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10 March 2015

The Proud Valley; Paul Robeson's best film

Paul Robeson and the Welsh male voice choir

The Criterion Collection includes The Proud Valley, 1940, in their excellent Paul Robeson box set. It's a British film starring the amazing Robeson as Dave, an American merchant seaman who finds a home in a small Welsh mining town. It was produced just at the beginning of WW2, the work of the lamented Pen Tennyson, an extremely promising young director who died in a plane crash in 1942.

First, this release has been cleaned up considerably; if you saw it several years ago, it's worth another look; the picture is crisp and nuanced, and the soundtrack, full of classical and traditional pieces, not perfect but very much improved.

As the film opens, it's a little disconcerting to find Robeson's towering figure tramping the green hillsides of South Wales looking for work like an ordinary man, because he is so huge, both physically and spiritually. He seems more like some sort of supernatural visitor disguised as a human, down from Olympus to check us out.

Dave just happens to be passing by...

Dave and his future friends in the Blaendy village choir "meet cute," in one of the most memorable scenes in the movie. Dave has joined forces with a singing tramp, and they wander into the typical little village (which is actually Port Talbot), where the men work in the coal mine all day, but are also enthusiastic participants in a traditional male voice choir by night. Instead of hanging out in a pub or playing sports, these miners rush home to scrub he black coal dust off themselves before assembling to sing complex harmonies together. In fact, the choir is preparing to take part in a national Eisteddfod, a historic musical contest where soloists, groups, and male voice choirs from all over Wales compete the choir practices "Elijah" 
The choir is practicing, handicapped by losing their bass-baritone, who was needed to sing a solo part in the portion of Mendelssohn's Elijah they are working on. The choir sings their part, up to the entrance of the soloist… and who should happen to pass by but Dave, the stoker, who just happens to possess a magnificent bass baritone voice, AND knows the music. The choir comes to a break and wafting in the window comes his powerful voice singing the missing solo. Being Welsh, the choristers go on singing, and Dave continues with the solo from outside in the street. Only when the piece is finished does everyone rush to the window to see where that miraculous voice came from.

Dave becomes friendly with the choir leader, who gets him a job in the mine to keep him in town. The plot is fast moving and a bit eccentric; there's a romance, a mining disaster, an unexpected death, sudden unemployment, social activism, all buoyed by wonderful music. The mine closes and the workers determine to seek redress by marching on Parliament. But by the time they get there, war is immanent, and the government not only re-opens the mine but plans to test new and possibly dangerous equipment to speed up production for the war effort. And in fact the actual scenes in the mine are quite interesting (although this part was filmed in a Yorkshire mine).

Director Tennyson handles this film's unique combination of genres with great clarity. from labor drama to musical to travelog, to, at the finish, a patriotic WW2 story, keeping an intimate, familial tone, nothing grandiose.

Dave finds a home with a miner's family
The fact that Robeson is a 6'5" black American doesn't seem to slow down the story -- after one little squabble (defused by Dave's friend saying with exasperation, "We're all black down the pit, aren't we?" ), the villagers accept Dave as one of them, even though he towers over everyone he meets. (That might not be so strange; independent reports say that Robeson was extremely popular with the locals when filming took place in Port Talbot and the Rhondda Valley in Wales, and is still remembered fondly.)

To top it all off, this film is full of the most beautiful music. Robeson sings several solos, and the soundtrack features both a male voice choir and a mixed voice choir. Classical and traditional Welsh hymns and songs are performed, as well as the spiritual Deep River.  The sound is a little hissy, but not distorted.

In itself this film is a worthy entry in the British working-man tradition, basically designed to celebrate everyday people and celebrate their skills and courage during wartime. But adding Paul Robeson to the mix puts The Proud Valley in class by itself. Frankly, it's well worth seeing just to get a small glimpse of the remarkable artist Paul Robeson was; his voice and sheer presence can't really be described by any other word than "magnificent."

Here's a link to the Criterion Collection's Robeson Box Set containing this film:

It's also available on HuluPlus.

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