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Broken StringsBroken Strings

(American, 1940, 85 minutes, b&w, 16mm)

Directed by Bernard B. Ray

Clarence Muse . . . . . . . . . . Arthur Williams
Sybil Lewis . . . . . . . . . . Gracie Williams
William Washington . . . . . . . . . .Johnny Williams
Tommiwitta Moore . . . . . . . . . . Mary
Matthew "Stymie" Boeard . . . . . . . . . . Dickey Morley

Broken Strings will be preceded by two classic jazz shorts, Rhapsody in Black and Blue (1932), with Louis Armstrong, and Symphony in Black (1935), with Duke Ellington and an unbilled appearance by Billie Holliday.

The Jim Crow cinema of the 1930's and 1940's resembled Black medicine, the law, education, religion, and sports of that time; it was an imitation of a white institutions' that was forbidden to Blacks. Around the nation, and with almost no coordination, a Black theater circuit arose to meet the demands of a culturally disenfranchised audience. In the South, there were all-Black theaters in cities and large towns, while in the North, all-Black theaters flourished in the "Black Belts" of cities like Chicago, New York, and Detroit. Segregation was a system not only of exclusion, but also of economic exploitation, so white theater owners sought ways to get at Black earnings while still withholding the honors of full citizenship. Thus, in large Southern cities and small, balconies of theaters were "reserved" for Blacks, and in other places, white theaters gave over a day to Black films and audiences.

Black theaters--just like the more well-remembered Paramounts, Foxes, and Orpheums--needed films, and they got them from the makers of Black cast films like Broken Strings. Production values were vastly scaled down from Hollywood's florid sets, backlots, and costumes, and the films were usually shorter, often to allow Black cast films to serve as the second feature on a double bill with a Hollywood film featuring a well-known Black actor like Hattie McDaniel or Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. The genres of the Black cinema often mimicked those of the Hollywood cinema. There were Black gangster films, Black musicals, and Black mysteries. Black short subjects and newsreels proliferated. There were even Black westerns like The Bronze Buckaroo and Harlem Rides the Range. Though the Black cinema sometimes dealt with matters unique to the Black experience, such as "passing," few cultural forms testify so well to the power of the integrationist dream in Black life than a cinema that so frequently copied the genre forms of the white cinema.

As in every other Jim Crow'd American institution, a "separate but equal" cinema was a myth. In the Jim Crow cinema, there was never a successful Black "studio" like MGM or Warner Brothers. Instead, there were feisty entrepreneurs who bankrolled a film or two at a time out of what they hoped would be the receipts of those films. Some of these entrepreneurs were genuine auteurs, formidable writer-actor-producer-director combinations like Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams, whose talents are finally being recognized, a hundred years or more after their births. Most other Black cinema producers had more limited artistic ambitions. Their "distribution network" was often nothing more than a set of personal relationships with owners of Black theaters. And yet, against odds, the Black cinema flourished, offering opportunities for Black writers and stars, in particular, that were firmly denied them by the Hollywood hierarchy. It was a brief ascendancy. By the middle of the 1950's, the Black cinema had begun its steep and swift decline. The Civil Rights era would bring integration to the cinema, and end the need for a specifically Black cinema. The all-Black houses throughout the South, theaters like the New Daisy and the Handy in Memphis, suffered as Black patrons were allowed into the posher quarters of the formerly off-limits white theaters. Suddenly, by the middle 1960's, the Black cast cinema was a memory. The films of those years were forgotten with alacrity. Their down-at-the heels production values now seemed tawdry, rather than brave, and their portrayals of an upward striving Black middle class were embarrassingly accommodationist in an era of developing Black nationalism. The last, battered prints of the Black cast films moldered in theater basements and musty downtown warehouses and hall closets -- or were simply junked.

Broken Strings was one of these films, unremembered until a decade ago. Its auteur was Clarence Muse, a distinguished Black actor and writer. Muse had a long career in film, stretching from 1929 to his death in 1979, but his relationship to Hollywood was a Faustian one. After completing his law degree from Dickinson College, Muse became a theatrical Renaissance man, composing, singing, dancing, and acting on the legitimate stage, in vaudeville, and on the concert stage. Muse helped to found the prestigious Lafayette Players of Harlem, and was by the 1920's renowned as one of the most versatile and talented of Black theatrical artists. Yet, in scores of Hollywood films like So Red the Rose and Broadway Bill, Muse often played benevolent, childlike "Uncle Mose" characters, loyal family retainers on plantation estates or Pullman porters or creaky stable "boys" whose greatest joy seemed to be in serving his white charges. For artists like Muse, the work in Hollywood was as maddening as it was remunerative. Not surprisingly, many of Hollywood's Black stars had parallel careers in the Black cast films. In 1938 and 1939, Muse co-wrote two Black cast films for producer Bernard Ray. The first was Way Down South, and the second was Broken Strings, a drama of generational conflict and cultural change destined for the Black motion picture circuit. Muse plays a classical musician. An accident has left him partially crippled, unable to fulfill his dream of stardom on the classical stage. He channels his frustrated passion for the music into the career of his young son, a burgeoning classical musician in his own right. But the boy is torn between the classical music his father has taught him to respect, and the swing music he has come to love. In the film's climactic sequence, their differences, musical and personal, are exuberantly resolved. Film scholar Krin Gabbard has noted how similar Broken Strings is to another drama of American generational conflict in an American minority, a conflict also expressed in music: 1927's The Jazz Singer. There is more: in Broken Strings, the father's disability is also a remarkable racial allegory. The Black men and women born between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the new century had endured a new oppression to replace the old, economic slavery to supplant the shackles of chattel slavery. But, for their children, new possibilities loomed; the New Deal was incubating the nascent Civil Rights movement, and maybe, just maybe, justice, though long delayed, might no longer be denied. The mainstreaming and integration of swing jazz in the late 1930's and early 1940's, an emphatically Black-derived artistic form, was a powerful image of American integration, a musical preview of how the races might finally live and prosper together. Broken Strings is a deceptively minor film; in fact, its oblique message of cultural change, worked out quietly and efficiently in its terse 60-minute running time, offered to segregated audiences a hint of what Roi Ottley, in his study of Black life published in 1943, would call A New World A' Comin'.

It would take another generation before someone figured out how vital these films once were to the parents and grandparents of the Civil Rights generation. For film actors and screenwriters, the Black cast films gave opportunity where opportunity was otherwise refused. In their stories of struggling upward, dramas like Broken Strings offered metaphors of dignity in a wider society to a population which was rarely permitted the reality of acceptance by that society. And when, at last, Blacks and whites alike came to understand just how much these "little" films had meant to us all, then, finally, those basements and warehouses and closets were scoured for what remained of this unlikely but sublime cultural heritage. Watch Broken Strings, this short, sometimes awkward little film, and then see what far more elaborate Hollywood productions could never achieve: a swinging picture of resolution and hope that spoke to the soul of its audience.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

The following is taken from Blacks in American Films and Television: An Encyclopedia (1988) by Donald Bogle:

Produced and directed outside Hollywood, this melodrama focusing on a concert violinist in conflict with himself and his son (a bright kid who prefers swing music to his father’s classics) remains one of the most entertaining of the independently made all-black films of the 1930s and 1940s…[and] it was definitely an alternative for black movie audiences weary of Hollywood’s comic stereotyped depictions of black characters. Actor Clarence Muse, whose Hollywood servant roles were usually distinguished by the actor’s innate sense of self-respect, finally had a chance to play a high-falutin’, dignified professional man. And you can almost see him delighting in every highbrow moment…. Possibly, it’s his best movie role and it should be: after all, he cowrote the script!… fast-moving and fun.

The following is taken from a review of "Broken Strings" appeared in the Pittsburgh Courier, March 25, 1940. Established in 1907, the Pittsburgh Courier was once the country's most widely circulated black newspaper with a national circulation of almost 200,000 in the 1930s and ‘40s.

The motion picture "Broken Strings" is an artistic triumph! Here is a Negro movie that tops anything and everything that has been done… Mr. Muse’s portrayal of a concert violinist who thought that swing music desecrated the very word "music" is indeed masterful.

Probably for the first time, women will shed a tear viewing an all-colored cast film. This is an extraordinary picture in that it contains no gun shooting. It tells the simple story of an ordinary family; the father whose fiddling fingers become impaired in an auto mishap; a son and a daughter who loved their father to the extent that they violated his commands in order to aid him….

The picture is also extraordinary because you see Negroes conducting successful businesses. The vices of the Negro are subordinated and the virtues are extolled. Every Negro who does a tiny bit of meanness either has a redeeming feature or is penalized. You will see Negro bank tellers… neat and trim Negro nurses. Jess Lee Brooks plays a surgeon of the type of [leading black doctor and newspaper columnist] Dr. A. Wilberforce Williams.

Music predominates. There is not one spiritual in the entire picture. It is a fight between the classics and swing. And you will hear plenty of the classics.

Clarence Muse can well be proud of his role in this picture… He was the Clarence Muse of old, playing as he did years ago when he paced across the stage in such [all-black theatrical] hits as "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and "Trilby." [Here you’ll find him] playing a role where he could run the gamut of emotion… his greatest screen characterization yet.

The following profile of Clarence Muse by Richard Corliss appeared in Time magazine, April 25, 2002:

Take the four most piquant black actress of the [1930s and ‘40s] — Nina Mae McKinney, Fredi Washington, Josephine Baker and Lena Horne — and add up their film credits: 55, according to the International Movie Database. Born in 1889, Clarence Muse amassed at least 140 movie acting credits (18 in 1932 alone) in a film career than spanned a half century, from a starring role in the 1929 "Hearts of Dixie" to a supporting part in "The Black Stallion" in 1979 (the year he died).

A sturdily built man whose demeanor signaled earned wisdom and a sensible pride, Muse was resourceful and adaptable enough to find work and make it work for him. He acted on TV, playing Sam in the 50s TV series "Casablanca." He wrote scripts for two films: the 1939 musical "Way Down South," a collaboration with Langston Hughes (the only movie work the poet-playwright-essayist did), and, the following year, "Broken Strings," a sweet-tempered indie drama in which Muse starred. An impressive resume. Just as impressive is that he achieved this screen familiarity without bending overmuch to the meanest stereotypes expected of black actors.

Muse played his share of chauffeurs, Pullman porters, janitors, butlers, waiters and shoeshine men — but that speaks to Hollywood's limitations, not his. If the actor were to have appeared in roles closer to his own experience, he might have played lawyers (he had a degree in International Law), composers (he co-wrote the hit "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" and helped score six movies), theater people (he starred in Dubose Heyward's "Porgy," and directed plays for the Federal Theatre Project) and community leaders (he was an executive of the Hollywood Victory Committee during World War II).

In the race movie "Broken Strings," well directed by western-movie specialist Bernard B. Ray, Muse is a violin virtuoso who turns bitter when he loses use of his left hand and is reduced to teaching the instrument he can no longer play. Muse's Arthur Williams is part Svengali, part Phantom of the Opera, and a big part any adult frustrated by the seeming lack of dedication the young bring to their studies. It's the rare film, for black or white audiences, in which good people can seem heartless or insubordinate for the best reasons, and where classical music gets the upper hand over le jazz hot. At the end, the teacher learns a thing or two about the music his loving children love to play. "My heart still belongs to the Masters," he says, referring to Beethoven and Bach, not plantation slave lords, "but look what swing has done for me!"

In his film work, Muse was a virtuoso and a teacher too. He taught the white audience that a black man could be a person of substance, complexity and moral grandeur. That was quite an accomplishment then; it's not all that common now.

The following is from an article by Eric Allen Hatch that appeared in the Baltimore City Paper, Jan. 15, 2003:

[Muse’s] early roles frequently called for offensive racial stereotypes, but Muse worked to rise above the material, occasionally writing better roles for himself or performing more rewarding roles in independent productions. [Film scholar Michael] Johnson assesses Muse as a "very underrated but very good actor. He played in some pictures that we're all not proud of, but he had to eat, too."….

Despite Muse's prodigious filmography, few studies or histories are devoted to his work, and many film reference guides give him short shrift. For instance, the recently published American Film Institute Desk Reference contains an entry for Stepin Fetchit--the show-business moniker of Lincoln Perry, now synonymous with the subservient characters he often portrayed--but none for Muse. Even Muse's Associated Press obituary, as carried in The Sun, amounted to only four scant paragraphs, terming him "a pioneer film actor" without mention of his race or the prejudices he battled.

Because he largely performed supporting roles in primarily white productions, Muse was seen as separate from the African-American star system typified by more popular leading men like Ralph Cooper. In [the 1979 documentary], An Interview With Clarence Muse, Muse, talking shortly before his death, argues that these supporting roles contained the secret to his longevity. He quickly realized, he says, that Hollywood stars generally enjoyed only short-lived popularity, whereas the need for character actors never diminished. In taking supporting roles, he argues, he ensured that the stars who came and went would end up supporting him.

The following discussion of "race films" is adapted from the webpage of the African American Cinema Collection, Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University:

Seventy-five years before the advent of African American film making in Hollywood, a little known independent film industry produced more than five hundred movies made primarily for black audiences. From the 1910s through the 1940s, these race films were a direct response to segregation in the mainstream Hollywood film industry. Here black audiences for the first time witnessed themselves on screen as professional, educated, ambitious people rather than the docile or deceitful characters of Hollywood films. White film makers, including Richard Norman, and black directors such as William Foster, Noble and George Johnson, and Oscar Micheaux offered an insider’s perspective on black life in early twentieth-century America.

While race films and black movie theatres became less prominent during the 1940s, several "crossover" actors rose to prominence in Hollywood, gaining star status and finally breaking away from playing the traditional servants, brutes, and performers. Even the "traditional" roles became more complex (although often archetypical or caricatured) as "integration" motion pictures gained popularity.

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