By Fred Muenz
During the most glamourous era of the Golden Age of Hollywood, thousands of starry-eyed young people came west to California, dreaming of working in one of the studios, and the fame and fortune which would follow. While the vast majority met with disappointment, a small handful actually did earn a studio contract. What they found, however, was not the fulfillment of their dreams, but rather a nightmare. Forced to work unrestricted hours, without even required meal breaks, actors found that they were signed to unbreakable contracts which gave the studios unlimited power over their lives and careers. Contracts carried “morals clauses” which dictated their behavior. They were told who they could associate with, what political opinions they could express and, on occasion, who they could marry. They had no choice of roles and could be lent to other studios without their permission. As bad as these conditions were for white actors, the studio’s treatment of their African-American actors was even worse.
The entertainment industry of this era was still one of the few professions where Blacks could achieve even limited success, although pay, benefits and opportunities were still far from those available to whites. Black actors were routinely cast in menial roles as maids, porters or chauffeurs. Studios even hired dialect coaches to teach their Back actors a stereotypical “Negro dialect”. Tragically, many of these actors and actresses were supremely talented entertainers.
Born in Wichita, Kansas in June, 1893, Hattie McDaniel was the youngest of 13 children born to former slaves. Her mother, Susan, was a gospel singer, and her father, Henry, had fought in the Civil War with the 122nd United States Colored Troops. By the time Hattie arrived in Hollywood in 1931, she was already an established singer, songwriter, and actress, but couldn’t get a job in films. To survive, she took jobs as a maid or cook. Her brother helped her get a job with a popular radio show, but the pay was so low that she still had to continue working as a maid. Even as her talents were recognized, and she finally got film roles, they were always as a servant. In SHOWBOAT (1936), she sang several songs, but still played a maid. The first African-American to ever be nominated for an Academy Award, her winning role was as a slave in GONE WITH THE WIND (1939). The hotel which hosted the 1940 awards ceremony had a “no-Blacks” policy, but allowed her in as a favor, provided that she sat alone at a small table in the back of the room. After the awards, her co-workers went to a club to celebrate, but she was denied entry. She was not invited to the world premier of the film in Atlanta, and her name was not included in the souvenir program. Hattie McDaniel died at age 59, in October, 1952. One Hollywood cemetery refused to bury her.
Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, aka Stepin Fetchit, was born in Key West, Florida in May, 1902. He was of Jamaican and Bahamian descent. His father was a cigar maker and his mother was a seamstress. He became a comic actor while still in his teens, and by age twenty was an established vaudeville performer and manager of a traveling carnival show. His stage name originated from a time when he and his vaudeville partner won money betting on a horse named “Step and Fetch It”. They celebrated by renaming their vaudeville act “Step and Fetchit”. When he went solo, he combined the two names, which became his professional name. Despite his lazy film character, he was a highly literate man and wrote a regular column for the Chicago Daily Defender newspaper. Between 1925 and 1976, he appeared in a total of 54 films, usually in painfully negative racial stereotypes. Perry was the first Black actor to become a millionaire, but his lavish spending forced him into bankruptcy in 1947. In 1969, his son, Donald, traveled the Pennsylvania Turnpike, randomly shooting people. In total, he killed four, including his wife, and wounded sixteen before turning the gun on himself. Perry suffered a stroke in 1976, ending his career, and died in November, 1985, at age 83.
Willie Best was born in May, 1916, in Sunflower, Mississippi. While still a teenager, he got to Hollywood as a chauffeur for a vacationing Mississippi couple. He decided to stay and took a job performing with a traveling show in Southern California. A talent scout spotted him on stage and he soon began a career as a character actor in Hollywood films, usually playing the stereotypical lazy, illiterate, simple-minded character reserved for Black actors. Between 1930 and 1950, he appeared in 124 films, almost all of them as porters, delivery men, waiters, butlers, or valets. Unlike most of his Black contemporaries, however, he received screen credit in at least 77 of those films. Although he appeared in films with The Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, Laurel and Hardy and Shirley Temple, perhaps most typical of the era was his role in I TAKE THIS WOMAN (1941), starring Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamarr, in which he played a clinic attendant named “Sambo”. After a drug arrest ended his film career, he worked in television, still playing the same stereotypical roles he had in films. Willie Best died of cancer in February, 1962. He was 45.
Mantan Moreland was born in Monroe, Louisiana, in September, 1902. His father was an old-time Dixieland band leader and performer. At age 14, he left home to join a minstrel show and performed in “small-time” traveling shows for the next ten years. In 1927, he was hired for a musical revue in Harlem, which ran for 518 performances. By the late 1920’s, he was appearing on Broadway and touring Europe. In 1933, he made the first of many film appearances in “race movies”, specifically aimed at Black audiences. As his comedic talent was recognized, he was signed to a contract by Monogram Pictures, and he began to appear as Birmingham Brown, chauffeur to detective Charlie Chan in a series of films. At the same time, he was still accepting independent roles in low budget all Black comedies. During the late 1940’s, public attitudes toward the portrayal of Blacks in films began to change and filmmakers began to reassess the roles given to Black actors. Unfortunately, those Black actors who had been forced in the past to take those racially stereotypical roles were left with few opportunities for better roles. As film roles dried up for Moreland, he returned to the stage and was briefly considered as an addition to The Three Stooges after Shemp Howard died in 1955. Columbia Pictures, however, insisted on replacing Howard with an actor already under contract, and the role went to Joe Besser. Moreland died in September, 1973. He was 71.
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