There were just as many black stars in Hollywood as there were white. It didn’t matter how talented they were however as most were relegated to the roles of house servants, baggage handlers, valets, porters, criminals or all singing all dancing sidekicks. Their roles were generally one dimensional and did little to show off the talent of the actor.
When Hattie McDaniel became the first black actress to win an oscar for her supporting role in ‘Gone With The Wind’ she was not even permitted to sit amongst the other stars of the film. She and her husband had to sit at a segregated table near the back of the Coconut Grove where the oscar ceremony was held. Up to that point her career had been based on playing sassy maids and that is exactly the type of role she played in ‘Gone With The Wind’. She was, however, a scene stealer and the role of ‘Mammy’ was so much more. Not only was she the first to win an oscar but also the first black singer to make it in radio.
She even had her own show ‘Hi Hat Hattie’ as a , you guessed it, wise cracking maid. She was well respected and loved amongst the Hollywood elite and counted Clark Gable and Bette Davis amongst her closest friends. Apparently she also threw great parties in her grand seventeen room Hollywood mansion. Though criticised for conforming to stereotype roles she famously said ” I’d rather receive $700.00 a week for playing a maid than $7.00 a week for being one.
Another wonderful black star during this era was the beautiful Theresa Harris who starred alongside Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face. Throughout the film she is The best friend of Stanywyck’s character Lilly who is working her way up. The thing is that once Lilly get’s where she want’s to be with the expensive house, chauffer and designer gowns, her best friend becomes her maid. Even though Theresa Harris get’s to wear designer outfits too and is obviously well bred and intelligent her character does not at any time in the film share equal opportunity. Harris did, however, make her mark and did manage to break the mould. She also lobbied hard for better parts for black actors. Though her roles included blues singers, prostitutes and even zombies she was generally stereotyped. Harris appeared in many very well known films including’ Neptune’ s Daughter’ with Esther Williams, ‘The Dolly Sisters’ with Betty Grable and ‘Miracle On 34th Street with Maureen Ohara.
Then, of course, there was the incredible Lena Horne who, even though she could pass for white, was still never cast in leading roles. She remained a featured singer throughout her career except for her the role in ‘Cabin In The Sky’ which was an all black cast. She was turned down for the role of Miss Julie in ‘Show Boat’ despite the fact that she would have been perfect for it. The role called for a beautiful black singer passing for white but Lena Horne did not get it because she was black. Go figure. The role went to Ava Gardener who was definitely exotic but was definitely white. She was the first to sign a long term Hollywood contract with MGM but her performances in nearly all the films she appeared in were edited to fit in with the rules of segregation. Horne was a civil rights activist and famously refused to perform for an audience of German POWS during a tour to entertain the troups during the war. The black troops were seated behind them and Lena Horne moved through the rows to the front row of black troops to sing rather than refuse altogether. She was never, unlike many others, reduced to stereotypes and her career was full and varied as a singer and night club performer. She had started in ‘The Cotton Club’ at only sixteen and never looked back. She would go on to perform with Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Dean Martin, Harry Balafonte, Louis Armstrong and countless other great names. She , in fact , shared the stage as an equal and went on with her own T. V. shows too.
Dorothy Dandridge was another who faired better than many. Starting out at ‘The cotton Club’ as a singer and dancer she was determined to carve a name for herself. She was the first black actress to be nominated for an academy award in a lead role. The role was that of Carmen in the film ‘Carmen Jones’. Up until that film was made Dandridge had played small parts more as temptress than maid. She had even featured as an African princess in Tarzan films. After ‘Carmen Jones’ she was celebrated as a great artist and offered a series of good roles often as co- star including the role of Tup Tim in ‘The King And I’. On the advice of ,Otto Preminger her lover at the time, she turned them all down and waited for a starring role that suited her talents and her new found fame. Very smart lady. The next lead role was in Porgy and Bess in which she played opposite such luminaries as Sammy Davis Junior. She followed this up with ‘island In The Sun’ again with Harry Belafonte with whom she had starred in ‘Carmen Jones’. The two were dynamic on screen together and the film went on to make a tidy sum for Hollywood producers. Unfortunately Dandridge did not live a long life and died at the age of 42. They said it was drugs but later it was thought that it had been an embolism. Whatever it was she was gone too soon.
All of these great actresses shared another thing in common.
All had performed at one time or another with the wonderful ‘Bo Jangles’ who, in his life time , was the highest paid black actor ever. Bill Robinson had started in Vaudeville, performed for many years on Broadway and had achieved star billing in Hollywood notably with Shirley Temple who absolutely adored him. Bo Jangles taught Sammy Davis Junior everything he knew. He was responsible too for Dallas hiring the first African American police officer and for desegregating Miami audiences for a public event and lobbied Roosevelt for equal pay for African American soldiers. He was mentor and teacher to many white Hollywood stars as well including Anne Miller and Fred Astaire. Here then is a little of Bill Robinson’s ( Bo Jangles ) magic. Because of him Hollywood began to see beyond black and white. It would still be a long road but without those willing to make a stand things would have been very different .
Gabby Du Gaffe
Renee Dallow ( Hybiscus Bloom ) 27/03/2015