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Proud Valley, The (1940)


Main image of Proud Valley, The (1940)
35mm, black and white, 77 mins
DirectorPenrose Tennyson
Production CompanyCAPAD (for Ealing Studios)
ProducerMichael Balcon
ScreenplayPenrose Tennyson, Jack Jones, Louis Golding
PhotographyGlen MacWilliams, Roy Kellino

Cast: Paul Robeson (David Goliath); Edward Chapman (Dick Parry); Simon Lack (Emlyn Parry); Rachel Thomas (Mrs Parry); Edward Rigby (Bert)

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An African-American coal miner is 'adopted' by a Welsh mining community in the year leading up to the outbreak of World War Two.

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The Proud Valley (d. Penrose Tennyson, 1940) was written for Paul Robeson by Herbert Marshall and his wife, Alfredda Brilliant. Both were associated with the left-wing Unity Theatre and, in 1938, Marshall had directed Robeson in Unity's Plant in the Sun.

The film is remarkable for its time for its believable working-class characters, not caricatures. Dick Parry (Edward Chapman) and his wife are not one-dimensional comic stereotypes but resourceful human beings, while the story affords Robeson's character a similar respect: David Goliath is a convincing working-class person, kind, generous and good-natured. It was extremely rare for a black character to be presented in this way in the 1930s and 1940s, when cinema audiences were used to seeing Stepin Fetchit playing the fool in American comedies.

However, not everyone was impressed. Graham Greene was particularly scathing in his review in The Spectator, describing David as a "big black Pollyanna", who kept "everybody cheerful and dying nobly at the end."

The Welsh actors in the supporting cast, notably Rachel Thomas, Charles Williams, Jack Jones (who also contributed to the script) and Clifford Evans, give the film its authenticity. The setting of the film is realistic, too. Some location work took place in the Rhondda Valley and working-class life (and death) isn't glamourised. The pit disaster at the end of the film, in which David is killed, is horrifying.

On 25 February 1940 The Proud Valley made history as the first film to be premiered on radio, when the BBC broadcast a sixty-minute version, reproduced from its soundtrack, on its Home Service. Its cinema release, on 8 March 1940 at the Leicester Square Theatre in London, was marred by the newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook, who banned any mention of Robeson and the film in his newspapers, apparently because of certain pro-Russian remarks Robeson had made before his return to America.

The film enabled Robeson to express his socialist beliefs and portray the struggles of the working-class people of South Wales, and he found making it a rewarding experience. "It was the one film I could be proud of having played in," he said, "That, and the early part of Song of Freedom."

After the film, Robeson was never forgotten in South Wales. In the years that the American government denied him a passport (1950-58), the Welsh people were among the most vocal and active groups who came to his support.

Stephen Bourne

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. The Eisteddfod (3:22)
2. 'Deep River' (3:27)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Big Fella (1937)
Borderline (1930)
King Solomon's Mines (1937)
Mining Review 2/11: A Star Drops In (1949)
Sanders of the River (1935)
Song of Freedom (1936)
Stars Look Down, The (1939)
Searching for Taid (1997)
Robeson, Paul (1898-1976)
Tennyson, Pen (1912-1941)
Black British Film
Ealing at War
From Pit to Screen
King Coal
Miners Above Ground