The Truly Remarkable Nina Mae McKinney
Play Sam Again, Clarence
(with Anita Ekberg as "Not Ilsa")
If nothing else, my Salon blogs document my serendipitous viewing habits. This morning, the arbitrary selection from my albums of amassed DVDs has been a beautifully sordid William Wellman movie from 1931 entitled Safe in Hell. Midway into it, I elected to find out some more about the members of its cast. This has led me to concentrate on the biography of another generally obscure actor in honor of Black History Month.
There aren’t as many Google bytes on the life and career of Clarence Muse, but I believe his biography features enough interesting highlights to merit this quiet tribute. Born in 1889, he earned a college degree in international law in 1911—itself a noteworthy achievement for its times. Wikipedia chronicles that he spent the early years in the acting profession in New York, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Wikipedia cites Arthur S. Penn’s 2010 overview of the Harlem Renaissance as the source for this quote by Mr. Muse:
While with the Lafayette Players, Muse worked under the management of producer Robert Levy on productions that helped black actors to gain prominence and respect. In regards to the Lafayette Theatre's staging of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Muse said the play was relevant to black actors and audiences "because, in a way, it was every black man's story. Black men too have been split creatures inhabiting one body."
In a career spanning sixty years, Clarence Muse an honorary Doctorate in Humanities in 1972, and died a day before his ninetieth birthday in Perris, California. Okay. So much for the medium long shot. Now for some close-ups of his more particular accomplishments, and some sidebars to other lives and events that happened to share his path. As such, Clarence Muse’s life becomes a yew onto which to drape a number of pleasant portals from his and our heritage.
Hearts in Dixie (1929)
No, I never heard of this movie either, and I can’t find much film material with which to illustrate it. Methinks the Wikipedia gloss provides sufficient background on how Hollywood would represent the charms of “the Old South” in 1929: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hearts_in_Dixie_(film).
Sidebar: A co-star with Clarence Muse in Hearts of Dixie was one Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry (1902-1985), reputedly Hollywood’s first millionaire Black actor. Haplessly, he accrued his fortune under the pseudonym of “Stepin Fetchit,” the caricature of the laziest Darkie that White racists could imagine. It’s claimed that more recent revisionist historians interpret his career more sympathetically but, while recently watching Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935), I couldn’t fast-forward through Mr. Perry’s demeaning scenes fast enough.
Sidebar: Six-year-old Kitty White performed Negro spirituals in the 60-child chorus assembled by her mother, A. C. Bilbew, which turned out to be a highlight of that “All Talking” picture.
Nearly twenty-five years later, Ms. White was chosen to sing the lullaby in Walter (“Dragnet” theme) Schumann’s haunting score for director Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955).
“Hush, Little One, Hush”
Safe in Hell (1931)
This brutally sordid talkie opens with its “heroine”/call girl agreeing to set up a “date.” The tryst goes so badly that she ends up burning down the hotel and running off to an obscure Caribbean island that does not permit extradition.
Dorothy Mackaill's Opening Scene:
Accepting a "Date”
The one hotel there houses only similar reprobate refugees, but all of them are male and each is a lecherous deviant. Aside from the girl’s Bible-trusting beau (who helped her stow away to this island, “married” her without a clergyman present, and then returned to the sea), the only decent man on hand is the dignified hotel employee played by Clarence Muse.
Side Mini-bar: I found little interesting background info on Dorothy Mackaill, and the most fun item on her romantic co-star, Donald Cook, is that he later wed one Princess Gioia Tasca di Cuto—surely a piece of trivia worth immortalizing.
"Wild Bill" Wellman, Flying Ace
Sidebar: William Wellman, of course, was far more fascinating. His bio in IMDb reports that WWI flying ace “Wild Bill” Wellman was born on a leap year in 1896 and died in 1975, so his February 29 “birthday” makes him about 20 at the end of his life. A macho hellion, the young Wellman bruised ‘em up playing hockey during the day and stole cars for evening joy rides. The next bit from IMDb is too much fun to subject to paraphrase:
[His mother] Cecilia Wellman served as a probation officer for "wayward boys" (juvenile delinquents) for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and was such a success in her field, she was asked to address Congress on the subject of delinquency. One of her charges was her own son, as the young Bill Wellman was kicked out school at the age of 17 for hitting his high school principal on the head with a stink bomb…. When he was 19 years old, through the intercession of his uncle, Wellman joined the air wing of the French Foreign Legion, where he learned to fly. In France, Wellman served as a pilot with the famous Lafayette Flying Corps (better known as the Lafayette Escadrille)…. [Movie idol Douglas Fairbanks thought the ex-hockey player could succeed as a film actor and got him good roles.] He was fired by fellow he-man director Raoul Walsh from Evangeline (1919) for slapping the lead actress, who Wellman didn't know was Walsh's wife. Disgusted with acting, Wellman told Fairbanks he wanted to be a director, and Fairbanks helped him into the production end of the business.
Night Nurse (1931)
Wellman went on to direct the first film to win an Oscar (Wings, 1927), the movie that launched Jimmy Cagney to stardom (Public Enemy, 1931), the pre-Code classic Night Nurse (1931), Martin Scorcese’s favorite movie (Wild Boys of the Road, 1933), the original version of A Star is Born (for which he received his only Oscar, as screenwriter not as director), The Oxbow Incident (1943), and The Story of G.I. Joe (1945). Despised throughout the industry for his machismo antics and consequent belligerence toward male film stars, Wild Bill was divorced three times before marrying for life and subsequently siring seven legitimate offspring.
Publicity for Safe in Hell
This mimeographed PR flier for some past film series is dismissive of Wellman’s cinematography in Safe in Hell. However, I’d argue that Wild Bill’s frame composition is refreshingly aesthetic, not just “artsy”—enriching and counterbalancing the racy narrative with a Silent Film radiance that today’s movies don’t know how to aspire to.
The Broken Earth (1936)
Clarence Muse is the only professional actor identified with this film. His wiki-bio explains that the movie is “the story of a black sharecropper whose son miraculously recovers from fever through the father’s fervent prayer. Shot on a farm in the South with nonprofessional actors (except for Clarence Muse), the film’s early scenes focused in a highly realistic manner on the incredible hardship of black farmers….”
Directed by Polish photographer Roman Freulich, The Broken Earth credits on IMDb otherwise include only Freita Shaw’s Etude Ethiopian Chorus
Sidebar: In 1931, Ms. Shaw’s chorus sang Negro spirituals in Pardon Us, the first feature-length film of Laurel Hardy, for a plantation sequence in which the comedy team appeared in blackface: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GSeROddWPY. Unlike Mr. Perry’s offensive stereotyping, Laurel and Hardy retain such a trademark sweetness that it may be rationalized that, at least, they got the chorus a movie opportunity.
Sidebar: Additional history of “Race Films” may be found at http://www.amoeba.com/blog/2010/02/eric-s-blog/black-cinema-part-ii-race-movies-the-hollywood-studio-era.html.
Way Down South (1939)
Twelve-year-old Bobby Breen stars in yet another Hollywood movie about the Old South. He plays a youngster who inherits his father’s plantation, including a large number of slave families.
Here’s Bobby offering a heartfelt rendition of yet another Negro spiritual, singing like he’s performing at his bar mitzvah: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HGMZ1dN7eT8; and, elsewhere, Bobby enchants a banquet table of “charmin’ ole slave ownahs” with a faux Stephen Foster ballad: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aprjpps6xpw.
But this is a film with a twist, for it was written by Clarence Muse and Langston Hughes! So the plot of the movie is not about happy Darkies, but concerns the boy’s attempts to keep “his” slave families intact when others intend to sell off his “property” piecemeal. But not before Bobby belts out a few more regional numbers, such as “O Dem Golden Slippers” which, if you’re interested, you can seek out yourself on YouTube.
Turner Classics provides a richly detailed profile of the film: http://www.tcm.com/thismonth/article.jsp?cid=133214&mainArticleId=133204.
Much can be found about Langston Hughes the poet and short story writer, or about his private life. Here, however, is background on his political struggles a decade after he and Mr. Muse wrote Way Down South: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hollywood_blacklist
I cite it in part because, in contrast, Clarence Muse appears to be one of the few Black artists and activists who was not persecuted by the HUAC. However, a SAG timeline does mention that ninety-year-old Clarence Muse did participate as a “theatrical/TV” striker in 1980.
Attorney, movie actor, screenwriter, film and TV actor, dedicated to improving the status of the Black image in the United States, and … composer! Yes, around the time he was featured in Safe in Hell, he also had a hit single performed by Mildred Bailey with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra that was popular enough to be a “Sing Along” tune in movie houses via the Boswell Sisters.
The song became a standard years later for Mel Torme and Louis Armstrong, though I personally am troubled by the lyrics (which composer Muse did not write) as, once again, profits were pocketed for imagery celebrating an airbrushed vision of the Old South. Still, Mr. Muse’s melody is in fact jauntily seductive, and I’m glad to listen to it.
/Clarence Muse, Opera Singer
And then tack on Mr. Muse’s apparent singing career—in opera, no less! He is billed as “Honey Man” in the 1959 Preminger film of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, so one assumes he had the voice and training for that role. But then who would suspect that Sidney Poitier had the operatic chops to sing Porgy in that same movie? Anyway, anyone familiar with Mr. Preminger’s later projects will agree that the less said about this southern-fried turkey, the better!
My initial title for this blog entry was “The Muse Who Played Sam Again.” As I’ve noted, I interrupted my viewing of Safe in Hell to IMDb (an infinitive here) some of the Wellman film’s actors and found, in the bio on Clarence Muse, that he had played the Dooley Wilson role of “Sam” in an ill-fated TV version of Casablanca.
That site further lists the even more surreal casting of a second TV Casablanca in the mid-1980s, with David (“Hutch”) Soul as Rick Blaine, Scatman Crothers as Sam, Ray (Goodfellas) Liotta in the Mischa Auer role as Sasha the barkeep, and Hector Elizondo filling Claude Rains’ police boots!
Vincasa additionally offers one the opportunity to watch full episodes on one’s computer, but I lack the guts to check this out. Instead, I intend to return to my DVD player and watch the second half of Safe in Hell, which I’m told only gets more shocking! I hope that doesn’t mean that Clarence Muse’s dignified hotel employee lapses into the same degrading lechery as do all the other males in that lechers' paradise!