Sunday, October 30, 2016

On Theresa Harris

She was shapely, lovely and talented.  But Theresa Harris was an African American actress in the Hollywood days of the 1930s and 40s.  That meant, like Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers, she get mostly maid roles.  There was an occasional exception, like when she played the women's prison buddy to Jean Harlow's heart o' gold tootsie in HOLD YOUR MAN (1932).  Harris played the maid to Bette Davis' headstrong Southern belle character in JEZEBEL.  I love the glossy treatment she got at Paramount in the 1940 musical comedy, BUCK BENNY RIDES AGAIN.  This was an extension of Jack Benny's hit radio show persona that included regulars from his show such as Eddie "Rochester" Anderson and Phil Harris.  Anderson, a pretty fine hoofer, does a deluxe song and dance number with Theresa Harris in a swanky apartment setting.
Before that, Theresa Harris had one of her best screen assignments as the best friend to Barbara Stanwyck's ambitious character in 1933's BABY FACE.

She's not credited but definitely recognizable in a serious music scene with Stanwyck in 1936's BANJO ON MY KNEE co-starring Joel McCrea.  Theresa Harris, in that riverfront scene, sings "St. Louis Blues."  Later in this 1936 comedy/drama with music, you'll see song and dance numbers performed by Barbara Stanwyck and Buddy Ebsen, both of whom would be TV stars in the 1960s.

Harris worked during the Hollywood Production Code, a code which seemed to limit black actors to servant characters.  Even in the servant role opportunities, it seemed they could be limited.  Theresa Harris worked with director William Wyler and star Bette Davis in JEZEBEL, a 1938 Warner Brothers release.  The same studio released the big romantic drama, SARATOGA TRUNK, in 1945.  Based on the Edna Ferber novel of the same name, it starred Ingrid Bergman as the Creole beauty from a down-on-its-luck aristocratic family and Gary Cooper as a dashing Texas gambler.  Instead of giving the sizeable role of the Haitian maid opposite Ingrid Bergman to Theresa Harris, the role was given to the white British actress who'd played the narrator/housekeeper in WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939), Queen Elizabeth THE SEA HAWK (1940) and went on to play one of the Catholic nuns in BLACK NARCISSUS (1947).

Warner Bros. slapped some dark make-up on Flora Robson, put a bandana on her head and let her play the Haitian maid.  Flora Robson got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for playing a black woman in SARATOGA TRUNK.  And she was about as black as a bar of Ivory soap.

BLOSSOMS IN THE DUST was recently on TCM.  That's one of the MGM biopics that brought Greer Garson an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.  The movie is in Technicolor.  I was watching this 1941 movie and heard a familiar voice coming from the maid character.  She sounded like Theresa Harris but she looked...different.  As Cleo the maid, Theresa Harris looked...well...darker.
I asked my Twitter buddy @sreggie if he'd ever seen 1941's BLOSSOMS IN THE DUST.  He's a serious Theresa Harris fan.  I wrote him why I was asking.  He replied that perhaps it was just the Technicolor.  I left it at that.
BUT...later in the month...TCM aired the Esther Williams musical comedy NEPTUNE'S DAUGHTER.  That 1949 movie was also shot in Technicolor and it also featured Theresa Harris as the maid.  When I saw her in scenes with Esther Williams and Betty Garrett, I quickly grabbed my cell phone and snapped these pics:


OK, c'mon.  That wasn't just Technicolor in the Greer Garson movie.  Greer looks like Greer.  Theresa Harris looks like she's doing BLOSSOMS IN THE COAL DUST.  I think they made her up to look darker.  But why?!?!?

If someone knows the behind-the-scenes scoop to BLOSSOMS IN THE DUST, please share it with me.  The Greer Garson drama and the Esther Williams musical comedy are both available on DVD.







7 comments:

  1. Blossoms is on TCM right now and I was stunned to see the blackface makeup that they made Theresa Harris wear. Your blog post is the only mention I've seen online about this. The male servant character of Zeke was stereotypical, as well.

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  2. I too am watching the film on TCM, for the very first time, I might add. The actor portraying Zeke is not in blackface. However Theresa Harris is. In fact she is the only actor of color, that is.. My conclusion is that the higher ups, at the studio decided to mask her nature beauty as to not upstage Greer Garson. Or perhaps they wanted to punish her(the studios could be quite punitive) in some way for a past transgression. However even under those humiliating circumstances, her indisputable talent shines through.

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  3. I too am watching the film on TCM, for the very first time, I might add. The actor portraying Zeke is not in blackface. However Theresa Harris is. In fact she is the only actor of color, that is.. My conclusion is that the higher ups, at the studio decided to mask her nature beauty as to not upstage Greer Garson. Or perhaps they wanted to punish her(the studios could be quite punitive) in some way for a past transgression. However even under those humiliating circumstances, her indisputable talent shines through.

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  4. Wow.. Funny how all of us went looking for Theresa Harris info after watching the movie today. The blackface was pretty darn obvious.

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  5. Wow, looks like we were all watching the same movie at the same time. My first viewing too. Bobby, great post. I stole your pics for a tweet. I am pissed about the blackface thing. Your pics make it clear as day and a very very dark moonless night. Possibly, they didn't want her to upstage Greer Garson, though possibly, they didn't think she look dark enough to pull off black. Either way, pretty messed up. Not only the blackface, but they made her character unable to understand how a thermometer works.

    The thing that makes Harris stand out to me is that often she uses a normal speaking voice, not black servant-ese. That is definitely the case as Chico in Baby Face. She has a tiny role as Ray Milland/Maureen O'Sullivan's maid in The Big Clock, but what makes her stand out in the 45 seconds of screen time that she has is that she talks like normal.

    Another great, but small role is in Out of the Past. Theresa Harris plays Jane Greer's former maid, whom Robert Mitchum talks to in a bar. What makes this stand out is that her we have her in an all-black bar. It's sad that this two minute scene stands out as a moment in black cinema history but it kinda does.

    But then you have the same actress in blackface, talk about a giant step back. Oh and by the way, Blossoms in the Dust won an Oscar, for Art Direction (Color). They didn't have an award for makeup back then, but I assume makeup would fall Art Direction, so in a very very broad sense, Blossums in the Dust won an Oscar for that blackface. I am depressed.

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  7. I just watched this movie for the first time. And Wondering about the maid (Theresa Harris) brought me to this blog. I knew something was 'off' about her coloring. It didn't seem natural. Anyway, the movie was touching.

    However, it was hard for me to watch the stereotypical Black characters, I know it was the time and place for it back then, but I usually avoid movies like that like the plague.

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