The Emperor Jones is a 1933 American pre-Code film adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill play of the same title, was made outside of the Hollywood studio system, financed with private money from neophyte wealthy producers, and directed by iconoclast Dudley Murphy, who had sought O’Neill’s permission to film the play since its 1924 production in New York. He cast Paul Robeson in his first film role, Dudley Digges, Frank H. Wilson, and Fredi Washington. The screenplay was written by DuBose Heyward and filmed at Kaufman Astoria Studios with the beach scene shot at Jones beach Long Beach, New York. Robeson starred in the O’Neill play on stage, both in the United States and England, a role that had helped launch his career.
The film is based rather loosely on O’Neil’s play, but adds an entire backstory before O’Neill’s actual play begins, and includes several new characters that do not appear in it (such as Jones’ wife, and a friendly priest who advises him to give up his evil ways). Some people considered the movie to be just a vehicle for displaying Robeson’s famous musical talent (he sings a number of times in the film). However, the film does provide what may be Robeson’s greatest dramatic performance in a movie, considered by many to be worthy of an Oscar nomination that it did not receive.
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