February 15th, 2010

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Remembering Louise Beavers

Yesterday, "Carole & Co." participated in a blogathon on film preservation; today, we're working with the Classic Movie Blog Association in celebrating Black History Month.

It's understandable why there are comparatively few black fans of classic Hollywood -- for the most part, it wasn't an area where they were reflected in a positive manner. That was especially true during Carole Lombard's lifetime, which largely predated the civil rights movement. Carole worked with a number of black actors and actresses (such as Willie "Sleep 'N Eat" Best, shown with her in 1931's "Up Pops The Devil"), but almost all the time they were in servile or demeaning roles. About the only exception I can think of came in "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," where a black boy was among the street urchins who stared at Lombard and Robert Montgomery as their characters had dinner at an old haunt that wasn't as chic as it used to be. (I've never been able to track down the identity of the youth.)

Lombard was nowhere as publicly outspoken about racism as, say, Myrna Loy, although in "Screwball," biographer Larry Swindell says Carole was critical of Atlanta officials for not allowing Hattie McDaniel to stay with the rest of the cast at a whites-only hotel. Had Lombard lived to see segregation end in the armed forces, baseball and eventually southern schools, she might have been a bit more forthcoming.

Today, we're going to examine the career of a well-known black actress who appeared in a pair of Lombard films and was frequently seen on the screen during the 1930s, but who rarely got a chance to display her acting skills. Her name was Louise Beavers, and you can see her in Lombard's second film of the 1930s (and first at Paramount), "Safety In Numbers," and in her second-to-last film of the decade, "Made For Each Other."

Beavers, born in March 1902, had a few things in common with Carole. She too was from the midwest (Cincinnati) and emigrated with her family to Los Angeles a year before the Peters family did, in 1913. Beavers graduated from Pasadena High School and sang in the choir at a local church.

In the 1920s, she worked as a maid to Paramount stars Leatrice Joy and Lilyan Tashman, which helped her get a foot in the door of the film industry. She had a small, unbilled part in the 1927 "Uncle Tom's Cabin," but it wasn't until sound arrived that she got steady work, normally as a cook or maid. (Ironically, Beavers hated cooking, though it helped that her longtime husband, Leroy Moore, was a professional chef.)

In "Safety In Numbers," you can find Beavers singing and dancing as part of the number "The Pick-Up." She worked with all sorts of stars, from Mary Pickford ("Coquette," 1929) to Mae West ("She Done Him Wrong," 1933). Perhaps her best role came in the original "Imitation Of Life," made in 1934, where she plays the mother of Fredi Washington, a black girl who passes for white. (Beavers was actually only one year older than Washington.) The film also allowed Beavers and star Claudette Colbert to act as virtual equals.

But such roles were exceptions. For Beavers, the norm was usually playing cooks or servants in "Make Way For Tomorrow," "Brother Rat" or "Shadow Of The Thin Man." Such roles continued after World War II, though she did play Jackie Robinson's mother (with Robinson portraying himself) in the 1950 "The Jackie Robinson Story."

During the 1950s, she regularly worked on television, including six episodes of "The Swamp Fox" as part of Walt Disney's television work. Her final film appearance came in 1960's "The Facts Of Life" with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball (the first film I ever saw in a theater, incidentally).

Health problems, including diabetes, were plaguing Beavers by this time, and she died in October 1962.
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