Playwright Eugene O'Neill's early work often combined memorable characters and stories with social commentary and innovative theatrical concepts--and among his first great successes was THE EMPEROR JONES, which starred perhaps the single finest black actor of the 1920s and 1930s, the legendary Paul Robeson. When United Artists purchased the screen rights, Robeson went with the package, and this 1933 film was the result.
The story concerns a black man of the depression era who lacks the moral stamina to resist the various temptations set before him, and who ultimately finds himself on a remote island where he uses his superior intellect and physically intimidating presence to set himself up as "Emperor." But his own past troubles have hardened him. Instead of ruling in justice, he uses his position to bleed the population--and they revolt against him.
But regretfully, this film isn't half as good as it could have been or a quarter as good as it should have been. On the stage, THE EMPEROR JONES had tremendous irony, for in so crushing his subjects Brutus Jones has essentially recreated the white American society that crushed him. Moreover, the staging was uniquely powerful, with the vast majority of the story played out as Jones runs through the jungle in an effort to escape his revolting subjects, all the while recalling the various events of his life that led him to the present moment. But the film version pretty much throws all of this out the window, preferring to downplay O'Neill's social commentary and reducing Jone's race through the jungle to a few scenes at the film's conclusion.
Robeson is a memorable actor, but he was still very new to the screen when this film was made, and although he is powerful his performance here is rather stagey in comparison with his later screen work. And while the film is occasionally interesting in a visual way, it simply doesn't have the courage to go all the way with O'Neil's origial vision. Fans of Robeson, O'Neil, and early 1930s film will find it an interesting failure, but most others should give it a miss.
GFT, Amazon.com Reviewer