Emperor Jones, The (1933): Murphy’s Screen Version of O’Neill’s 1920 Play, Starring Paul Robeson in Towering Performance

Dudley Murphy directed The Emperor Jones, a pre-Code film adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play of the same title.

The Emperor Jones
The Emperor Jones (1933 film poster).jpg

Theatrical release poster

Written for the screen by playwright DuBose Heyward, it stars Paul Robeson in the title role (a role he had played onstage), and co-stars Dudley Digges, Frank H. Wilson, Fredi Washington and Ruby Elzy.

The film was made outside of the studio system, financed with private money. It was filmed at Kaufman Astoria Studios; the beach scene was shot at Jones Beach Long Beach.

The film is based loosely on O’Neil’s play, adding backstory before the play’s story begins. It also includes new characters, such as Jones’ girlfriend, and a priest who advises him to give up his evil ways.

The film provides Robeson’s greatest dramatic performance on screen.

In the opening shots, we see an African ritual dance, which some white critics see as representative of the “primitive” black world to which Brutus Jones will eventually revert.

Dudley Murphy, who had co-directed Ballet Mecanique and other musical experimental films, wished to use musical forms as way of translating into film O’Neill’s theatrical experiments.

Robeson was already a musical star and would go on to study traditional African music and dance while in Nigeria and  London.

A quick dissolve switches to a Baptist church in the South, where the dancing of the congregation suggests continuity between the “savage” Africans and the ring-shout Baptists.

The film makes copious use of the word “nigger,” as did O’Neill’s play. African Americans criticized O’Neill’s language, preservation and expansion in the film present another cause for critique. In fact, in the original production in 1920, the actor playing Jones, Charles Sidney Gilpin, a lead man in all-African American Lafayette players, objected to the use of the word “nigger” and began substituting “Negro” in the Provincetown Players premiere. He continued when the show went on tour for two years in the States, reflecting the African-American community’s problems with the play.

O’Neill, an ex-sailor who used offensive epithets, had based the character–specific traits and language–on African-American friend from the New England; he felt that the use of the word was dramatically justified. When no reconciliation was achieved, O’Neill gave the part to much younger and then-unknown Paul Robeson for the 1924 New York revival and its London premiere. Both launched Robeson as the first black leading man of heretofore white American and British theater.

Given Robeson’s subsequent career as a Civil Rights activist, his character using the term in regard to other blacks may seem shocking, but Robeson would not have had his impact on civil rights had he never played this role. It made him a star in a way that no other part could have done; with its powerful visions of a slave ship and being sold at auction, the role of Brutus Jones had scope and a reality that no American play had before. Robeson struggled with the inherent racist and imperialist limits of the few leading man roles available for black actors.

At a Baptist prayer meeting, the preacher leads prayer for Brutus Jones, who has just been hired as Pullman Porter, a job that served as an avenue for upward mobility of African-American men. Jones proudly shows off his uniform to his girlfriend Dolly before joining the congregation for a spiritual.

However, Jones is corrupted by the lures of the big city, taking up with fast women and gamblers. One boisterous crap game leads to a fight in which he stabs Jeff, the man who introduced him to the fast-life and from whom he had stolen the affections of the beautiful Undine (Fredi Washington).

Jones is imprisoned and sent to do hard labor. A stint on the chain gang allows the first opportunity to show Robeson without his shirt on, an exposure of male nudity unusual for 1933, especially for black actors.  The director plays on Robeson’s sexual power and, implicitly, on cultural stereotypes about the libidinal power of black men.

Jones escapes the convict’s life after striking a white guard who was torturing another prisoner. Making his way home, he is briefly assisted by his girlfriend Dolly before taking job stoking coal on a steamer headed for the Caribbean. One day, he catches sight of a remote island and jumps, swimming to the island.

The island is under the crude rule of a top-hatted black despot who receives merchandise from Smithers, the dilapidated white colonial merchant who is the sole Caucasian. Jones rises to become Smithers’ partner and eventually “Emperor.” He then dethrones his predecessor with tricks that allow him to survive a fusillade of bullets, creating the myth that he can only be slain by a silver one. Jones’s rule of the island  is based on increasing taxes on the poor natives.

One of the film’s highlights is a 12-minute-monologue, deriving from O’Neill’s play, in which Brutus Jones, hunted by natives in revolt, flees through the jungle and slowly disintegrates, becoming a shrieking hysteric who runs right into the path of his pursuers.

This section reportedly draws on a personal experience of O’Neill, who had gone off to Honduras the year after graduation from Princeton and got lost in the jungle, resulting in hallucinatory fears.

Paul Robeson – Brutus Jones
Dudley Digges – Smithers
Frank H. Wilson – Jeff
Fredi Washington – Undine
Ruby Elzy – Dolly
George Haymid Stamper – Lem
Jackie “Moms” Mabley – Marcella
Blueboy O’Connor – Treasurer
Brandon Evans – Carrington
Rex Ingram – Court Crier


Directed by Dudley Murphy
Screenplay by DuBose Heyward
Based on The Emperor Jones (1920 play) by Eugene O’Neill
Produced by Gifford Cochran, John Krimsk

Cinematography Ernest Haller
Edited by Grant Whytock
Music by Rosamond Johnson, Frank Tours

Distributed by United Artists

Release date: September 29, 1933

Running time: 80 minutes (Original cut); also 73 minutes

Budget $263,000

The film was originally to have 10 days of location shooting in Haiti, but budget restrictions required shooting in the Astoria studios, which were underutilized due to the abandonment of the industry for the West Coast. Murphy took a trip to Haiti to bring back extras, musicians and dancers. As a newly self-imposed exile of the Hollywood studio system, Murphy had insisted on New York–he was an early advocate of an independent New York-based cinema, free of Hollywood control.

As the co-director of Ballet Mecanique–though Fernand Léger would become far more famous for this experimental, non-narrative film==Murphy had explored avant-garde film in Paris, and he wanted creative freedom. He also prized access to the New York-based African-American community’s trained theatrical talent. Robeson had only one requirement: no filming south of the Mason–Dixon line—that is, in the then Jim Crow, segregated southern states of the former Confederacy.

The producers, director and screenwriter were required to present the screenplay to O’Neill before shooting started. They were fearful because they’d added new scenes from what on stage were entirely in monologue, they were delighted when O’Neill gave the screenplay his blessing.

O’Neill received $30,000 for the rights, a not insubstantial sum in the height of the Depression, which he needed for expensive summer home he’d just purchased.

Paul Robeson got $5000 a week, comparable to star prices out in Hollywood. The budget was roughly $200,000.

Dudley Murphy and screenwriter DuBose Heyward had both been experimenting in using imagery that is held together by the film’s music, rather than dialogue or narrative. In the case of The Emperor Jones, the director was trying to do both, not always successfully. Robeson would later complain that Murphy was condescending to him, that he was rushed through important scenes. Murphy was, in truth, far more interested in camera angles and visual experiments than in acting. He had no theater background to speak of, and further reports surfaced that he was completely out of his element in Robeson’s crucial jungle scenes—the only parts of the film that actually used O’Neill’s hallucinatory dialogue—and William C. deMille (Cecil B. DeMille’s older brother) had to be brought in to complete them – something DeMille himself claimed but was disputed by others.

Emperor Jones suffered at the hands of the Hays Office, whose Production Code was in place and had been since 1930, if only haphazardly enforced until the arrival of censor Joseph Breen the following year.

Black on white violence was strictly forbidden, so a scene in which Jones kills a sadistic white prison guard had to be cut, leaving a lurch in the action. Haitian women smoking were cut; a white trader lighting a cigarette for the Emperor was cut. A steamy scene between Robeson and Fredi Washington as a prostitute had to be reshot when the Hays Office decreed she was too light-skinned and might be mistaken for a white woman; the actress had to wear dark make-up when the scene filmed a second time (the following year, Fredi Washington, a lifelong civil rights activist, would star in the original Imitation of Life (1934), playing an African-American girl passing for white). Worst of all, the hallucinations in the jungle of the slave ship and the auction were removed, undercutting the film’s “dramatic resonance and doing a serious injustice to Eugene O’Neill’s play”, as Murphy’s biographer wrote in 2005.[4]

The film was a box office disappointment for United Artists.

The black-and-white film had blue tinting for the jungle scenes, something for which Murphy went to considerable trouble in this era before color – but it was considered old-fashioned, a throw-back to the silent era, and disappeared from most prints.

Critical Status:

In 1999, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, thus setting the stage for its restoration.

In 2002, the Library of Congress restored The Emperor Jones using archive footage. This version was able to restore the cut scenes of black-on-white violence, in addition to several minor changes. Unfortunately, no existing film of the two cut dream sequences was found, and thus this edition remains incomplete.