Southerner Jean Stratton (Anise Boyer) is willing to go to any lengths to find work in Harlem—even making a wish under the legendary “Tree of Hope” (the story goes that an actor did this under the same tree and learned upon returning to his boarding house a producer had a part for him). Unfortunately, a few innocent inquiries to male passersby about how long she must wait for this job leads to a mix-up with the law, convinced that “going to any lengths” part involves the world’s oldest profession. Jean is rescued by an observer in the crowd, “Money” Johnson (James Baskett), who offers her a position as a showgirl at his Acme Theatre (though he has ulterior motives, natch).
More than just a Harlem impresario, Johnson has also done very well for himself in the “policy racket”…which provides the fundage to run the Acme and several other shady enterprises. The history of show business is dotted with racketeers like Money (the start-up cash must come from somewhere), and as such it shouldn’t be surprising (though it certainly is disappointing) that “the world’s greatest tap dancer,” Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, is in Johnson’s employ. (Robinson, God love him, has a gambling problem that causes him to go through greenbacks like eggs through a hen.) Bill eventually comes to realize that he needs to run fast, run far where Johnson is concerned; he’s very impressed with Jean’s talents, and after a slight misunderstanding (he thinks she’s carrying a torch for him) gives his “copacetic” stamp of approval to her budding romance with his pal “Chummy” Walker (Henri Wessell). You sharper members of the TDOY faithful can see where this is headed; Money is miffed when Jean spurns his amorous advances, and plots to make Chummy the fall guy by putting him in charge of one of his disreputable businesses (this one involves a fraudulent “hair straightener”).
While I would certainly not dispute that Harlem is Heaven, this 1932 musical of the same name—the first release from independent Lincoln Pictures, a studio that specialized in making motion pictures for African-American audiences despite being owned and operated by whites—is anything but Paradise. Made for $50,000, it’s an incredibly inept production; the sound is sub-standard (it sounds like someone’s smacking their gum in the background during one scene) and the abysmal direction rarely rises above resembling capturing a dinner theatre presentation on film. Irwin (R.) Franklyn is credited as director (he also wrote the script), and while I have not seen the other film he helmed, 1938’s Gone Harlem, I can only assume he got better on his second try. (Franklyn did pen several later movie screenplays, including Minstrel Man  and The Woman from Tangier .)
Harlem is Heaven is a terrible film…but that doesn’t mean it’s without merit. The (always reliable) IMDb notes that this is the film debut of Bill Robinson, but this is simply not true…unless that tap-dancing gentleman in Dixiana (1930) appropriated Bojangles’ name for his own nefarious purposes. I’ve stated a previous criticism that the direction in Dixiana does Robinson a tremendous disservice but it’s freaking Orson Welles compared to Harlem is Heaven. The only bright spot with Robinson’s footwork in Harlem (and a rare departure from Franklyn’s “I’ll-just-point-this-camera-at-the-stage” style) is an amazing staircase dance executed by Bill, which is some ways a blueprint for the later number he did with TDOY bête noire Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel (1935). The World Cinema Review blog notes: “[I]n the original the simple set consisting of a small staircase of five steps up and five steps down better reveals his amazing footwork, and stunningly points up his simple but graceful dancing. And unlike the second ‘Step Dance,’ he does not have to play an old ‘darky’ to get the opportunity to strut his stuff.”
What I enjoyed most about Robinson’s performance in Heaven is seeing how the performer became more and more confident in front of a motion picture camera with each subsequent appearance. He only had to dance in Dixiana…but Bill’s got to sing and act in Heaven, and he does a most impressive job despite his inexperience. (In one scene, he reacts to Baskett’s Money Johnson referring to Boyer’s Jean as his “protégé” with this flawless retort: “You sure gotta a lot of funny names for it, Money…”) By the time of his next onscreen appearance, a great musical two-reeler called King for a Day (1934—I caught this sometime back when The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ had their Vitaphone shorts salute), Bill overwhelms the screen with his charm. Robinson is the true strength of Harlem, he performs two musical numbers that are first-rate, The Bill Robinson Stomp and Is You or Is You Ain’t (with John “Spider Bruce” Mason).
The opening cast credits of Harlem is Heaven note “The Following Players By Special Arrangement With ‘The Cotton Club’.” Bob Sawyer and Alma Smith (as Johnson’s spurned girlfriend) don’t get much of an opportunity to make an impression, but James Baskett (billed as “Jimmy Baskette”) went on to a not-too-shabby movie career, culminating with winning a special Oscar for his performance as “Uncle Remus” in Walt Disney’s still controversial Song of the South (1946). (Baskett passed away in 1948.) I don’t know what Henri Wassell did after Harlem (this was his only film) but I hope he was able to make a living at something other than acting because he’s weak and embarrassing as Chummy. Anise Boyer, on the other hand, continued her singing and dancing career and can be glimpsed in later films plying her trade including Stormy Weather (1943—which also features Robinson) and Carolina Blues (1944). An IMDb commenter notes that there were people who thought Boyer was even more of a knockout than Lena Horne. (I don’t wish to live in a world where the majority thinks this, by the way. But it’s a shame Anise never made it into mainstream films since she’s very, very good here…though I strongly suspect she would have been saddled with a lot of “domestics” roles in a studio system.)
Alpha Video has just released Harlem is Heaven to DVD, and has paired the feature (it runs short…I’m convinced their available print was a truncated one) with a most amusing two-reeler, The Melancholy Dame (1929). Real-life spouses Edward Thompson and Evelyn Preer play Permanent and Jonquil Williams in one of producer Al Christie’s “Darktown Birmingham” shorts (a series of early talkie shorts featuring African-American performers); Permanent runs a café where the featured attraction is dancing by—I swear I’m not making this up—Sappho Dill (Roberta Hyson). (Sappho’s husband-pianist is played by Spencer Williams, later a director of Black Cinema in his own right and recognizable as “Andy” on the TV version of Amos ‘n’ Andy.) This production is a bit more polished (Christie was a well-known producer of shorts, many of which were released through Paramount) and the performances more professional—I didn’t even mind that I saw the punchline coming from a mile away (though the closing credits appear to be missing). According to the IMDb, this one was remade as a Vitaphone short—The Black Network (1936)—that I’m curiously to track down if it turns up on TCM; TDOY fave Nina Mae McKinney plays the Hyson role, and fellow birthday celebrant Amanda Randolph essays the Preer-like “Mezzanine Johnson.” (You would-be Moms out there—why not try to catapult “Jonquil” or “Mezzanine” onto the top baby name lists, huh?)