Thursday, February 22, 2018

Million Dollar Productions

From 1937 to 1940 there was a motion picture production company that produced, in their own words, "Class -A- talking pictures with themes taken from modern Negro life." Million Dollar Productions did not last long, but in its short existence it made history. It not only made movies with all African American casts, but it utilised performers who would later become household names.

The origins of Million Dollar Productions go back to actor, dancer, and choreographer Ralph Cooper. Ralph Cooper was the creator and original master of ceremonies of the Apollo Theatre's Amateur Night. A very handsome man, he was compared to Clark Gable and referred to as "Dark Gable". In 1936 Mr. Cooper left Harlem for Hollywood to choreograph dance numbers in the Shirley Temple movie Poor Little Rich Girl. 20th Century Fox was impressed with Ralph Cooper. The studio signed a five year contract with him and enrolled him in their training school for actors. Unfortunately for Mr. Cooper, Fox only offered him the stereotypical parts offered to most African American actors of the time. In the end, Ralph Cooper and Fox parted ways. That having been said, his time at Fox was not wasted. While at the studio he learned many of the technical skills necessary to make movies, including directing, screenwriting, set design, lighting, and so on.

Ralph Cooper tried interesting the Hollywood studios in making films with all-black casts to no avail. Having received no response from the studios, he then formed Randol-Cooper Productions with fellow actor and producer George Randol. Randol-Cooper Productions produced Dark Manhattan (1937), a gangster movie with an all-black cast. Dark Manhattan was positively revolutionary. Not only was it the first black gangster movie, but it was one of the earliest African American films to be set in the modern day in an urban setting. When the film was shown at the Apollo Theatre, it broke all attendance records for the venue.

Dark Manhattan would be the only film that Randol-Cooper Producitons would make, but Ralph Cooper was hardly out of the business of producing movies. It was in May 1937 that Ralph Cooper formed Million Dollar Productions with producers Harry M. Popkin and Leo C. Popkin.  Ralph Cooper filled multiple roles at Million Dollar Productions. He was a producer, but he also starred in many of the studio's films. He wrote the screenplays for many of the films as well. Harry M. Popkin served as executive producer. Leo C. Popkin also played multiple roles at Million Dollar Productions. He was the head of the distribution department, but he also served as an associate producer on many of the films and directed many of them as well.

Million Dollar Productions' first film was a gangster film in the mould of Dark Manhattan. Bargain with Bullets (1937--also known as Gangsters on the Loose) starred Ralph Cooper as a gangster wanted by the police for murder, while at the same time finding himself conflicted over two women, his childhood friend Grace (played by Theresa Harris) and his girlfriend Kay Latour (played by Frances Turham). In addition to being Million Dollar Productions' first film, Bargain with Bullets was also notable for giving Theresa Harris her only leading role. Sadly, Bargain with Bullets is thought to be a lost film.

Bargain with Bullets was followed by Life Goes On (1938). Life Goes On starred Louise Beavers, who sadly spent much of her career playing "mammy" type roles in mainstream Hollywood movies. In Life Goes On she played a widow with two sons, one of who grows up to be a lawyer and another who grows up to be a gangster. Life Goes On was followed by the crime drama Gang Smashers (1938). Gang Smashers stars Nina Mae McKinney as Laura Jackson, an undercover agent for the police who has infiltrated a night club from which the protection racket of Gat Dalton (played by Laurence Criner) is operated. Gang Smashers is likely to be of interest to many today for its cast. Nina Mae McKinney had starred in King Vidor's Hallelujah! (1929) and was the first African American to sign a long term contract with a Hollywood studio (in her case, MGM). Gang Smashers also featured Mantan Moreland in an early role.

Million Dollar Productions' next film may be their most famous today, although many might know it under a different title from which it was originally released. The Duke is Tops (1938) broke with the studio's earlier films in that it was a musical. It starred Ralph Cooper as Duke Davis, a  theatrical producer who puts his own career on hold in order to promote a singer, Ethel Andrews. Ethel Andrews was played by none other than Lena Horne in her feature film debut (she had earlier appeared in the short "Cab Calloway's Jitterbug Party"). In 1943, after Lena Horne had become famous, The Duke is Tops was re-released as The Bronze Venus (which Miss Horne's character had been called in the film) with Miss Horne given top billing.

The Duke is Tops was followed by Reform School (1939), starring Louise Beavers. It differed from many race movies of the era in that it actually dealt with an issue that was relevant at the time. Namely, it addressed the brutal conditions in reforms schools, something which Mother Barton (played by Louise Beavers) seeks to change. While Reform School was a serious drama, One Dark Night (1939) would be Million Dollar Productions' first comedy. It gave Mantan Moreland one of his few leading roles, playing Samson Brown, a shiftless family man who runs away only to strike it rich with a radium deposit. Sadly, today Mantan Moreland is probably best known for the somewhat stereotypical, comic roles he played in mainstream Hollywood films.

Gang War (1940) saw Million Dollar Productions return to gangster movies. Gang War starred Ralph Cooper as Bob "Killer" Mead, who seeks to dominate the jukebox racket in Harlem. It would be following Gang War that Ralph Cooper would leave Million Dollar Productions. Concerned about his screen image, Ralph Cooper did not want to continue starring in gangster movies. As it was, he only made one more movies, Am I Guilty? (1940), produced by Supreme Pictures.

Million Dollar Productions' next film, While Thousands Cheer (1940), is notable in that it stars Kenny Washington, the first African American player to be signed to the NFL. In the film Mr. Washington plays a college football player who runs afoul of racketeers who want to fix the games. Sadly, While Thousands Cheer is thought to be a lost film. Four Shall Die (1940) would be the last film released by Million Dollar Productions. Four Shall Die starred Dorothy Dandridge as Helen Fielding, whose ex-boyfriend Lew Covey (played by Jack Covey) cooks up a plot to get her inheritance money by making it look like her dead father is trying to communicate with her. Unfortunately, when Covey winds up dead, Helen is the prime suspect in his murder.

While Million Dollar Productions only lasted a brief time, it still proved to be one of the most successful companies to produce race films. In all it produced ten films, this compared to the one or two films produced by many companies formed to make race movies. What is more, while the movies made by Million Dollar Productions had far smaller budgets than those made by the big Hollywood studios, their production values were higher than those of many race films or even mainstream films produced by Hollywood's Poverty Row studios. Million Dollar Productions is notable in that some of its films dealt with issues relevant to the day, from abuses in reform schools to black-on-black crime.

Million Dollar Productions was also notable in that it featured performers who would later become famous in mainstream American entertainment. Lena Horne, Mantan Moreland, and Dorothy Dandridge all played early roles in Million Dollar Productions' movies. Million Dollar Productions also utilised already established black stars, including Theresa Harris, Louise Beavers, and Nina Mae McKinney. Much of the attraction for actors with regards to Million Dollar Productions was that the roles in their films were not stereotypes. At a time when Hollywood was content to cast African Americans as servants or stereotypical comedy relief (often both), Million Dollar Productions gave them a chance to play fully developed characters who were often as far from stereotypes as possible.

Sadly, some of the movies made by Million Dollar Productions are believed to be lost. This is not unusual. While an estimated 500 race films were made from 1915 to the 1950s, only fewer than 100 are known to exist today. Produced outside the Hollywood film industry, often very little effort was put forward in conserving them. While some of Million Dollar Productions' movies may no longer exist, they certainly did leave their mark on cinematic history.

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