Monday, February 16, 2009
The names of pioneering African American actresses, and their very specific "types," are few but well-known to movie buffs: the maids and mammies played by Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen in the 1930's and 1940's; the tragic mulatto divas of the 1940's and 1950's, Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge; the dignified ice queens of the 1960's and 1970's, Diahann Carroll and Cicely Tyson. Theresa Harris (December 31, 1909 - October 8, 1985) rarely gets mentioned in their company, but that's an oversight which should be corrected.
In her long career, Harris supported practically every major female star in Hollywood; what's more remarkable, and a testament to the esteem in which directors held her talent, is that in some of her films, she shares nearly as much screen time as the nominal star of the picture. Of course, the uglier side of the story is that she barely received any screen credit, while white actors with a fraction of her screen time were billed far above her. In the legendary pre-Code melodrama, Baby Face (1933), Harris shares many scenes with the incendiary Barbara Stanwyck at her man-eating, fire-breathing best -- and more than holds her own.
Baby Face is a fascinating film on many levels, but the relationship between Chico (Harris) and Lily (Stanwyck) is particularly interesting. Although theirs is a servant/mistress situation, the two interact more as friends; and as Lily claws her way up the corporate and social ladder "wrong by wrong," Chico is there every step of the way, the one constant in Lily's ever-more complicated life.
The other film with Miss Harris that we saw this weekend was the wildly discombobulated Marlene Dietrich vehicle, The Flame of New Orleans (1940), an entertaining trifle which exists on barely a whisper of a convoluted plot (something about a fake countess and switched identities) and whose raison d'être is solely to see La Dietrich parade about in a dazzling array of 19th century laces, silks, satins, and tulles. Once again, Theresa Harris shares practically every other scene with Dietrich, and never allows the formidable diva to steal her thunder. And, once again, the part is written with Harris as less a maid, and more an accomplice and pal; quite frankly, given the fact that the divine Dietrich's role is less a real person than a very glamorous mannequin, Harris has the more interesting part of the two.
Other memorable performances by Theresa Harris include roles in Jezebel (1938) with Bette Davis, and two of producer Val Lewton's classic horror films, Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943). In a town which loves to typecast, especially marginalized and minority actors, perhaps Theresa Harris was simply too talented for Hollywood to know what to do with. Unlike lovable Hattie McDaniel, or baby-voiced Butterfly McQueen, Theresa Harris didn't have a "gimmick" or a trademark, and didn't "look" like a stereotypical maid. She was certainly just as beautiful as Horne, Dandridge, Carroll or Tyson, and had she come to Hollywood even a decade later, her star may have burned just a little bit brighter.
As it was, Harris walked away from acting in the 1950's, and apparently settled into a comfortable and happy life as a doctor's wife. We'll never know if she was fully contented with her film career; but judging by the small sampling of her work that we've had the pleasure of viewing, it must have been bittersweet knowing that her talent and beauty could have taken her so much farther, had the times been different.