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The West, seen from a different perspective

Times Staff Writer

The fifth annual Reel Black Cowboy Film Festival at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage this Saturday and Sunday will screen three movies starring Herb Jeffries as a singing cowboy, Black America’s equivalent to Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. At 91, Jeffries remains a jazz and pop legend, but early in his singing career he became concerned that black children not only had no cowboy heroes of their own but that children had no idea that one out of four cowboys was black.

Between 1936 and ’39, Jeffries (billed on screen as Herbert Jeffrey), made six low-budget westerns in which he played Bob Blake, a tall, lean good guy who on occasion would sing a song (most written by Jeffries himself).

Jeffries was under no illusion that the pictures were works of art or that he was any great shakes as an actor, but they did allow him to portray a strong, brave -- and handsome -- hero at a time when few black men were portrayed in such a fashion, even in “race” movies. With the rediscovery of several of the titles in recent years the renowned singer has acquired secondary fame as the screen’s pioneering Bronze Buckaroo.

“The Bronze Buckaroo” (Saturday at noon), “Two Gun Man From Harlem” (Saturday at 3:30 p.m.) and “Harlem Rides the Range” (Sunday at noon) are best viewed as primitive works, yet it’s not hard to imagine how exciting and novel they must have seemed to black children in the ‘30s. They were all directed by Richard C. Kahn in routine fashion from scripts by actors Spencer Williams and F.E. Miller. Williams was a seasoned performer, best remembered as Andy in the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” TV series, but a better actor than a writer. The films do boast splendid rural locations and are well-photographed by Roland Price.

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All three have exceedingly elementary plots. In the first, Bob Blake strives to avenge the murder of the father of the film’s leading lady, played by Artie Young. In the second, Blake is framed for the murder of a rancher but escapes to Harlem only to return to pursue his vengeance disguised as a notorious gangster; and in the third, he takes on a bunch of bad guys intent on grabbing a uranium mine -- a prescient touch -- from its owner and his daughter. Williams usually played the key bad guy, with Clarence Brooks as his henchman. For “Two Gun Man From Harlem,” Jeffries was lucky to land Mantan Moreland for reliable comic relief.

Jeffries’ charisma helps to offset his sometimes stiff acting, and the musical interludes, some featuring the Four Tones, provide the films with their best moments. Both as a singer and a songwriter, Jeffries adapted well to country-and-western tunes; several years ago he recorded a CD collection, “The Bronze Buckaroo Rides Again.” Of particular charm is “Prairie Flower,” which Jeffries sings with the Four Tones.

“The Bronze Buckaroo” will be followed at 1:30 p.m. by “Rough Riders,” a documentary on black cowboys and cowgirls, and on Sunday, “Harlem Rides the Range” will be followed at 1:30 p.m. by a preview screening of Larry Clark’s contemporary western “Cutting Horse.” “Rough Riders” repeats at 3:15 p.m. Throughout the weekend there will be special events in addition to the screenings. Obba Babatunde is this year’s guest of honor at the Reel Black Cowboy Film Festival, which benefits the Western States Black Research & Educational Center, founded by Dr. Mayme Clayton.

Around and around

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The Laemmle Theaters’ “Around the World in Sixty Days,” an 11 a.m. weekend series of recent foreign films, gets off to a lousy start with “Zus & Zo,” an unappetizing comedy from the Netherlands that hopefully it isn’t setting the tone for the rest of the offerings.

Writer-director Paula van der Oest introduces us to three sisters who’ve always treated their younger brother miserably. Despite a longtime relationship with a handsome TV chef, he announces he’s getting married. This means that he automatically will become the sole owner of an enchanting small hotel on the Portuguese coast long in the family, but he declares his intention to sell it. All the sisters see it as a refuge from their messy lives; indeed, each covets it for herself. In any event, they join forces to wreck their brother’s plans.

Van Der Oest takes great pains to show us just how nasty the sisters can be, only to resort to an improbably sentimental finish, a real sell-out. Nevertheless, “Zus & Zo” became one of the five Academy Award nominees for best foreign-language film in the last Oscar race.

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Screenings

Reel Black Cowboy Film Festival

Saturday and Sunday, Autry Museum of Western Heritage, 4700 Heritage Way, L.A. (323) 252-3967 or (323) 737-3292

“Zus & Zo”

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Fairfax Cinemas, 7907 Beverly Blvd., L.A. Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m., as part of Laemmle Theaters’ “Around the World in Sixty Days.” (323) 655-4010.

Also: Aug. 9-10 at the Monica 4-Plex, (310) 394-9741; Aug. 16-17 at the Playhouse 7, Pasadena, (626) 844-6500; and Aug. 23-24 at the Fallbrook 7, West Hills, (818) 340-8710.


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