Proud Valley & Jericho


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Robeson. Proud Valley: (1940) 77m.; Jericho (Dark Sands) (1937). 74m. Both in English, B&W.

How many basses have had sweet voices? Plançon and Vanni-Marcoux come to mind. Like theirs, Robeson’s voice was focused and light, not thick. And in The Proud Valley it is truly sweet.

His was not a perfected technique: in the film you see his shoulders and chest heave when he breathes. Still, he had good legato and exceptional range.

To me he’s poetic. In “Lord, God of Abraham,” from Elijah, he gives me a spinal chill on the word “Abraham.” (Play the tape loud.) His “Deep River” is moving. I’ve watched it a number of times.

In The Proud Valley Robeson set out, in his words, to “depict the Negro as he really is–not the caricature he is always represented to be on the screen.” (Glasgow Sentinel, Nov. 1, 1938)

The director, Pen Tennyson, told the press that Robeson would not be used as “a negro or a famous singer.[The film] is a real-life story showing Robeson as a simple, likable human being, who has to take the rough with the smooth, the same as all of us.”

The Proud Valley was the film in which Robeson took the most pleasure.

Jericho shows a contrasting side to Robeson’s voice: it is heavier and bassier than usual. The film is a high tension adventure with a submarine and camels.

Robeson declared of Jericho, “It’s the best part I have ever had for a picture.” According to Martin Bauml Duberman’s Paul Robeson: A Biography, “The Jericho experience also confirmed Robeson in his fondness for cinema as a vehicle for his voice. He felt he could use it in a ‘perfectly natural’ way while filmmaking, without having to strain for volume and projection, as he sometimes had to on stage or in concert; ‘I can sing best when I’m natural. I don’t like posing or raising my voice or strutting about.’ ” According to Duberman, Robeson’s wife in Jericho is “played by the real-life Princess Kouka, discovered in the Sudan–and then cosmeticized.” —Stefan Zucker