Absolutely no one would bother to recall the 1939 all-black independent feature “Moon Over Harlem” had it not been produced and directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, the king of the B-Movies. Made in four days on an $8,000 (with a New Jersey cigar factory doubling as a studio and a genuine Harlem nightclub used for the musical numbers), the film is closer in style and substance to the sincere but ponderous “race films” created for black audiences in Jim Crow America than the taut, artistic productions one associates with Ulmer.
The plot is typical for the era: a gangster named Dollar Bill marries a wealthy widow, but uses her funds to play the horses. The widow’s young daughter also catches Dollar Bill’s fancy, but that girl’s boyfriend is a community activist who wants to rid Harlem of miscreants like his girlfriend’s new stepfather. It all winds up in a nightclub, where song and dance routines are intermixed with the tough guy shenanigans.
“Moon Over Harlem” packs seven songs into its 68 minute running time. It also packs in some of the worst acting ever put on camera. No one seems to know how to deliver dialogue, and there is an actress who clearly looks off-camera for assurance after delivering her lines.
One could argue that “Moon Over Harlem” offered African-Americans in situations far removed from the demeaning racial stereotyping coming out of Hollywood in that era. Yet the script is full of horrible stereotypes: a switchblade-swinging hot head, women boasting about abusive husbands, lighter-skinned women shown as sex symbols while darker-skinned women are viewed as comedy relief, and misogynist comments about women (albeit with more appreciation for their cooking than their booty).
A brief historic note: jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet has a cameo role, playing a musician at a wedding. This is the only known film footage of Bechet in performance.
Image Entertainment’s DVD presentation of “Moon Over Harlem” shows no signs of digital restoration. It looks like a cheap PD print put on DVD. It wasn’t worth the bother.