Black Filmmaking in the 1920s: “The Melancholy Dame”

It took me a minute to choose which movie I’d watch and review today because there was simply so much going on in the 1920s. Besides the Ku Klux Klan marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. in 1925, I learned that Oscar DePriest, a Black Republican from Chicago became the first of his race to be elected to Congress from a district north of the Mason-Dixon Line in 1928. During this same decade, African American jazz reached a broader audience by way of radio broadcasts and Black dance crazes like the Charleston spread like wildfire.

When technology partnered sound with film in 1927, talking pictures or “talkies” quickly replaced silent films and folks were able to see and hear greats like Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, and Bessie Smith perform wherever there was an accessible theater. I watched all of these 1920 talkies and more, marveling at these first Black music videos, overcome with the emotion of these bold expressions of personal freedom.

I was expecting another music video when I clicked on The Melancholy Dame (1929) but was pleasantly surprised. In this film, Jonquil Williams (Evelyn Preer) is married to dancer and club owner Permanent Williams (Edward Thompson). Because Jonquil does not appreciate the undeniable chemistry between dancer Sappho Dill (Roberta Hyson) and her husband, Jonquil demands that Permanent fires both Sappho and Sappho’s own talented pianist husband Webster Dill (Spencer Williams Jr.).  Permanent refuses to do so because both Sappho and Webster are great for business. Also, Permanent used to be married to Sappho! Sappho reveals to Permanent that though she never told Permanent’s name to Webster, she did manage to tell Webster that her nameless first husband was abusive. Permanent, fearing that Webster will beat him senseless should the pianist discover Permanent’s identity, agrees to keep the performing duo on staff and give them a pay raise.

FUN FACT: Evelyn Preer was married to Edward Thompson in real life and often played as one half of a comedic duo with Roberta Hyson—one of the few darker-skinned early Black actresses who was not relegated to stereotypical roles of maids and mammies.

Unaware of Permanent’s and Sappho’s agreement, Jonquil takes matters into her own hands and arranges a meeting with Sappho to fire her once and for all. At the meeting, however, Jonquil learns of Permanent’s past nuptials. Suspecting that Webster is ignorant of the earlier marriage, Jonquil promptly tells Webster. Permanent tries and fails to evade the musician upon Webster’s discovery of the truth. But once Permanent and Webster speak to each other, Permanent discovers that Webster also is interested in divorcing Sappho because Sappho doesn’t “act right.”

This film reminded me a lot of Coming to America. Like the modern Eddie Murphy comedy, The Melancholy Dame starred an all-Black cast but was written and produced by white filmmakers and therefore included stereotypical portrayals of Black speech dialects and relationships. Nevertheless, and just like with Coming to America, I could not help but laugh at the jokes and especially the dialogue between the characters. My favorite lines include:

“Them ain’t no kind of thoughts for you to be thinkin’!”

“Why was I to tell her that, Sappho, you and I would be attending a concert and the music would be playin’ soft and low but you and I wouldn’t be able to hear none of it.”

“I thank you for them cornbreads, Mr. Williams. I gotta eat with you but I ain’t cravin to make no talk.”

“I ain’t never known that so many words could make such a little bit of sense.”

There’s one line in particular that stood out to me and made me wonder about the state of marriage among Blacks following emancipation:

I ain’t gon make you no breakfast, you big fat lazy hippopotamus. Does you thinks you’s married to a servant?” ***** Post continues below image. *****

Image courtesy of IMDB.

I already knew that Black women like Angelina Weld Grimké, Mary Burnett Talbert, and Nannie Helen Burroughs were some of the most prominent advocates for women’s rights, equality, and suffrage during the decade. However, I had not quite realized what Black women faced in terms of marriage. As this resource explains, Black women newly freed from domination by a white master could ONLY access economic rights such as land, home and business ownership through a husband. There was no inheritance for them. Those women who relied on agribusiness for income often married at a young age and became little more than maidservants to their spouses in order to gain any sort of personal wealth. Society also deemed them morally responsible for their husband’s behavior (ie. philandering, alcoholism, drug addiction). This inequality was codified in both marriage contracts and business contracts as these women often received payment through their husbands or male representatives. 

The character of Sappho Dill apparently didn’t play that mess and the 1920s afforded her that luxury. The decade was a time of great economic prosperity across all populations, and according to the U.S. Department of Labor, women constituted 21-25% of the workforce particularly in Northern states and in areas of the country where clerical work, factory work, and store clerk roles were available. Because working women had more autonomy to marry for love instead of survival, effectively divorce rates rose.

Were flappers like Sappho still getting married? Yes. This article expounds on how marriage was still considered an ideal, but goodness how the times were changing and oh, how they would continue to change.

Until tomorrow.

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