Ray Enright's 1930 musical Golden Dawn should be filed under the “What Were They Thinking” department. Warner Bros. certainly wasn't expecting commercial or popular success with this demented story set in darkest East Africa during World War I.
The plot goes as follows: the Germans are holding British prisoners. The “natives” are preparing for a marriage between the incredibly light-skinned Dawn (Vivienne Segal) to a religious statue of Mulungu. The white occupiers frown on such heathen practices, especially if it involves a Caucasian-looking native girl. Of course, things are not as they seem when it comes to Dawn's true ethnic background, but that comes later in the story.
Needless to say, all this craziness is not nearly as dramatic as it sounds. After all, Golden Dawn is a musical from an operetta written by Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II, with music by Emmerich Kalman and Herbert Stothart. (Walter Anthony adapted it for the screen.)
In my view, the most interesting aspect of the film version is how it portrays interracial “relationships.” Shep (silent film villain Noah Beery), the black-as-night overseer of the prison camp, has power and authority over the white men. That is, of course, until a more virile and younger white man (Walter Woolf) appears on the scene.
Dawn and the leading white guy fall in love, so they sing a lot together. Dawn even gets to screech a song about “My Bwana”:
Who has brave and tender eyes…
Who is sensible and wise…
On the positive side, Lupino Lane, a nimble little athlete with an agile body, is good in his specialty song-and-dance number “In a Jungle Bungalow,” but the film's biggest musical surprise is Noah Beery's Shep. When he comes popping out of the bushes singing “The Whip Song,” he is literally dripping his black body make-up all over his costume. (Beery's armpits are literally soaked in sweat from the blazing hot lights.) Surprisingly, his performance is quite believable – unlike those of the rest of the cast.
I could never figure out why there was a white woman in the prison camp, except to provide comic relief. Marion Byron, however, must be credited for brightening up the proceedings with a lively musical number or two. And I particularly liked the fact that the characters speak different dialects: some of the natives have cultured British accents, others speak in pidgin English. Noah Beery, for his part, uses a Southern American black vernacular – in East Africa.
This supreme melange of native superstition and (alleged) interracial love was filmed in Two-Strip Technicolor (most of it gone). In addition to all the sweat on Noah Beery's T-shirt, the hot lighting would be the reason for the filmmakers' delirious attempt to take Golden Dawn seriously.
That said, today it all adds up to campy prison-camp fun…
© Danny Fortune
Golden Dawn (1930). Dir.: Ray Enright. Scr.: Walter Anthony; from Otto A. Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II's operetta. Cast: Walter Woolf, Vivienne Segal, Noah Beery, Alice Gentle, Dick Henderson, Lupino Lane, Edward Martindel, Marion Byron, Nina Quartero, Sojin, Otto Matieson, Julanne Johnston.
More on Golden Dawn at the Vitaphone Varieties website.