Between Beyond the Horizon and Anna Christie comes The Emperor Jones. Charles S. Gilpin originated the role of Brutus Jones, but had a falling out with O’Neill when the playwright refused to remove the N-word from the play, which Gilpin would often change to “Negro” during performances. For the revival, O’Neill picked an unknown actor named Paul Robeson, who was initially hired to play the lead role of Jim in O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings, until its controversial subject matter postponed its opening.
The Emperor Jones was O’Neill’s first financial success. And, unlike the film version of Anna Christie, the movie version of The Emperor Jones is much different than the play. Of the eight scenes in the play, six of them are an internal monologue as Jones battles with his demons after escaping into the jungle, while the first and last scenes include other characters and are less experimental. In contrast, some of the episodes in the jungle are fleshed out in the film, like his murder of fellow Pullman porter Jeff and his escape from prison, but they’re done so in a chronological and objective manner, unlike the unreliable and hallucinatory way O’Neill presents them. The parts of the film most like the play (with dialogue lifted directly from it) are at the end of the movie, starting from the scene where Jones realizes that he needs to abdicate the throne. These parts show Jones escaping through the forest and becoming more and more unhinged, giving us a sense of what Robeson was like when he performed the role onstage. The film version also gives him some songs to sing, which is a gift to filmgoers today, and was one to filmgoers back then.
O’Neill intended the play as a critique of US policy in Haiti, as well as basing some of it on his experiences in the jungles of Honduras. The DVD box mentions it’s “loosely patterned after the life of Haitian emperor Henri Christophe.”
While the original play is from 1920, Robeson didn’t star as Brutus Jones till 1925, and the movie wasn’t made till 1933 –three years after Garbo’s version of Anna Christie. And it’s good that Robeson starred in the film version of this play, for while the play (and film) is significant for treating back people as people rather than stereotypes, it’s Robeson who is the standout, as the first African American to have a lead role in a mainstream movie.
Note: this film has been restored by the Library of Congress, but occasional frame drops do occur.