Talented black actresses confined for racial reasons to roles of maids, cooks or “mammies” in Hollywood movies of the 30s, 40s and 50s, invariably stood their ground in their limited cinematic circumstances, even upstaging on occasion their more celebrated white costars.
Who can forget Hattie McDaniel in “Gone With The Wind?”
Frank often extols the work of two actresses not often mentioned in discussions of racial stereotyping back then. One is Marietta Canty who in 1955’s “Rebel Without A Cause” plays the maternal maid in the hapless family of fatherless John ‘Plato’ Crawford (Sal Mineo), and ends the picture with the plaintive observation that the slain ‘Plato’ had “no one.”
The other actress –Houston-born Theresa Harris — was especially good in two classic movies produced by renowned RKO producer Val Lewton. In 1943’s “I Walked With A Zombie,” Harris beguilingly portrays a maid on a Caribbean plantation tutoring Frances Dee on the ways of the local populace. The year before, Harris put in a smart and appealing turn as a coffee-shop waitress in director Jacques Tourneur’s “Cat Woman.”
Although 95% of her roles were playing maids and servants, Joe’s favorite, Louise Beavers – pictured above left with Claudette Colbert, with Fredi Washington above right, and with Irene Dunne and columnist Hedda Hopper in the center photo — was justly celebrated for bringing different aspects to parts than did her contemporary McDaniel.
Hello Everybody. Mr. Joe Morella and Mr. Frank Segers here again. Mrs. Norman Maine is having her hair done.
Today we examine the extraordinary career of actress Louise Beavers, who started in the silent era, and eventually made over 160 films and dozens of television appearances before her early death in 1962, seven months past her 60th birthday.
With the exception of her award winning role as Mammy, McDaniel almost always portrayed maids as stereotypes and for comic relief. In comparison, Beavers, who’d started in films in 1927, was atypical.
She was viewed as the confidant of the woman she worked for, and her characters were an integral part of the story. Some of Beavers’ parts can be justifiably considered fully costarring roles, not the abbreviated character stints that minority actresses so often found themselves in back when.
Her most famous role was that of Delilah Johnson in the first film version of “Imitation of Life,” in 1934. She is a black woman during the depression who teams with a white woman (Colbert), another financially-pressed widow, to make ends meet and raise their daughters.
The two go into business together, making pancakes and eventually becoming enormously successful. Of course, following the novel and the prevailing mores of the day, Colbert is the businesswoman and Beavers, (whose recipe it is) was the behind-the-scenes partner, although it is her picture as an Aunt Jemima type, used on the box of pancake mix.
The real plot of the film however is about their daughters. Colbert’s (Rochelle Hudson) a spoiled girl in love with her mother’s suitor. Beaver’s (Fredi Washington) a girl who wants to pass for white and breaks her mother’s heart.
As reviewers of the day noted, it was probably the first time movie audiences had been exposed to real issues and emotions faced by African Americans. In 2007 TIME magazine named it one of “The 25 most important films on Race”
“Imitation of Life” was remade in feverishly melodramatic fashion by director Douglas Sirk in 1958. Lana Turner (who else?) was the star with Juanita Moore in the key supporting role, comparable to Beavers’ part in the original but not quite as strong or as integral to the plot. The remake was a huge commercial success once again, and earned Moore an Oscar nomination.
Louise Beavers’ career continued unabated through the 30s and 40s. Check her out in “The Big Street,” and “Made for Each Other.” In 1947’s “Mr. Blanding’s Builds His Dream House” she again portrays a wise maid/cook who saves the white employer’s job.
One of her non-servant roles was as Jackie Robinson’s mother in “The Jackie Robinson Story,” a hastily-made (at La Palma Park in Anaheim, California in early 1950) low-budget independent movie (distributed by Eagle-Lions Films). The year before the picture was shot, Robinson, the first black player ever in Major League Baseball, had logged a career year.
Robinson played himself to mixed results (he had been persuaded to do so by Dodger President Branch Rickey). Playing second bananas as Robinson’s devoted wife and mother, respectively, were Ruby Dee and Beavers. Neither drew kudos from the critics, who viewed the movie largely as an awkward biographical screen turn by the pioneering baseball player.
Beavers was born in 1902, in Cincinnati, Ohio, a city that has special appeal to Frank because he spent summers there as a youngster since his father came from the nearby town of Hamilton.
Coincidentally, author Fannie Hurst, who wrote the novel on which both versions of “Imitation of Life” are based, was born (in 1889) in Hamilton.