African Americans in Classic Hollywood

It’s been lots of fun celebrating African American History this month at Classic Movies. I feel great admiration for the many black performers who overcame the twin hurdles of a tough industry and a prejudiced society to make their mark in the golden age of Hollywood. Here are some of those wonderful performers:

Eddie "Rochester" Anderson (1905-1977)
Cabin in the Sky (1943), Buck Benny Rides Again (1940)

Louis Armstrong (1901-1971)
The Five Pennies (1959), High Society (1956)

Pearl Bailey (1918-1990)
Carmen Jones (1954), Porgy and Bess (1959)

Count Basie (1904-1984)
Stage Door Canteen (1943), Hit Parade of 1943 (1943)

Louise Beavers (1902-1962)
Imitation of Life (1934), Made for Each Other (1939)

Harry Belafonte (1927)
Island in the Sun (1957), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

Willie Best (1913-1962)
The Green Pastures (1936), Cabin in the Sky (1943)

Cab Calloway (1907-1994)
Hi De Ho (1947), St. Louis Blues (1958)

Diahann Carroll (1935)
Carmen Jones (1954), Paris Blues (1964)

Shirley Clarke (1919-1997)
(Director) The Cool World (1964)

Nat "King" Cole (1919-1965)
St. Louis Blues (1958), The Blue Gardenia (1953)

Ralph Cooper (1908-1992)
The Duke is Tops (1938), Gang War (1940)

Dorothy Dandridge (1922-1965)
Carmen Jones (1954), Island in the Sun (1957)

Vivian Dandridge (1921-1991)
The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1935), I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

Ruby Dandridge (1900-1987)
Beulah (TV, 1952), A Hole in the Head (1959)

Ossie Davis (1917-2005)
Shock Treatment (1964), No Way Out (1950)

Sammy Davis Jr. (1925-1990)
Ocean’s Eleven (1960), Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964)

Ruby Dee (1924)
A Raisin in the Sun (1961), The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)

Ivan Dixon (1931-2008)
Nothing But A Man (1964), A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

Katherine Dunham (1909-2006)
Stormy Weather (1943), Mambo (1954)

James Edwards (1918-1970)
Battle Hymn (1957), Home of the Brave (1949)

Duke Ellington (1899-1974)
Black and Tan (1929), Murder at the Vanities (1934)

Stepin Fechit (1902-1985)
Steamboat Round the Bend (1935), Dimples (1936)

Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)
St. Louis Blues (1958), Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955)

Theresa Harris (1906-1985)
Hold Your Man (1933), Baby Face (1933)

Juano Hernandez (1901-1970)
Intruder in the Dust (1949), Stars in My Crown (1950)

Billie Holiday (1915-1959)
New Orleans (1947), Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life (1935)

Lena Horne (1917)
Stormy Weather (1943), Cabin in the Sky (1943)

Allen Clayton Hoskins, AKA Baby Farina (1920-1980)
Our Gang

Rex Ingram (1895-1969)
The Green Pastures (1936), Cabin in the Sky (1943)

Eugene "Pineapple" Jackson (1916-2001)
Our Gang

Herb Jeffries (1913)
The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), Harlem Rides the Range (1939)

Noble Johnson (1881-1978)
The Thief of Bagdad (1924), King Kong (1933)

James Earl Jones (1931)
The Comedians (1967), The Great White Hope (1970)

Eartha Kitt (1927-2008)
St. Louis Blues (1958), Anna Lucasta (1959)

Canada Lee (1907-1952)
Lifeboat (1944), Cry the Beloved Country (1952)

Jeni LeGon (1916)
Hooray for Love (1935), Hi-De-Ho (1947)

Hattie McDaniel (1892-1952)
Gone With the Wind (1939), Alice Adams (1935)

Nina Mae McKinney (1912-1967)
Hallelujah (1929), Sanders of the River (1935)

Butterfly McQueen (1911-1995)
Gone With the Wind (1939), The Women (1939)

Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951)
Independent Movie Producer/Writer/Director

Juanita Moore (1922)
Imitation of Life (1959), Walk on the Wild Side (1962)

Mantan Moreland (1902-1973)
Cabin in the Sky (1943), Docks of New Orleans (1948)

Ernest “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison (1912-1989)
Our Gang

Etta Moten (1901-2004)
Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Flying Down to Rio (1933)

Clarence Muse (1889-1979)
Hearts in Dixie (1929), Dirigible (1931)

Harold Nicholas (1921-2000) and Fayard Nicholas (1914-2006), AKA The Nicholas Brothers
Stormy Weather (1943), Tin Pan Alley (1940)

Brock Peters (1927-2005)
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Carmen Jones (1954)

Sidney Poitier (1927)
The Defiant Ones (1958), The Lilies of the Field (1963)

Oscar Polk (1899-1949)
The Green Pastures (1936), Gone With the Wind (1939)

Paul Robeson (1898-1976)
Show Boat (1936), The Emperor Jones (1933)

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (1878-1949)
Stormy Weather (1943), The Little Colonel (1935)

Jackie Robinson (1919-1972)
The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)

Hazel Scott (1920-1981)
I Dood It (1943), Rhapsody in Blue (1945)

Woody Strode (1914-1994)
Sergeant Rutledge (1960), The Professionals (1966)

Madame Sul-Te-Wan (1873-1959)
Carmen Jones (1954), The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Libby Taylor (1902-1990)
I’m No Angel (1933), Belle of the Nineties (1934)

Fredi Washington (1903-1994)
Imitation of Life (1934), The Emperor Jones (1933)

Ethel Waters (1896-1977)
Cabin in the Sky (1943), The Member of the Wedding (1952)

Dooley Wilson (1894-1953)
Casablanca (1942), Stormy Weather (1943)

Am I missing anyone? Let me know and I’ll add them!

Quote of the Week



Don't be afraid to feel as angry or as loving as you can, because when you feel nothing, it's just death.

-Lena Horne


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Saturday Dance: Jeni Le Gon

When dancer Jeni Le Gon migrated from the East coast to Hollywood, she hoped to be a tap star in the movies. However, in an industry that saw African American women as maids and mammies, she didn’t get the support she needed to make it to the top. Fortunately, she still managed to film some great performances in shorts, specialty numbers and race movies.

Here Le Gon looks charming in a white tux and top hat as she sings The Boy From Harlem in this specialty number from Fools For Scandal (1938):

 

This is one of Le Gon’s most famous movie performances, singing and dancing I’m Livin’ in a Great Big Way with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Fats Waller in Hooray for Love (1935):

 

And here she is at 92 years, showing the young ones how it’s done:

 

After seeing that clip, I wish I could spend an afternoon with Ms. Le Gon. She looks like a lot of fun!

Here’s a few more links if you’d like to see more:

I love Le Gon’s lively rendition of Getting it Right With You from Double Deal (1939). She could tap so fast!

She shows off great technique in the Swing is Here to Sway number from Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937).

Ms. Jeni was also Minnie the Moocher opposite Cab Calloway in the musical short Hi De Ho (1947) (she doesn't sing or dance here, but she does show that she could act.)

Free Classic Movies with African Americans

Many of the movies that I watched to celebrate African American History month are legally available online. I thought I'd share a few titles with you all (click on the links to watch the flick):

Bronze Buckaroo (1939)
Herb Jefferies as the first and only African American singing cowboy.

Bubbling Over (1934)
A musical short with a young Ethel Waters.

The Duke is Tops (1938)
Ms. Lena Horne makes her movie debut. Also with Ralph Cooper.

The Emperor Jones (1933)
One of Paul Robeson’s best movie roles. With Fredi Washington in a small part.

The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)
Starring Jackie Robinson as himself and Louise Beavers as his mother.

Made for Each Other (1939)
Starring Carole Lombard and Jimmy Stewart, but Louise Beavers is effective in a supporting role.

Sanders of the River (1935)
The British Empire stuff is a bit silly, but I can’t complain too much about a movie with both Paul Robeson and Nina Mae McKinney

They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970)
Starring Sidney Poitier. Also with Juano Hernandez in his last role.

Classic Links

A review of The Pumpkin Eater (1964), starring Ann Bancroft (with great art as well!)-- Silents and Talkies

A review of The Whisperers (1967), with Dame Edith Evans-- Classic Movies Digest

Hmm, I thought I knew all The Wizard of Oz (1939) trivia there was to know, but this post has proven me wrong. Interesting stuff-- Blonde Episodes

If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the remarkable Esquire profile of Roger Ebert-- Esquire

Classic Links

Some interesting history about the supporting player Oscar— And. . .Scene

The fabulous story of Burns and Allen— A Mythical Monkey Writes About the Movies

A review of Fear in the Night (1947) with a revealing short bio. of source novelist Cornell Woolrich— The Night Editor

A film student shares some early movie history (lots of good clips)— Lolita's Classics

Quietly Confident Juano Hernandez


Juano Hernandez had such a powerful presence that I always forget that he was primarily a supporting player. Though he was capable of disappearing into a large cast, more often than not he made a leading man’s impact with just a few lines. He was a versatile actor, and a solid talent, but I sometimes think the bulk of his appeal really came down to his eyes: sad, wise and still.

Hernandez would have had a fascinating life without Hollywood. In fact, his movie days are just about the least interesting part of his story. Born in Puerto Rico in 1901, he was the self-educated son of a seaman. He spent a good piece of his childhood in Brazil, where he performed on the street for coins. As a teenager, he joined a Cuban circus, which somehow brought him to the American vaudeville circuit.

Vaudeville led to work at the Cotton Club, and eventually Broadway, were Hernandez performed in the chorus of the 1927 production of Show Boat. He also appeared in the popular African American stage extravaganza, Blackbirds. He was also one of few African Americans of the time to find steady work as a radio performer.

When Hernandez made his first big movie in Hollywood, he was nearing his fifties (though he had appeared in a handful of “race” films earlier in his career). Still, it did not take him much time to make an impression. Perhaps his proudest legacy is that his screen persona was a big step away from the submissive servant roles most African American men played at the time. He was not without humility, but more often than not, his characters were quietly confident and emotionally intelligent men who found their way in society without bending to the white man.

Hernandez did not make many movies, but he was fortunate enough to appear in several high quality productions. Here are a few of his most remarkable performances:

Intruder in the Dust (1949)

Hernandez made a memorable impression in his first major movie role, an adaptation of the William Faulkner novel about an African American man who is falsely accused of murder. His very entrance is impressive, a slow camera span from the tips of his boots to his silent, wise face. Hernandez’ character is a proud man, but even more importantly, he is aware of his self-worth. He does not pander to the white man, which enrages several of the townspeople. In fact, it is clear that while he may be in jail for suspected murder, these people would just as soon see him hang for his pride. I can think of hardly another leading man who moves with the confidence of Hernandez in this role. He looks as though he were incapable of flinching, let alone doubting himself.

Stars in My Crown (1950)

As a humble sharecropper in danger of losing his land to a greedy miner, Hernandez is less steely, but no less sure of his purpose in this small town drama. When faced with an angry mob determined to strip him of his property, he demonstrates the courage required to face your enemies and refuse to fight. However, this man would never claim to be heroic in any way; he makes it clear to his benefactors that he is simply set in his ways, and would rather die than change. Hernandez manages to make his character seem simultaneously frail and powerful.

Something of Value (1957)

As a participant in the violent Mau Mau uprising, Hernandez takes a passionate departure from his typical strong, silent characters. He has an otherworldly energy in his brief scenes, as if he is listening to the advice of spirits. Those soulful eyes compound mesmerizing effect of his presence.

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Classic Links

It’s possible that this review of Fear (1946) is better than the movie— Where Danger Lives

Wild Oranges (1924) (I’ve never heard of this King Vidor flick. I’m intrigued!)— Noir and Chick Flicks

A wonderfully evocative review of The Southerner (1945)— Immortal Ephemera

Ouch—that quote from Orson Welles is brutal (and made me laugh)— Flickhead

Gang War (1940)


I’ve now watched three of the so-called “race” movies this month, and I’ve yet to find one that’s much good, but as with The Bronze Buckaroo (1939) and The Devil’s Daughter (1939), I found enough entertaining moments in Gang War (1940) to justify the hour running time.

This creaky, cliché-packed crime flick stars the handsome, but wooden, Ralph Cooper as Killer Mead, a cocky gangster out to conquer the Harlem jukebox racket. He manages that feat with fistfights and blunt maneuvering--all documented with lengthy newspaper headline montages. He woos a showgirl, pushes his luck too far with the law, and suffers the standard fate of an overconfident forties movie gangster.

Though Cooper didn’t impress me, and I found his leading lady (Gladys Snyder) equally wooden, I appreciated the palpable energy of the lively supporting cast. As Killer’s main henchman, Reggie Fenderson in particular makes the most of his brief moments onscreen. His cheeky charisma made me think of young James Cagney chomping at the bit in a supporting role in Doorway to Hell (1930). I was also fascinated by Jess Lee Brooks as a police lieutenant who tries to steer Killer away from crime, though I’m pretty sure that is mostly because he sounded so much like James Earl Jones that I could hardly believe it wasn’t him.

I also enjoyed some of the settings. It was interesting to see the shots of 1940’s city streets (it looked like they were on location). However, the liveliest moments took place in a series of scenes in black nightclubs, where brief glimpses of floor shows and a few full-length numbers seemed calculated to fill time, but did so more agreeably than anything else in the movie. The sight of all those African Americans dressed to the nines in a movie from that period also appealed to me.

Overall, the movie does hold some interest, but I would only recommend it to people with a particular interest in “race” movies and their stars.

Classic Links

RIP Lionel Jeffries— Live For Films

The film preservation blog-a-thon raises over 10k! Woo Hoo!— The Self-Styled Siren

On the Avenue (1937), a fun musical that often gets overlooked— Laura's Miscellaneous Musings

Laurel and Hardy in The Music Box (1932) (includes a legal clip to watch onine)-- A Mythical Monkey Writes About the Movies

TV Tuesday: Harry Belafonte and Danny Kaye

 

Harry Belafonte and Danny Kaye are good fun as they sing this silly, but skillful rendition of Have Nagila on Kaye's show in the sixties. They had terrific chemistry--it would have been great to see them costar in a musical.

Here's another light-hearted duet, the calypso tune, Mama Look a Boo Boo. They look like they had so much fun together!

 

Classic Links

Liz Taylor's amazing Krupp diamond-- The Kitty Larue Review

I love it when TCM creates new posters for the classics-- Ingrid Bergman Life and Films

Clara Bow could have gotten by on personality, but she was also one of the best silent movie actors (if not the best)— Art, Movies, Wood and Whatnot. . .

Kim Novak paints— Silents and Talkies

Review Round-up—

Camille (1921) (with Nazimova, Rudolph Valentino, and drool-inducing sets)— She Blogged by Night
Five Came Back (1939)— All Good Things
Terminal Station (1953)— Criterion Reflections

Monday Serenade: Paul Robeson

 

Though I like the second film version of Show Boat (1936), the rest of the movie tends to melt away every time I see Paul Robeson sing Ol' Man River. The combination of his rich, uplifting voice and James Whale's stylized direction could make this number a distinctive short on its own.

Robeson would sing Ol' Man River in concert several times over the course of his life-- often changing the lyrics to suit the surroundings or his own personal condition. In his different interpretations, he made that one song function as a downtrodden lament, an uplifting anthem and an angry protest anthem. It is a perfect testimonial to the brilliance of Paul Robeson.

Quote of the Week


I learned early in life not to judge others. We outcasts are very happy and content to leave that job to our social superiors.

-Ethel Waters


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Saturday Dance: Katherine Dunham



Katherine Dunham was one of the most successful dancers of the last century. In its time, her dance troupe, which she maintained for more than thirty years, was the only long-standing African American group of its kind. In addition to her own dancing and choreography, she was a songwriter, author and devoted activist. Though Dunham did not spend much time in Hollywood, she did commit a few memorable performances to film. Here is her most famouse appearance, with her celebrated troupe, in the title sequence from Stormy Weather (1943):


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Classic Links

A touching personal tribute to the dearly departed Kathryn Grayson— Classic Forever

Oooh, Hulu has a Criterion Collection channel now— /Film

Bygone (or rejected) Academy Award categories— Mental Floss

Ever heard of Dorothy Janis? I hadn’t before I read this interesting post. I’m glad I know about her now! (and happy 100th b-day to Dorothy!)— Filmphiles

More Barbara Stanwyck Show on DVD—yay!-- Classicflix

Intelligent Fredi Washington



I’ve always been frustrated in my efforts to get a satisfactory glimpse of actress Fredi Washington. She was blessed with beauty, intelligence and talent, but these qualities were not sufficient to make an African American a leading lady in the Hollywood of the thirties. With her pale skin, straight hair and green eyes, Washington was often encouraged to pass for white, but she was admirably steadfast in her determination to be herself.

Savannah, Georgia-born Washington began her career as teenage cabaret dancer in 1920s New York. She won a role opposite Paul Robeson in the stage play Black Boy when a producer discovered her performing in a nightclub (she would later play a small role opposite Robeson in The Emperor Jones (1933)). A dance tour of Europe followed, after which she returned to New York to work as a stage actress. She made her first movie appearance, as a tragic dancer, in the musical short, Black and Tan (1929) with Duke Ellington (she also had a passionate affair with the legendary musician).

By the early thirties, Washington’s notoriety was sufficient to attract the producers of Imitation of Life (1934), who were looking for a light-skinned African American actress to portray Peola, a young woman who attempts to pass for white in order to find better opportunities. Washington accepted the role happily, if not eagerly. She temporarily took up residence with Louise Beavers, who helped her to adjust to life in Hollywood. Though Washington’s experience on the Imitation of Life set was agreeable, and her performance won her raves, she was not offered another substantial role.

As Washington was determined to avoid playing maid roles, she had few prospects for screen work. The intelligent actress also had no intention of waiting around Hollywood for a role that would probably never appear, so she moved back to New York. There she returned to the stage, triumphing in Mamba’s Daughters, opposite Ethel Waters. However, there would not be many strong roles to follow.

With a satisfying acting career out of her reach, Washington funneled her energy into making the entertainment world more accommodating for other African Americans. She helped to found the Negro Actors Guild, and she fought hard for black entertainers. She also became a writer, serving as drama editor and columnist for The People’s Voice, a weekly newspaper published by her brother-in-law Adam Clayton Powell Jr. She eventually married a prominent lawyer and settled into a private, though not secluded life in Connecticut.

Because Washington appeared so rarely on the screen, I have made the most of what appearances she did make. Here are a few I like:

In Cab Calloway’s Hi de Ho (1934), Fredi steps out on her husband with Calloway. This is a fun short for those who only know her dramatic work in Imitation of Life

 

Washington plays a dancer in Black and Tan Fantasy (1929), but the only clip I could find is when she is on her death bed. Still, it’s interesting to see what she does with so little material.

 

This scene from Imitation of Life (1934) just guts me. It belongs to Louise Beavers, but Fredi holds her own. You get a good sense of her intelligence here.

 


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Kathryn Grayson, 1922-2010


Goodbye to Kathryn Grayson, the beautiful soprano who made her name in glossy MGM musicals of the forties and fifties. The 88-year-old singer and music teacher passed on in her sleep. Rest in peace Ms. Grayson.

An early obituary--AP

Here's a nice fan site with lots of pics--Kathryn Grayson

I love this clip from It Happened in Brooklyn (1947) with Peter Lawford and Frank Sinatra. Grayson sings a lovely, low-key rendition of Time After Time:

Classic Links

This is a fantastic analysis of Summertime (1955) with loads of pics (beware: there are spoilers)— Cinema OCD

A great interview with Lee Tsiantis who does a lot of film rights research for TCM (this answered a lot of questions for me)— The Self-Styled Siren

Pics of classic actresses and their Oscars (poor Joan Fontaine doesn’t look like she won)— And. . .Scene

Screwball Rogers and Astaire: Carefree (1938)— The Big Parade

The Devil's Daughter (1939)



This drama (some call it a horror movie, but I don't see how) set on a banana plantation in Jamaica is a big pile of “eh”, but I watched it to get a dose of Nina Mae McKinney, and I came away satisfied in that regard.

Though the running time is just shy of an hour, several minutes pass before there’s even a hint of plot. The first scene is dedicated to an extended song and dance number performed by the natives, which is amusing in itself, but utterly confusing as an opening. Then there is an equally drawn out cockfight where we at least get introduced to a couple of secondary characters.

With the musical interlude and fowl out of the way, the story begins to take shape. Sylvia, played by the placidly wooden Ida James, is a young woman just returning to Jamaica from New York. She traveled to the city to complete her education, per the wishes of her now-deceased father. In Sylvia’s absence, her half-sister Isabelle (McKinney) has been running the plantation. Though the plantation has been willed to Sylvia, Isabelle feels she has earned the right to the property, and she is not pleased when Sylvia offers to share. She is equally angered that the man she loves has proposed marriage to Sylvia.

And how does Isabelle plan to get what she wants? By performing an Obeah blood dance ritual, and scaring her sister back to New York. Though she has no idea how to conduct such a ceremony, she drugs Sylvia, and puts on a good show for the natives. Add to this a subplot about a servant who thinks his soul has been stored in a pig for safe-keeping, an awkwardly-staged fistfight, and an abruptly sunny ending and you’ve got a long, but strangely fascinating hour.

For the most part, this is a poorly-scripted and horribly-acted mess. James pretty much recites her dialogue, and she’s always looking off into space, as if she’s reading her lines off a cue card. There are a few nice elements; the locations are surprisingly lush for an independent “race” production and the tribal music has a feeling of authenticity.

McKinney is the real reason to watch this flick. It’s too bad it takes fifteen minutes for her to appear, because she has enough charisma to compensate for the rest of the cast. Even with a terrible script and a few wooden moments herself, she holds herself like a star.

Seeing what McKinney could do with such poor material, I wondered what it would be like to see her in one of Bette Davis or Joan Crawford’s early career gal roles. With her smart, no-nonsense manner, she could have added real bite to those parts. As it is, I’m happy to have at least gotten another glimpse of the fabulous Nina Mae.

Classic Links

A nice tribute to Vera-Ellen-- Noodle in a Haystack

I love the pic of Marlon Brando with a cat on his neck!-- Old Hollywood Glamour

Silent movie actress Pauline Stark-- Noir and Chick Flicks

Is Margaret O'Brien making a Christmas Special with Rob Schneider? I only saw this in CNN's iReport (and no info. on IMDB), so I'm not so sure-- iReport(CNN)

Classic Links

The starry-eyed film criticism of David Thomson— Slate

This is not classic movie reated, but I had to share this subdued and elegant soft shoe by the duo Coles & Atkins— YouTube

Ah Tallulah. I don’t think we’ll ever tire of her— New York Times

I’d love to go to Paris and see Leslie Caron on stage in A Little Night MusicPlay Bill

An interesting post about Bringing up Baby (1938)-- The Onion AV Club

This is sad. The Douglas Fairbanks Museum re-opening is postponed indefinitely due to black mold-- Douglas Fairbanks Museum

TV Tuesday: Lena Horne and Judy Garland

 

One of my favorite things about the Judy Garland Show is the way Garland's guests always seemed to let down their hair for her. Lena Horne really hams it up in this 1963 performance of Day In, Day Out, but while she and Garland give the appearance of casual buddies belting out a song, they never abandon their smooth professionalism.

Classic Birthdays


Jeffrey Lynn (1909-1995)
Vera-Ellen (1921-1981)
Chester Morris (1901-1970)


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Classic Links

The film preservation blog-a-thon is huge!— The Self-Styled Siren

The Classic Movie Blog Association is celebrating Black History Month with a blog-a-thon today— Classic Movie Blog Association

Philip French’s screen legends: Vivien Leigh-- The Guardian

April 17, 1932 in Hollywood-- Hollywood Heyday

A review of the touching pre-code drama, Torch Singer (1933)— Mondo 70

Ms. Durbin in I’ll Be Yours (1947)-- Motion Picture Gems

Kate Gabrielle wants to share the Dirk Bogarde love— Silents and Talkies

Monday Serenade: Nina Mae McKinney

 

Nina Mae McKinney sings Everything I've Got Belongs to You with mischievous glee in the 1932 short Pie, Pie Blackbird. The chefs accompanying her in that enormous pie are Eubie Blake and his orchestra. Though McKinney had musical chops, I think it would have been great to see her in a screwball comedy. She had the perfect madcap person for the genre.

When sixteen-year-old McKinney was plucked out of the chorus line of the popular stage show Blackbirds of 1928 to star in the all-black musical Hallelujah (1929), everyone from King Vidor to Irving Thalberg proclaimed her a great discovery. Believing her press, McKinney signed a five year contract. However, the times weren't right for an African American leading lady. She ended up working out her contract in musical shorts and supporting roles.

By the mid-thirties McKinney was performing as "The Black Garbo" in European cafes. Though she had another short run in Hollywood making race movies and playing b-movie maids in the forties, she never did recapture the glory of her first role. There's not much confirmed information about McKinney's later years. There are stories that she eventually became a maid, and that she had a continuing struggle with drugs and alcohol, but for the most part, the vivacious Nina Mae quietly and mysteriously slipped away.

Happy Valentine's Day xoxo



Quote of the Week


If you apply reason and logic to this career of mine, you're not going to get very far. You simply won't. The journey has been incredible from its beginning. So much of life, it seems to me, is determined by pure randomness.

-Sidney Poitier

Saturday Dance: The Nicholas Brothers

I can’t think of a more explosively talented screen dance team than the Nicholas Brothers. They were physically impressive dancers, but their artistry was such that their complex acrobatics never looked like a series of stunts. This routine from Storm Weather (1943) has got to be one of the best ever filmed; it is stunning in its complexity and physicality.

 

And here they are decades later, strutting their stuff on a 1977 episode of The Jackson Show. Two things that amaze me about this clip: that the Nicholas Brothers are still so acrobatic and that the Jacksons all do a fine job of keeping up with this still-electric duo.

 

Herb Jeffries in The Bronze Buckaroo (1939)



African American singer and actor Herb Jeffries came to Hollywood in the thirties, determined to make it to the big screen. He connected with a producer, and essentially made his own job as a singing cowboy in the Gene Autry vein. Tall, elegant Jeffries looked a lot more like a sophisticated nightclub singer than a rough-and-ready cowboy, but for a few years, he was a hit with African American audiences, who admired him in movies such as Harlem Rides the Range (1939) and Harlem on the Prairie (1937).

The Bronze Buckaroo is one of the most readily available of these flicks today, and really, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen the lot. A handsome leading man, a few good songs, and a slightly amusing running gag about a talking mule are about all the movie has going for it, but at a one hour running time, that’s plenty.
Even Jeffries admitted that they got the story for this and his other cowboy pictures “from white movies and just changed names”. The formula was in place, he just put his own twist on it. If you’ve got any tolerance for western programmers, or curiosity about the race movies of the day, you’ll be able to look past the mostly wooden acting and recycled plotline.

These westerns led to more work in race movies for Jeffries. In the forties, he would return to singing, making an enormously successful recording of The Flamingo with Duke Ellington. For a time, he also owned a Hollywood nightclub named, appropriately enough, The Black Flamingo. Jeffries has stayed active as a speaker and singer up to recent years. He’s still alive today at 96!

There are some great pics and posters of Jeffries on this site.

Classic Links

Great commentary on the many versions of a Star is Born and the upcoming remake-- The Kitty Packard Pictorial

A review: Captured!(1933)-- Movie Morlocks

Info. about the restored footage from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and a screening in Berlin (I take issue with the article title though, I think Voyage to the Moon (1902) is the mother of sci-fi!)-- The Guardian

This new Georges Méliès set looks interesting (and after all, the man is responsible for my banner moon)-- ClassicFlix

TV Pioneer Beulah



Beulah, a sitcom about a maid and the family she serves, was the first radio show to star an African American actress, but it didn’t start out that way. The character was created by comedian Marlin Hurt, who was not only white, but male. Hurt developed Beulah in several guest spots on the The Fibber McGee and Molly Show. That led to the spin-off that would be the first Beulah show (called the Marlin Hurt and Beulah Show), which lasted until Hurt’s death in 1946, just before the end of its debut season.

In 1947, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American actress to take on the role a change which boosted the show's ratings. Though the NAACP had its qualms about the mammy nature of Beulah’s role, the successful show was undeniably groundbreaking. Beulah may have been a maid, but she was also the star. The radio show ran until 1954, while a television version of the program ran in various incarnations from 1950 to 1953.

Throughout its run, the program employed several actresses as Beulah. When McDaniel became ill, sisters Lillian and Amanda Randolph each had a turn with the role on the radio. Ethel Waters debuted Beulah on television, though McDaniels did step into the role again briefly. The last Beulah was another famous screen maid, Louise Beavers.

There were also a few African American performers cast in supporting roles. Butterfly McQueen and Ruby (mother of Dorothy) Dandridge played Oriole—a maid who lived next door to Beulah, while Ernest Whitman and Dooley Wilson took turns playing Beulah’s boyfriend Bill.

Apparently, most of the eight-seven episodes of the television program are lost today, though there are a few available on DVD. I was able to find a 1952 episode of the program with McDaniel on YouTube. She would die of breast cancer soon after this episode was filmed. Note that this show was filmed before the birth of laugh tracks—the silence after the punchlines is almost unsettling!


 

 



 

 

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Classic Links

Great Valentines Day pics of classic actresses— Gents and Dames

A tribute to the stars that Hollywood never gave a chance to— Vintage Film Nerd

Fascinating pics of Vivian Leigh, newly available on the London National Portrait Gallery site-- Viv and Larry

Haha—it’s “That Guy”—the character actor website— That Guy (via @ebertchicago—if you are on Twitter, I highly suggest following Roger Ebert. He posts great stuff.)

Luise Rainer to appear at TCM classic film fest (I know a lot of you are iffy about this festival, but I am impressed that they managed this booking)— UPI

Fashion Shows in Classic Movies

I've decided to use Fashion Week as an excuse to post these clips of fashion shows in classic movies that I’ve been collecting.

A lot of people become annoyed when they are watching a movie and the action suddenly stops for a parade of outlandish outfits (I hear this a lot about the lavish Technicolor show plopped in the middle of the black and white comedy The Women (1939)). While I can understand that a fashionable interruption can be murder for pacing and plot progression, I’m always delighted to have the opportunity to ogle beautiful (and sometimes bizarre) clothes from the past.

The nice thing about this collection of clips is that here they stand on their own. No plot to interrupt—just clothes! This 1920s-style exhibition from Singin’ in the Rain(1952) is the first movie fashion show I can remember seeing. I love the silly narration:

 

This clip from It’s a Great Life (1929) reminds me of the Singin’ in the Rain fashion show. I wonder if this scene was the inspiration? The show starts at about 2:30:

 



I couldn't find a clip with the whole fashion show from How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), but this part with Marilyn Monroe is the funniest:

 

And here is that lovely—and strange (check out that hand-shaped brooch and the monkeys!) show from The Women (1939). This was apparently filmed in Technicolor so that MGM could show off their new process. The clothes were all designed by Adrian:

 

I also love the fashion show in the 1961 remake of Back Street with Susan Hayward, but I couldn’t find a good clip. What are your favorite movie fashion shows? Did I miss anything good?

Louise Beavers: Jolly, But Savvy


Louise Beavers is one of my favorite African American figures from classic Hollywood, because her real life so thoroughly contradicts her screen image. In nearly all of her films she was a domestic—usually a maid, sometimes a cook. She was jolly, open-hearted, laidback and plump.

Off screen, Beavers was a sophisticated matron of Hollywood’s black community. She dressed the part of a star, wearing furs, jewels and fancy hats. Far from being laidback—Beavers was a savvy career woman who survived for decades in a brutal industry. She was also friendly to her fellow actors, even temporarily housing newcomers such as Fredi Washington, but it is said that she was always a bit self-protective and emotionally removed.

Though Beavers was a bit plump, she had to force-feed herself to attain the mammy-type weight the studio desired. Perhaps most amusingly of all, Beavers hated to cook. Fortunately, she made enough money that she only had to step in a kitchen while she was on camera.
 
Her big role was as the maid-turned-pancake queen Delilah in Imitation of Life (1934). She plays a single mother who combines resources with a white woman named Bea (Claudette Colbert) in the same situation. They struggle to survive, until Bea decides to box Delilah’s delicious pancake flour. They make a fortune, but continue to struggle with their personal lives.
 
In this expertly-crafted melodrama, Beavers constantly gets patronized, loses her light-skinned daughter when she decides to live as a white woman, lives in the basement of mansion essentially paid for with her pancake flour and is offered a mere 20% of the profits on a business that could not even exist without her contribution (she begs her white partner to keep the cash and let her continue to live in the basement). Though she is the character most in need of a foot rub, she seems to always be giving them to Bea.
 
And yet, Delilah is the emotional center of the movie. Her dilemma is the most compelling element of the plot, which she drives, from her alliance with Bea to the success of her flour recipe. She is buoyed by her faith, and though her daughter’s desertion breaks her heart, she is not bitter, but rather full of love for her baby girl. This was also the first time an African American woman’s troubles had received significant attention in a mainstream movie, and Beavers made the most of her pioneering role. The press tended to agree that she had stolen the movie from her white costars.
 
Unfortunately, Beavers’ enormous success in Imitation of Life did not lead to more juicy roles. In fact, it even hurt her career, because her agents made such inflated salary demands that she was priced out of the roles available to her. Still, she always managed to find work—and her career would last into the sixties.
 
Though Imitation of Life is Beavers’ most celebrated role, I tend to prefer the moments she shined in her supporting roles. She always added an extra bit of life, warmth and wit to her lines. This woman was subversive, though you’d never know it from that beaming smile.
 
Here are a few of my favorite Louise Beavers roles:
 
Bombshell (1933)
Beavers is wonderfully sly as Jean Harlow’s sweet and salty maid in this underappreciated satire of Hollywood. In an early scene, her employer reminds her that her satin outfit was meant to be an evening wrap—not a negligee—and the look on her face is priceless when she claims that her negligee was torn up the evening before last. Beavers is the only person Harlow can trust in a sea of opportunistic leeches. She’s always sharp with her comebacks, and as she tells a shifty employee “I knows where the bodies are buried.”
 
Made For Each Other (1939)
I tend to view Beavers as the strongest element of this melodrama starring Jimmy Stewart and Carole Lombard. As their supportive maid, she is always the character most able to step back and view things philosophically. Beavers is a lively, warm presence throughout, but she is most compelling in a scene with Lombard on a park bench (pictured above), where she imparts her wisdom with gentle good humor.
 
Bullets or Ballots (1936)
This is my favorite Beavers character, though her screen time is frustratingly brief. She is the former maid of club owner and numbers runner Joan Blondell, now running the numbers business for her in Harlem. Though she claims to want to go back to serving Blondell, it’s hard to believe she really means it. After all, this is the most glamorous and brilliant Beavers ever was on the screen. With her furs and jewelry, she could have stepped out of a photo of the real Beavers doing the town in Hollywood. She is also given a more intelligent character, one who sits beside Blondell as a business partner. Seeing her this glamorous makes me wish she could have filmed a biopic of hair preparation queen Madame C.J. Walker .
 
 
Image Source

Classic Links

Never-published pics of Marilyn Monroe at awards season parties in 1952— Life

Part two of the Edna Green interview-- Classic Film and TV Cafe

Happy birthday Judith Anderson (AKA Mrs. Danvers)-- Richwah's Blog

A rare and marvelous tribute to Constance Collier-- Felix in Hollywood

Aleen Leslie, the oldest member of the Writers Guild, dies at 102-- Hollywood Reporter

Classic Links

So why do you watch classic movies? Does watching them a lot make you anti-social? Raquelle explores the idea in this wonderfully honest post— Out of the Past

I love the pics on this best director/actor team poll (vote if you can decide. I had a tough time!)— The Big Parade

Richard Burton looks so miserable in his bath!— BBC

Interesting facts about the Hollywood Walk of Fame— Mental Floss

A review: Manhunt (1941)-- Cinema OCD

A thoughtful post about the fabulous and disturbing spread of MOD (manufacture on demand) discs-- Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear

TV Tuesday: Hattie McDaniel on The Ed Wynn Show

 

Here's Hattie McDaniel in a 1949 appearance on The Ed Wynn Show as Beulah, her character from her popular radio (and eventually television) show. My favorite part of this sketch is when McDaniel breaks into a rendition of Some of These Days (though she didn't sing much on the big screen, McDaniel did get her start as a band singer). She really goes for the gusto!

Though McDaniel wasn't able to escape the maid's uniform for her last big role, she did make history, for she was the first African American woman to have her own radio and television programs.

Classic Links

I’m with you Shirley—that’s lame-- IMDB

It seems like there’s always a piece of Marilyn Monroe for sale. They are nice pics. though— IMDB

Here’s a peek at those Monroe pics— Old Hollywood Glamour

Philip French’s screen legends: Henry Fonda-- The Guardian

I love this gallery of classic actors with their Oscars— And. . .Scene

Celebrating 100 years of black cinema (I’m impressed by the amount of information packed into this article)-- The Root(via The Night Editor)

An interview with Edna Green (otherwise known as the little girl with glasses in Shadow of a Doubt)— Classic Film and TV Cafe

Kate Gabrielle has a LOT more movies to share with us-- Silents and Talkies

So many bloggers are signed up for “For the Love of Film”. This is going to be interesting!— Self-Styled Siren

A review of Black Tuesday (1954) with Edward G. Robinson— Where Danger Lives

This is a nice tribute to Miriam Hopkins-- A Mythical Monkey Writes About the Movies

A very perceptive review of A Fool There Was (1915)— Silent Volume

Monday Serenade: Dorothy Dandridge

Dorothy Dandridge is irresistably fresh-faced and enthusisastic in the 1942 soundie A Zoot Suit with a Reet Pleat. It would have been wonderful to see her star in a high-stepping forties musical, but I'm glad we at least have performances like this to savor:

 

Here's another short Dandridge clip from the 1945 comedy Pillow to Post. She simply sparkles singing Watcha' Say? with Louis Armstrong in this nightclub number:

Classic Birthdays


James Dean (1931-1955)
Jack Lemmon (1925-2001)
Lana Turner (1921-1995)
Betty Field (1913-1973)
Lyle Talbot (1902-1996)
King Vidor (1894-1982)
Edith Evans (1888-1976)


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Quote of the Week



Any woman who has a great deal to offer the world is in trouble. And if she's a black woman, she's in deep trouble.

-Hazel Scott

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Saturday Dance: Bill "Bojangles" Robinson

 

Though master tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson spent most of his career on the stage, he made a strong impression in the movies, both as a performer and influence. His most famous roles were as the dancing butlers he played opposite Shirley Temple in movies such as The Little Colonel (1935) and the lead role in his last movie (at age 65!), Stormy Weather (1943). Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell (who was particularly influenced by Robinson) even performed routines in tribute to Robinson.

The top video is of Robinson’s most famous routine: the stair dance (which Powell recreates in her tribute). This performance demonstrates the best of his talents: his feather light tap, easy pace and above all, his total control of every movement. Check out those Astaire and Powell links to appreciate just how easy he made tapping look, even the two best tap dancers in Hollywood could not quite emulate his relaxed, but precise style.

The video below is a great clip from Hooray For Love (1935) where Robinson dances on his own, does a tap duet with lovely Jeni Le Gon, and sings with Fats Waller:

 

Something of Value (1957)


The plot of this movie is, in essence, The Fox and the Hound(1981) set against the Mau Mau uprising (an insurgency of Kenyans against English colonial rule in the 1950s). Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier play childhood friends who grow apart when they find themselves at opposite ends of the conflict.

There is much to frustrate the modern viewer in this drama, which was very much of its time. While both the Kenyans and English are viewed with some sympathy, the plot, like the book, seems more concerned with the white point of view. These settlers, both those who are considered “good” and “evil” by the movie, are condescending and entitled. When a judge warns Hudson, “If we don’t make the African respect the law well, the next thing you know he’ll be wanting to rule this country.” He replies, “imagine that, now. Whatever could give him that idea?” But he seems more in love with the country than its people, and despite his obvious sense of fairness, you wonder if he really wants to change the status quo.

Poitier seems more committed to his cause. He is frustrated by the limitations and degradation his countrymen suffer under English rule, and he is willing to make great sacrifices to win back the land. When he is slapped by a white man for making a playful complaint while on the job, his humiliation is devastating. Tears stream freely down his face, until he finally explodes with raw anger. Hudson comforts him, but you sense that he can’t quite grasp his friend’s pain. I’m afraid this is partly due to Hudson’s performance; it wasn’t until later in his life that he was able to manage the gravity necessary for a role of this intensity.

However, Hudson does demonstrate a believable affection for his childhood friend. In fact, he seems more emotionally involved with Poitier than his fiancée (played by a stunned Dana Wynter). I saw this affection as an attachment to a way of life and Africa itself—two things which Wynter does not understand as well as these men.

On the other hand, Poitier handles his character's turmoil with stirring intensity. His is the most conflicted character, as he is grateful for the care he received from a family of English colonialists as a child, but also loves his people and wants to better their condition. Poitier seems near insanity as he struggles to find a peaceful solution to his dilemma. For most of the plot, he doesn’t seem to know what action to take next, and he is painfully stunned whenever he makes a bad choice.

Juano Hernandez is another stand-out, as an influential oath giver who will do anything, just short of condemning his soul, to win victory for his people. With his sad, soulful eyes and intense belief in tribal customs, he has a magical effect in his scenes—almost as if he is from another world.

On the whole, this is a brutal, flawed movie. There’s a lot of violence, set-off by several slow-moving scenes (the unconvincing romance between Wynter and Hudson could have been removed completely). The African storyline thrums with passion and anger, but the more conventional white settlers get the most screen time. Still, there are moments of intense suspense, heightened by a thrilling score (which is laced with the eerie swooons of either a Theremin or a musical saw; I couldn't tell for sure which one), and the script does successfully communicate how and why the parties on both sides of this conflict fervently believed in their own righteousness.


 Image Source

Classic Links

Sigh. . .now studios want to re-release classics in 3D. Watch out Bogie!— EW.com

13 Hitchcock films that were never made— Mental Floss

This is good news for Blogger bloggers—you can now create pages!— Asleep in New York

A review of a fun pre-code, Hot Saturday (1932)— Mondo 70

Strike a pose as your favorite Hollywood starlet (this looks a bit extravagant to me, but maybe I’d feel differently about it I had the disposable income [not likely])-- LA Times blog

The Immensely Gifted Paul Robeson



It is no exaggeration to say that Paul Robeson was one of the most remarkable humans to ever live. He was intellectual, athletic, and handsome, with a rich bass-baritone voice and a joyful, intoxicating charisma.

Robeson seemed able to conquer any arena. As an honor student on scholarship to Rutgers, he was a legendary four-letter football player, making the All-American team in 1918. After graduation, he studied law at Columbia University. Not long after his schooling, he became a successful stage actor and recital singer. He is even reported to have learned twenty languages, which enabled him to perform folk songs in their original languages.



Robeson was the first African American man to lead a white cast in a major production of Othello, which was so successful that it became the longest-running Shakespearean play in Broadway history. His stage work led to a both fruitful and frustrating career as a movie actor, which today gives us the some of the most vivid material from which to try to gain an understanding of his legend.



The quick-witted, proud Robeson was also politically outspoken, which caused him a great deal of trouble (though he undoubtedly gave courage to future generations). He protested segregation and discrimination, and was a vocal supporter of labor activism, the Communist party and the Soviet Union, among other controversial issues. These radical beliefs, coupled with a refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the fifties, took a serious toll on Robeson’s career, safety and eventually, his health. The FBI kept a massive file on Robeson and his wife Eslanda, and the United States government ultimately revoked his passport, claiming that his views could harm the nation’s image abroad.
Robeson fought for a decade to regain the right the travel so that he could earn his living abroad.

These controversies dealt a severe blow to Robeson’s American career as a recital singer. He also endured criticism from the African American community, where many people feared that his actions would hinder the advancement of the race. Several of those who did associate with him, including Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, were also subject to government pressure. Robeson fought mightily against his oppressors, but though he defended himself with bravery and eloquence, the strain of the fight became too much for even this great man to endure. In frail health, he eventually withdrew from the public eye, and lived the last years of his life with his sister in Philadelphia, where he died in 1976.

Robeson’s movie career was short-lived (he was active between 1925 and 1942), but it was significant piece of his turbulent life. He alternated between the Hollywood and English film industries, taking roles that he thought dignified and heroic. Despite Robeson’s strenuous efforts to elevate his race through his movie work, he was often betrayed by his employers in the editing room. For this reason, he would occasionally agree with the African Americans who protested some of his films. The primary problem was that while Robeson did not technically play servants in his movies, he tended to end up in service to the white man anyway. Robeson is such an astonishing spectacle on the screen that even the least satisfying of his movies are worth a look, but he was always at his best when he played a role in which he drove his own fate.

Here are a few of those notable roles:

Body and Soul (1925)
This silent produced by Oscar Micheaux was Robeson’s first movie. If it were not for Robeson’s boisterous contribution, it is unlikely that this awkwardly plotted and erratically edited production would be remembered today. He plays dual roles--the more subtle being the poor, but honest suitor of the leading lady and a more showy part as a gleefully evil ex-con posing as a preacher. Robeson spends most of his screen time in the preacher role, and it is here that he is at his most potent. With his wide grin and confident swagger, you almost forget that you can’t hear him speaking.

The Emperor Jones (1933)
This story was familiar territory for Robeson, as he had starred in the original stage production of the Eugene O’Neill play. He plays a Pullman porter, who accidentally kills a man, ends up on the chain gang, and in the course of his escape from captivity ends up on a tropical island. There he manipulates the residents to better his circumstances, until he finally finds himself the ruler of the island. However, he is a corrupt and arrogant king, which leads to his downfall. In one of his best performances, Robeson reveals a man who is clever, but doomed by a lack of humility and restraint. There is no less confidence in his manner when he is a porter shouting “yessir” than when he is barking orders from his throne. His boundless energy helps him to win his conquests, but he can’t balance his bravado with the level-head necessary to stay in power. Robeson ably shows the weakness within this seemingly indomnitable man.

Show Boat (1936)
This was Robeson’s first Hollywood movie, and another role he played originally on the stage. In it, he performed the definitive version of ‘Ol Man River, a song that would become his personal anthem (he would even change the lyrics in later performances to fit his current personal an political views). He so moved the musicians in the recording studio that the orchestra applauded him. Robeson was also a sensation on the set, where technicians and grips eagerly gathered to watch him sing. Eslanda Robeson wrote of the crew, “If you can interest them, you’re good.” Director James Whale was also impressed with Robeson, and wanted to direct him in a starring vehicle, but the project never materialized. Though he was a triumph in the role, Robeson was uncomfortable with his stereotypically lazy character. He did not offer much resistance when the role got some criticism from the black press.

Jericho (1937)
Robeson found his favorite roles overseas, in the more politically-progressive British industry (though he did still suffer his share of indignities). This was one of the rare instances where his character had the dignity he desired. He plays a World War I soldier who accidentally kills a superior officer and then escapes prison (yes, there are many similarities in the plots of Robeson's movies). Picking up a white army deserter on the way, he steals a boat, and eventually finds himself in the desert, where he quickly becomes the leader of a Bedouin tribe. While he lives a prosperous life with a new wife and his white sidekick, the army captain he betrayed to gain his escape tries to find him and bring him to justice. It is gratifying to see Robeson in such a powerful role. He seems to relish playing an intelligent and heroic leader who, when he learns that the captain who once befriended him has suffered because of his escape, also has the integrity to want to make amends.

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Here's a great clip in which Robeson enthusiastically discusses his preparations for Othello. It offers a fascinating glimpse of his nimble intellect and warm personality:

 


Source of Images

Classic Links

Great stories about classic movie stars at the Berlin Film Festival--Earth Times

David Thomson writes about classic Hollywood horror-- The Guardian

A tribute to Elsa Lanchester with lots of photos— She Blogged By Night

Review Round-up—

Moonrise (1948)-- Movie Morlocks/TCM
Kitty (1945)-- Classic Movies Digest
I Live My Life (1935)-- Cinema OCD

Classic Links

Review Round-up—

My Son John (1952)-- Movie Morlocks/TCM
Wallflower (1948)-- Laura's Miscellaneous Musings
Born to Kill (1947)-- Out of the Past

I was mesmerized by this 1940 clip about the science of beauty (I think the slide whistles are the perfect sound effect for talking about science)-- Glamour Daze

Unearthing the Uncool-- Self-Styled Siren

Hattie McDaniel: Pioneer and Scene-Stealer


Of all the African American women who were relegated to maid and mammy roles in the studio age, there was no one more capable of dominating a scene than Hattie McDaniel. Her persona was that of the opinionated, aggressive domestic, a self-confident woman who was also quite often the only person in the room with any common sense. As Barbara Stanwyck quipped in The Mad Miss Manton (1938), after getting a characteristic bit of sass from McDaniel, “in my house, the revolution is here.” It wasn’t really, but despite the maid’s uniform, she did distinguish herself enough to get things rolling in the right direction.

McDaniel famously said “I’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid than $7 being one,” and that statement neatly describes the contradictions of her legacy. She was a pioneer: the first African American both to be nominated for an Academy Award, and the first to win, not to mention the first African American woman to have her own radio, and eventually television, program. However, she had to walk from a table in the back of the room to claim that Oscar, and though she had her own show, it was as the maid Beulah, a character driven by the actions of her employers. It was if every lift she got came with a slap, but she handled these slights with dignity.

If McDaniel felt conflicted about her screen image, she didn’t reveal that to the general public. She was proud of her success and the lavish lifestyle that it afforded her. Her friend Lena Horne said, “She had the most exquisite house I’ve ever seen in my life. The best of everything.” Horne also remembered McDaniel telling her that, “I’m a fine Black mammy [on screen]. But I’m Hattie McDaniel in my house.”

Despite the controversy surround McDaniel's screen image, I tend to view her work in a positive light. She had such powerful charisma that I feel she was often able to transcend whatever role was handed to her. In some cases, she would simply steal the scene from her white co-stars.

My favorite example of this is in her one scene for Alice Adams (1935). In it, McDaniel is a maid who has been hired by Katharine Hepburn to impress the wealthy Fred MacMurray at a family dinner in her modest home. McDaniel listlessly trudges around, looking bored and chewing gum, but she is also able to indicate with a few glances that she is keenly aware that the evening is headed for disaster. Her disdain for the proceedings and the lace cap drooping over her forehead provide huge comic relief in a scene that would have otherwise been unbearably awkward.

It is this sort of performance that leaves me convinced that Hattie McDaniel did as much as she could within the system to demonstrate that African Americans could be a greater credit to the industry if they were only given the opportunity to do so—and I think she accomplished the feat with marvelous grace.

(I hope it’s true that Mo’nique is going to leverage her new status to make a biopic about Hattie McDaniel. That could be a fascinating project.)
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