By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader
As we approach the end of Black History Month, I took this opportunity to go way back into the Black cinema vaults after I saw an online post about this movie starring Eartha Kitt and Sammy Davis Jr., as well as many from the crew of Harlem’s American Negro Theater (ANT). And the prize at the end of this review is a link to the movie where readers can watch it online for free. “Anna Lucasta” is a film based on a play that was originally played by white actors, both on stage and on the big screen.
According to the website Shadow and Act—which reports on film, television and web content of Africa and its Diaspora—the American Negro Theater premiered the play in 1944, to a smashing success. “So big a hit that the production later moved to Broadway and ran for three years, and was followed by the forming of a touring company for the play (with a very young Sidney Poitier in the cast; something that likely isn’t widely known), and it toured for three years across the country. There was even a London production that ran for a year; and other theater companies, Black and white, performed the play. At one time there was even a Yiddish production.”
Afterward, the film won financial backing from a group of independent producers, with many members from the ANT making up the cast that brought the Black version of the film to the big screen in 1958.
Shadow and Act further writes that: “This version of ‘Anna Lucasta’ made its premiere in, surprisingly, Chicago, in November 1958, and didn’t open in N.Y. or L.A. until two months after, in January 1959. The box office wasn’t great and neither were the reviews, which especially criticized Kitt and Davis for what the writers felt weren’t strong performances. Although that’s all very debatable. But the film is a genuine rarity – a Hollywood-backed, serious, dramatic Black film which was almost unheard of then back then, and, sadly, still is a rare occurrence almost 60 years later.”
Kitt plays Anna, and Davis plays Rudolph, who is a sailor and has been paying Anna for her services for a few years while she had been living in San Diego. She left her parents’ home after a continued strained relationship with her father. Rex Ingram, who was born in Cairo, Illinois, in 1895, plays Anna’s father, Joe. Ingram graduated from Northwestern University medical school
in 1919, according to online sources. Henry Scott plays Rudolph, the recent college graduate whose father is an old friend of Joe’s. Joe is concerned about making sure that Rudolph settles down and marries well, having a proper family. Frederick O’Neal, who was a co-founder of the American Negro Theater, plays Anna’s brother-in-law Frank.
Her family is devious about trying to grab what they know to be $4,000 from Rudolph’s paws, and they each have plans on just what can be done with it. The father isn’t excited about going to San Diego to persuade Anna to come back home, but he travels the short distance by bus from the neighboring town where the family lives to talk her into coming back home. Although the family seems to be doing well—they all live in the finely-appointed home together—they are not quite as successful as it appears. However, I’m sure the family enjoyed better trappings than they did while in their native home in Alabama. The sign on the porch advertises a public stenographer and also a billboard advertises an antique business. I imagine this family was just one of many who migrated from the South to California to escape Jim Crow conditions, and the “upward mobility” meter was alive and kicking. One theme I didn’t like in the movie was that of domestic violence, as I watched as the father pushed the mother down on the stairs and also as Davis hit Kitt at one point.
I agree with Shadow and Act about the film’s success being debatable. I enjoyed it, as I admired Kitt and fondly remember when the late Fine Arts columnist for this paper Dr. Theodore Charles Stone and I saw her perform at the Martin Theatre at Ravinia early in my Crusader career. I was mesmerized, as were many of the audience members, both male and female. And her performance erased the complaints that Dr. Stone levied at me about the muffler on my Saab being too loud and the car as a whole being too small. I understood that Dr. Stone had been accustomed to riding in bigger cars, and he probably felt a bit cramped. All in all, we had a great time together.
I always say that Kitt had the steak and the sizzle, compared to so-called big name female performers of today, who are mostly just sizzle. In “Anna Lucasta,” when Kitt walked in the room, she commanded everyone’s attention, and in some scenes the seductive music traced her every step.
You can look for the link elsewhere to possibly purchase the film, as it was once available on Netflix. But this link will allow you to watch it now. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=imVVIus6nB0