Dark Stars in Tinseltown
By Gerald Early | I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in South Philadelphia and remember very clearly the various neighborhood movie theaters, before the arrival of the multiplex, that were within walking distance of my home: The Palace, on South Street, which later became the highbrow Theater of the Living Arts but which is where I saw horror-movie matinees like The Brides of Dracula and Queen of Outer Space, or swashbuckler movies like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad; the Strafford, on Seventh Street, where I saw the only film Marlon Brando ever directed, One-Eyed Jacks; the Italia, on Christian Street, which I never entered because it was (unwritten, of course) only for the Italian-American kids in the neighborhood; and finally the Royal, on South Street near 16ththe explicitly black theater of South Philadelphiawhere I saw most of the movies I was to see until I was about 15 or 16 and started going to the downtown theaters exclusively.
It was there that I saw everything from early James Bond movies to Hercules movies to gritty dramas like Murder Inc. to musicals like West Side Story. And it was in the darkness of the Royal that I saw all the black film stars of my youth: Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr., James Edwards, Harry Belafonte, Ivan Dixon, and, of course, Sidney Poitier. I saw nearly every film Poitier made from about 1959 to 1966 at the Royal, usually two or three times. These actors meant a great deal to me, more than the stars of my late adolescenceJim Brown, Fred Williamson, and Pam Grierwho emerged with Blaxploitation films of the early 1970s, and who also, for better and for worse, shaped my cinematic taste.
According to film and television historian Donald Bogle in his new book Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood, the black stars I grew up with were part of the new Black Hollywood, the civil-rights era Hollywood; they had supplanted the old black character actors of the 1930s like Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers, Mantan Moreland, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Stepin Fetchit, and Willie Best. I knew about those people, too, but only through watching their movies on television. I knew about Lena Horne as well, who represented a transition in the screen image of blacks in the 1940s. It was impossible to grow up in a black American community at the time I did and not know about Lena Horne, as she was talked about incessantly, especially by black men as a kind of dream girl, not quite a sex fantasy (although there was a great deal of male hormonal salivating at the mere mention of her name), but rather a fantasy of feminine elegance and grace. Of course, as a child, I hardly knew what era I lived in or what transformations were taking place, only feeling, as all children have felt since the beginning of human life, that I lived in the most interesting times imaginable. To my children, the Black Hollywood I grew up with of Poitier, Belafonte, and eventually the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, seems like something old and far away, which only proves that someone’s version of the new will, in our accelerated pace of living, become aged even while one is still relatively young.
Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams serves as something of a complement to Bogle’s earlier, path-breaking book, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in American Films, first published in 1973. That book, covering much the same period and most of the same people, was largely a content study of the roles blacks played in Hollywood films, whereas the new book is a combination of biography and history, examining the lives of black actors in Hollywood between 1900 and 1960, what went on behind and beyond the camera. But Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams is even more: It examines the intersection of two communities, the community of blacks connected to Hollywood and that of greater black Los Angeles, whose support, before integration, made Black Hollywood possible.
The book is also something of an inspirational, uplift story about black life before integration. As Bogle writes:
Although it is not revisionist history, this sort of approach to the nature of black community during the era of segregation is likely to please many black readers today who have grown skeptical and frustrated about integration and its seemingly destructive impact on the nature of black community, and who sometimes look back on earlier black life as if it were less complicated or co-opted, in some respects, than it is now. One might call this view, in the spirit of a non-pathological black cultural life, Ellisonian, in honor of Ralph Ellison, who so ardently promoted it. Bogle provides a lively and informative account of aspects of black communal life in Los Angeles and Hollywoodhouses, clothes, cars, sex, and political activismbut the book does seem to paper over the real and intense differences and bloody antagonisms that existed within black communities at the time. It is a mistake to see the past as a simpler time or black community as a purer sort of organism, as if there were some hidden virtue in the fact that people’s choices were severely limited. To be sure, though, integration did cost the black community something as a community.
Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams is, by and large, a highly readable and generally enjoyable examination of black life in Hollywood and Los Angeles. The reader is brought to understand how determined most black actors were to achieve success in their profession. The idea that actors like Stepin Fetchit and Hattie McDaniel (who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Mammie in the 1939 film Gone With the Wind) had ambition and took their craft seriously is important for modern readers, who might tend to confuse these professionals with the roles they played.
The book is basically framed around six major all-black cast filmsHearts in Dixie and Hallelujah in the 1930s, Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky in the 1940s (both of which starred Lena Horne), and Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess in the 1950s (both of which starred Dorothy Dandridge). Bogle provides a solid account of the making of these films. He also reminds readers how important black child actors were in the development of Black Hollywood, such as Sunshine Sammy, Buckwheat, and Farina, who were featured in the Our Gang shorts. It must be remembered that the dancing team of the Nicholas Brothers, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dorothy Dandridge, for instance, all started out as child performers.
While there are several stories of talented blacks who didn’t make it because of the racism of the time, this is not, on the whole, a despairing book. Bogle ties all of this in with the development of black Los Angeles and the entertainment strip on Central Avenue. We learn not only of the black actors but also of black architect Paul Williams and studio composer Phil Moore, both part of the black bourgeois elite of Los Angeles. There are rich mini-biographies of actors Fredi Washington, Noble Johnson, Herb Jeffries, and James Edwards, all of whom need book-length treatments.
The book seems rushed at the end, as evidenced by the thin biography of Sammy Davis Jr. and the breathless wrap-up; one wonders why actor Rex Ingram is not mentioned much or why boxer Henry Armstrong’s Depression-era movie Keep Punching, which came out around the same time as Joe Louis’ The Spirit of Youth, is not mentioned at all.
But on the whole, Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams is not only an instructive book but an important study as well. To place the black actors of Golden Age Hollywood within the context of a thriving black community is to see them in a refreshingly humanizing light, as it is to see the movie industry as both an instrument of cultural power and an island of absurd self-absorption, and to see America itself as the land where blacks were never sure if they were in or out, companions in the house or strangers in a strange land.
Dr. Gerald Early C’74 is the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University.
©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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