THE BOOTLEG FILES: “ANNA LUCASTA”

“Anna Lucasta” is not a must-see film, but it is a fascinating failure with a very unusual history. The fact this film can only be obtained via bootleg videos is very curious, given its importance in the development of the African-American presence in modern cinema.

Philip Yordan envisioned his drama “Anna Lucasta” as the sordid tale of a severely dysfunctional Polish-American clan in which a prostitute’s chance to escape the streets in a marriage to a sailor is nearly destroyed by her venal, money-hungry family. Yet Yordan was unable to find backers to fund a Broadway production. An unlikely source of interest came from the American Negro Theater, a Harlem company which sought out plays that offered non-traditional opportunities for black performers. Yordan made a few changes to the text and “Anna Lucasta” opened in Harlem in 1944. It created such a sensation that it moved downtown to Broadway and secured a three-year run. A touring company enjoyed a three-year stretch across the country (with a young Sidney Poitier in the ensemble) and the play later opened in London for a one-year run. Columbia Pictures paid a record $400,000 for the film rights to “Anna Lucasta,” but there was something of a problem: the studio did not want to make the film with an all-black cast. Hollywood productions with all-black casts were not common and usually they were musicals, such as “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather.” They were also not commercially successful. Unwilling to commit to breaking down a barrier regarding the film industry’s racial attitudes, Columbia cast Paulette Goddard and Broderick Crawford in their 1949 film version. The film was a critical and commercial failure.

Yet on the stage, “Anna Lucasta’ continued to be a popular property with both black and white casts. There was supposedly a Yiddish-language play starring Molly Picon as the doomed prostitute. In 1958, an independent production company acquired the screen rights and adapted the property to fit an all-black cast.

By this time, however, American society was changing dramatically. Civil rights activists had pressured Hollywood to lose the terrible stereotype roles traditionally given to blacks and to offer roles of greater depth and dignity. They got half of their wish: the Stepin Fetchit/Louise Beavers happy menial roles vanished from the screen, but very few worthwhile roles for African-Americans surfaced. Outside of rare productions like “Carmen Jones,” there was little for black actors to enjoy in regard to screen work. Except for Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge, no African-American actors received anything even vaguely resembling a challenging or memorable role…and even that celebrated and distinguished trio were rarely flooded with offers.

“Anna Lucasta” provided the rare chance for challenging dramatic performances by black actors. Strangely, the film’s leading roles were cast with two performers better known for their nightclub and variety show success than for any serious acting. Eartha Kitt, whose sultry and eccentric presence lit up the Broadway and film versions of “New Faces,” was better known for her campy cabaret act than for any meaningful dramatic endeavors, yet she was cast in the title role. Sammy Davis Jr., a nightclub cut-up who stole the Broadway revue “Mr. Wonderful,” made his feature film debut as the sailor. Whether or not the producers were previously aware, Kitt and Davis actually collaborated before on another project – an engagement to marriage which Kitt (the bigger star of the two) furiously cancelled when she discovered Davis was his using proposal to promote his own rising star.

The combination of inexperience in dramatic acting and their own volatile history doomed Kitt and Davis as an on-screen pair. Separately, each had the star power to command their respective scenes – they were the rare performers who commanded attention even when they were stuck in junk (Davis was given a strange but compelling dream sequence dance number that was not part of the original Yordan play). But together, they generated no electricity and their lack of on-screen rapport doomed “Anna Lucasta” as a love story. Vigorous supporting performances by Rosetta LeNoire, Frederick O’Neal and Rex Ingram invested as much energy as possible to distract from the problem with the leads, but it was not enough to make the concept work.

United Artists picked up the rights to the film, but selling the film was a tough call. All-black films were still not in demand, so white audiences were not flocking to see the film. Black audiences, invigorated by the civil rights audience, did not want to see films with negative stereotypes (the title character is a streetwalker, no one’s idea of a racial role model). And the relatively few who saw the film were not impressed with the end result. “Anna Lucasta,” not unlike its white predecessor, was a flop.

Over the years, “Anna Lucasta” gained importance. Not for its artistic value – time wasn’t that kind to it. But for being among the rare Hollywood productions to offer black performers a chance to shine. Neither Kitt nor Davis would ever enjoy substantial film stardom (Kitt continued in cabarets and found small screen immortality as Catwoman while Davis’ link to the Rat Pack ensured him concert and TV success for the rest of his career). Yet “Anna Lucasta” gave them a very rare chance to enjoy the level of performance importance which few black stars of that era ever obtained. They did not rise to the occasion, admittedly, but at least they got the chance to try.

“Anna Lucasta” turns up occasionally on cable television, but to date it never enjoyed a U.S. home video or DVD release. Unless there is a problem with Philip Yordan’s estate (he reportedly hated the film and the 1949 version, which is also not in circulation), it seems odd for the film to be absent. Bootleg videos based on the film’s cable television appearances can easily be found. Perhaps it is not the most essential bootleg viewing, it nonetheless is an interesting curio with some sociological importance. For that reason alone, its presence in The Bootleg Files is guaranteed.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on July 16, 2004 in Features by
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