Sat 1 Aug 2015
TWO-GUN MAN FROM HARLEM. Merit Pictures, 1938. Herb Jeffrey, Marguerite Whitten, Mantan Moreland, Clarence Brooks, “Stymie” Beard, Spencer Williams, Mae Turner. Screenwriter-Director: Richard C. Kahn
An all-black Western from the 1930s, beneath contempt for most critics, but I enjoyed it.
Now I know many of you out there hang on my words with slavish devotion, but I should warn potential viewers that Two-Gun has its short-comings: bad script, bad acting, low budget, insipid stunt work and continuity gaffes that could give you whiplash — the usual results of a lack of time and money. There is, however, a magic in the movies that can transcend these things for those who are spiritually attuned or simply deficient in critical judgment, and I must be one or the other.
Star Herb Jeffrey has real screen presence; and I mean when he walks in, he dominates the tawdry screen around him just as Bogart, Gable and Flynn ruled their more sumptuous surroundings. In his flashy cowboy-hero garb or “disguised” as a bad guy, he moves with that natural assurance that distinguishes the Western Hero, and he carries a tune (yes, this is a singing western) as well as any of them.
Two-Gun is actually a re-make of a 1931 film, Two-Gun Caballero, a film now considered lost, though it may simply be hiding. Whatever the case, it’s B-Western boiler plate about a man accused of murder who flees the scene, assumes a new identity, and returns in disguise (not terribly convincing, but it seems to fool even those who knew him well) to sort things out.
If you were charitable or trying to sell the film, you might refer to it as “noirish” since the killing in question is of a rancher done in by his wife’s lover — the old Postman Rings Twice thing — in her presence. The wife (Mae Turner) frames the hero to clear her paramour, but when she starts pressing her boyfriend for a commitment, he contracts with a local outlaw (Spencer Williams) to have her killed. Which is when our hero re-emerges, disguised as a notorious killer from Harlem—hence the title of the piece.
But this flick is not so much Noir as simply Black. Academics might call it an attempt to translate the prominent cultural iconography of its day into distinctly ethnic terms. To the rest of us, it’s just a B-western made primarily by African-American actors, aimed at that segregated niche market in its day.
Mantan Moreland is (surprise!) the comedy relief here, and at first I thought his capable talents were going to be wasted in an unrewarding part as Jeffrey’s side-kick with very little screen time and no worthwhile dialogue at all. Then, late in the picture, Jeffrey warns the local outlaw to get out and “…Don’t look back; remember what happened to Lot’s wife.”
A few minutes later we’re back in the Outlaw Hideout, where Mantan has infiltrated the gang as a cook (?!) and bad-guy Spencer Williams pauses in the middle of some trifling skullduggery, turns to Mantan and says, “Hey. What happened to Lot’s wife?”
Which is all the excuse this veteran funnyman needs to launch into an extended biblical riff about how Lot’s wife was running around on him “…and the neighbors started scandalizin’ on her (You know how they do.) and one day she was leaving her boyfriend’s place….. ‘Your husband’s coming, Honey!’…. commenced to running…. and it rained 40 days and 40 nights… and she sat down to rest and couldn’t move because she was turned to salt… more rain… salt melting…and that spot where she sat down is where Salt lake City is today.”
And I guess it’s moments like that which will keep Two-Gun Man from Harlem on my mind long after much better films have been forgotten.