Oscar Micheaux was a wise filmmaker and evidence of that is readily apparent in 1924-’25 when he cast Paul Robeson in the leading role in “Body and Soul.” This was Robeson’s film debut and the character he portrays is an extreme departure from what the actor would become in real life. With such a commanding, charismatic leading man, the women in the film, credited or not, are given little mention in summaries and reviews. One that deserves more than a nod was Mercedes Gilbert, and as the mother of a daughter she is determined to wed with a local preacher, she pairs equally with Robeson on the film’s basic plot.
But all this occurs in the early ’20s when Gilbert is in her mid-30s, and had firmly established her place on stage and screen, particularly from her portrayal as Zipporah, the wife of Moses, in the original touring production of “Green Pastures” in 1930.
Gilbert was born July 26, 1894, in Jacksonville, Florida and attended Edward Waters College where she began training to be a nurse before leaving for New York City to try her luck in the world of entertainment, first as a songwriter and then as an actress. When she was recruited by Micheaux many of the skills she had acquired on the stage were no longer necessary, especially in silent films where her voice was useless, and she may have been less enthusiastic about the dialect in the captions. Nonetheless, her matronly appearance and her willful demeanor matched Robeson’s dual role in “Body and Soul,” giving his magnetic personality an even larger platform of popularity.
Here’s the basic synopsis of the film, which several film critics dismissed as being terrible uneven with an awkward plot: Robeson, a prisoner in Georgia, is being transported to the North to be extradited to England when he manages to escape and then changes his identity to the Right Reverend Isaiah T. Jenkins. Since this is a silent film we miss Robeson’s oratorical majesty as he begins to hoodwink followers in small southern towns. Gilbert portrays Martha Jane as among those captivated by his speeches. The reverend is soon joined in Tatesville by another convict, Yellow-Curly Hinds, who he had met in jail. Their scheme is to liberate the church’s contributions by selling them whiskey at inflated prices.
Martha Jane is a frugal member of the church who has been saving her hard-earned money for her daughter’s dowry and to help her and her husband buy a nice home for the couple: Rev. Jenkins and Isabelle. Her daughter is not smitten by the reverend and her heart belongs to Sylvester. Before long she catches wind of her mother’s plans. One day Martha leaves Isabelle alone with Rev. Jenkins, primarily for him to save her soul, according to her mother’s wishes. After the pastor steals Martha’s money, he convinces Isabelle to take the blame for the thievery and flee to Atlanta. Later, Isabelle confesses to the theft in a note to her mother and departs for Atlanta only to find her there living in dire poverty. Isabelle movingly reveals how the incident occurred and how the pastor molested her and forced her to tell him where the money was hidden.
Gilbert, in a scene where her consummate acting is delivered, forgives Isabelle who in a subsequent scene dies. Back in Tatesville, Martha attends a church where the half-drunk pastor is preaching about “Dry Bones in the Valley.” After she publicly accuses the pastor of causing her daughter’s death, the congregation turns on him. Later that evening, the pastor, being pursued by bloodhounds, arrives at Martha’s door, explaining that it was her pampering that ruined him. Meanwhile, two of Martha’s friends arrive to help her but she shoos them away and hides the pastor in the closet.
A forgiven pastor then takes flight and seeks a hiding place in a nearby woods. One of his pursuers who corners him is assaulted and killed. At this point the film takes an abrupt change and Martha awakens from slumber to discover all of the events were part of a dream. Now she learns that Sylvester, Isabelle’s true love, has made a remarkable discovery and earned a considerable amount of money. The reality of this good fortune compels Martha to secure her savings from a bible and give it to them. A few scenes later the happy couple return to Martha’s home to find the place transformed and nicely appointed, and thus your happy ending.
This began Gilbert’s fairly impressive film career, including “Moon Over Harlem” in 1939 and there were a number of radio programs, most notably a tribute to Black women “Heroines in Bronze,” in 1943. She was also the author of “Aunt Sara’s Wooden God,” a novel in 1938.
After a brief illness in March, 1952, she died in Queens General Hospital. She was 57 and was survived by her husband Arthur J. Stevenson and a brother Earl Gough, who was also an actor.