One of my weird pleasures of late has been reading my recently bought used copy of the New York Times Film Reviews 1959-1968 Volume 5 which contains literally every single film review that appeared in the newspaper during that decade. They are reprinted in the book they way they actually appeared in the newspaper with the same typesetting, photos and captions.
It’s heavy, huge book well over 700 pages and we’re talking THOUSANDS of movie reviews. It’s going to take me a while to get through it to say the least. And I have the New York Times Film Reviews 1969-1970 Volume 6 to get though next.
Why do you ask? Because 1) it’s fun and 2) literally EVERY SINGLE FILM that was made and released during the 1960′s opened in N.Y., even if it played for just one week and never opened in other parts of the country which was common back then.
But the other important reason is because I firmly believe that the 1960′s to the mid 70′s were the most important period of filmmaking ever. That was the period when filmmaking was, at least for me, at its most interesting and innovative. Boundaries were crossed. Taboos were broken. Movie studios and independent producers were willing to take risks. Cinema was more “adult”. And it was during that period when the MPAA movie ratings system was introduced – in November 1968 to be exact (TRIVIA: The Split starring Jim Brown was the first film to be rated “R”) Filmmaking changed forever – for better and for worse.
Reading though the book I’ve discovered countless movies that I’ve never heard of before and I thought I had heard of everything. But one film that really stood out when I read a review of it, but totally unknown to me, was the black dramatic musical film The Crowning Experience which opened N.Y. in late October 1960. However the film originally opened months earlier in Los Angeles in February that same year. But I could not find any information if it ever played anywhere else in the country, nor could I find a single video clip from the film. It’s been lost to faded memory.
The film was actually based on a touring stage play based on the life of Dr Mary McLeod Bethune, the pioneering educator and civil rights activist who became an advsior to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, though in the film she’s called Emma Tremaine played by Murial Smith.
The film has an unusual backstory. It was produced, financed and self-distributed by a pacifist anti- Communist religious group (some called it a cult) known as Moral Re-Armament that was based in Mackinac Island, Michigan and which believed that people needed to be armed not with guns, but with a “new moral outlook”
And the film was directed by three directors, Rickard (that’s the way it’s spelled) Tegstrom (who was a cinematographer, including one film Freedom, which was made in Nigeria in the late 50′s and written by Nigerian screenwriers), Harold Schuster who had directed a few features before Experience including a Tarzan movie and some TV episodes and Marion Clayton Anderson who was an actress who appeared in a few Hollywood movies, but also acted in several plays produced by Moral Re-Armament.
The lead actress, Murial Smith, played the original Carmen Jones on Broadway in the early 40′s (long before Dorothy Dandridge in the 1954 film version) and did some voiceover singing work for movies where her voice was dubbed in for actresses in musical numbers. Experience was one of only three movies she actually appeared in and her only major role of substance.
Other than that the film is a complete mystery That is, except for this other still from the film which is captioned: “Communist agents plotting to destroy an American Negro university by subverting top students”
If that doesn’t make you at least a tiny bit curious to see this film, then I don’t know what will. But it definitely makes one wonder how many other black films were made that are now lost and forgotten, never seen again since their, no doubt, very limited theatrical release. I can think of some just from the 1970′s alone. They’re now faded prints in some warehouse or basement slowly rotting away. That is if there a print of them that still exists. Some of them could be real gems hoping to be one day discovered once again
And for the record, The N.Y. Times gave The Crowning Experience a favorable review.