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Big Fella (1937)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Big Fella (1937)
35mm, black and white, 73 mins
DirectorJ. Elder Wills
Production CompanyBritish Lion Film Corporation
ScenarioFenn Sherie, Ingram D'Abbes
PhotographyGeorge Stretton, H.A.R. Thomson
MusicEric Ansell

Cast: Paul Robeson (Joe); Elisabeth Welch (Manda); Eldon Grant (Gerald Oliphant); Roy Emerton (Spike); Marcelle Rogez (Lorietta)

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On the Marseilles waterfront, a happy-go-lucky wanderer is hired to search for the missing son of a wealthy English couple.

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This charming, light-hearted musical was loosely based on the novel Banjo by Claude McKay (1889-1948), a popular Jamaican writer of the Harlem Renaissance.

Set in a racially integrated community on the Marseilles waterfront, Big Fella (d. J Elder Wills, 1937) was conceived as a vehicle for the singing of Paul Robeson and Elisabeth Welch. One of the best sequences is the musical interlude in the Café Cosmo when Robeson and the waterfront community sing 'Roll Up, Sailorman'. Robeson's delivery is a joy.

Most of the supporting cast is excellent and the film includes roles for the two most influential African-Americans in Robeson's life. One of his pals, Corney, is played by Lawrence Brown, his gifted accompanist and arranger from 1925-63. The role of the Café Cosmo proprietress is taken by Robeson's wife, Eslanda.

Robeson and Welch are perfectly matched, and it is almost impossible to think of another film of the period that depicts a romantic involvement between a black couple. American films of the time portrayed black couples as asexual, comical, childlike servants, for example the characters portrayed by Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Hattie McDaniel in the Shirley Temple vehicle The Little Colonel (US, d. David Butler, 1935).

When Big Fella was released in America, several black critics expressed their dissatisfaction with Robeson for perpetuating what they saw as the stereotypical role of a lazy good-for-nothing. However, they overlooked the opportunities the film gave Robeson to sing magnificently and to play a leading role of warmth and charm, something denied to him in American cinema.

Big Fella suffered the fate of other European films of the 1930s starring African-American expatriates (e.g. Zouzou (France, d. Marc Allégret, 1934) with Josephine Baker): lack of distribution in America on release and limited availability since.

For years it was impossible to view the film, and for this reason studies of Robeson's films barely mention it, and, if they do, it is usually dismissed as lightweight rubbish, not worthy of the great man. This is a shame for, in spite of its faults (low budget, some terrible acting by supporting players), it remains one of the few films to have black stars in romantic leading roles.

Stephen Bourne

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Video Clips
1. 'Roll Up Sailorman' (4:03)
2. The kidnap (5:02)
3. Looking after fellas (0:56)
4. 'Harlem In My Heart' (1:58)
Production stills
Borderline (1930)
King Solomon's Mines (1937)
Proud Valley, The (1940)
Sanders of the River (1935)
Song of Freedom (1936)
Real Money (1996)
Robeson, Eslanda (1896-1965)
Robeson, Paul (1898-1976)
Rutherford, Margaret (1892-1972)
Welch, Elisabeth (1908-2003)