Cinema Station

Harry Belafonte: The Occasional Movie Star | November 10, 2010

Although he has appeared in more than a dozen leading roles in films and small parts (cameos) in another dozen or so no one thinks of Harry Belafonte as a movie star. And rightfully so because of the huge gaps of time between screen appearances. But in the 1950s when he appeared on the scene with his hit record album CALYPSO which became the first LP to sell over a million copies and his first film appearance co-starring with Dorothy Dandridge in the modestly budgeted Bright Road (1953) screen stardom seemed a sure thing. And not just screen stardom but major screen stardom. Much of the credit for the phenomenal sales of the record was attributed not just to his charming style with the new Caribbean music that was suddenly becoming so popular but to the photograph on the cover of the album. The women went wild over it and over Harry himself. Soon the term “sex symbol” had become firmly attached to his name. And everywhere he appeared he was mobbed by adoring women.

After that first film Hollywood called again and Harry who had studied acting alongside Walter Matthau, Tony Curtis and Marlon Brando answered. Again he was cast with Dorothy Dandridge this time in Otto Preminger’s colorful and potent Carmen Jones (1954). It was inspired casting. They were a combustible duo on screen. Energetic, exciting, sexy and most of all beautiful. I don’t think I have ever seen a more visually beautiful male/female combo on screen than those two. Everything matched up perfectly, their skin tones, their facial features, their bodies and the general way they moved together in their scenes.  And given the nature of the material and the time in which the film was made they gave off quite a bit of erotic fire without being crude or explicit. The film was a big hit and Dandridge received an Academy Award nomination as best actress for her portrayal in the title role. But along with his best selling records Belafonte’s star was definitely on the rise. He was then cast one more time with Ms. Dandridge in the tepid Caribbean based drama Island in the Sun (1957) after which according to fan magazines he was being offered co-starring roles with many of the glamorous leading ladies of the day. But for one reason or another he turned them all down. Mostly it was said that because the roles were superficial and uninteresting. Then there were reports in the press about him starring in a bio pic about Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s greatest poet to be directed by the upcoming Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. But nothing ever came of that project. So Belafonte did the next best thing. He started his own production company HarBel Productions and produced two very good films in short order. The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959) and Odds against Tomorrow (1959).  The first is an interesting science fiction tale about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust where there are only three people left on earth, one woman and two men. His co-stars were the up and coming actress Inger Stevens and the veteran actor Mel Ferrer. It was directed by the writer/director Ranald Mac Dougall. In my view they are the best films of his career. The World etc. in spite of its cumbersome title is an engrossing, sometimes tantalizing and surprisingly charming film with a few missteps that’s well worth the time. I’ve seen it several times and its charm still holds. I’ve shown it my classes a few times and students always treated it like a treasured discovery. The cinematography of New York city devoid of people is great and Harry’s performance as the resourceful miner Ralph Burton is a revelation. For the first third of the picture he is alone on screen and he carries it with the grace and strength of a seasoned leading man. He even gets a musical number that dovetails nicely with the plot. Then the woman and the other man appear and things become sometimes annoyingly melodramatic but those moments pass quickly. The ending is problematic. It is as though they painted themselves into a corner and couldn’t find another way out. But its unhurried pace and Harry’s genuine movie star persona carries the day and makes it pleasant to sit through more than once.

Odds Against Tomorrow is a completely different kettle of fish altogether. It is a tense, harsh and sometimes even a little ugly crime story about a heist in upstate New York with a pitch perfect cast featuring Robert Ryan, Shelley Winters, Ed Bagely Sr. and Gloria Grahame. There is one scene with Robert Ryan and Gloria Grahame that is as subtly erotic as anything I’ve ever seen in a Hollywood film. It was written by the once blacklisted Abraham Polonsky from a novel by William P.McGivern. And sharply directed by Robert Wise later of West Side Story and Sound of Music fame. The music is by John Lewis the jazz pianist and composer of the Modern Jazz Quartet. And it was edited by Dede Allen who was destined to become a legend in her profession. Everyone in the film is good; more than good but the standout performance is by Robert Ryan as an embittered racist ex con Earle Slater. But he doesn’t steal the film because the roles are so well balanced and defined.

Now usually when an actor or star becomes his/her own producer the end results are generally glorified vanity productions. But it speaks to Belafonte’s intelligence and savvy that he always gathered around him top notch talents in every area and somehow got them to give their best to the project. That is the hallmark of a good producer and what they all strive for. In both features racism figures into the plot. In The World etc.it is somewhat shoehorned in but in Odds it is a central part of the plot. Without it there would be no story. This was an important issue for Harry B. at the time and he wanted to address it in his work.

Harry was a man of many trades. An actor, producer, popular singer, entrepreneur and most importantly a Civil Rights activist. All of these are full time jobs for most people so somewhere along the way something had to give. That something was his so very promising film career. Yes, over the years he has appeared in many films most successfully in the films directed by his friend Sidney Poitier: Buck and The Preacher (1972) and Uptown Saturday Night (1974). But for all intents and purposes Belafonte today is better known for his political activism and his music. And this is the way he wanted it. Still I wish he had made more movies when he was younger. My favorite is still The World, the Flesh and the Devil because it shows what a terrific “leading man” in the old Hollywood sense of the term he was and could’ve been had he chosen to go that route. Check the film out I’m sure you’ll agree.

-GE

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