- Golden Dawn (1930) movie review: Featuring white colonizers, black “natives,” and silent era villain Noah Beery in blackface, Ray Enright’s East Africa-set musical adventure has something to offend, amuse, and/or bore everyone.
Golden Dawn movie review: Creaky operetta not recommended for the easily outraged or the easily bored
Based on Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1927 operetta, with music by Emmerich Kalman and future MGM composer Herbert Stothart, Ray Enright’s 1930 two-color Technicolor musical Golden Dawn (only a black-and-white copy survives) should be filed in the “What Were They Thinking” movie history folder.
True, the Broadway operetta ran for five months, but Warner Bros. surely wasn’t expecting to attain commercial success with this demented story set in darkest East Africa during World War I, particularly at a time when movie musicals had mostly become synonymous with box office poison in the United States.
Adapted for the screen by silent era title writer Walter Anthony (The Cat and the Canary, The Man Who Laughs), the basic Golden Dawn plot goes as follows:
World War I is raging. In East Africa, the Germans are holding British prisoners while the “natives” are preparing for a marriage between the incredibly light-skinned Dawn (recent Broadway import Vivienne Segal) to a religious statue of Mulungu.
The white occupiers frown on such heathen practices, especially since it involves a Caucasian-looking local girl. Needless to say, things are not as they seem when it comes to Dawn’s true ethnic background, but that comes later in the story.
Anyhow, it’s too bad that all this craziness is not nearly as dramatic as it sounds.
In my view, the most interesting element in Golden Dawn is its portrayal of interracial “relationships.”
Shep (silent film villain Noah Beery, brother of MGM star Wallace 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 guy, Tom Allen (movie newcomer Walter Woolf King), appears on the scene.
Dawn and Tom fall in love, so they sing a lot together. Dawn even gets to screech a ditty about “My Bwana”:
Who has brave and tender eyes…
Who is sensible and wise…
Blackfaced Noah Beery surprises
Elsewhere, Lupino Lane (uncle of 1940s Warner star Ida Lupino) proves himself a nimble little athlete with an agile body, capably performing his specialty song-and-dance number “In a Jungle Bungalow.”
Yet Golden Dawn’s biggest musical surprise is Noah Beery’s Shep.
When Shep comes popping out of the bushes singing “The Whip Song,” he is literally dripping his black body make-up all over his costume, his armpits soaked in sweat from the blazing hot movie-set lights.
But what matters is that Beery’s characterization – unlike those of the rest of the cast – is believable.
What’s a white woman like you…?
While watching Golden Dawn, I could never figure out why there was a white woman in the German-operated prison camp, except to provide comic relief. Buster Keaton leading lady Marion Byron (Steamboat Bill Jr.) must be credited for brightening up the proceedings with a lively musical number or two.
Something else: I particularly liked the fact that the film’s characters speak different dialects. For instance, some of the Africans have cultured British accents, others speak in pidgin English. Noah Beery, for his part, uses a Southern American black vernacular.
The dangers of studio lighting
Besides creating all that sweat on Noah Beery’s T-shirt, the hot lighting must have be the reason for the filmmakers’ delirious attempt to take seriously this supreme melange of “native” superstition and (purported) interracial love.
That said, today it all adds up to campy prison-camp fun…
Golden Dawn (1930)
Director: Ray Enright.
Screenplay: Walter Anthony.
From Otto A. Harbach & Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1927 operetta.
Cast: Walter Woolf King (as Walter Woolf). Vivienne Segal. Noah Beery. Alice Gentle. Lupino Lane. Dick Henderson. Edward Martindel. Marion Byron. Nina Quartero. Sojin. Otto Matieson. Julanne Johnston.
“Golden Dawn: Warners’ UnPC ‘Race Relations’ Musical Extravaganza” review text © Danny Fortune; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
Golden Dawn (1930) Movie Review” endnotes
Vivienne Segal musicals
Golden Dawn was one of four 1930 two-color Technicolor musicals starring Vivienne Segal at First National/Warner Bros.
The first two titles are lost; a Technicolor print of the third title survives.
Golden Dawn movie poster: Warner Bros.
“Golden Dawn: Warners’ UnPC ‘Race Relations’ Musical Extravaganza” last updated in October 2021.