Thursday, January 8, 2009

Come Back, Charleston Blue (USA, 1972)

(Spoilers) While it doesn’t actually say much about the film itself, Come Back, Charleston Blue is probably the masterpiece of director Mark Warren’s entire career. Warren, who died in 1999 at the age of 61 due to cancer, was a TV director who started off at Laugh-In and then found a safe rent-paying niche in the realm of TV sitcoms, where he gave the orders on the set of such 1970’s staples as Sanford & Son, Barney Miller and Fish. Warren was seldom given a real film to direct, and those that he did make, like The Kinky Coaches & the Pom-Pom Pussycats (1979), a trashy teenage comedy, and Tulips (1981), a drama (or is it a comedy?) about suicide starring Gabe Kaplan and Bernadette Peters, tend to be excruciatingly impossible to sit through. Unbelievably enough, despite the man at its helm Come Back, Charleston Blue is an entertaining film in its own right, even if it is not the best of the genre.
Like many a film, Come Back, Charleston Blue does feature some pimp-mobile sized holes and inconsistencies in its plot, but then, continuity and logic never have been a strong staple in Hollywood, no matter what the genre. Starring Godfrey Cambridge as Gravedigger Jones and Raymond St. Jacques as Coffin Ed Johnson, the first quarter of the film is particularly confusing, with characters of various importance being introduced and numerous seemingly unconnected events happening in quick succession, but after the initial chaos, the story becomes relatively clear-cut and simple. Between scenes of midgets stealing frozen chickens, black guys tossing bombs in the shape of footballs, nuns riding motorcycles and a number of killings done in the style of Charleston Blue (a gangster dead for 40 years), a "logical" plot slowly emerges. It seems that a top-notch, highly successful black photographer is engineering the theft of all heroin deliveries in Harlem, using Charleston Blue's "reappearance" as a diversion technique, not to rid the streets of the drug (as he claims to his girlfriend, the niece of the local Afro-American crime boss and Mafia patsy that he eventually has killed), but so that he can take over the business himself and, eventually, don the flashy wardrobe of a pimp (love that velor). Following a wonderfully over-the-top shootout in a cemetery in which, amongst others, a hearse full of Mafioso’s in black face bite the dust, Coffin and Gravedigger stage their own "death" so that they can get out from under the watchful eye of a dorky white cop their Uncle Tom chief has made them answerable to. Now free to destroy Harlem’s new drug source, the two cops manage to replace all the still-unsold heroine with some sort of powder that explodes into billowing clouds of Black Power colors. Of course, the bad guy dies in the end, but not before he does a James Cagney Public Enemy (1931) imitation and smashes a grapefruit into the face of his girlfriend.
A sequel to Ossie Davis’ 1970 film Cotton Comes to Harlem (trailer), which is viewed by some as being the actual initial impetuous behind and the first real industry-financed foray of Hollywood into the Blaxpliotation explosion of the 1970’s, Warren’s Come Back, Charleston Blue tries hard to follow Davis' strange, jarring but ultimately effective mix of comedy, action and social consciousness. Considering how badly his other movies are, Mark Warren did an amazingly good job. Both films are based on the violent, hard-boiled detective novels of Chester Himes, an ex-con and Paris-based writer who died in 1984, and feature his regular characters, Coffin and Gravedigger Jones. Unlike the cynical, corrupt and violent cops featured in the books, however, in the films the two are presented as (relatively) moral cops willing to tweak the law to see justice done. (Not at all like the corrupt Coffin and Gravedigger who make a brief appearance in the 1996 film adaptation of Himes' A Rage In Harlem (trailer).)

5 comments:

graciela said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Joannah

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Bryin Abraham said...

Thanks for the nice words... I sometimes wonder whether anyone ever reads my blog, due to the lack of response/comments. I mean, I would think I say enough stuff that should at least incite a quick flaming or something, but I don't even get those. In any event, nice words are better anyway! :-)

Bobbyc said...

"Charleston Blue" was not in the Himes book that the film was "Based" on. Was there a real life person that "Charleston Blue" was based on. Did Dutch Schulz eliminate any Harlem Blacks that opposed him?

Bobbyc said...

Was there a real life person that the movuie character was based on?
Did Dutch Schulz eliminate Harlem Racketeers who resisted his takeover?

Bryin Abraham said...

Good questions one and all, but questions better suited for a historian than a bad film fan like me. But since the day I originally wrote this review, over 2.5 years ago, someone was nice enough to provide some light to your queries over at imdb, who claims that the respective bad guys of the flick were inspired by former Harlem gangsters Bumpy Johnson and Frank Lucas. To what extent the fictional and the real are similar, I do not know, but imdb says that "There are numerous parallels between the Charleston Blue persona and Frank Lucas, who was known for his "Blue Magic" brand of heroin." Bios of both can be found on Wikipedia.

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