Saturday, December 4, 2021

What a Character Blogathon: Theresa Harris

This post is part of the 10th Annual What a Character Blogathon, hosted by, Outspoken and Freckled, Once Upon A Screen, and Paula's Cinema Club.

Theresa Harris had a career spanning four decades and appeared with the likes of Barbara Stanwick, Marlene Dietrich,Bette Davis, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, Ruth Hussey, Greer Garson, Rosalind Russell, Robert Mitchum, and Ginger Rogers, and worked  filmmakers Josef von Sternberg, John Ford, Mervyn LeRoy, Busby Berkeley, Michael Curtiz, Woody Van Dyke, Roy Del Ruth, William Wyler, George Cukor, Jacques Tourneur, Orson Wells, Robert Siodmak, Otto Preminger, Jean Negulesco, and Alfred Hitchcock (episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, directed by Hitch), not too shabby considering the limited roles she played.

If the world was fair, Theresa Harris would have been a star, not a character actress, but as we all know, the world is not fair. As unfairness goes, people of color bear brunt of unfairness far more than their white counterparts. Theresa Harris had the looks of a movie star and could sing and act like a movie star, but she was African-American, which meant she usually played maids, often without screen credit.

Theresa Harris was born on New Year's Eve, 1906, though some sources say 1909, in Houston, Texas. She studied music as a child in Houston, before her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 11. After graduating from Jefferson High School, she studied music at the UCLA Conservatory of Music and Zoellner's Conservatory of Music, before joining the Lafayette Players, an African American musical comedy theatre troupe. Originally, she had aspirations of becoming a concert singer, but then switched to acting after being cast in an uncredited singing role in Thunderbolt (1929), video available here.

Theresa Harris' first credited and arguably her best role came in the Pre-Code Baby Face (1933) opposite Barabara Stanwyck.  Harris plays Chico and works in the small-town speak-easy owned by Stanwyck's abusive father. After Harris is fired for breaking dishes (and Stanwyck's father is killed when his still explodes), Stanwyck and Harris take to the road together. What makes this unique is that is that throughout the film they remain friends and confidantes. Though later in the film, Harris appears in a maid's uniform, she is probably the best dressed maid in all of classic film, and the two still maintain an equitable friendly relationship, very unusual even by racy progressive Pre-Code standards. The song "Saint Louis Blues" is used throughout the film with Harris providing vocals twice, including the scene where Stanwyck seduces a railroad bull in a boxcar to gain the pair passage to New York.

Hollywood has always had a habit of repeating themselves, especially when something is a hit. Three years after Baby Face, in another Barbara Stanwyck film, Banjo on My Knee, Harris again got to sing "Saint Louis Blues," this time in a full production number backed by the Hall Johnson Choir, video available here.

Often in the classic era, actors of color were required to speak in an unrealistic uneducated black dialect, and Harris could "Sho' nuff" do this with the best of them as she did opposite Bette Davis, in Jezebel (1938). However, Harris often stood out from other African-American actors by speaking perfect English in her film work.  I have nothing to support this, but I'm convinced that when given a role, she first read her lines in standard English to see if the director would let her could get away with it. Imagine the gall at the time, a colored woman speaking correctly. I also imagine that she lost work due to this. Again, I have nothing to support this, other than a very strong feeling that this was the way it went down. 

All, I know is that she when was allowed to do so, she put her own personality in what otherwise would be throw-away roles. The racist stereotypes of the time played for easy laughs with the racist audiences. Actors of color almost always played an exaggerated version of how white people thought black people should act. By having the courage and conviction to play herself, Theresa Harris came off as natural, and her charm shone through, even in tiny roles. In one all-time of my favorite films, The Big Clock (1948), she appears briefly letting her light shine as the Stroud's family maid. Obviously, director John Farrow (Mia's father) didn't have a problem with this. Me, I much prefer this tiny uncredited role to her "better" credited performance in Jezabel.

I read somewhere that when Theresa Harris films would play in black neighborhoods, theater owners would list her name on the marquee with title of the movie, because in her two minutes of screentime, she was more of a draw to black audiences than anything else Hollywood could offer. Her importance to the African-American community is also evidenced by a cover story which appeared in Jet magazine, September 11, 1952, available here.

Three of Harris' best roles came under the direction of Jacques Tourneur in the 1940s, two back-to-back performances in the Val Lewton horror films, Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and four years later in Out of the Past (1947). All were relatively small parts, which more or less sums up here entire career. 

In Cat People, she plays a waitress, Minnie. Although she speaks slang in this role, it's not the Sho' Nuff colored slang, but standard American slang, as you would expect from a waitress in greasy spoon restaurant. It's only a few short scenes, but her interactions with Kent Smith and Jane Randolph, regulars at the restaurant, are natural and flawless, she even gets a witty rotort. 

In I Walked with a Zombie, she plays a servant on a sugar plantation on Saint Sebastian in the Carribean. Francis Dee plays a nurse hired to care for the mistress of the plantation, whose illness has left her near comatose. Again, playing a servant, Theresa Harris has great scenes with the Dee, in particular, the one where she introduces her to her infant nephew, and afterwards, the conversation takes a dark turn to voodoo.

Possibly, the most unique role in here career is her small part in Out of the Past. Theresa Harris plays, you guessed it, a maid, Jane Greer's ex-maid to be specific. Robert Mitchum has been hired to find Greer, and he tracks down Harris in an all black bar. The scene lasts only a minute or two, but it's one of the few times I've ever seen black people relaxing in a club, in an otherwise all white movie. It's actually quite refreshing (image below taken from the Jet article mentioned above). 

I've saved the best for last, a film I had never seen until just today, The Flame of New Orleans, a period comedy from 1941. Theresa Harris plays Marlene Dietrich's, I'm not going to mince words, slave. Marlene Dietrich's character had been in Europe before the start of the film, and you could argue that she was a servant, not a slave, but being set in New Orleans in the 1840s, I'm going to go with slave. Putting that issue aside, it's a great film and a great role for Harris. 

Marlene Dietrich plays Countess Claire Ledoux, a glamous woman who manipulates all the men around her. Though a servant/slave, Theresa Harris is more of cohort. She lies for her, spies for her, and helps manipulate Dietrich's would be lovers. In Baby Face, Theresa Harris and Barbara Stanwyck are more of less equals, but Harris is just along for the ride. In The Flame of New Orleans, Harris is less equal in terms of society, but more of a partner in crime in the context of the film. She even gets a love interest in the form of Clarence Muse, another slave/manservant. This very funny film. Theresa Harris is in it a lot, and she steals every scene she's in.


Theresa Harris retired after an uncredited appearance in The Gift of Love (1958). Per several sources, she invested her income from acting well and was able to live comfortably until her death in 1985. As a footnote to her long career and her struggle to get decent roles in a Hollywood that had no place for her, playwright Lynn Nottage, inspired by Harris' performance in Baby Face, wrote, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. This off-broadway play is a take on 1930s Screwball comedies, featuring a strong willed African-American maid who is also an aspiring actress. By the Way, Meet Vera Stark was nominated for several Drama Desk awards in 2012.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

TCMFF 2021 Virtual Madness

 This year, there was a lot more going on at the TCM Classic Film Festival (TCMFF) virtual edition. With the addition of more programs on HBO Max, and Club TCM events on Zoom, it made the choices much much harder this year. 

For those of you new to the Festival or my blog or my Festival picks, I normally do them in the format of NCAA tournament brackets. In an in-person TCMFF, I would do them by times, as you normally have about five things going on at the same time, and you have narrow it down to one. And try to find time to eat and sleep during all of that. 

Obviously this time, it's less of an issue. You still need to find time to eat and sleep. But with roughly half the material being on HBO Max, you can watch them or less at your leisure and with a DVR, I should get to see pretty much everything I want to. 

To make this work, you really need to have round numbers. I counted 77 individual events, not counting three Club TCM events I'm unable to attend. I may have miscounted, don't quote me on this. That's the number I came up with. That's the number I'm using, so there. I did combine two related pairs, because it made sense to do so the SF Sketchfest Plan 9 from Outer Space and Plan 9 from Outer Space and Tex Avery King of Cartoons and Tex Avery at MGM. This brought the total down to 75 events of which I dropped 11. Mostly these are films that I've seen a lot of times or I really don't care about or possibly have never been able to make it through the movie.

In no particular order these movies are:

  • The Goodbye Girl
  • China Syndrome
  • Ocean's 11
  • Diner
  • Lady Sings the Blues
  • Annie Get Your Gun
  • A Star Is Born (1954)
  • Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
  • Antwone Fisher
  • The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization
  • Scarecrow

Also, I did drop off three of the club TCM events, because they were unavailable or I had a conflict. Meet TCM was still available but it was scheduled the same time I'm getting my first COVID vaccine, so I'll do the responsible thing for society and get vaccinated and miss this. You're welcome. Opening Night Toast with the Hosts and Curating The Classics are things I definitely would have wanted to see but both were full by the time I got around to registering for them. I'm really bummed here. That'll teach me to procrastinate. I'll blame working too much, but the truth is I waited too long. 

This left 64 films and other event, which I broke into four brackets of 16, named after venues at a normal TCMFF. I did take the liberty of taking my top four picks and putting them in the top each the bracket of 16, so that they would have a good chance of making it to the final four. My picks, my rules. Then I drew the names of the films randomly to fill in the brackets, trying to put up TCM films against the HBO Max films, as much as possible

For the sake of simplicity, I'm only going to talk I'm only going to talk about the most interesting lineups in each group. 

TCL Chinese Group

One of the toughest battles in the first round was From Broadway to Hollywood versus Danny Glover. From Broadway to Hollywood sounds really interesting, but I really do like Danny Glover. The reality of the situation here is they're playing from Broadway to Hollywood in the wee hours of the morning. I probably will record it and watch Broadway later.

The other big battle in this group is in the second round with L.A. Rebellion about Indy African Film-makers against the Bill Morrison film, let me come in. Never seen either one here, but Bill Morrison does really cool stuff with lost/damaged silent films. It's playing really late, even at  Pacific time so I might end up recording it. I'm going to do my best to watch L.A. Rebellion on HBO Max anyway.

For the rest of the brackets, it really comes down to Tex Avery. By the way, TCM, you're killing me on the Tex Avery thing, I know you think it's cute to put it on Saturday morning, but 6:00 a.m. eastern time is 3:00 in the morning here in San Diego. Even though this is one of my top picks, I may end up recording it, although I might just go without sleep and get up at the in the wee hours and watch it, anyway. The other surprise here is I Love Trouble. I've never seen it, premiere on TCM, and that's strong enough to carry it into the Elite 8.

 Egyptian Theater Group

The story here is Sound and Sound Makers (strikethrough is They Won't Believe Me playing at the same time). It's one of my top picks, mostly because I've seen Ben Burtt and Craig Barron at the live festival, and their stuff is always way cool, and as an interactive Zoom  presentation, that just makes this a must see, especially since I missing most of the other Zoom presentations.

The toughest decision in the first round comes down to two essential films On the Waterfront and West Side Story. Going with West Side Story mostly because they're calling it the Opening Night film of the festival, which I don’t normally get to see because the level of pass I have. Would be a very tough call if there were opposite each other at the same time, and you had to decide which one you wanted to see more on the big screen.

The other tough call in the first round is Nichols and May vs The Searchers. If it was a real festival I would probably go with The Searchers. I've never seen it on the big screen and it would bound to be playing at the Egyptian or the Chinese, and that would be spectacular. The thing is I've seen The Searchers a bunch of times and Nichols and May, these behind-the-film-makers films TCM selects are usually really cool, so Nichols and May goes on and oddly it makes it all the way to the Elite 8, another surprise.

Club TCM Group

In the Club TCM Group, the only real surprise is Whistle at Eaton Falls taking out The Maltese Falcon. Normally The Maltese Falcon would trounce the floor with a film like Wizard of Eaton Falls, but I've seen The Maltese Falcon several times in the theater and bunch on TV/DVD and it comes down to the film I haven't seen before.

The big surprise in this bracket, however, is Hawks & the Art of Comedy. I love Howard Hawks movies and that's strong enough to take Hawks & the Art of Comedy all the way to the Final Four past my original fourth pick of She May Be a Movie Star (Places in the Heart,  strikethrough, is running at the same time), another Club TCM Zoom presentation.

Hollywood American Legion Group

The story here is SF Sketchfest Presents Plan 9 from Outer Space. This is my second pick for the entire festival behind Tex Avery it dominates in this whole group.

I really need to see The Méliès Mystery. It gets knocked out by Plan Nine but I'm going to watch this one no matter what on HBO Max. The other shocker in this group is Streets of New York. Anything Bruce Goldstein has his hand in is pretty cool and looking at the history of film in New York from the Silent Era to the 1970s, that's got to be a treat.

Final Four

Probably not too surprising that Tex Avery takes out Sight and Sound Makers. I will watch both but Tex Avery is just so cool, so cool I probably will get up at 3 am for it and be totally wasted for the rest of the weekend. The shocker here is in the other bracket. Hawks & the Art of Comedy taking out SF Sketchfest Plan 9 from Outer Space. I didn't see that one coming myself but if it came down to the two I think I'd rather see the Hawks & the Art of Comedy. Again, I will watch both, but that's what the pick would come down to.

Unfortunately Hawks & the Art of Comedy cannot stand up against Tex Avery, so Tex Avery stays my number one pick, followed by Hawks & the Art of Comedy, and then we have the consolation game between Sight and Sound Makers and SF Sketchfest Plan 9. Plan 9 Takes it for third place with Sight and Sound Makers coming in fourth.  Just to round it out, I'm going to pick one film from earlier in the Festival to be my number five pick, so you get my top five. That would be The Méliès Mystery.

Effectively this is fairly typical of an in-person TCMFF. You often have to skip films you really want to see because it's up against something you want to see more. With being able to watch things on HBO Max on my own schedule and DVRing the stuff I really need to see on TCM, I stand a good chance of seeing pretty much everything I really want to. Good job, TCM. I will see you all in Hollywood in 2022.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Need This Pandemic Over

I started working at home sometime roughly a year ago. I don't remember the exact date. Not having any reason to go out has resulted in me spending way too much time sitting on my ass and not moving. About a month and a half ago, I decided to start walking everyday, partly because of this and partly because I couldn't fit into any of my pants anymore, I had to buy pants in a larger size.

When I first started walking, I would always try to make sure I put on real pants or shorts and not go walking in the lounge pants I wear to work in. Bear in mind that I'm of the generation that doesn't wear pajama pants to go to Target. As time went by, I just said screw it, why bother, I'm just walking on near my house, right.

I live on a steep hill, so I walk up and down it everyday because I figured that's better than walking on flat ground. So today I was walking and right at the top of the hill was a guy who rents out in room from one of my neighbors. I've seen him around often enough that I always say, hi, even though I don't know his name or anything. I said, hi and turned around and walked down the hill again for another trip.

When I got back up there was a woman there talking to him. She was about my age kind of cute, and she looked at me, and said, "Nice pajamas." Well, shit.

I kind of bumbled through an explanation of working at home and my pants not really fitting and being kind of lazy. I even told the story of somebody on Facebook who posted recently that her going out clothes missed her so much that they hugged her so tight now that she could hardly breathe. Well, the woman says she knows how it is. She puts up one leg, and she points to where she had ripped out the crotch on her jeans, the pair she was wearing. Not that I minded really, I mean she was cute. Here's an age-appropriate  woman who I don't know from Adam, or Eve I guess, showing off the split in the crotch of her jeans. What the f*** has happened to our societal norms. I'm running around in pajamas. What seems to be a perfectly reasonable woman is showing off the hole in the crotch of her jeans to a total stranger.

I told this story to my wife, and she was like, everybody is losing their filters, but like 20 years early. I knew exactly what she was talking about. If you haven't been through this, trust me, you will. At some point in your life, you're going to be taking out your parents or some older relative out to dinner, and they're going to set off some family secret bomb over cheesy biscuits at Red Lobster. They'll just let it drop that your racist Uncle Don actually had a black girlfriend on the side. Or your Aunt Margaret and Uncle Jack had to get married, because she was eight months pregnant with your cousin Donna. Or your mom back dated the family Bible because her oldest sister was born out of wedlock (my mom actually did this).

We need this damn pandemic to be over. We need to get vaccines in arms and some herd immunity, so we can start going out and acting like civilized people again.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021


I know that this is a dark day in History due to the Trump Coup Attempt but had to post this: