dorothy van engle

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Groundbreaking African-American director Oscar Micheaux worked on a shoestring budget, and Swing! from 1938 shows it in everything but the amazing hats.

The story itself is quite interesting with its emphasis on solidarity between women - both gently satirized and played straight with emotion. Mandy Jenkins is a hardworking maid in Alabama with a soft spot for her careless husband who spends her money partying around with Eloise Jackson. Alerted by fellow working women, Mandy gets into a fight with her husband’s lover. Somehow both end up in Harlem, where Mandy gets her comeuppance.

Predictably, the arrogant blues diva (Hazel Diaz) gets punished by fate, but the humble but temperamental heroine Mandy (Cora Green) turns out to be a showbiz multi-talent with the support of her young friend Lena (played by the extremely bubbly and cute Dorothy van Engle) and Mr Gregory, possibly the most blasé vaudeville producer in cinema history (Carman Newsome). The end implies a reconciliation with the wayward husband - he’s a piano player, after all (though we never see him play, there are a lot of other nice musical numbers). But despite the infidelity plot and the occasional comments about proper gender roles, to me this is a story about a woman’s independence supported by women’s solidarity to each other.

Curiosity: The lady in the second screencap is blues singer Trixie Smith, famous for the 1922 recording “My Man Rocks Me (With a Steady Roll)”, the first reference to rock-and-roll in secular music. Here’s a recording from around 1925-29 with Sidney Bechet on the clarinet.

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Swing! (1938)

“This gripping screen play tells the story of a false lover and an unsuspecting cook whose joys and sorrows lead them through a series of exciting events that stretch from the sunny outskirts of Birmingham to the gayest spots in Harlem. The night life scenes are set in bright and flashing style, with colorful clubs and glamours girls. The film at no time spares the stark and realistic side of life. Bringing a vivid picture of a woman who loves not too wisely- but too well. Her unfaithful man is portrayed in every sordid trait. Seldom has production with this compelling human interest power carried such a lighter side. The gay night spots with a glimpse into the backstage life of the girls’ singers, bands, dancers all bled into a well screened of New York after dark.”