5:13 PM CST, February 6, 2013
Leroy Collins never says anything about it. He never tells his neighbors he was once a movie star — once.
Collins is 89 and lives by himself in the Montgomery Place retirement community in Hyde Park. Scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project live here, Tuskegee pilots — "Because of University of Chicago (nearby), it's a remarkable bunch," the center's executive director whispers. But when asked about himself, Collins just mentions he was a Chicago Public Schools administrator, spent years as the principal of long-gone Goethals Education and Vocational Guidance Center, grew up in Chatham, attended Roosevelt University on the G.I. Bill. He walks with a stoop, talks softly and wears a hearing aid. Gray sheets of hair hang at his temples.
And yet, that thin dark mustache — you can see there was matinee-idol potential here once. "I had an attractive appearance," he said, apologetically. "But there's no reason bringing it up now. It was long ago."
And it's a long story.
Besides, most people have never heard of Oscar Micheaux, the guy who gave Collins his break.
"What do I remember about him?" Collins asked. "I remember quite a bit. I've forgotten quite a bit too."
Micheaux was the first major black filmmaker. He lived in Chicago on and off for decades. His scrappy career reads like a precursor to the age of indie film. "He started in silent films, never worked in Hollywood and stayed political," said Gerald Butters, who teaches African-American film at Aurora University. "He showed lynchings, economic discrimination, black-on-black racism — provocative stuff for a black director in 1919."
He also directed 41 full-length movies, many of which he shot in Chicago: "Within Our Gates," his 1920 answer to the pro-Ku Klux Klan "Birth of a Nation," remains his most highly regarded; it screens at noon Saturday at the Music Box Theatre. "Body and Soul" (1925), his best known, gave Paul Robeson a career; same with Robert Earl Jones, father of James Earl Jones, who debuted in "Lying Lips" (1939).
Collins was not so lucky.
He starred in 1948's "The Betrayal," Micheaux's last film. He played a black South Dakota rancher who falls in love with a (seemingly) white sharecropper's daughter. The character was named Martin Eden (after the Jack London novel) but, despite the unlikely plot, he was actually playing Micheaux.
"Micheaux's obsession was telling the story of his own life," said Patrick McGilligan, a Milwaukee-based film scholar who wrote the 2007 biography, "Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only." "He kept reworking details over and over — his years in South Dakota, his romances. It makes him not only unique as a black director, it makes him an auteur. But the thing about 'The Betrayal': After years of not making films, he poured his heart and money into one last big movie, his summary work."
And it destroyed him.
Myra Stanton lives a 31/2-mile drive north of Collins, in Lake Meadows. She is a retired teacher in her late 80s but is as quick on her feet as Collins is slow. She asked that we only use her maiden name in this story and refused to have her picture taken. Which is somewhat ironic: She played Collins' leading lady.
She played Deborah, the sharecropper's daughter.
Stanton grew up in Woodlawn. She began modeling at 5 years old. As a teenager, she modeled in Ebony magazine, which seems the most likely place Micheaux would have found her.
"That's a possibility," she said, "because it has always been a mystery to me how he knew about me. I had only done some small school plays, and then one day my mother gets a call about this movie from Micheaux's wife (Alice B. Russell). They asked me to audition. We thought it was so odd."
Micheaux hired actors with Broadway credits, a few with Hollywood experience, but most were amateurs.
"Remember, these were all-black independent productions," said Jacqueline Stewart, who teaches African-American and film history at Northwestern University, "and Micheaux would not have had a lot of money to hire professionals. He would be more likely to cast people a black audience could identify with."
Collins, who had just started at Roosevelt University, went to the audition with fraternity brothers, expecting at best to land a job as a stagehand. "Then this (assistant director) pulled me aside, and they took me to meet Mr. Micheaux, who said 'Here, read these lines.' I didn't know it was the lead until I started reading the script, and chapter after chapter, this guy, Martin Eden, he had more lines than anyone else. Micheaux never said I was playing him, but everyone knew. In fact, Micheaux never called me by my name — I was Martin on the set, away from the set, at the rehearsals. It was like I had given my name away to this man."
Likewise, Stanton became Deborah. She also became close to Collins.
"Roy would come to my house and we would sit at the piano stool and run through lines," she remembered. "Oh, I was thrilled, so in love. He was handsome."
In fact, soon after making the film, they married.
And four years later, they were divorced. They haven't spoken in decades.
However, they are likely the last living connections to Micheaux and his time in Chicago. There are no parks, schools or even honorary streets — no official monuments of any kind — that mark the filmmaker's legacy here. Said Doug McLaren, repertory film programmer at the Music Box Theatre: "This guy's life was insane. I mean, how is it you have an African-American silent film director with a life like that, 40 movies to his credit, and still, few people know?"
Micheaux grew up in Metropolis, Ill., the son of emancipated slaves. He lived several lives, most of them epic. The short version: In 1900, he followed his oldest brother, William, to Chicago, where he lived near the Union Stock Yards and worked in the steel mills around Joliet; he then worked as a porter for the Pullman Palace Car Company; he left Chicago to become a farmer in South Dakota, where he found great success (and failure); in 1913, he wrote a self-published novel, "The Conquest," which, like his next six novels, was semi-autobiographical; the success of those first books led him back to Chicago, where in 1918 he opened a film office in the South Loop; his first film, "The Homesteader" (1919) led him to become a mini-mogul, a contemporary of the Chicago silent film scene that was dominated by Essanay studios, home of Charlie Chaplin; he had hits and bombs but remained a leading source of "race movies" — films produced specifically for black audiences.
"I think of tenacity when I think of Micheaux," Stewart said. "A didactic filmmaker who saw himself speaking to a race, instructing them about how they were on the wrong track, pushing ideas about business ownership, land ownership, the problems with black clergy. And you could argue with his politics, or the quality of the films, which were criticized for not looking as good as Hollywood films. But he was a pioneer, and he carved out a meaningful space."
But by 1940, he had spent two decades on the road, hand-delivering to theaters the few prints of his films that he had. So he left the movies to write books — and seven years later, when those literary prospects dimmed, he returned.
"The Betrayal" was meant to be his comeback.
He spent an estimated $100,000 of his own money on it. Stanton recalls "a man who had to lead everyone. He was not one to give power to other people on that set. Very domineering."
To everyone but his stars, whom he afforded rare generosity. Collins, who, like Stanton, had only acted in school plays, said, "The dialogue was so bad I would change it. He would jump on anyone who changed anything, but never me."
Likewise, Stanton remembers only one time when Micheaux got angry at her.
"Roy and I had to say the Lord's Prayer in this scene. He and I are standing there under klieg lights, moving closer and closer, and just as Roy starts, 'Our Father …,' everything just leaves me! Perspiration is rolling off me in waves, and I have this lovely gown on, and now I hear Micheaux screaming at me: 'Damn it, Deborah!'"
They shot throughout the South Side and on farms in Wisconsin and southern Michigan. Collins rode a horse in scenes. Because the film was based on Micheaux's novel "The Wind From Nowhere," that metaphorical wind was made real with industrial fans. Indeed, the production became so (relatively) extravagant, Micheaux even retained a limousine and driver throughout filming.
But that was Micheaux keeping up appearances.
He was a broken man by the time he made "The Betrayal." Hollywood had started integrating casts, luring away black actors, even trying on racial themes in films such as "Imitation of Life" in 1934. Plus, he had spent decades on the edge of financial ruin — now his health was fading too. As film historian Thomas Cripps wrote in "Making Movies Black," his 1993 study of African-Americans and movies, "The Betrayal" was meant to be the kind of go-for-broke masterwork that required a director at the top of his game. But Micheaux in his 60s was spreading himself thin, booking the film into theaters before it was finished, using free days to leave on book tours. As usual, Cripps wrote, "his soaring ambition and racial sensibility far outstripped his technical skills and bank account."
Production ended in September 1947 and Micheaux left to edit in New Jersey. Three months later, he had his would-be masterpiece.
It ran more than 31/2 hours. He did not see a problem.
In fact, he placed ads in newspapers playing up the length, exploiting its racial themes: "Longest Picture Since 'Gone With the Wind!'" But theater owners resisted. A letter Micheaux sent to theaters suggests a director with few moves left, offering to break his masterpiece into three films: "Before arguing that no picture has ever been shown this way, recall that no country had ever employed the Atom bomb until we dropped two on Japan."
He premiered the film on Broadway in June 1948. The Chicago cast stayed in Chicago, which was fortunate. News reports describe derisive cackles of laughter.
When Micheaux went on the road as usual, hand-delivering the prints, he found some success with audiences in the South. But most theaters stonewalled. And critics were unusually harsh. Even the Chicago Defender, among the biggest black newspapers in the country and in Micheaux's corner for years, described his direction as "faulty to say the least."
As for Collins and Stanton — they were not impressed. They attended the packed Chicago premiere, at the Regal Theater in Bronzeville. Collins remembers sinking in his seat: "The movie was very, very long." Stanton said: "It felt so amateurish, which shouldn't have been surprising: We were amateurs."
Micheaux died three years later in North Carolina. He was 67, and though he had been in bad health for years — he directed "The Betrayal" though he had intense arthritis — the circumstances of his death remain unclear. Said Charlene Regester, who teaches Micheaux at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: "There are a lot of unknowns and 'probablys' concerning this man's life."
For instance, of the 41 films he made, probably less than a dozen exist today.
It's hard to say for sure.
After his death, Micheaux was forgotten for decades. Interest in his life didn't percolate until the 1960s. By the late '70s, historians had located prints of "Body and Soul" and "Within Our Gates"; by the '90s, additional films surfaced. The Directors Guild of America gave Micheaux a posthumous lifetime achievement award, and Micheaux received a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. In 2010 he was honored with a U.S. postage stamp.
But his reputation within film circles has never really been settled, "and that's because you can't actually watch his movies," McGilligan said, "because there is no such thing as a Micheaux film that exists as it was intended." Prints were often found deteriorated or badly edited by regional censors, a typical practice.
As for his movies that were never found, "The Betrayal" is among them.
"There is a legend that his widow became so bitter after he died, she burned everything — prints, memorabilia," McGilligan said. And yet the history of "lost" movies is full of stories of random discoveries in attics and film archives.
So, probably it's lost.
But when asked if they are disappointed that no known copies of their only movie seem to exist, Collins and Stanton shrugged. They never saw Micheaux as a steppingstone anyway. Stanton had promised her father she would not become an actress, and Collins remained realistic.
"There weren't opportunities for African-Americans in movies then, and there wasn't going to be, so why pursue that?"
After Micheaux left Chicago, they never saw him again. But they heard from him one last time.
"We sent him a wedding invitation," Collins said. "He never came. But he sent a wedding present — copies of his books, signed." He smiles shaking his head at the self-regarding audacity. "I would joke about that gift," he said, "but Myra would say, 'It's a gift. It's the thought that counts.'"
'Within Our Gates'
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