The Devil’s Daughter – U.S., 1939
I suppose one should not expect much from a film like The Devil’s Daughter. It does not aspire to be much, its mostly amateur cast is clearly not trying to win any Oscars with their “performances,” and what little story the film actually does have could hardly be described as enthralling. In fact, its script is so poorly thought out that practically every single action is telegraphed in advance. A character will look at another and say, “I’m going to find Ms. Isabelle and tell her that I think you’re up to no good.” And then he walks toward Ms. Isabelle’s forest lair to tell her that the man is no good. It’s a film in which having a Haitian mother means being into black magic and one in which the musical performances last longer than the intended climax. In other words, The Devil’s Daughter has much in common with other B-films. It exists simply to entertain and then be forgotten, and if that’s its barometer for success, then it succeeded. I’ve practically forgotten it already.
The film takes places in Jamaica, and from the opening scene, we get the impression that Jamaica is a place where people spontaneously break out into song and dance, while still carrying baskets on their heads. In fact, it’s a full five minutes before anything happens in the film, and given the film’s running time of a paltry fifty-two minutes, that doesn’t leave much time for director Arthur H. Lenard to tell what little story there is. The film’s lead character is Sylvia Walton (Ida James), a native of Jamaica who has recently returned to Jamaica after a long stay in New York. Apparently, years earlier, she went to the United States with her father, while her half-sister, Isabelle Walton (Nina Mae McKinney), elected to stay with her mother. Early in the film, we learn that their father has recently passed away, and in his infinite wisdom, he left the family banana plantation to Slyvia. Isabelle is jealous, of course, and she decides to fill her sister with so much fright that she’ll immediately pack her things and flee to the Big Apple as fast as possible.
Like I said, there’s not much here. Perhaps that is why the film includes the standard comic character that movies of this kind unfortunately had during this time in film history – the gullible, not-so-bright African-American who runs at the mere mention of the words spirits. In this film, that caricature comes in the form of Percy Jackson, played by Hamtree Harrington. Percy came with Sylvia, but I’m not exactly sure what he is supposed to be doing in Jamaica. He doesn’t seem interested in working the fields, and the only thing he seems somewhat skilled in is card games that he makes up the rules for. Harrington tries his best to bring out the character’s sweetness and playful side, but his efforts are undone by the script. The film elects to have this character believe that his soul has been put into a pig and that he must guard the pig with his life. The problem: Sylvia has a craving for roast pig. Laughing yet?
If the film has anything going for it, it is the very watchable performance of recording artist Emmett “Babe” Wallace as John Lowden. Wallace gives an admirable effort, attempting to give dignity to a film that is really pure camp. His scenes with James work far better than any other scenes in the film, and there is no denying his screen presence. According to IMDB, which lists him as having appeared in just six films, Wallace shared the stage with some of the greats in music history, including Louis Armstrong and Cab Callaway, and he was somewhat of legend himself. It’s perfectly believable that two sisters would be fighting for him.
I realize that I just said that an element of a movie entitled The Devil’s Daughter is believable. However, sometimes you find yourself looking for something good to say about a film, for some small piece of a bad film that didn’t make you roll your eyes and sigh tremendously. For me, that was Emmett Wallace. And as long as I’m being honest, I should admit a slight appreciation for the film’s final song-and-dance number. I can only guess that the scene was meant to be suspenseful, but with its lyrics, its peculiar dance steps (step forward, step back, turn partly to the left, turn partly to the right, now turn around completely) and a costume that seems to have been borrowed from the Tarzan films, it’s hard not to get at least a tiny amount of guilty pleasure from the film. After all, life’s simply too short to complain about the quality of a film that doesn’t really aspire to be of quality. (on DVD)