor shape, both visually and aurally but the mere fact that such a rare film survives at all and is commercially available is a wonder. In any case, one can hardly complain when the disc costs less than ten bucks and includes a whole other film, Chloe.

However, one caveat - despite all the above this isn’t strictly a voodoo movie. It’s an obeah movie. Voodoo is of course native to Haiti - Sylvia emphasises several times in the film that her mother was Haitian - but apparently in the English-speaking Caribbean, such as Jamaica, the equivalent religion is obeah. There are probably punters who would feel a bit annoyed, even after shelling out a mere five or six dollars - to find that they had a voodoo movie which not only lacks zombies but also has no mention of the word ‘voodoo’. But the hell with such pedants - The Devil’s Daughter is a fascinating and very watchable picture.

MJS rating: B
review originally posted 9th December 2005

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