Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Theresa Harris: Much More Than a Maid

The average person probably would not recognise Theresa Harris's name, but if they have watched even a few classic films chances are good that they have seen her. Theresa Harris appeared in close to a hundred films from 1929 to 1958. Among the films in which she appeared were such classics as Horse Feathers (1932), The Women (1939), and Miracle on 34th Street (1947). She was beautiful, shapely, petite, and blessed with a mellifluous voice. Had she been born in a later era she may well have been a major star. Unfortunately Miss Harris was born at a time when opportunities for African American actresses were extremely limited. She spent much of her career playing small, often uncredited roles, many of them maids.

While she would spend much of her career playing maids, Theresa Harris had an impressive debut in the film Thunderbolt in 1929. Playing an uncredited role as a singer at the Black Cat Cafe, she sang "Daddy Won't You Please Come Home" in a slinky, shimmering dress. Here was Theresa Harris, beautiful, glamorous, and possessed of an incredible voice. In another time and place, the scene could well have launched Miss Harris as a superstar.

That is not to say that Theresa Harris did not get other chances to shine. Indeed, particularly during the Pre-Code Era she had the opportunity to play some memorable roles. What might be her among her most famous roles is Chico, the friend of Lily Powers (played by Barbara Stanwyck) in Baby Face (1933).  While Theresa Harris's name appears rather low in the credits, she has a rather major role in the film, as well as a good deal of screen time. Chico is Lily's friend, confidant, and "partner in crime", and Lily treats her as an equal. As Lily literally sleeps her way to the top, Chico takes the role of Lily's maid. Even then Lily does not treat Chico as a subordinate. Quite simply, Chico wasn't Lily's maid, she was her friend helping her keep up the illusion of class and wealth for Lily's upper class acquaintances. Chico is funny, practical, and charming. What is more, she gets to display her vocal talent, singing "St. Louis Blues" as she works in the film.

Before Baby Face Theresa Harris got to play another remarkable role in Hold Your Man (1933). In the film the main character, Ruby Adams (played by Jean Harlow) is sent to a reformatory where she meets Lily Mae Crippen, played by Theresa Harris. It was apparently Lily Mae's father, a preacher, who sent her to the reformatory. The other inmates inform Ruby that Lily Mae used to pass around the collection plate at her father's church "and that ain't all."

Even when Theresa Harris played maids they were different from the many other African American domestics seen in films during the Golden Age, and not simply because Miss Harris resembled Janelle Monáe more than Beulah. Theresa Harris insisted that she speak without dialect, and often she would not even wear a maid's cap. In Professional Sweetheart (1933) Miss Harris played Vera, the maid of Glory Eden (played by Ginger Rogers). After work Vera goes dancing and to night clubs in Harlem, telling Glory all the fun she has when she is not working. What is more, Vera has a good deal of talent. Glory is the "Purity Girl" on the radio show The Ippsie Wippsie Hour. When Glory temporarily leaves the programme, it is Vera who takes her place as the "Purity Girl". Once more we get to hear Theresa Harris's dulcet voice.

Theresa Harris would continue to play some interesting roles beyond the Pre-Code Era. In fact, for many she may be most familiar as Rochester's girlfriend Josephine in the Jack Benny and Eddie Anderson movies Buck Benny Rides Again (1940) and Love Thy Neighbour (1940). In Buck Benny Rides Again Theresa Harris and Eddie Anderson performed the duet "My, My", going through several different dance forms in doing so. In Love Thy Neighbour Theresa Harris performed another duet with Eddie Anderson, "Dearest, Dearest". She also appeared with Eddie Anderson in the film What's Buzzin', Cousin? (1943), in which Rochester appears without Jack Benny. While Theresa Harris once more played Rochester's girlfriend, this time around she is called "Blossom" rather than "Josephine". In What's Buzzin', Cousin? she once more gets to show off her vocal talents, singing "Ain't That Just Like a Man?".

Theresa Harris was not only apparently a favourite of Jack Benny and Eddie Anderson, but also Val Lewton. She appeared in two of Val Lewton's classic horror movies. She had a small, but memorable role in Cat People (1942) as the sarcastic waitress Minnie. She had a somewhat larger role in I Walked with a Zombie (1943) as Alma, the maid to  Betsy Connell (played by Frances Dee). While Alma was yet another role as a maid, she was very atypical of maids in the Golden Age of Hollywood (as most of Theresa Harris's maid roles were) and she played an important role in the plot.

Theresa Harris also had small, but very significant roles in Tell No Tales (1939) and Out of the Past (1947). In Tell No Tales she played Ruby, the widow of a man who had been murdered, and had a very powerful scene at the murder victim's funeral with Michael Cassidy (played by Melvyn Douglas).  In Out of the Past she played Eunice Leonard, a woman in a Harlem jazz club who is questioned by Jeff Bailey (played by Robert Mitchum).

In 1937 Theresa Harris had the rare opportunity to play the female lead. It was in the race film Bargain With Bullets (AKA Gangsters on the Loose). She played the radio star Grace Foster, whose childhood friend Mugsey Moore (played by Ralph Cooper) has become a gangster. Bargain With Bullets was made by Million Dollar Productions, a company owned by Ralph Cooper and founded with the goal of making films with African American casts. They would make ten more films before closing in 1942. Sadly, Bargain With Bullets is believed to be lost.

Theresa Harris's last film was The Gift of Love in 1958. Afterwards she retired from acting. She died on October 8 1985 at the age of78.

Only rarely was Theresa Harris given the chance to play something other than a maid. Even when she played maids, she insisted that they not be stereotypes. She did not speak with a dialect and always insured her maid characters had personalities all their own. Theresa Harris was understandably frustrated with the roles Hollywood chose to give her. In an article in the August 28 1937 issue of The Afro American, she complained, "I never had a chance to rise above the role of maid in Hollywood movies. My colour was against me anyway you looked at it. The fact that I was not 'hot' stamped me as either uppity or relegated me to the eternal role of stooge or servant. I can sing but so can hundreds of other girls. My ambition is to be an actress. Hollywood had no parts for me." In an article in the September 11 1952 issue of Jet, she was quoted as having said that she thought she was typecast as maids because "...she has not been properly exploited."

Certainly, Theresa Harris could play much more than maids. She could both sing and dance very well. She was as adept at playing drama as she was comedy. She was beautiful and shapely. In a later era her talent would have made her a major star and her looks would have made her a sex symbol. Sadly, during the Golden Age of Hollywood opportunities for black actors were so limited that even an actress of Theresa Harris's calibre had difficulty finding good parts


Caftan Woman said...

Enjoyed reading your thorough article very much. It is always a treat to see Theresa Harris in a film. It is also frustrating that, because of the times she lived in, we get only a finite number of those screen appearances.

Raquel Stecher said...

Very interesting Terry! Thanks for shining a spotlight on this wonderful actress.