A different movie for Halloween! All black production, scripted and conceived by songwriter Spencer Williams (1889-1965). Hence the snappy dialogue, especially in the scenes where Nelson the Attorney (played by Williams himself) tussles with Dr Jackson ("Hello my friend!" "You're not my friend, you're my lawyer!") and processes the old lady's will for 5 dollars.
Because US cinemas were segregated, there was a whole specialist market for black films. Williams was sharp enough to know that black people wanted horror movies like anyone else. And why should explorers in Africa be a white monopoly? Hence too the positive images of black professional people, police chiefs etc. and the aspirational young couple, Robert and Eleanor Lindsay.
And indeed the central character Dr. Jackson (Laura Bowman) who is a doctor of science and has been to Africa. She also happens to have a lab in her dining room where she mixes up a test tube with a formula that will do good for humanity. "Not that humanity's been good to me", she snaps. She wears Victorian clothes and has "never been in a motor vehicle and won't start now" which may date her to be about 80 in 1940. Anyway, she knew Eleanor Lindsay's natural father who was younger than she, but whom she loved and lost. She did medical work in Africa, and brought back treasures from her many travels, such as a gong from Singapore which she uses to summon up another memento, a gigantic ape man who lives in a secret cellar.
He's N'gina, son of Ingagi, whoever he may have been. Possibly he's half man, half gorilla, which makes you wonder why Dr Jackson's so maternal to him? Dr Jackson's rich, too, and has gold hidden in the house.
The gold brings out the crooks, including Dr Jackson's conman brother Zeno and Lawyer Nelson, who tries to con the couple out of the house Dr Jackson left them when she died. Then the plot turns to comedy as the dopey Detective Bradshaw is assigned to stay in the house while murders happen and an apeman wanders about about. Hilarious! Bradshaw is a parody of the venal Stepin Fetchit fool who usually represented blacks in white media. Of course he's a crook too, but an opportunist, who hands the sacks of gold to the Jacksons. "Oh", they cry as their house burns down. "There goes our furniture, our clothes!" When they get the sacks of gold, they cry "Furniture! Clothes! New House!"
This film was made quickly and to a budget, so it's certainly not great art. But it's sharper than the average B movie, given its background. Spencer Williams was an all-round talent, who wrote hits like Basin Street Blues and settled in London. Good businessman too, spotting the market for race movies. Director credited is Richard Kahn and producer is Alfred Sack of Sack Studios. Presumable white and Jewish financiers? Williams's racy spirit pervades much of the film. Enjoy the song sequences by The Toppers, a guitar and falsetto-led group. Ironically I think the only white guy actually in the film is N'gina the mixed species from Africa. Men over seven feet tall are treasured whatever their race.
Movies like this contrast with the films Paul Robeson starred in. They had higher production values and bigger budgets, but Robeson was typecast to represent what white people expected blacks to be. At best noble but doomed and never equal. Race films, and the race music recording industry were a form of apartheid but at least with Williams we can glimpse something irreverent and irrepressible.