A memorable summer school

Special to The Times


Retired Chicago high school principal LeRoy Collins was a movie star once -- and only once.

The movie was “The Betrayal,” the very last production by director Oscar Micheaux, shot in the Chicago vicinity in 1947. That makes Collins one of the last witnesses to an era and a man whose mystique has never been greater.

Moreover, Collins played Micheaux -- that is, the lead character, as drawn from Micheaux’s 1943 novel, “The Wind From Nowhere,” and whose name in the film is Martin Eden, in honor of the novel “Martin Eden” by Micheaux’s literary hero, Jack London.


“You are Martin Eden,” Micheaux flatly told Collins upon hiring him, “and Martin Eden was me.”

The son of emancipated slaves, Micheaux was raised in Illinois, but as a young man homesteaded on the plains of South Dakota, the only black person for miles around, writing novels. The novels provided him with an income that he used to finance his films when he became a director in 1919. “The Wind From Nowhere,” his last book, was “the autobiography of his [early] life,” Collins recalled recently. “We understood: ‘This is my life story. These are people I associated with, and these are the life experiences I had,’ and the dramatization of the story is the only thing that changed.”

Micheaux ultimately published seven novels, and between 1919 and 1948 made more than 40 films with “all-Negro” casts largely for segregated audiences. He produced, directed, wrote the scripts and edited his films. Although entertainment-oriented, Micheaux’s films insistently explored such issues as poverty, courtroom injustice, miscegenation and racial prejudice.

His 1925 silent film “Body and Soul” launched the screen career of Paul Robeson. “Symbol of the Unconquered” (1920) excoriated the Ku Klux Klan, and the crosscutting and graphic lynching scenes of the 1919 feature “Within Our Gates” have been interpreted as an explicit response to D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation.”

Micheaux is increasingly celebrated as a pioneering individualist who attacked racism in his films while working outside the official, still-segregated industry. The Directors Guild of America honored him posthumously in 1986. The Producers Guild bestows an annual Oscar Micheaux Award on “an individual or individuals whose achievements in film and television have been accomplished despite difficult odds,” and the man who could never have directed for a major studio in his lifetime has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Earlier this year, a Hollywood Entertainment Museum exhibition was devoted to his life and career.


Prospective stagehand

For Collins, playing Micheaux started as little more than an intriguing summer job. After high school and service in World War II, he was attending Roosevelt College when he learned from fraternity brothers that a movie was being shot in Chicago.


Collins went over to a studio on 29th Street, hoping to apply as a stagehand. An assistant director pulled him out of line. He was taken to meet an older, elegantly dressed man with salt-and-pepper hair who was shadowed by his wife, actress Alice B. Russell. Collins, though a motion picture fan, had never heard of Micheaux or read his novels.

Micheaux made introductory small talk and then encouraged him to read a little from the script. No advice, just: “Read it in your own style.” Collins read a few pages, and then Micheaux looked at Russell. “I think this is the one,” he said. Only later did Collins learn that his chance involvement had ended a long search, and that Micheaux had auditioned 40 or 50 well-known radio and theater performers for the role.

“I got the part because I looked like Oscar Micheaux wanted me to look,” Collins recalled recently. Micheaux liked his look so much that alone among the large cast, which included character actors flown out from Hollywood and seasoned players such as Harris Gaines from radio and Yvonne Machen from Broadway’s “Anna Lucasta,” Collins was told to avoid makeup. “I guess he wanted me to look more rugged, like he was as a young person.”

A former high school football player, Collins had acted minimally in a community theater group, and now he had to memorize “a big thick script” while acting in “75% of the scenes” of a major production. Collins signed a contract, though, and didn’t fret much. “It all came natural to me,” he said, “and that’s why he liked me, I guess.”

Micheaux financed his own pictures, and his cost-cutting measures are the stuff of legend. Collins recalls a man who indeed “would usually try to do things in the quickest way and the cheapest way,” but who also looked for strategic ways to minimize risks -- trying, for example, to limit costly studio and location time by fine-tuning during prolonged rehearsals.

Micheaux launched “The Betrayal” with several weeks of read-throughs in rented space at a Chicago community center. “He wanted to get it down to a fine point, before you got into costume, because he was spending a great deal of his own fortune to do this movie.


“He never called us by our real names. I was ‘Martin.’ From the first moment he laid eyes on me, he didn’t call me anything other than the character in his book. I don’t think he knew my other name except when he wrote the check out.”

Micheaux was “all business” while at work, and the director could be “very gruff” with the actors or crew members, Collins remembered. But he was gentle with the leading women (“I think he was quite the guy with the ladies”) and with Collins too.

He never shouted at his novice star. “If he liked you, he had charm, and I was one of the ones he liked. I was allowed to improvise a little, for example,” and the others were not.

Micheaux had leased a radio news studio, but he also shot exteriors in Chicago, with brief excursions to Wisconsin and Michigan, which stood in for South Dakota. The cameraman and crew were all white. “Oh, those were union jobs,” Collins said, and black people were blocked from all the union film jobs then.

One of Micheaux’s most impressive accomplishments was the promotion and distribution of his films. He staged a reserved-seat premiere of “The Betrayal” in New York City, advertising the first all-black picture to open on Broadway as “The Greatest Negro Photo-Play of All Time.”

It was the only Micheaux film to be reviewed in the New York Times. Thomas M. Pryor, in his brief June 26, 1948, review, found “The Betrayal” “often confusing” with “sporadically poor photography and consistently amateurish performances,” noting that the story “contemplates at considerable length the relations between Negroes and whites as members of the community as well as partners in marriage.”


“That was in the 1940s,” Collins said, “and in most parts of the country [the subject of interracial romance] was unacceptable.” Such reviews didn’t matter to Micheaux, according to Collins. The filmmaker was merely looking to advertise “The Betrayal” as “direct from Broadway” when he took it to the Deep South, barnstorming towns and cities to show the film to “Negro-only” audiences.

“He had boldness, brashness, and I always say he was a character,” recalled Collins. “He exploited situations in order to gain notoriety, and on the basis of that came his success. He was selling something -- and that was his strategy -- making a big issue of it, getting people to talk about it. He knew exactly what he was doing.

“When they showed ‘The Betrayal’ throughout the South, the lines formed for blocks outside the theaters. I saw newspaper pictures of the lines. The picture wasn’t a hit in New York on Broadway, but it was accepted by the black audience in the South.

“In this time period, blacks could not go to white theaters throughout the South and various other areas, or they could go only on certain days -- like only Wednesdays -- so Mr. Micheaux rented those theaters after the regular performances were over, at 9 or 10 o’clock at night, and that’s when ‘The Betrayal’ would be shown.”


Once was enough

Collins saw “The Betrayal” only once, slinking down in the last rows with his fraternity brothers at its packed Chicago premiere.

Micheaux “lacked a true artistic touch,” reflected Collins. He “depicted life, his life and other things that he wanted to be heard about -- but I would be highly critical in terms of quality. In terms of ‘The Betrayal,’ certainly though, the quantity was there; the film was long” -- according to various sources, more than 3 hours.


In three years, Micheaux would be dead, and the era of “race pictures” and segregated theaters would begin its slow fade.

The star of “The Betrayal” never acted professionally again.

“No,” Collins says with a smile, “that wasn’t my dish. It was fun being with the people, and it was fun to make-believe, but it was also hard work. It may sound glamorous, but not when you’re going through it.”

Collins finished college and went into a field most people would consider even harder work: education. He served as principal of the George W. Goethals Upper Grade Center public school for 20 years, and still lives in the South Side neighborhood of Chathan in Chicago.

Like the majority of Micheaux’s films, “The Betrayal” is lost -- all prints have disappeared. Collins would like nothing more than for it to be found, in some garage or European archive, and to have another chance to see it, with family and friends.


Film biographer and historian Patrick McGilligan lives in Milwaukee. His most recent book is “Clint: The Life and Legend” (St. Martin’s Press, 2002).