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Film Exhibits


A Natural Born Gambler (1916) | Bert Williams is the first Black American to write, direct and act in his own movie.

Film Description | A Natural Born Gambler (1916) | Bert Williams


"A Natural Born Gambler" is a 1916 silent comedy, the first of only two films starring Broadway comic and singer Bert Williams. It was produced by the Biograph Company and released by The General Film Company. Williams directed and G. W. Bitzer, usually D. W. Griffith's cameraman, was the cinematographer. A still surviving film featuring Williams in his famous blackface routine.


The most important thing about this film is that it features the great stage comedian Bert Williams (1874-1922) in one of his few motion picture appearances. There seems to be only one other survivor among his movies, a short comedy simply entitled FISH, which is very hard to find. Otherwise, for those interested in Bert Williams and in the early history of African-Americans on stage and screen, A NATURAL BORN GAMBLER is a milestone of sorts.


For what it's worth, it's not entirely accurate to refer to Bert Williams as "African-American," as he came from Nassau in the Bahamas, of African, Danish, and Spanish ancestry. He was a light-skinned man whose speech retained his West Indian accent, but he was compelled by the stage conventions of his day to darken his face with burnt cork makeup, and to speak in the thick patois of the American black-face minstrel; in fact, that's where his show business career began, in minstrelsy. But according to those who saw him perform (including my grandmother), Bert Williams was touched by genius, and brought a unique sensitivity, pathos, and dignity to his work that somehow transcended the degrading Sambo roles with which he found himself saddled. Williams belongs in the pantheon of great clowns, alongside Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Fanny Brice, etc. His phonograph recordings of comic monologues and droll songs, some of which he wrote, are still funny and worth seeking out.


Egbert Austin "Bert" Williams (November 12, 1874 -- March 4, 1922) was one of the preeminent entertainers of the Vaudeville era and one of the most popular comedians for all audiences of his time. He was by far the best-selling black recording artist before 1920. In 1918, the New York Dramatic Mirror called Williams "one of the great comedians of the world."


Williams was a key figure in the development of African-American entertainment. In an age when racial inequality and stereotyping were commonplace, he became the first black American to take a lead role on the Broadway stage, and did much to push back racial barriers during his career. Fellow vaudevillian W.C. Fields, who appeared in productions with Williams, described him as "the funniest man I ever saw -- and the saddest man I ever knew."


In 1910, Booker T. Washington wrote of Williams: "He has done more for our race than I have. He has smiled his way into people's hearts; I have been obliged to fight my way." Gene Buck, who had discovered W. C. Fields in vaudeville and hired him for the Follies, wrote to a friend on the occasion of Fields' death: "Next to Bert Williams, Bill [Fields] was the greatest comic that ever lived."


In 1940, Duke Ellington composed and recorded "A Portrait of Bert Williams," a subtly crafted tribute. In 1978, in a memorable turn on a Boston Pops TV special, Ben Vereen performed a tribute to Williams, complete with appropriate makeup and attire, and reprising Williams' high-kick dance steps, to such classic vaudeville standards as "Waitin' for the Robert E. Lee".


In World War II, the United States liberty ship SS Bert Williams was named in his honor.

The 1980 Broadway musical Tintypes featured "I'm a Jonah Man", a song first popularized by Williams in 1903.

In 1996, Bert Williams was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame.

The Archeophone label has collected and released all of Williams' extant recordings on three CDs.


Dancing in the Dark (2005) by Caryl Phillips is a novelization of the life of Bert Williams.

The Emperor Jones (1933) - Paul Robeson Film

Film Description | The Emperor Jones (1933) - Paul Robeson Film


Based on the Eugene O'Neill play of the same name. At a Baptist prayer meeting, the preacher leads a prayer for Brutus Jones, who is leaving to become a railway porter. Jones joins the congregation in a spiritual. Once on the train, Jeff, a porter, shows Jones the ropes. Jones secretly takes up with Jeff's girl, Undine. He makes some money in a deal with a rich businessman on the train. Jones proves to be a cunning manipulator and a good liar. In a crap game, Jones stabs Jeff over a pair of loaded dice. Now doing hard labour, Jones kills a white prison guard and escapes. Shovelling coal on a ship in the Caribbean, Jones swims to an island. He is brought before the island's ruler, where Smithers, a crooked white trader, buys his freedom. Jones schemes his way into a partnership in Smithers' business, then finally control of the entire island through a touch of witchcraft, or so it seems. Brutus declares himself to be The Emperor Jones.... Summary written by David Steele. Cast (IMDB): Paul Robeson as Brutus Jones; Dudley Digges as Smithers; Frank H. Wilson as Jeff (as Frank Wilson); Fredi Washington as Undine; Ruby Elzy as Dolly; George Haymid Stamper as Lem (as George Stamper); Brandon Evans as Carrington (uncredited); Taylor Gordon as Stick-man (uncredited); Billie Holiday as Extra in Nightclub Scene (uncredited); Rex Ingram as Court Crier (uncredited); Moms Mabley as Marcella (uncredited); Harold Nicholas as Young Tap Dancer (uncredited); Blueboy O'Connor as Treasurer (uncredited); Fritz Pollard as Extra in Nightclub Scene (uncredited); Lorenzo Tucker as Extra in Nightclub Scene (uncredited).



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