An Access Advertising EconBrief:
The Truth About Black Actors in Hollywood Under the Studio System
In a recent (03/09/2015) National Review magazine, author Jay Nordlinger laments the American propensity for “race rows.” He relates the insistence of a friend that last year’s movie Selma had been shut out of Academy Award contention. In fact the movie had received two Oscar nominations, including the coveted nod for Best Picture.
Nordlinger knew why his friend had been deceived. She was reacting to the latest in a seemingly never-ending series of stylized eruptions of race-motivated indignation. As Nordlinger noted, this year’s row followed the nine Oscar nominations and three Oscars (including Best Picture) awarded last year to 12 Years a Slave, last year’s black-experience blockbuster. “The academy must have rediscovered its inner racism in twelve months’ time,” Nordlinger observed drily.
Nordlinger has realized that for the black left wing, historical victimization is a key economic good that they cannot afford to be without. They must keep its history continually alive in order to continue reaping its benefits. He is skeptical about the thesis that Hollywood is dead set on victimizing black artists, but despairs of ever seeing his viewpoint vindicated. “An academy voter cannot acquit himself of a charge of racism – not if he preferred another movie, he can’t,” Nordlinger concludes.
The study of economics is uniquely positioned to inform us about the subject of Hollywood’s treatment of blacks. Suppose we begin at the beginning, by investigating the dawn of blacks in Hollywood under the studio system. We will begin our analysis in the late 1920s, during the waning days of silent movies.
Before doing that, though, we should quickly review economic fundamentals pertaining to the effects of free markets on minorities, particularly those disfavored or discriminated against politically and legally. framework against the conventional stylized portrait of black actors as a victimized class within Hollywood since its inception.
Free Markets and Minorities
Many great economists have grappled with the economic issues raised by discrimination against minorities of all types – political, social, racial and ethnic. Free markets do not promise the eradication of discrimination – indeed, all of us discriminate against things and people we prefer to avoid without giving it conscious thought. But free markets make discrimination an economic choice in which the chooser evaluates benefits and costs. When discrimination is too costly, it will be foregone.
That is why persecuted minorities throughout history – Chinese in Asia, Jews throughout the world, blacks in South Africa and America – have found refuge under the banner of free markets. Free markets protect their economic productivity by preserving the incentive to employ or patronize them. Free markets protect their welfare by giving them real income when it might be denied them by political authorities.
The Hollywood Victimization Thesis
Conventional thinking has long stressed what we will call the “Hollywood Victimization Thesis” (hereinafter abbreviated HVT for convenience). We view HVT through the lens of a speech made by the then-President of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in March, 1942. This speech and accompanying remarks by NAACP counsel Wendell Wilkie marked “the beginning of a new awareness in Hollywood towards the portrayal of blacks in films” (author Champ Clark in his book Shuffling to Ignominy: The Tragedy of Stepin Fetchit). Thomas Cripps, film historian (Slow Fade to Black: the Negro in American Film) said that “March, 1942, became a date by which to measure the future against the past.”
White spoke to Hollywood filmmakers, telling them that they had projected an image of “the Negro as a barbaric dolt, a superstition-ridden ninny… a race of intellectual inferiors, cowardly, benighted, different from the superior group.” He urged them to reject them image, instead choosing to portray “the Negro as a normal human being and an integral part of human life and activity.” Wilkie – the same Wendell Wilkie who had been Republican Presidential candidate in 1940 – was also a board member of 20th Century Fox, one of the “Big Five” Hollywood studios, so we might expect his statements to carry weight with that studio. He not only condemned racial stereotypes per se but made the practical case that they were harmful to the war effort, which demanded that all segments of society pull together for the common good.
All of the major Hollywood studio heads were in the audience for this speech. Later they signed a pledge in which they agreed to avoid the projection of negative racial stereotypes in their films.
What is particularly interesting about this speech, and the watershed it represents, is the difference between its viewpoint and the HVT as typically represented today. The contemporary version goes roughly as follows: The Hollywood studios victimized black actors by consigning them to insignificant parts as railroad porters, servants, maids, butlers, slaves, laborers, tramps and miscellaneous menials – always subservient to whites.
Walter White’s original version of the HVT was distinctly different from this. Take literally, it implied that portrayals of Negroes onscreen were not insignificant, since a character possessing traits so markedly unfavorable and a station removed from normal life could hardly be unimportant to, or unnoticed by, the viewer – the viewer musttake notice of the Negro character in order for this unfavorable impression to register. As we shall see later, this difference is vital.
What accounts for the difference in these two versions? In his 1942 speech, Walter White provided an illustration to back up his claim of negative stereotyping by Hollywood studios. He mentioned one actor by name. This mention had devastating consequences for the actor, because even though White was referring to the roles played by the actor, the stigma from the speech never left the actor. It began a chain reaction that sent the actor’s career spiraling downward. And it made the actor synonymous with the HVT.
The actor’s name was Stepin Fetchit. His story is the real story of the early black experience in Hollywood.
The Story of Stepin Fetchit
Who was Stepin Fetchit? Stepin Fetchit was the first black actor ever to receive a featured credit in a Hollywood movie, In Old Kentucky. He was the first black actor to sign a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio, Metro Goldwyn Mayer. According to his biographer, “he was the first black actor to drive through the front gates of a Hollywood studio – with a chauffer [sic] at the wheel.” He was, in his own words, “the first black actor universally acclaimed a star by the public.” According to a Ripley “Believe It Or Not” feature, Stepin Fetchit became a millionaire by portraying one kind of character in Hollywood movies. According to a 1968 documentary (“Black History – Lost, Stolen or Strayed”) narrated by Bill Cosby, “the cat [Fetchit] made $2,000,000 in five years in the middle 30s.” In 1960, Stepin Fetchit became the first black actor to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Does this sound like a man who was victimized by the Hollywood studios? As John Wayne might say, not hardly. And it is not out of place to invoke John Wayne as authority here, because John Wayne was Stepin Fetchit’s dresser. As Marion “Duke” Morrison, freshly arrived in Hollywood while still in college at USC in 1927, Wayne held down every existing menial job on the movie sets of directors like John Ford, whom he adopted as his mentor. In 1976, the year in which John Wayne made his last movie, The Shootist, Stepin Fetchit lay in a Los Angeles hospital suffering the effects of a stroke. Wayne himself was in the throes of his last series of illnesses, but he was not too infirm to cheer up his old friend with a visit. And never was a man more in need of cheering up. Between 1927 and 1975, when Stepin Fetchit last appeared in a movie, a tidal wave of change engulfed America and Stepin Fetchit all but drowned in it.
What was Stepin Fetchit’s unforgivable sin? Well, his venial sins were many. Mostly they were the garden variety sins of Hollywood movie stars – wine, women and a tendency to arrogance. But his unforgivable sin was that he was funny.
This is not an eccentric personal opinion. In 1929, at the time that talking pictures were staging a hostile takeover of silent movies in Hollywood, Robert Benchley said, “I see no reason for even hesitating in saying that Stepin Fetchit is the best actor that the movies have produced. His voice, his manner, his timing, everything that he does is as near to perfection as one could hope. He is one of the great comedians of the screen.” Robert Benchley was an Oscar-winning actor, one of the great American humorists and a leading scriptwriter in Hollywood. He knew humor as well as anybody then or now.
Or listen to another expert – Bill Cosby, whose criticism of Stepin Fetchit in 1968 echoed Walter White’s in 1942. “Fetchit’s one of the greatest comedians who ever lived. There was no intent on my part to ridicule him.”
Stepin Fetchit was born Lincoln Theodore Monroe Perry in 1902. He was baptized a Catholic and remained one all his life. In the early 1920s, he entered show business via the “chitlin’ circuit” – an informal chain of over 100 Southern vaudeville theaters catering to black audiences. It was here that he perfected his classic shtick: a “somnolent southern boy, all slow-motion hesitation and mumbles… almost terminally lazy” (Clark). Eventually, this laziness became his trademark. He developed himself into a theatrical act that he advertised as “the laziest man in the world.” And it was his own patented character, honed to physical and verbal perfection, that he took to the movies.
In 1927, Fetchit answered a general casting call for black performers for the silent MGM movie In Old Kentucky. When hired, he proceeded to astonish director John Stahl with his comedic skills. The director created a featured part for him as a plantation boy, and even inserted him into a romantic subplot in the script involving black actress Carolyn Snowden. The movie was a hit. MGM offered Fetchit a six-month contract. But when the studio found no further roles for him, Fetchit broke with MGM and signed with Stahl’s Tiffany-Stahl Productions for more than double the money MGM had paid him. He appeared in featured parts in several more silent pictures before his next breakthrough picture came along.
It was Universal Pictures’ talking version of the famous Edna Ferber stage play Show Boat, the seminal production of the American musical theater. Unfortunately, the studio could not acquire the rights to the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein score, but Fetchit performed one of the studio-composed songs for the film.
In 1929, Fetchit notched another “first” by starring in Hearts in Dixie, the first Hollywood film with an all-black cast. This was also a musical and it cemented Fetchit’s star status. The importance of those two words – “star status” – cannot be overstressed.
The Breakthrough of Black Actors in Hollywood
Prior to Stein Fetchit, black actors were virtually absent from Hollywood. It would easy to ascribe this to the presence of Jim Crow laws and white racism, but that would be false. To understand why this is so, consider the case of Paul Robeson.
Paul Robeson was born in New Jersey in 1898 as the son of a former slave who had become a minister. He grew up singing to help support his family and help out his father in church. He was valedictorian of his high-school class and lettered in four sports. He became only the third black person to attend Rutgers University up to that point. At Rutgers, he captained the debate team. He twice became first-team All-American in football. Walter Camp called him the greatest end ever to play the game to that point. Upon graduation, he attended law school while working on the side – helping to pioneer a fledgling organization called the National Football League, playing opposite the likes of Jim Thorpe.
After a few years, Robeson quit to become an opera star and theater performer. He played to packed houses in London and on Broadway. But when Paul Robeson first performed in movies, he worked for director Oscar Micheaux, who made “race movies” shown only to black audiences. His first film was 1925’s Body and Soul. At that point, despite Robeson’s fame and popularity in the U.S., there was no audience for Robeson as a movie star. He was much too important to play a minor role, and the kind of hybrid character/star part played by Fetchit did not yet exist. Therefore Robeson did not work in Hollywood until the 1930s – after Stepin Fetchit had carved out a place for black actors by revealing the existence of a demand for blacks in high-visibility, featured roles. In 1936, Robeson sang the famous “Old Man River” in the 1936 version of Show Boat, supporting Irene Dunne and Allan Jones. He co-starred in the first sound version of King Solomon’s Mines opposite Sir Cedric Hardwicke and starring in the English film Proud Valley as a coal miner who traveled to Wales and performed with a male voice choir. There is every reason to believe that Robeson might have become an earlier version of Sidney Poitier had not World War II and his own misguided Stalinist politics not intervened to thwart him.
Was Stepin Fetchit a true movie star? In one sense, yes. He attained fame, wealth and high visibility. These are the superficial attributes of stardom. But in the truest sense, no. The Hollywood studios carefully selected and groomed leading actors for their productions. Those actors were always performers with whom audiences could identify and about whom they could fantasize. Pure talent and dramatic success were not enough to qualify an actor for the position of star.
Stepin Fetchit could not achieve the highest level of movie stardom in the 1920s and 1930s – lead actor in major productions. Neither could Paul Robeson. There were an incredibly small number of men and women who could. Not all of them were Americans and not all of them were Caucasians. Not all of them were humans, either; Rin Tin Tin was an authentic movie star for years. Shirley Temple attained stardom at age five, but lost it in her teens. Sidney Poitier was finally able to reach that elevated pinnacle twenty five years after Fetchit and Robeson strove for it. His movie career began in 1950, before the era of civil-rights legislation, marches or demonstrations. Why was he the first to succeed?
Anybody who really knows the answer to that question could earn vast wealth as a talent scout for Hollywood casting companies today. But it is absurd to stigmatize white Americans as racists when they embraced Stepin Fetchit, Paul Robeson and the complement of black actors in the 1930s – as if a totalitarian government should somehow have utilized thought control to force Americans to confer full stardom upon blacks earlier in history.
Stepin Fetchit’s Peak – and Fall From Grace
Stepin Fetchit claimed that his first run of success in Hollywood was cut short when he refused to perform a scene in the movie The Southerner in 1930. Fetchit said that the scene implied, without saying so directly, that his character was guilty of rape. The director complained to the studio about Fetchit’s recalcitrance, and Fetchit’s contract was terminated.
It was commonplace back then even for big stars to be fined or suspended by the studio -even to be fired in extreme cases. But the biggest stars were always rehired or found work elsewhere. Stepin Fetchit had to rehabilitate his career all over again. And he did.
He appealed to actor-humorist Will Rogers, with whom he had worked briefly in silent films. Rogers knew Fetchit’s work and appreciated it. Despite his great fame in the theater and on Broadway, Rogers had been only a marginal success in silent films. He desperately needed to succeed in talking pictures. So he approved Fetchit’s hiring as a supporting character in his films.
This move was a spectacular success. In 1934 and 1935, before his untimely death in a plane crash, Will Rogers was the leading box-office star in Hollywood, ahead of Shirley Temple (with whom Fetchit also appeared). The four films he made with Stepin Fetchit established the two as the movies’ leading comedy team.
Fetchit’s biographer, Champ Clark, quotes columnist James Bacon about a conversation between Darryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox studio, and Will Rogers. Zanuck tells Rogers “My God, he’s so funny, he steals the show from you.” Rogers responds, “I don’t care, he makes the movie better.” Rogers demanded that Stepin Fetchit be cast in all his movies.
The peak of Rogers’ career coincided with Fetchit’s career peak as well. With Roger’s death, Stepin Fetchit’s career started to wane. He had to compete for parts with other black actors. Some of them were imitating him. Fetchit drank, got into scrapes with the law and showed flashes of temperament at work. When he wasn’t working on movies, he polished his skills with his stage act. He wrote a newspaper column for the black newspaper, the Chicago Defender.
Eventually Stepin Fetchit fell victim to his high style of living – a problem once summarized neatly by Errol Flynn as follows: “My problem is reconciling my net income with my gross habits.” He fell into arrears with the IRS, his ex-wife and various other creditors. Movie work dried up.
At the point of Walter White’s NAACP speech in 1942, Stepin Fetchit was down. That speech put him out – out of Hollywood for a decade. His old friend, John Ford, wanted to hire him for the post-war film, My Darling Clementine, in 1946. Darryl Zanuck wouldn’t hear of it. “…To put him on the screen at this time would… raise terrible objections from the colored people. Walter White … singled out Stepin Fetchit… as an example of the humiliation of the colored race. Stepin Fetchit always plays the lazy, stupid half-wit and this is the thing that the colored people are furious about.”
Stepin Fetchit hung around the fringes of show business, working in nightclubs, developing his song and dance talents, branching out into stand-up comedy. He made a few “race movies.” In 1952, he returned to Hollywood for the movie, Bend of the River, playing a straight, non-comedic supporting part. He worked for John Ford in 1953’s Steamboat Round the Bend. White movie critics like the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther savaged him, wondering why the movie was made and why Fetchit was cast in it. Once more, Stepin Fetchit’s career was in tatters.
Still he soldiered on, working in cheap theaters and clubs and cadging a living off friends. The critic and film author, Joseph McBride, wrote of admiring his work as a stand-up comedian under harrowing circumstances.
In the early 1960s, Fetchit became a hanger-on of Cassius Clay, soon to morph into Muhammad Ali. Ali claimed that Fetchit taught him the “secret punch” with which Ali dispatched Sony Liston in their second meeting. Once again, Stepin Fetchit was up. Then, in 1968, came the CBS special, “Black History – Lost, Stolen or Strayed,” narrated by Bill Cosby. It was the Walter White speech all over again. For the fourth time, Stepin Fetchit was down. But still not out.
In 1974, Stepin Fetchit joined Moms Mabley and other black show-business veterans to make a movie fittingly entitled Amazing Grace. It was a touching exit for all the old troupers, but especially for him. Fetchit’s last film came in 1975. And in 1976, the NAACP – clearly suffering a bad case of institutional guilt – gave him an award for opening up the frontiers of entertainment to blacks. In 1978, Stepin Fetchit was admitted into the Black Filmmakers’ Hall of Fame. He died in 1985.
Was Stepin Fetchit Victimized by Hollywood?
Stepin Fetchit was not victimized by Hollywood. He seized the opportunity provided by Hollywood to gain fame and wealth hitherto undreamt of by a black actor in the movies. In so doing, he kicked open the door of opportunity for other black actors.
Stepin Fetchit’s character was assassinated by left-wing blacks in the NAACP and white liberals. They used him as a tool for their purposes – which were to portray blacks as oppressed victims of white society who needed saving by the NAACP and the federal government. In so doing, they falsified the history of the black experience in Hollywood.
Fetchit claimed that his name derived from a race horse. That name has since come to be synonymous with black subservience. That is unjust, because there is no doubt that his movie shtick was invented by Fetchit out of whole cloth. It was not devised by a white scriptwriter or producer in order to stigmatize blacks. Moreover, this screen character had nothing to do with Stepin Fetchit’s real personality. On this point there is unanimity. Stepin Fetchit the man was a highly intelligent businessman who liked classical music and was conversant with the fine points of moviemaking. He bore no resemblance to his movie persona.
Stepin Fetchit’s Imitators and the Rise of Black Character Actors in Hollywood
With the rise of Stepin Fetchit to quasi-stardom, the studio bosses of Hollywood realized two things: there was a market for black audiences in character roles in movies, and their leading candidate to fill that role was a temperamental handful. They had long made it a practice to find and cultivate competitive substitutes for their stars anyway. So it was natural for them to seek out other black actors, not only to keep their new discovery from getting too cocksure but also to meet this newfound demand. In Hollywood, imitation has always been the sincerest form of plagiarism; the new crop of black actors bore a strong occupational resemblance to Stepin Fetchit.
The most blatant of these Fetchit imitators was Willie Best (1916-1962), who drove to Hollywood in 1930 while working as a chauffeur and wound up often playing one onscreen. Best worked with the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy and Shirley Temple. His most famous role came in 1940’s The Ghost Breakers, whose star, Bob Hope, called him “the best actor I know.” Comedy producer Hal Roach considered him one of the best comedy talents in show business. Before a drug arrest ended his movie career in 1950 and cancer ended his life in 1962, Best made 113 appearances in movies and a handful in short films and television.
Mantan Moreland (1902-1973) followed Best to Hollywood in 1933 and made some 125 movie appearances over the next 40 years. While Best was almost a Stepin Fetchit clone whose shtick was his sleepy-eyed appearance and skill at alternating lassitude with fright, Moreland specialized in pop-eyed expressions and a growling bass dialect. His most famous appearances were as Charlie Chan’s sidekick, Birmingham Brown, in pictures produced by the bottom-feeding studio, Monogram Pictures.
Fred Toones (1906-1962) may have been the busiest of all black character actors. Between 1931 and 1947, he appeared in over 200 films using the professional name “Snowflake.” In over 140 of them, he received no screen credit, although he was sometimes referred to with a character name onscreen. Toones’ best work was a hilarious turn as Fred MacMurray’s valet in the memorable romantic comedy Remember the Night (1940), costarring Barbara Stanwyck. He also appeared in other classic comedies like Twentieth Century (1934). Christmas in July (1940) and The Palm Beach Story (1942).
Does it seem pedantic to mention arcana like movie appearances, screen credits and character names? These details were not trivial to the actors, because an actor got paid extra for a screen credit and for speaking lines. Assignment of a character name meant that the actor was considered important by the script writer, the director and the producer. This information proves that these black actors were favored, not victimized, by the Hollywood studio system.
The great character actor, Walter Brennan, won three Academy Awards as Best Supporting Actor between 1936 and 1940. But before that, between 1925 and 1935, he received screen credit for only 33 of his first 118 movies. Pat Flaherty was known as the “King of the Uncredited Actors” because his face and voice were so familiar to audiences who didn’t know his name; he received a screen credit in only 29 of his 197 films. Robert Dudley gave an unforgettable performance as the “Wienie King” in Preston Sturges’ Palm Beach Story, but he received a screen credit for only 34 of his 123 film appearances. Long before she became immortal as a television star on I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball began her career in movies. But she did not receive a screen credit until her 25th film. “Bit” parts seldom gave screen credit or assigned character names in the days of the studio system. Today, a favorite parlor game among classic movie fans is to “spot a star” playing an uncredited bit part before attaining stardom.
Compare the status of the black actors mentioned here. Stepin Fetchit received a screen credit in all but 2 of his 49 movies and 6 shorts, and a character name in all but 11. This was unheard of; indeed, Fetchit’s case is so special that he should be considered in a class by himself as a kind of star/character actor/bit player. Willie Best was credited in 73 of his 117 appearances and named in 79 of them, which made him the aristocrat of bit players. Mantan Moreland got 70 screen credits and nearly as many character-named appearances out of his 125 screen appearances, which put him nearly on a par with Best. Toones had many more uncredited appearances, but this was because he packed so many movies (over 200) into such a comparatively short career, which still numbered over 60 credited appearances including notable performances and movies.
We have not just recounted a history of victimization. This is a distinguished record of achievement in one of America’s leading industries – for which these men were well paid.
For the sake of brevity, we have considered only those actors who were directly comparable in style and status to Stepin Fetchit; that is, comic bit players. Left out of account was the comic genius Hattie McDaniel, whose specialty of playing maids earned her the first Academy Award given to a black actor in Gone With the Wind (1939). Actors like Louise Beavers, Ernest Whitman, Rex Ingram and James Edwards were also delivering distinguished performances before Sidney Poitier came along, thanks to the trail blazed by Stepin Fetchit.
And thanks to the free markets that allowed the Hollywood studio system to arise and flourish in the first half of the 20th century.