Monday, November 16, 2009

The Endangered List (Case File #53)

SLAVES (1969)

Directed by
Herbert J. Biberman

Written by
Herbert J. Biberman
John O. Killens
Alida Sherman

Produced by
Philip Langner

Cinematography by
Joseph C. Brun

Edited by
Sidney Mayers

Music by
Bobby Scott

Art Direction
Burr Smidt

Costume Design
Laurence Gross and Robert Magahay

Dionne Warwick (Cassy)
Ossie Davis (Luke)
Stephen Boyd (MacKay)
Marilyn Clark (Mrs. Bennett)
Gale Sondergaard (New Orleans Lady)
Nancy Coleman (Mrs. Stillwell)
Julius Harris (Shadrach)
David Huddleston (Holland)
Eva Jessye (Julie)
Barbara Ann Teer (Esther)
James Heath (Luther)
Aldine King (Emmeline)
Robert Kya-Hill (Jericho)

"Another Mornin'"
Performed by Dionne Warwick

Theatre Guild Films Production
in association with
The Walter Reade Organization, Inc.

Released by
Continental Distributing

Color by Movielab
Running time: 110 minutes

Original soundtrack available from Skye
Novelization by John O. Killens published by Pyramid

Released unrated in 1969
MPAA rating (1979): R
Re-released by 21st Century Distribution in 1981


Ossie Davis and his family have long been the trusted slaves of kind master Sheppard Strudwick. Although he hates the system and has vowed never to sell a slave, Strudwick is forced to sell Davis to pay a debt. On the auction block in New Orleans, Davis is bought by crafty plantation owner Stephen Boyd who lives in splendor with his alcoholic slave mistress, Dionne Warwick. Warwick is attracted to Davis’ fire and pride, but he rejects her in the cotton fields. Boyd is being courted by a married neighbor (Eva Jessye) who shocks her female friends with her outspoken opinions about slavery and southern womanhood. Davis steals liberation papers from Boyd and plans to escape, as does Miss Warwick. The elaborate plot fails, and Davis is flogged to death by an angry Boyd. A faithful servant in the plantation house then sets fire to the cotton sheds, allowing Miss Warwick to make good her escape with the aid of Miss Jessye.

The unique plot and setting should be stressed, since slavery is certainly part of contemporary social issues. The appearance of Miss Warwick will be a powerful attraction, and her recording of the title song has real potential. School groups, civic organizations and the like should be interested.

As an exploitation attraction, Continental’s “Slaves” certainly has a lot going for it. It’s the first film in quite a long time to deal in dramatic terms with the institution of slavery in the Old South, thus providing a unique plot and setting that should get plenty of attention. The Theatre Guild Films production also marks the screen debut of Dionne Warwick, one of the hottest female singers in the country, with a flock of gold records to her credit and she’s naturally a built-in attraction for the all-important youth audience. Saturation bookings and a hard sell will have to put it over, for the film itself is banal, predictable and technically inept, with the editing faintly reminiscent of St. Vitus dance. Stephen Boyd and Ossie Dance co-star as master and slave, but the film is so poorly constructed that, except for a few short moments, the potential histrionic fireworks just fizzle. Miss Warwick looks stunning, but any real judgment concerning her future as an actress will have to await a better showcase. Herbert J. Biberman is credited with the direction and his wife (Gale Sondergaard) makes a brief but welcome appearance. Philip Langner produced.

Boxoffice, May 19, 1969 pg. 4202

VARIETY review

The boxoffice success of “Slaves” will likely depend on the mood and conditions of the black-white situation at the time of the film’s general release. It has a good premise and adequate acting, but a rather choppy script and uneven direction in attempting to depict conditions of American slaves in the pre-Civil War South.

Production aspects of the film are good. The music is superior to the script, the colors are muted but clear when focusing on the faces of the principals, the extras were well chosen. The sets are realistic and although the script needs tightening, it does carry fairly well.

“Slaves” tells the story of a heroic, Christian black man (Ossie Davis) who in 1850 is sold by his master, a liberal horsebreeder in Kentucky, in order to save the few remaining slaves on the owner’s farm. He is bought by a highly intelligent but somewhat brutal plantation owner in Mississippi (Stephen Boyd). Boyd’s mistress is a black spitfire (Dionne Warwick) who wants to rebel against her master and finds the strength and means through Davis.

Their plan of escape is, of course, impossible and doomed before it gets off the ground. But Davis proves himself the better man when he chooses to fight and die for his cause rather than accept Boyd’s bribe of freedom and turn on his brethren.

The film’s philosophy is a bit heavy handed. The Christian slave, at first trusting solely in God, learns he must help himself to freedom and salvation.

The attempts at realistic portrayal of what the situations were like are admirable. Sympathetic slave owners are shown as well as hard driving profiteers. How white men used black girls as concubines is revealed, and how some white men cared for keeping families together while others -- usually because of economic gain -- chose to break the family unit and actually breed slaves. There is even a short speech by Boyd pointing up the economic and social upheavals which will ensue should the slaves be freed and sent North.

Miss Warwick makes a creditable screen debut. She is just okay in some scenes, but shows great dramatic potential in others. The soundtrack utilizes five songs written by Bobby Scott and sung by the actress, although she doesn’t actually sing in the part of Cassy, the African-oriented mistress.

Boyd is fine as the stern, philosophic slave trader, whose father is a minister back in Boston. Davis does not physically appear virile -- lessening the subplot suggestion that Miss Warwick lusts for him over Boyd -- but he does generate a warmth and strength of purpose.

Gale Dondergaard, wife of director and scripter Herbert J. Biberman, makes a brief and welcome screen appearance. Others good in character roles include Barbara Ann Teer as Davis’ wife, and Marilyn Clark as Boyd’s white neighbor who aids in the final escape.

“Slaves” will probably have a limited market, but should find its own level and with the help of Miss Warwick and Davis should pull well in urban areas. The film is the first by Theatre Guild Films and the first Biberman has directed in some time. – Rela.

Variety, May 7, 1969


Unknown said...

Very neat. Shame it's "lost"--I've read about this for years but never came up with anyone who'd ever actually seen it.

E.S. Coakley said...

I'm not a huge Warwick fan, but I actually kinda wanna see this one...

Anonymous said...

According to a comment on the IMDb (, this got a French-language VHS release.

Here's the theatrical trailer:

Unknown said...

Just watched it. What a stinker.