The Girl From Chicago
Written and directed by Oscar Micheaux
Oscar Micheaux was one of the greatest film directors who ever lived. And I don’t make that statement lightly. His films might not be the greatest films ever made (okay, many of them are terrible!), but for what he accomplished, and for so long, and at what time he did it, Micheaux deserves recognition. Micheaux was an outstanding businessman, had he been born fifty years later he’d be one of the richest men in the country powered solely by his own awesome business skills. As it is, he did amazingly well considering he was a self-made man through and through who did almost every aspect of his movies by himself. For an independent operator to survive for as long as Micheaux did cranking out films and getting funding for the next round is a miracle most filmmakers with far fewer obstacles cannot accomplish nowadays.
First, some history lessons. All-black films were known as “Race films” or “Colored pictures”, usually played in segregated all-black theaters, or all-black showings of films (usually matinees or midnight shows – and, yes, there would be whites that showed up for this shows, many eager to see the black nightclub sequences!) Most of the films were outside of the studio system, done with ultra-low budgets, and many films no longer survive.
Some parts of Micheaux’s early biography is guesses, speculation, and even legend. So don’t be all angry if dates don’t seem exact. Oscar Micheaux was born the son of two freed slaves near either Murphysboro or Metropolis, Illinois, in 1884, the fifth of 13 (or 11) children. The exact pronunciation of Micheaux’s name is up for debate, as was the spelling for the first few decades of Micheaux’s life before he settled on Micheaux. He also spent time growing up in in Great Bend, Kansas, where he was eventually buried. Around age 16, Micheaux moved to Chicago with an older brother to find work. After getting ripped off by an employment agency, Micheaux vowed to become his own boss so that wouldn’t happen again. He then set up his own shoe shine business in a white suburb – thus avoiding competition from all the bootblacks downtown. He learned much about the business world and how to save money during that period.
After spending time doing farmwork and then porter work on a Pullman car, Micheaux at age 24 went west, young man, to South Dakota and an all-white farm community of Dallas. All-white except Oscar Micheaux, that is! Micheaux’s business sense increased his acreage to over 500 acres he had enough time to write his first novel (of seven known and possibly as many as 10 or more), dubbed The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Homesteader. As you may have guessed, the story is pretty much the story of Oscar’s life, the main character is even named Oscar Devereaux. Micheaux’s next two novels wereThe Forged Note (1915) and The Homesteader (1917) – Micheaux’s most famous novel. In it, Oscar Devereaux leaves the Scottish lass that is the love of his life because she isn’t black and moves to the midwest as a farmer to find his fortune. He married the daughter of a preacher but ends up getting framed for their murder. His Scottish love hires private investigators to prove his innocence, and also conveniently finds out she has a very distant black relative and therefore can marry the hero without either of them shaming their race. Definitely a product of the time, and except for the magic one-drop rule cop out at the end, it probably takes a lot from Micheaux’s real life as well. Micheaux sold copies by going door to door selling copies to the farmers in the all white community. Micheaux would go on publicity tours after each book was finished, throughout the bible belt, met with local community leaders, lectured at schools and churches. He became well known both among blacks and rural white farmers.
His last four novels were written in the 1940’s: The Wind from Nowhere (1941), The Case of Mrs. Wingate (1944), The Story of Dorothy Stanfield (1946), and Masquerade, a Historical Novel (1947)
By the late 1910s Oscar had married Orlean McCracken, and she was becoming unhappy with his absences due to his business ventures. Eventually, she and her father drained his bank account and sold Oscar’s land. Micheaux was probably married other times, though exact details are sketchy as far as I can tell. His final wife was Alice B. Russell, who was active in many of his pictures.
At some point Micheaux moves to Sioux City, Iowa, and continues to write and sell his books door to door. His company at the time was the Western Book and Supply Company.
The Lincoln Motion Picture Company approached Micheaux about making his book The Homesteader into a film, but Oscar was not happy with the low budget proposed for the film, so Micheaux decided he could do better himself and set out to do just that. Micheaux raised money with a technique that would become a motif of his, selling shares of his now renamed Micheaux Book and Film Company to neighboring farmers. Remember, his farm neighbors were almost exclusively white, and Micheaux was selling them not only books but shares into producing a black film for black audiences.
Micheaux is often mistakenly called the first black director, but that is not the case. There were several directors before Micheaux, including Chicago Defender sports writer William D. Foster (pen name Juli Jones), who formed the first independent Black film company in 1910 (the Foster Photoplay Company) and directed and produced The Railroad Porter in 1912, one of eleven films produced by the company. All of the films were silent shorts, and The Railroad Porter featured Keystone Cops-style chase sequences. At this time, Chicago was the home of film production, at least for another five years or so. The three 1913 short films produced were The Fall Guy, The Butler, and The Grafter and the Maid, which Foster took on a tour of Southern cities and even had black singing star Lottie Grady sing between reel changes. The Foster Photoplay Company also produced newsreels such as one about the 1914 colored championship baseball game in Chicago.
Besides Foster was photographer Peter Jones, who with South American investors founded the Peter P. Jones Photoplay Company in 1914. Jones’ company also produced newsreels, including a film of the Chicago Shriners parade. Jones was well known in the photography community and was also a civic leader who tried to focus his newsreels on symbols of race pride. The films reportedly played in Brazil before the US. Jones also made a comedy called The Troubles of Sambo and Dinah, and the documentary For the Honor of the Eight Illinois USA (about the all black Eight Illinois regiment, who stormed San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War)
Blacks in film soon took a big hit with D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915, which famously featured more horrid black stereotypes than you can shake a burning cross at before the “heroic” Ku Klux Klan arrives to kill them. A full detailing of The Birth of a Nation would seriously derail this article, so we’ll avoid it. Micheaux would have responses to this film in a few years, detailed below.
Actor Noble Johnson and his brother George Perry Johnson started the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in 1916 (in Lincoln, Nebraska) to produce black films with more positive images of black Americans. Their films include The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (1916), The Trooper of Troop K (1917), and The Birth of a Race (1918).
Besides the black filmmakers, by the 1920s there were over 100 white-owned production companies making “colored films”, such as (the ironically named) Ebony Pictures – films including Aladdin Jones, Money Talks in Darktown, Spying the Spy, The Black Sherlock Holmes, and Two Knights of Vaudeville – all comedies criticized for detrimental effects in the black community despite some being based on vaudeville shows and starring black comedians. Pyramid Pictures Company produced “scenics” – basically people ran around with cameras filming black people living their lives – such as A Day in the Magic City (filmed in Birmingham) and Youth, Pride and Achievement (filmed in Atlanta). Real Motion Picture Company had their own “Black” Mary Pickford, Edna Morton. Other companies and their locations include: Gate City Film Production (Kansas City), Constellation Films (New York), Renaissance Company (New York, producing black newsreels), Dunbar Pictures (New York), Roseland Pictures and Recording Laboratories (New York), and Paragon Pictures (Jamaica Long Island). Their output went to an estimated 700 “ghetto theaters” across the country in the 1920s.
Most of these companies were finished off due to the flu epidemic, the arrival of the talkies, and the Great Depression. But a new crop of companies producing sound films opened during the 1930s, usually with white directors and writers using pseudonyms to sound black. By now films were patterned after Hollywood genre films, including musicals, mysteries, westerns, sports films, and romance films. Production companies included Astor Pictures (which distributed many race films but only produced Louis Jordan’s Beware! (1946) – yes we have a copy!), Southland Pictures Corporation, National Pictures, Herald Pictures (which had black gangster and reform school girl films, along with introducing Lena Horne), and Million Dollar Pictures – the last a co-venture between black actor Ralph Cooper and white business partners.
A female black filmmaker producing morality films was Eloise Gist, who along with her husband James, made two films – Hellbound Train and Verdict: Not Guilty – both released in 1930. They were filmed in Washington DC and used real people as actors.
The race films were advertised in special All-Negro sections of film catalog outside of the studio system (the studios controlled movie distribution at this time) and at its biggest over 1100 theaters were showing the films. Most of the race films disappeared by the end of the 1940s as black actors began appearing in mainstream films, and studios would continue to produce all-black films.
Back to Micheaux. Micheaux’s The Homesteader was the first full-length feature film written, produced and directed by an African-American. It was also a commercial success when it grossed over $5,000, enough to put it in the black.
After the film Birth of a Race failed to do anything to counter Birth of a Nation, Micheaux decided that he could once again do a better job. Within Our Gates (1919) had lynchings, interracial rape attempts (by a black character’s white father, no less!), and sections that slammed slavery. It is also Micheaux’s earliest surviving film as a print was discovered in the 1970s in Spain, and was restored by the Library of Congress to as close as to the original as possible (there are a few missing scenes explained by an interstitial section)
Micheaux went even more directly at Griffith and thus 1920’s The Symbol of the Unconquered was born. Yes, the title is a big FU to the KKK, as is the tagline “come see the annihilation of the Ku Klux Klan!” As Birth of a Nation showed a black man raping a white woman, Micheaux countered with Symbol of the Unconquered having a white man raping a black woman. Micheaux even went so far as to copying the Griffith scene exactly, including the same setting, lighting, and framing.
This freaked film distributors the hell out, and they quickly chopped out the rape scene. Micheaux proved his movie production genius and released the “Director’s cut” with the rape scene back in, selling out even more theaters. To avoid lawsuits from the then 4 million strong Klan, they were called “The Knights of the Black Cross”. The film features a heroic black character defending his land (and the oil field on it) from enraged Klansmen, along with defending the local mulatto woman who is “passing for white”. A viewing of this film with improvised jazz sounds from William Hooker can be seen on YouTube starting here.
By this time, Micheaux had his movie production technique, distribution scheme, and money raising techniques down pat. He would embark on theater tours that were similar to his book tours. Micheaux was well known for wearing long Russian coats and wide-brimmed hats. He had mad skills convincing people, getting many white theater owners in the south who would never have shown a black film without Micheaux’s convincing. Micheaux brought out some of the cast with him on stops. Micheaux also would hit up theater owners and community leaders into financing his next film. After making buckets of cash off of Micheaux at their theater, some owners were hard-pressed to turn Micheaux down.
Many of Micheaux actors were people he ran into on the street. This is easily seen in the atrocious acting of some of the characters. Others are veterans of negro stage shows, usually requiring Micheaux to work around their schedule. Micheaux was also fond of advertising his actors as black versions of white actors. Lorenzo Tucker was first called the Black Valentino, and then the Colored William Powell. Bee Freeman was the Sepia Mae West. Slick Chester was the Colored Cagney. Ethel Moses was the Negro Harlow. Micheaux’s production time was days instead of weeks. He would film in friend’s houses, setting up scenes to use as much as he could in the short amount of time he had. Micheaux could talk anyone into letting him film at their house. There was no time or money for second takes.
Micheaux continued to produce both shorts and feature length films. 1925’s Body and Soul introduced Paul Robeson, famous actor and activist, who deserves an even longer introduction than the one I’m giving Oscar Micheaux here. By 1928, Micheaux was forced into bankruptcy, but you can’t keep a good businessman down and soon he was back with white investors as the Micheaux Film Company. 1930’s A Daughter of the Congo even has a black character rescuing a black women who is trapped in the jungle, a perfect answer to all those white goddess jungle films. Though Micheaux shows his own (and some of his audience’s) prejudices by having the trapped woman be light skinned. Sadly, this film is believed to no longer exist.
1931’s Exile was his first talkie, and the first black directed talkie. Stepin Fetchit’s Hearts in Dixie (1928) and director King Vidor’s Hallelujah (1929) starring Daniel Haynes, were both black starrers that were talkies, but Micheaux was the first black director to make a talkie. Micheaux’s Darktown Revue (1931) appeared before Exile and also had sound, but as it was an 18 minute short it does not count. Sorry, them’s the rules!
By 1940, Micheaux’s The Notorious Elinor Lee was his last film for years. Micheaux returned to writing and produced four more novels before his swan song film, 1948’s The Betrayal.
Of Micheaux’s 42 films, only 15 or so survive in any form, and even less are available on DVD or VHS. Lying Lips is available free on Archive.org.
Micheaux has received criticism from several positions. First of all, some of his films just aren’t that good. Comparisons to Ed Wood is ripe. Secondly, although Micheaux deals with many issues of the day that often ignored by other filmmakers – including race relations, lynching, religion, passing as white, criminal behavior – he also had weaknesses such as his hero characters usually being light skinned, while the more villain is characters are far darker. He was also slammed for having stereotypical characters similar to those in white produced films. Many of Micheaux’s films repeated themes, usually biographical themes from Micheaux’s life, leading some critics to complain of the xeroxed plots.
Micheaux left quite a legacy, even if he isn’t as well known as he should be. There is an annual Oscar Micheaux Film Festival in Gregory, South Dakota. Oscar Micheaux was given a postage stamp in 2010. He has been celebrated in an album by Stace England and the Salt Kings called The Amazing Oscar Micheaux. There was also a documentary made about Micheaux called Midnight Ramble (2004), named after a slang term for the midnight shows at theaters where the black pictures lensed for audiences.
But enough of that, let’s get to the film!
The Girl From Chicago does not take place in Chicago. In fact, only one character is from Chicago, which we don’t find out until near the end of the film, and she was probably lying, anyway. The film does take place in a tiny town in Mississippi and New York City, where a bunch of the film’s characters move to in the middle of the film for various reasons.
This is considered one of Micheaux’s better films, which is sort of a mixed blessing. It is an awful film with awful acting and dialogue, but it is also sort of charming. The Girl From Chicago will suddenly start randomly moralizing about the numbers game, gossip rags report on the goings on of secret service agents, musical numbers pad the running time, and hallmarks of low-budget films are apparent throughout. There are scenes shot in nightclubs our characters are supposed to be at, and then we see our characters sitting at a table in a shot close up enough no surrounding set is visible to prove they are actually there. The plot is more like two stories that were squashed together into one film, but instead of intertwining they are consecutive.
I think Micheaux may have also been responding to criticisms of too many of his leading characters having light skin, as Carl Mahon, who plays Secret Service Agent Alonzo White, is among the most dark-skinned men I have seen in a Micheaux film. Though he does have long straight hair done up in the fashionable styles of the time. Several other darker skinned actors play supporting roles, though John Everett is pretty light-skinned and looks similar to the complexion normally found in a Micheaux picture.
With a great COLORED CAST as follows… (Hey, that’s what the movie says!”
We open on the ocean as a text tells us that Alonzo White of the US secret serves and Scotland Yard is returning to New York, probably to work for the CIA, FBI, and GI Joe. Nope, he’s sent on a case before he’s even off the boat!
Whoa, whoa, I’m getting seasick! Director Micheaux is shaking the camera while filming a big ocean liner to give up the impression that he’s at sea and not just standing at the dock. But he’s a little too enthusiastic. If you’re one of those people who gets sick at Blair Witch style films, you’re gonna puke your guts out.
New graduate Norma Shepard discusses with Miss Warren about her future, because Norma is aimless and unmotivated. Miss Warren is like Margaret Dumont from the Marx Brothers films, while Norma is like that girl in your school play who can’t act but somehow got the lead role.
We now go to Batesburg, Mississippi. This is where Norma ends up, going to go live with a woman named Mary. But her arrival is sequenced weirdly that at first made me think she missed the train, then we see a guy smoking and then driving off in his car. Later we find out he is the evil Ballinger, who I guess hangs out at the train station all day looking for new girls to arrive in town for him to seduce.
Mary Austin runs a boarding house/musical academy where we go to next and get a full piano number and operatic singalong from one of Mary’s students, to whom she regrets not having the money to send her north to be famous. Then suddenly Mary remembers she’s supposed to pick up Norma from the train station!
But Mary is walking to her house, and two guys spar over the chance to help Norma find Mary’s house, one being the creepy Ballinger who scares off the other guy, but she rebukes Ballinger after the first guy, Wade Washington (played by Frank H. Wilson), issues a warning.
Ballinger doesn’t give up, and sends notes to the house declaring his interest in Norma. Alonzo White reappears in the film as he arrives for room and board in a poorly framed shot that cuts off most of the actors’ heads.
Ballinger and his girl Liza are fighting, as she’s leaving him. Their argument is emotional and explosive by the dialogue, but the actors keep their arms are rigid at their sides and voices stunted. Then Ballinger pulls out a gun and shoots her…Ballinger looking like he’s never held a gun in his life, and the gun goes off while pointed near her leg. Liza takes a second or two to scream, then grabs her heart and collapses. It must be some of those JFK magic bullets!
The greatest action sequence of all time!
At Mary’s house, everyone laughs over Ballinger’s schemes that basically amount to slavery through farming out prisoners to do work for free.
Wade Washington sings Shout Sister Shout, then finds the injured Liza and helps her. Liza refuses a doctor and then rags on Wade for not having the guts to kill Ballinger after he vows to. Wade has unrequited love for Liza, who also blames Wade for letting her become Ballinger’s girl. Liza likes to project blame. Liza also shows further behavioral problems when she demands that Wade beat her to prove that he loves her. Wade is too much of a good guy to do anything like that, all he does is patch up Liza, who then promptly leaves town forever.
By now, Norma and Alonzo are in love, but despite their love, Ballinger is going to come call on her tonight. Ballinger also has a peeping tom on his team who spends all his scenes staring into the house at Norma all creepily. Norma complains that she “saw a dirty old negro” outside peeping in.
Alonzo declares it is time to move against Ballinger. Ballinger is let in, the peeping tom guy alerts Ballinger that Alonzo is there with a gun, Ballinger fires wildly, but only hits the Peeping Tom, who dies. Alonzo stick ’em ups Ballinger and arrests him. That’s the end of old Ballinger!
A few days later, Alonzo returns to take Norma to New York to marry her. Norma tells us that Mary is also in New York now taking care of her sick sister. So join us as the trajectory of the film curves sharply and we go from small town Mississippi to Harlem New York! Thank goodness so many characters randomly went to New York with us…
Welcome to Harlem! It’s night club time! We gotta pad the length somehow, so how about some line dancers and a tap dancing guy while the hosue band jams. The line dancers wouldn’t look out of place in the 1970’s disco era or in some science fiction film. It’s flapper-tastic. Next up are two more tap dancers, these guy snazzily dressed in tuxes, top hats, and white gloves. Remember when everyone dressed up to perform? Of course you don’t, because if you did, you’d probably be like 110 years old.
A numbers game runner named Tonto tries to get Norma to play because she’s friends with his client Mary, and she angrily tells him to get lost. Tonto declares “Well smack my mouth!” He manages to convince Mary to gamble a large sum of money this week despite her trying to swear off the game and use the money to pay for her sick sister’s operation.
Norma is very upset that Mary is blowing all her money, until Alonzo finally manages to drag her out of the house to change the subject. They head to a nightclub to catch the new European singer Madam something-or-other – the audio was too garbled for me to hear the name, but it is really Liza singing and pretending to be a big European star.
Liza is shacking up with the Cuban numbers runner Gomez who runs the game Mary plays. Gomez is the screen debut of actor Juano Hernández, who went on to appear in a number of movies. Hernández was born in Puerto Rico but grew up in the streets of Brazil and taught himself to sing, read, and write. He joined the circus (yes, there once was a day when people actually joined the circus!), moved to the US, and starred in some vaudeville shows. He also co-starred in radio’s first all-black soap opera, We Love and Learn. Hernández was the first black star from Puerto Rico, and even got a Golden Globe nomination back in 1949, back when that meant something. Here, he’s just a numbers game runner who is upset at Tonto for bringing in too large of bets.
Amazingly, Mary’s number wins this week. But Gomez is going to flee town with all the money because he’s evil like that. Liza catches him running off, and blows him away for trying to leave her without giving her any money. Liza runs into Mary on her way out, and Mary stumbles across Gomez’s body. So she robs Gomez of the $11,000 she won, but is spotted leaving by Tonto, who finds his boss dead and calls the cops.
Mary is quickly arrested and sentenced to death, because justice works swift when delivered in newspaper headline form!
Alonzo White doesn’t believe she’s guilty, so on a boat to Europe, Alonzo manages to strike up a conversation with Liza. Liza declares she is from Chicago, thus becomes the Girl from Chicago. After some dining and wining (lots and lots of wining) he gets Liza to start to fess up about her life, while Mary is on death row wailing about her life.
Liza spills the beans that she knows something, but then discovers Alonzo’s badge and clams up. She pulls a gun on him, there is a struggle, and she’s handcuffed. A newspaper lets us know that Liza went to jail, Mary was freed, and Alonzo married Norma. That’s some efficient newspaper headline movie ending!
So, yeah! An interesting artifact of movie time gone by. But also an important piece of film history. Parts of the film were entertaining, even if some parts made no sense or were put together terribly. For an independent film using probably regular people as actor, it is still a better quality than you would think. It has put a good chunk of low-budget films I have seen to shame. And that’s an achievement no matter whoever you are.
Rated 5/10 (death by overacting, beer time, club goer, club goer, Gomez)
Oscar Micheaux Filmography:
- The Homesteader (1919)
- Within Our Gates (1919)
- Symbol of the Unconquered (1920)
- The Brute (1920)
- Son of Satan (1922)
- The Dungeon (1922)
- The Gunsaulus Mystery (1922)
- The Virgin of the Seminole (1922)
- Deceit (1923)
- Jasper Landry’s Will (1923)
- Body and Soul (1924)
- The Spider’s Web (1926)
- The House Behind the Cedars (1927)
- The Millionaire (1927)
- When Men Betray (1928)
- Thirty Years Later (1928)
- Wages of Sin (1929)
- Darktown Revue (1930)
- A Daughter of the Congo (1930)
- Easy Street (1930)
- The Exile (1931)
- Black Magic (1932)
- Ten Minutes to Live (1932)
- Veiled Aristocrats (1932)
- Ten Minutes to Kill (1933)
- The Girl From Chicago (1933)
- Harlem After Midnight (1934)
- Lem Hawkins’ Confession/Murder in Harlem (1935)
- Temptation (1936)
- Underworld (1936)
- God’s Step Children (1938)
- Swing (1938)
- Birthright (1939)
- Lying Lips (1939)
- The Notorious Elinor Lee (1940)
- The Betrayal (1948)
Chicago’s new Negroes: modernity, the great migration, & Black urban life by Davarian L. Baldwin
Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only by Patrick McGilligan
Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films by Donald Bogle
The Girl From Chicago on Archive.org