Sunday 14 October 2007

The Scar of Shame (1927) Frank Perugini

Alvin Hillyard is a 'young man of refined tastes, a lover of music and the finer things in life', so he stays at Mrs Lucretia Green's select boarding house where he plays the piano and composes. However this select boarding house really isn't that select because it also caters to people like Eddie Blake, who's the stereotypical opportunist crook type. Eddie also knows Spike Howard, a local thug who has a beautiful daughter called Louise who he beats. Hillyard saves her in a neat little action sequence, brings her back to Mrs Green's and eventually marries her. After all, it's either that or rescue her every five minutes.

The story is a preachy one, as was so common back in the twenties and thirties, and race films (as they were called) were no different to standard Hollywood fare. The theme here is environment and how it shapes both character and life. There are two kinds of people in these films: those of high character, education, talent and overflowing wells of goodness; and those of low character who cheat at cards, beat up their families and can't resist a drink when it's offered to them. It's decency and talent versus evil and weakness.

Unfortunately that doesn't tend to leave a lot of depth to explore. Hillyard is so high class that when he introduces his new rescue to Mrs Green, he says, 'This is another instance of the injustices some of the women of our race are constantly subjected to, mainly through lack of knowledge of the higher aims in life.' At the other end of the polarised spectrum, Eddie Blake even has dice on his introductory title card. And that's how it would end in most of these films.

What makes this a notable exception is that there is another level to the story. While Alvin is happy to marry Louise to save her from the violence in her background, he can't bring himself to tell his mother about her. Some hamfisted imagery with a baby doll makes it very clear that he cares more about what his mother thinks of him than he does of the future he and his wife will share. Louise and Eddie can transcend their environments but they can't shed them. Alvin can be thrown out of his environment but can't really leave it.

The cast is surprisingly good given their collective lack of experience. Alvin Hillyard is Harry Henderson, who only made four films. Eddie Blake is Norman Johnstone, who only made two. Louise is Lucia Lynn Moses in her only screen appearance, as she was generally a chorus girl at the Cotton Club. Ann Kennedy and William E Pettus, who play Mrs Green and Spike Howard, also never appeared anywhere else. That's a shame, as even though this film has failings, it's not bad at all, especially when compared to others of its kind.

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