A century of onscreen dues-paying
“I know where Hattie McDaniel lives,” African American playwright Barbara Roseburr Molette recalls her best friend Loma bragging one day in late 1940s Los Angeles. The two girls made the short trek to the “Gone With the Wind” Oscar winner’s house on bicycles and were greeted by her maid. “We sat at the kitchen table. And she gave us cookies and milk. We went back many times. We never met Hattie.” Another childhood neighbor was Eddie “Rochester” Anderson when he costarred in the hit television series “The Jack Benny Show.” At that time, Molette wondered why he had built such an expensive, beautiful home in their working-class neighborhood south of Adams Boulevard. She would soon learn that the segregation of the period meant that black families of all income levels, including the stars of “Black Hollywood,” lived together. “There was a swimming pool in the back. And he would let the neighborhood kids swim in the pool.”
Donald Bogle’s new book, “Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams,” brims with such personal accounts of black Hollywood in the making, from its beginnings in the early 1900s to the civil rights era of the 1960s.
African Americans were not new to Los Angeles. Of the 44 men, women and children who founded the city in 1781, 26 were black, notes Bogle. That was nearly 70 years before California became part of the union. By the beginning of the 20th century, when the cameras began to crank, legalized racial restrictions were just around the corner and various forms of racial segregation were already realities. It was in that environment that “Black Hollywood” was born.
Bogle, the author of numerous works on African Americans in film, undertook the book “to celebrate [the] cohesiveness of the Black Hollywood community and to show the various social shifts in American culture that led to the collapse of the old Black Hollywood and the birth of the new.” And he paints a vivid picture of warm nights on a bustling Central Avenue, the backbone of the black community, with the glimmering lights of nightclubs, stores, cafes and restaurants -- show biz hangouts where the actors and entertainers gathered to snack and swap stories. “In those days of segregation, you only had each other,” says Geri Branton, former wife of Fayard Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers dance duo. “Every once in a while, Tyrone Power and, of course, Carole Landis and Rita Hayworth and a few daring whites would mingle with us. But we would hang out in the clubs. After people worked. They’d finish and they’d come over to the Dunbar Hotel. And the Club Alabam.”
Throughout, Bogle hitches success and oppression to the same harness and gently works the reins so as not to let one outpace the other. He even manages this balancing act when recounting the first years of Hollywood, when the marriage between movies and blacks was particularly abusive. Lillian Moseley, maid to actress Ann Sothern, recalls that when she first came to town, “Hollywood was just a few streets and orange groves, and a desert stretched from downtown Los Angeles to the movie studios.” It was a time, Bogle writes, when “any minute you could turn a corner and something extraordinary might happen.” He peppers us with stories of improbable turns of fortune like that of Ernest Morrison, the precocious cook’s son discovered while playing in the kitchen where his father worked in 1917, who would become “Sunshine Sammy,” the first black child star -- and for some years, sadly, the only significant black personality in Hollywood. Bogle relates this story with a barely restrained enthusiasm, giving no hint of the sordid context in which this blessing is wrapped. Maybe it’s because the scholar Bogle is also a fan, as his biography of Dorothy Dandridge confirms, and is reluctant to dampen his own fire with the social poison of the time until he’s sure the reader is lit up too. Only then does he describe the boy’s working environment, where the “word nigger was commonplace at the studios,” where the word was even the name of the light used to create deeper shadows.
To complete the mental sculpture of the studio lot of old, Bogle evokes screenwriter Budd Schulberg’s boyhood recollection of Paramount Studio’s bootblack, part of whose job was “shining shoes and part was serving as a squealing, supposedly good natured target for the passersby who would sneak up behind him and goose him outrageously.... I thought he was happy when I was twelve.” Later, Schulberg decided that the “closest I had ever been to a lynching was the playful if sometimes spiteful goosing of Oscar the Bootblack.” And finally, the author leaves it up to you to break your own heart by simply showing a 1921 trade advertisement with studio chief Hal Roach presenting Sunshine Sammy starring in “The Pickaninny,” describing him as that “funny little darkie” and “just a wide-grinning, little coon.”
Bogle roots the lives of these actors in the broader landscape of Los Angeles’ black community, intersecting their paths with the locals with whom they rubbed shoulders. He does this partly because most of the commuters who took the streetcars across town to the studios worked in service: maids, chauffeurs, cooks, janitors, dressers and bootblacks. But also because these were the people who shopped at the same grocery stores, who worshipped at the same churches, who lived next door and, most of all, who admired and respected them. “In the Central Avenue of my childhood, the black actors were heroes,” recalls singer Etta James. “They might play fools on the screen, but the folks in the neighborhood knew it took more than a fool to break into lily-white Hollywood.” Bogle spikes that group with journalists like Charlotta Spears Bass, editor of the California Eagle and early champion of civil rights; Paul Williams, who would become the architect to the stars and design some of the area’s most famous buildings; professionals such as dentist John Somerville, who would build the Hotel Somerville, which in time became the legendary Dunbar Hotel, the jewel of Central Avenue; and behind-the-scenes powerbrokers such as Lucius Lomax, who flexed political muscle, ran speak-easies and made his presence felt far beyond his turf.
With a conventional chronological narrative, buckshot-blasted with oral biographical sketches set outside the studio experience, the author has, in some ways, created an anecdotal history of Hollywood akin to Mike Davis’ history of Los Angeles in “City of Quartz” -- but viewed from the black side out.
Bogle links four major changes in black Hollywood history to changing events in America: First, at the end of World War I, when, as he says, “Americans lived with a heightened awareness of the fragility of human life,” and the nation was in search of “the boldest and most daring new sensations”; then in 1927, when “The Jazz Singer” introduced “talkies” and black voices came to be in such demand that there was even concern that the future of motion pictures was in films with all-black casts; thirdly, with the outbreak of World War II, when the slaughter of European Jews sensitized the American public to the injustices inflicted upon African Americans at home and the U.S. government became concerned about the effect of the degrading images of blacks in American cinema on its national image abroad; and finally, when the civil rights movement culminated in the dramatic social changes of the 1960s.
Bogle offers an army of forerunners who in one way or another played key roles in the evolution of black Hollywood -- some who fought from carefully articulated political stances and others who spiced the pot and changed the flavor just by being themselves. There are also the multiracial alliances that sought to change the images of blacks by satirizing those images, such as Duke Ellington’s 1941 musical revue, “Jump for Joy,” which brought together Langston Hughes, Mickey Rooney, John Garfield and Orson Welles. And, of course, there are those who fought to prevent that change on both sides of the color line.
If Bogle’s vast academic knowledge of black Hollywood gives the book its legs, his use of “the two big G words in Hollywood (Glamour and Gossip)” gives it its wings, reintroducing old acquaintances that you only thought you knew. Ethel Waters, the grandmotherly star of the 1950s television series “Beulah,” had cleared a major hurdle for African Americans decades earlier when she was a “must hire” for Darryl F. Zanuck’s 1920s talkie “On With the Show.” An irrepressible rebel, she introduced the town to a new kind of black woman, having notoriously stormy affairs with both men and women. And who would have guessed that the shuffling, slow-moving Willie Best was a ladies’ man off-screen with a multiracial little black book, or that Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the kindly old gentleman who would dance Shirley Temple up the staircase in “The Little Colonel,” was a pistol-packing, foul-tempered gambler who by his own account was shot four times, “slashed by razors a dozen times, but never stabbed.” And it’s heartening to read that when bigoted neighbors came to Humphrey Bogart’s door with a petition to have Lena Horne ousted from the neighborhood, staying true to his image, he ordered them off his property or risk being shot.
Images flashing through the camera lens deceive us 24 times a second. It’s the wonder-working means through which the filmmaker casts his spell. But it’s surely as remarkable to reconstruct the shattered reality on this side of the screen: to make clear that Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers were not the same household help in their own homes as they were on screen, that apart from being women with loves and romances, they were activists along with Ethel Waters and others who challenged Los Angeles’ racially restrictive housing covenants and won in court.
“Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams” is a valuable historical document, entertaining and educational, uplifting and sad; it is a formidable chronicle of the perseverance of a community that ironically would destroy itself by moving on to “better things.”
In this year’s Academy Awards, two black men, Don Cheadle and Jamie Foxx, are among five nominees for best actor, and Morgan Freeman and Foxx will compete for best supporting honors. And taking into account the new range of black box office powerhouses such as Will Smith, Halle Berry and Denzel Washington, who command salaries comparable with those of the biggest stars and who live in whatever part of town they choose, it is obvious that the prospects for blacks in present-day Hollywood have changed dramatically, even since I first came to town in the mid-'70s and the only bankable black star was comedian Richard Pryor.
This success is proof that the near century of dues paid by those who came before was pain well spent. But although the “old walls and barriers had been -- at least partially -- knocked down” and "[n]o one would ever regret that,” Bogle concludes that “something had vanished: that sense of a vibrant cohesive community where black entertainers worked, played, and had fun together.... Those times when Stepin Fetchit or Ben Carter or the Nicholas Brothers would suddenly appear on Central Avenue and be the talk of the whole block.... Those other afternoons when a neighborhood kid like Barbara Molette could swim in Rochester’s pool or bicycle over to Hattie McDaniel’s house for milk and cookies. Those days now were long gone and long forgotten.” *