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BCB After Dark: What’s Happ-ening this winter?

The hip spot for night owls, early-risers, new parents and Cubs fans abroad asks if the Cubs should keep Ian Happ around.

Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

It’s the final night of the week of BCB After Dark: the swinging-est night spot for night owls, early-risers, new parents and Cubs fans abroad. Glad you could join us again tonight. Bring your own beverage. The cover charge is waived. The show will start any minute now.

BCB After Dark is the place for you to talk baseball, music, movies, or anything else you need to get off your chest, as long as it is within the rules of the site. The late-nighters are encouraged to get the party started, but everyone else is invited to join in as you wake up the next morning and into the afternoon.

Tonight the Cubs finished off a two-game sweep of the Twins with a 3-0 combined two-hitter by Justin Steele and Adbert Alzolay. Also, Frank Schwindel hit a three-run home run. What is it that Earl Weaver used to say? Pitching, defense and three-run home runs. That’s what the Cubs provided this evening. It’s also nice to see good friends like Steele and Alzolay who have gone through the Cubs minor league system together combine for a shutout.

Last time I asked you which reliever in the Cubs bullpen do you most trust with the game on the line. I know some of you probably wanted to say “None of them,” but I didn’t give that as an option. David Ross doesn’t have the option when he calls for the bullpen to say “Bring in none of them.”

Anyway, almost all of you voted for one of three pitchers. In first place, was Codi Heuer with 49% of the vote. When Heuer came over from the White Sox a lot of us said he was a good “change of scenery” candidate and so far, that’s been accurate. In second place was Rowan Wick with 38% and the rookie Manuel Rodriguez was in third with 11%.

Here’s the place where I talk about jazz and movies. I promised you a movie feature after I bailed on Monday, so you’ve got a big one today. You’re free to skip ahead to the question at the end. You won’t hurt my feelings.

There’s a long movie essay coming today, so the jazz track I’m giving you is Duke Ellington and John Coltrane playing Ellington’s tune “In a Sentimental Mood” from 1963. I don’t think I need to give anyone an introduction to either Ellington or Coltrane at this point. It’s a a soft, beautiful performance that will either help you get to sleep or relax you during a busy day.

This week’s piece of classic cinema is The Emperor Jones, the 1933 pre-code film directed by Dudley Murphy, starring Paul Robeson, and based on the 1920 play by Eugene O’Neill. To say this film is problematic to modern audiences is an understatement. It was problematic to audiences at the time for some of the same reasons and for some reasons that were endemic to the times. But it’s still a film worth watching for the psychological drama that carries over from the play, the critique of American arrogance and a terrific performance by a star who was almost erased from history.

When I took a survey class of American drama as an undergraduate (more years ago than I care to admit), the very first play we had to read was O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. I was taught that there were two eras of the American theater, before Eugene O’Neill and after Eugene O’Neill and that any American theater before O’Neill wasn’t really worth studying. American theater before 1920 was dominated by broad farces and soapy melodramas. There were no serious American plays of the 19th Century.

O’Neill, the son of actors from those American stages, imported the ideas of the modern European theater from playwrights like Norway’s Henrik Ibsen, Russia’s Anton Chekov, Sweden’s August Strindberg and the UK’s George Bernard Shaw. His first hit play was The Emperor Jones, which was inspired by his disgust of the US military occupation of Haiti.

O’Neill’s main character, Brutus Jones, is a Black American. He’s a former Pullman porter (a well-paying job for Black men at the time) who has, through cunning, become the dictator of an all-Black Caribbean island that is a stand-in for Haiti. He’s a tyrant and the people have begun a revolt against him. Jones has an exit plan and begins to flee through the jungle, but as he leaves he hears the drums of the natives beat with the tempo of a heartbeat.

Jones’ plan quickly goes awry. He gets lost in the jungle and is then haunted by the ghosts of all the people he has killed on his way to the top. He has a revolver with six bullets it in. Five are lead and one is silver, because he has convinced the natives (and maybe himself) that he can only be killed by a silver bullet. He intends to use the silver bullet on himself, because he considers himself the only person worthy of killing the Emperor Jones.

One by one, he fires his bullets to dispel the ghosts that haunt him in the jungle. The beat of the drums become faster as Jones has fewer and fewer bullets. He finally fires the final silver bullet to dispel the last ghost and then dies.

Two things that O’Neill introduced to the American stage were expressionism, which used heightened elements (like ghosts) to emphasize emotion or psychological elements, and realism, which was an attempt to show things as they actually were. Being able to merge these two seemingly-opposite elements was part of O’Neill’s genius.

The play was a huge hit, but it was controversial. Any play that had a Black man in the lead in 1920 was going to be controversial in America. But Jones’ character embodied a lot of negative stereotypes about black men at the time. He was smart and cunning, but he was also shifty. One of the ghosts who haunted him was a man he killed with a switchblade in a craps game. The play itself was written in an Amos ’n’ Andy-type dialect. There was also the extensive use of the “N-word” slur in the play. O’Neill defended this the way that artists who use the word today defend it—that it was the way people actually talked. That was a part of the realism. But the first actor to play the role, Charles S. Gilpin, refused to say the “N-word” slur and replaced it with “negro.” This led to disputes with O’Neill and when the play was revived in 1925, Gilpin was replaced with a young and charismatic former All-American football player, Paul Robeson.

Director Dudley Murphy hung out in the same theater circles in New York as O’Neill before he left to work in Hollywood. He returned to New York at the end of the 1920s, disillusioned with the Hollywood studio system. He was determined to turn The Emperor Jones into a movie with an independent production. He signed Robeson to reprise his role as Brutus Jones.

As a play, The Emperor Jones wasn’t going to make a great movie. It’s mostly a one-person show. There’s a scene at the beginning when Jones learns of the revolution from Smithers, a stereotypical English colonial merchant, and a scene at the end when Smithers and the natives find Jones’s body. But in between, there’s just a monologue with Jones talking about his life, arguing with the silent ghosts and slowly going mad.

Murphy hired screenwriter DuBose Heyward to flesh out the play. Heyward was a white writer who wrote about Black people. He’d written the novel that eventually served as the basis for Porgy and Bess. Heyward beefed up the plot, showing Jones at a Black Baptist church and giving him a “good” girlfriend back home who tell him not to succumb to temptations as he leaves Georgia to become a Pullman porter. Heyward also gives a subplot of a relationship with a more “wicked” woman whom Jones takes up with in New York as he slowly forgets his good Christian upbringing. The “ghosts” who would haunt Jones later are also given flesh and bone earlier in the movie. We also find out how Jones escapes from prison, ends up on the island and comes to power.

Additionally, the plot gives Paul Robeson a chance to sing. Robeson was on his way to being one of the most popular American singers of the 1930s, and he gets a couple of occasions to break into song early in the film. They are definitely highlights here.

The problems with the film, from a modern point of view, are obvious. While Jones was meant to be a morality tale of what happens when one leaves the good Christian life for the temptations of sin, it also portrays a Black man as ambitious, violent, cowardly and dishonest. While The Emperor Jones wasn’t a studio film, it was also the only film that white audiences of the 1930s would ever be likely to see with a Black lead. The film certainly did nothing to combat negative stereotypes of black men. Robeson even takes his shirt off in the film and while he was undeniably a good-looking man, that also reinforced racist ideas about Black male sexuality.

While the play was meant as a criticism of the US occupation of Haiti, the natives don’t come off well in either the play or the film. They’re a simple, primitive and uneducated people. They believe in superstition and voodoo. When Jones tells them he has a magic charm that means that he can only be killed by a silver bullet, they accept that without question. (Although in the film, Jones arranges a demonstration by loading several rifles with blanks as proof.)

The extensive use of the “N-word” slur, present in the play, is also present in the film. Undine, the “wicked woman” that Jones takes up with in New York, was played by the light-skinned actress Fredi Washington. She was forced to wear dark, heavy makeup, least audiences mistake her for a white woman. (In Washington’s other major film role, 1934’s Imitation of Life, she played a black woman who passed for white.)

So why should anyone watch this film in 2021? Besides the psychological drama in the movie’s last act (carried over from the play), the number one reason to watch this film is Paul Robeson. Robeson was an amazing man in his day—he was an All-American football player at Rutgers (as well as the early days of the NFL), a lawyer, an actor, a civil rights activist and one of the most popular singers of the 1930s.

Despite the stereotypes built into Brutus Jones, Robeson gives the character a real human dignity. Robeson commands the screen in every scene he’s in with his rich baritone voice and his 6’3” 220 pound frame. While it’s easy to see where Jones has gone wrong in his life, Robeson makes it easy to sympathize with him as well. Much of his motivations come back to the way that Black men were treated in America and that his sins were the only way he could get ahead in society, even if it cost him his soul.

Additionally, Robeson is a person who was erased from the popular memory in the 1950s. By the late 1930s, Robeson’s civil rights activism led him to the Soviet Union, where he was treated like a king as an example of how great men in the West were treated poorly simply because of the color of their skin. Although he never joined the Communist Party, Robeson was outspoken about Marxism and his support for the USSR. Even after he found out about the crimes of Stalin, he refused to acknowledge them for fear that they would be used by racists in the US to justify the continuation of Jim Crow.

In the 1950s, Robeson was simply erased from the American popular memory, much like purged Soviet officials. The Emperor Jones and the other films he appeared in, including 1936’s version of Show Boat, were effectively banned from being shown anywhere in the United States. His records were not sold anywhere. His passport was seized so that he couldn’t travel abroad. Robeson, one of the best-known Black Americans of the 1930s, was a non-person by the 1950s. His football career was even purged from the record books.

This film isn’t for everyone. But if you can handle the stereotypes and slurs and put them in the proper context, it’s worth it to watch it as it is one of the best reminders of what a terrific performer Paul Robeson was.

The film is in the public domain, so you won’t have much trouble tracking it down if you want to watch it. Although some of the versions floating around are the edited versions from 1933, where things that might be objectionable at the time such as Jones killing a white prison guard, were cut out. The film has been restored to much of its original form earlier this century, although there are still a few parts that are likely forever lost.

Here’s a clip from the movie. These aren’t the best scenes from the film, but you do get a sense of Robeson’s on-screen charisma, as well as a lot of Fredi Washington. But it does have the bonus that there are no uses of the “N-word” in this video. So this video is safe to watch at work.

Welcome back to everyone who skips the jazz and movies.

Today’s question is one that Cubs beat writer Jordan Bastian posted in an article entitled “1 looming question for all 30 teams.”

The question that Bastian asks is “Is Ian Happ a non-tender candidate?” After a solid effort in 2019 (after spending the first half of the year in Iowa) and another strong (but abbreviated) 2020 season, Happ has struggled in 2021. After going 1 for 4 against the Twins on Wednesday night, Happ is now hitting .200/.298/.381 in 121 games this year. Yes, the 17 home runs are nice, but pretty much nothing else about his game is. He’s striking out in over 30% of his plate appearances. That’s not quite the level he was striking out at in 2018 that got him sent down to the minors for 2019, but it’s not that far off either.

Happ is arbitration eligible and he made $4.1 million in 2021. The way arbitration works, no one makes less than they did the year before. Happ isn’t likely to command a big raise, but he’ll make more than $4.1 million in 2022 if the Cubs offer him a contract.

On the one hand, the Cubs certainly have the money to keep Happ on the roster. There won’t be a payroll crunch on the Cubs this winter. On the other hand, if Happ isn’t going to be productive, why keep him around?

So there are two questions. The first is “Will the Cubs non-tender Ian Happ?” If you say yes, you think the Cubs will let him leave this winter. If you say no, you expect to see him in Cubs pinstripes in 2022.

The second question is “Should the Cubs non-tender Ian Happ?” Rather than making a prediction, this is just you offering your own opinion on what the Cubs should do with Ian Happ.


Will the Cubs non-tender Ian Happ?

This poll is closed

  • 35%
    (85 votes)
  • 64%
    (155 votes)
240 votes total Vote Now


Should the Cubs non-tender Ian Happ?

This poll is closed

  • 46%
    (110 votes)
  • 53%
    (125 votes)
235 votes total Vote Now

Thank you again for stopping by. I hope you come back again next week when we’ll have another performance of BCB After Dark. The valet will be around with you automobile shortly.