July 21st, 2008

carole lombard 01
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Not the Best of stereotypes

By today's standards, where a black man is only a few weeks away from being nominated as a major party's presidential candidate, the era Carole Lombard lived in was not particularly enlightened when it came to race relations. Few black characters appeared in her films, and those that did were invariably brutal, cringe-inducing stereotypes.

Several can be found in her Mack Sennett two-reelers; that's no surprise, as Sennett came from an era when ethnic humor -- not just regarding blacks, but Jews and other groups -- was regularly used. Perhaps the best-known racial stereotype in a Lombard film was in "Nothing Sacred," where Troy Brown plays Ernest Walker, a Harlem bootblack passing himself off as a foreign monarch. However, his ruse is exposed by his angry wife (portrayed by Hattie McDaniel), publicly embarrassing the newspaper sponsoring his banquet appearance.

A less-remembered example of racial stereotyping in a Lombard film came some six years before "Nothing Sacred," in the 1931 Paramount comedy "Up Pops The Devil." Rarely seen or revived in recent decades, Carole's co-stars include Richard "Skeets" Gallagher, Norman Foster and fashion maven Lilyan Tashman. But in a small role ("Negro Laundryman") is a black actor, billed as "Sleep N. Eat":

The quote at the bottom of the picture reads, "I can't give it to you lady -- till you pay yo' bill."

"Sleep N. Eat," whose character was along the same buffoonish lines as the better-known Stepin Fetchit, was the unfortunate pseudonym used by one Willie Best. A Mississippi native born in 1913 (some records state 1916), he made his film debut in 1930 and found steady work for the next two decades, invariably as porters, servants or other subservient roles. And he was almost always used as comic relief.

Did he like such parts? Decidedly not. In a 1934 interview, he said, "I often think about these roles I have to play. Most of them are pretty broad. Sometimes I tell the director and he cuts out the real bad parts. ... But what's an actor going to do? Either you do it or get out." However, by 1936, he had successfully persuaded producers to bill him under his real name, rather than the demeaning Sleep N. Eat.

Perhaps his best-known movie role came in the 1940 Bob Hope-Paulette Goddard comedy, "The Ghost Breakers"; Best gets many of the best lines, a la Eddie "Rochester" Anderson with Jack Benny, and Hope later called him one of the most talented people he'd ever worked with. He also had a small role the following year in the Humphrey Bogart vehicle "High Sierra":

When television arrived, he had a recurring role as Charlie, the elevator operator, on "My Little Margie," before retiring from acting in the mid-fifties. By the time of his death in February 1962, many in the civil rights movement considered him a relic of more unfortunate times.
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