Oscar Micheaux: A legend's links

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Leroy Collins

Leroy Collins, age 89, is the star of the last film from Oscar Micheaux. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune / February 6, 2013)

As for Collins and Stanton — they were not impressed. They attended the packed Chicago premiere, at the Regal Theater in Bronzeville. Collins remembers sinking in his seat: "The movie was very, very long." Stanton said: "It felt so amateurish, which shouldn't have been surprising: We were amateurs."

Micheaux died three years later in North Carolina. He was 67, and though he had been in bad health for years — he directed "The Betrayal" though he had intense arthritis — the circumstances of his death remain unclear. Said Charlene Regester, who teaches Micheaux at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: "There are a lot of unknowns and 'probablys' concerning this man's life."

For instance, of the 41 films he made, probably less than a dozen exist today.

It's hard to say for sure.

After his death, Micheaux was forgotten for decades. Interest in his life didn't percolate until the 1960s. By the late '70s, historians had located prints of "Body and Soul" and "Within Our Gates"; by the '90s, additional films surfaced. The Directors Guild of America gave Micheaux a posthumous lifetime achievement award, and Micheaux received a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. In 2010 he was honored with a U.S. postage stamp.

But his reputation within film circles has never really been settled, "and that's because you can't actually watch his movies," McGilligan said, "because there is no such thing as a Micheaux film that exists as it was intended." Prints were often found deteriorated or badly edited by regional censors, a typical practice.

As for his movies that were never found, "The Betrayal" is among them.

"There is a legend that his widow became so bitter after he died, she burned everything — prints, memorabilia," McGilligan said. And yet the history of "lost" movies is full of stories of random discoveries in attics and film archives.

So, probably it's lost.

But when asked if they are disappointed that no known copies of their only movie seem to exist, Collins and Stanton shrugged. They never saw Micheaux as a steppingstone anyway. Stanton had promised her father she would not become an actress, and Collins remained realistic.

"There weren't opportunities for African-Americans in movies then, and there wasn't going to be, so why pursue that?"

After Micheaux left Chicago, they never saw him again. But they heard from him one last time.

"We sent him a wedding invitation," Collins said. "He never came. But he sent a wedding present — copies of his books, signed." He smiles shaking his head at the self-regarding audacity. "I would joke about that gift," he said, "but Myra would say, 'It's a gift. It's the thought that counts.'"

Twitter @borrelli

'Within Our Gates'
Noon Saturday
Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.
(773) 325-1710 or musicboxtheatre.com

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