Oscar Micheaux's crime melodrama Lying Lips (1939) takes its title from scripture: "Let their lying lips be speechless, since they speak against righteous people" [Psalm 31:18].
Opening in a crowded after-hours jazz club, Elsie Bellwood (Edna Mae Harris) is singing the Johnny Mercer tune "You Must've Been a Beautiful Baby," establishing a Harlem renaissance mood at once.
Despite recording equipment that was funky & outdated even in 1939, Micheaux manages to capture a really nice little musical performance. Harris was a successful recording artist who toured in the '30s & '40s, along with Lena Horne, with the Noble Sissle swing orchestra. She also performs on the Pigmeat Martin comedy records.
She was a big star during the heyday of black cinema, thanks mainly to Oscar Micheaux using her regularly, plus she was one of the stage stars for Green Pastures & reprised the role of Zeba for the film version in 1936.
Lying Lips leaps from the jazz number into the crime story. Elizabeth Landry Green (Frances E. Williams) arrives in the office of club owner Farina (Don Delese). She informs him that a couple gangsters will be using the private apartment for an after-hours party. They're demanding "a half-dozen of our girls to entertain them, including Elsie."
Elsie's a good girl. Elizabeth & Farina well know she won't do a private party with those thugs. They'll rent the room for $200 with only random girls, but with Elsie they'll pay $500. Farina would just as soon not make the extra money. "The girl is a hundred percent for the joint for what she's been hired for. No, I can't tell a girl to do what I know is not just right or get out. I'm a gangster, but I still haven't sunk that low."
But Elizabeth thinks Farina should hire a different club manager, one who'll twist the singer's arm if that's what it takes to make her obedient. And she thinks one of her own brothers should be the guy. "And I'll guarantee that Elsie Bellwood will be doing just what the joint wants her to." Farina says, "Nothing doing Elizabeth. I beat up men. I'll never go in for getting rough with a woman."
Meanwhile out in Farina's club, we're treated to a great performance of the wonderful jazz standard "Some of These Days," a gleefully swishy performance by Elizabeth's brother John Landry (Cherokee Thornton, a Broadway performer, Bahamian by birth). We'll later see quite a good tapdancer in the club, but for some reason he's totally uncredited, nor are we informed who the bandleader is.
Farina gives a talking-to his manager Benny Hadnot (Carmen Newman), but Hadnot outright refuses to strong-arm Elsie. He says, "I hope the Poodle Dog Cafe hasn't sunk so low that a decent girl can't work here." Farina would probably let it go at that, but his cousin Garotti (Charles La Torre) is the club's co-owner, & he's willing to replace Hadnot.
Hey wait. Poodle Dog Cafe?? That may sound just for laughs, but Micheaux's script is referencing the Poodle Dog Cafe in Washington, D.C., where such illuminaries as Duke Ellington performed. Ellington's first composition is known by a couple titles, including "Poodle Dog Rag" or "Soda Fountain Rag," inspired by the D.C. jazz club.
But to get back to the film, Garotti & Farina are Italian gangsters. When Benny resigns indignant over their intentions to whore Elsie, he first gives them a dressing-down for not having any "respect for my race."
Before he leaves he warns Elsie what's up. He tells her not to worry about him losing his job, for he'd already been approached by the District Attorney (Robert Paquin) for a better job anyway, investigating corruption in the cabaret businesses. He's been studying to be a detective for two years & it was high time he pursued his real career aspirations.
Elsie's back on the club floor singing another great jazz standard, "I've Got a Heart Full of Rhythm." She's cute as a button & a real talent.
A romance will develop between Elsie & Benny. They're the sorts of wholesome hero & heroine black actors rarely got to play in Hollywood, but for Oscar Micheaux's films, we get black actors for both good & bad characters.
A lot of modern commentaries deplore the acting in this film, but I disagree, though the acting is certainly worse in the second half than during the first half. I nevertheless really liked Carmen Newsome as Benny, & rather sorry he can be seen in so few films, though he's also in a small handful of other Micheaux films, including the daring God's Step Children (1938) as a guy who falls for a girl who can pass for white, & Swing! (1938) as Broadway's first black producer.
As for Edna Mae Harris as Elsie, even if her acting's uneven, her singing's fine, & she never fails to charm. She's pert, lively, & a perfect heroine.
There's a bathtub scene for Elsie in which she talks to herself at length. It's a great monolog about how she suspects Benny was lying to console her & doesn't really have a detective job lined up (actually he does). And if she finds out he's unemployed, then she wants to be his sugar momma & take care of him. She always despised gals who supported a man, but now that she's in love, she'd like to support Benny.
This speech is so over-the-top wacky I can't help but believe it's intentionally funny, but it really is in character, although a woman of strong character, is also a naive sort.
There's a decidedly feminist moment when she tells Benny not to get out of the car to open the door for her, as she could get out herself long before he could get 'round to the other side. Then for the next several minutes of the film she's fantasizing having him as her kept man. For a goody-good girl like Elsie, this is fantasy pure & simple, & in its own way a sweet one.
Elsie returns home & doesn't realize her Aunt Josephine isn't just sleeping deeply, but has been murdered. It's odd that the woman playing the corpse (Gladys Williams) gets a cast credit but that great tapdancer stayed anonymous.
When she realizes the truth she calls in the police. Their interrogation of Elsie is almost hypnotically loony, with black police detective named Wenzer working with an Irish uniform cop named Donovan. Their stilted performance approaches comedy relief though in fact it's written straight. By the nuttiest of deductions they decide to arrest Elsie.
Detective Wenzer (Robert Earl Jones, lacking the great talent of his son James Earl Jones, but still kind of interesting to watch) is rather on Elsie's side & confers with Benny to make sure she gets an even break. But Elizabeth & her brothers have concocted a terrible story that makes Elsie seem definitely guilty.
She's soon convicted, but Benny never lost faith in her & continues to look for the real killer or killers. He says, "Some negro involved in this is going to talk. They can never keep a secret. Especially something as important as a murder."
The primary cause for the crime has its roots in the family's history when they all still lived in the South, secrets eventually to be revealed by Reverand Bryson (Juano Hermandez), which will put Wenzer on the right trail.
Frightening Clyde Landry (Slim Thompson) with threats of being tied up & left alone in a haunted house, Clyde is induced to tell a meandering tale of what really went down. Elizabeth is revealed as the femme fatale, as if we didn't already know it, but turns out neither she nor her brothers were the murderers. There's a twist to the yarn that's pretty darned suprising. And it frees Elsie for her happy ever after with Benny.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl