Ten Minutes to Live


Year 1932

Lawrence Chenault as  Gary Martin
A.B. DeComathiere as Anthony
Mabel Garrett as Ida Groves
William A. Clayton Jr.   as Morvis
Donald Heywood as Master of Ceremonies  
 
Director - Oscar Micheaux
Screenwriter - Oscar Micheaux

Beware of movies that advertise "All Talking". It's like in Brazil where emergency rooms advertise, "Now open 24 hours!" Oh, there's talking but you'd be just as happy if there weren't. More on that later.

Let's start with the visuals. Before the advent of the camcorder and cell phones that made mpegs, there was the eight millimeter camera. It was mounted on a bar that held four floodlights for indoor shooting. That's the lighting that's used here. Nothing is evenly lit, and there are reflections of bright spots as if the movie was shot with a couple of floodlights.

The movie consists of two stories that use a Harlem nightclub as a common thread. It's a nearly all black cast, so at least that aspect of the promotion is spot on. The first half of the movie is called "The Faker" and is introduced with silent movie style card that says so. The second half of the movie is called "The Killer" and is introduced with a card that says so. But the font is different between the two cards and so is the background. I mention this to demonstrate early on in my commentary that continuity is not one of this film's strong points.

Well, maybe I'm being too hasty. The dialogue stinks, the acting is even worse, the dance numbers are anemic, the lighting is sporadic, and the plots are minimal. Maybe continuity is one of this film's strong points.

The first half of the movie is tolerable. It takes place almost entirely in the nightclub. We get to see some singing and dancing and a nearly painful to watch comedy team. As a view into a side of Americana that's not been adequately captured, this makes the first half of the movie worthwhile. Please note that worthiness comment is true only if the depiction is historically accurate. But if the portrayals aren't accurate, then the digressions taken for cinematic improvement are pathetic.

It's obvious that there were no retakes in this movie. What happened during filming was what was captured. At the nightclub, the Master of Ceremonies botches his lines as he introduces the dancing girls. Eight girls dance their way into the center of a small table lined room and begin to go through the motions of something that could have possibly been choreographed to match the music that the band on the far wall is playing. Most of the girls even move to the same beat.

I'm sorry, but I was fascinated by it.

Next, a girl sings and hits a lot of notes. Frequently she does this when the band is hitting that very same note! What are the odds?

Bring back the dancing girls! Oh, there they are. Slim, cute, and bored out of their skulls, they dreamstomp through their number. I've seen more originality in High School dance recitals. I've seen more enthusiasm at the DMV. (Usually it's from someone yelling at a government employee, but hey, it's enthusiasm.)

Out come the comics! They're wearing make-up? Faceblack? A black man with faceblack and white lips? Maybe it's what all of the top minstrels wore.

Bring back the dancing girls!

No, wait. There has to be a plot somewhere. Here, plot. Good, plot. C'mon, boy. There you are!

"The Faker" (not "The Fakir" which might have been enjoyable) is either
- a shady movie producer named Gary Martin looking to hire a new singer who'll "do anything"
- a low rent guy who'll marry a girl if she'll be nice to him.

The movie producer exchanges a blisteringly hot series of lines with one of the girls!


Producer: What's your name?
Girl: Ida.
Producer: Uh-huh.
Girl: Ida Groves.
Producer: Oh. You're Ida Groves.
Girl: Yes.
Producer: Ida Groves.
Girl: There's...
Producer: <Moves right hand>
Girl: ...another...
Producer: <Moves left hand>
Girl: ...Ida...
Producer: <Moves both hands>
Girl: ...here.
Producer: Oh.
Girl: Maybe you wanted her.
Producer: Hrm.
Girl: <Blinks>
Producer: Maybe.
Girl: <Blinks>
Producer: What's her name?

I interrupted it for you because it keeps going on like that for another couple of minutes. Now I'll never be able to get the name "Ida Groves" washed from my brain! Thanks, Ten Minutes to Live! The Producer finally meets the other Ida and we never hear from either of them again. That must've been the Ida he'd been looking for the whole time.

By default then, the faker isn't the Producer and must be the other guy. Over the span of one night, he seduces a girl, marries the girl, she has a child, the marriage is disolved because instead of a marriage license the man got a dog license (what?), he kills the girl, their child is never seen or heard, and he gets killed by some old witchy woman at the nightclub.

Bring back the dancing girls!

No such luck. On to part deux, "The Killer." Who the killer is, we can only surmise. Who he killed isn't even hinted at. Why he wants to kill someone else, and managed to track her across half of the United States, is equally unknown throughout this segment.

If the killer is named Melvis or Mildred or Mudhen, then the viewer gets an idea of who the killer is. If this is the killer in the title, then he's a deaf mute. So much for the "All talking" portion of the program. Nearly everything in this half of the movie either involves a solitary person with no one to talk to or exchanges of unintelligble and/or unreadable notes, letters, and telegrams. Even when the cops tell Mavis that they have him surrounded, it's via a telegram to the front door. I'm not kidding.

Here're the events. Some woman is in the nightclub with her boyfriend. She gets a note telling her that she's going to die in ten minutes. Melvin didn't send it to her because he's nowhere around. Who sent it? I dunno.

Then, there're dancing girls. Yay! They may even be the same ones from the first part of the film. The lighting is so crappy it's hard to tell.

Back to the girl in danger. It's flashback time! Oh, no! She's silently riding a train for five minutes. Then she's riding in a taxi for five minutes. Then she's at her aunt's house and getting comfortable for five minutes. Then she's smoking a cigarette for five minutes. Then she's getting ready to go out for five minutes. What's that? Twenty-five minutes? Okay, maybe only four minutes for each "episode" but that's all that happens!

Bring back the dancing girls! Bring back the tacky comics in their minstrel makeup! Bring back the credits!

To make these scenes of existential despair even harder to take, there's background music. Sometimes it's a minute or so of jazz and sometimes it's a minute or so of Strauss...as in Johann. And when the music stops, it's often in mid-note. Sometimes it sounds like the effects editor just turned off the power to a record player. The music slows and grinds to a halt.

The sound effects during the girl's trip are atrocious. To simulate the crowd noise outisde of a train station, the sound of about a dozen people talking in a crowded room is used. Yes, you can tell the difference between a solitary individual on a sidewalk with no one within twenty feet of her and an indoor room with people babbling.

And her taxi ride includes a honking horn. Not for any particular reason except to maybe add a touch of "realism". It's annoying! At first it's quaint. Then it's overdone. Then it's bothersome. Then it makes you want to fast forward through the cab ride. This same obnoxious noise is used, at a minimum, a half-dozen times. Probably it's closer to a dozen but I'm not going back to count them.

In the end, Melville is captured and the girl was never in danger. Not even for ten lousy minutes!

So, for trip into a Harlem of the past (maybe), watch "The Faker" portion. Then, turn this fushlugginer thing off!


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