By Ed Garea
Edited by Steve Herte
Theresa Harris had everything necessary to achieve stardom in Hollywood. She was gorgeous with a great pair of legs. She was a talented singer and dancer. She was also an actress, stage-trained. So, how come with all this going for her, did she ever miss out on superstardom in Hollywood?
The answer is simple: Theresa Harris was Black. Out of 84 screen and television appearances, she played a maid in 40 of them. That’s almost 50%. And many of her screen appearances were un-credited, including one in which she played an influential role.
This was not an anomaly: to be a Black performer in a lily-White industry meant accepting the sort of roles that couldn’t even be designated as supporting; in a sense, these were supporting roles to supporting players. There were many talented African-American actors in movies and it was extremely rare if any had a substantial part in a feature film. Roles like Dooley Wilson’s Sam in Casablanca were the glaring exception rather than the rule. If they weren’t playing maids or butlers, they were assigned the role of the Ignorant Darkie, playing the comic relief in a drama and heightening a comedy.
She was born on New Year’s Eve, 1906, in Houston to former sharecroppers Isaiah and Mabel Harris. Isaiah worked in construction while Mabel worked as a dramatic reader and taught school. The family moved to Southern California in the early 1920s where Theresa pursued music, graduating with scholastic honors from Jefferson High School and later from USC’s Conservatory of Music and Zoellner’s Conservatory of Music. She was bitten hard by the acting bug while in college, and after graduation, began appearing in local stage productions, eventually playing the lead role in the Lafayette Players’ production of Irene. It was only a short walk to Hollywood.
Her first role was an un-credited one as a singer in a Black nightclub in Paramount’s gangster opus, Thunderbolt, starring Harold Arlen, George Bancroft and Fay Wray. Although her scene was a short one, it was enough to garner notice from critics and audience like. She began looking for more work in films. The size of the role and the crediting was unimportant – getting experience was the goal. She appeared in Morocco as a camp follower and Arrowsmith as a native mother. But roles were un-credited. After that, she played a succession of maids. She was Thelma Todd’s maid, Laura, in the 1932 Marx Brothers comedy, Horsefeathers, but if you blinked, you missed her.
Her first credited role was as the Maid in the Little Rascals 1932 short Free Wheeling. After two more un-credited roles in Night After Night, with George Raft and Mae West, and The Half Naked Truth with Lupe Velez and Lee Tracy, Harris decided to move to Broadway, where she met greater success, but the lure of Hollywood proved too strong.
She continued to enjoy steady work from the 30s to the 50s, though rarely playing anything more than a maid, ladies’ room attendant, or a face in the crowd. (Perhaps her best known maid’s role was that of Zette, Bette Davis’s maid in 1938’s Jezebel.) Her last film was in 1958, the Gift of Love, playing the wife of one the lesser characters – unbilled, as usual.
Harris was as smart as she was beautiful. She wisely invested her film earnings, and being married to a physician, was able to retire to a financially secure life. She died at her home in Inglewood on October 8, 1985, from natural causes and was buried in Angelus Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.
Were she born in, say, the ‘70s, her career path would have been very different. Still, when Harris was allowed a decent part, she more than acquitted herself. Following are the handful of movies where she did make a difference.
Professional Sweetheart (RKO, 1933): Harris has an unbilled role as Ginger Rogers’s maid. Rogers plays a radio singer who is the spokeswoman for Ippsie-Wippsie Washcloths – a role that requires her to live a pure life offstage. But she wants to smoke, drink and sow her wild oats. Harris helps Rogers along in this quest by teaching her to sing in a blues style. Near the end Rogers’s pursuer, Speed (Frank McHugh), hires Vera to sing in an effort to win Rogers back. Harris gets a chance to show off her singing voice and gets a chance to do more than sweep, dust and tell Missy how great she looks in that new dress. Still, she’s unbilled.
Baby Face (WB, 1933): This is the movie most fans talk about when discussing Harris. Baby Face is an amazing movie, especially for its time. It’s the movie that pushed the Pre-Code envelope to its breaking point and ultimately led to stricter censorship. It also cost Darryl Zanuck his job at Warner Brothers as Head of Production, as it intensified a long-standing rift between him and Harry Warner, and thus, Warner offered no resistance when Zanuck announced he was fed up and quit to form Twentieth Century Pictures.
Baby Face is concerned with the fortunes of Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck, who rises from being pimped out by her own father in his speakeasy (located in an unnamed industrial city) to reach the heights in New York as a rich courtesan of sorts. Harris is Chico, Lily’s best friend and co-conspirator in her rise from the bottom to the top. Early on in the movie, the lines of demarcation are drawn between Lily and her father. Dad wants to fire Chico because she breaks too many dishes, but Lily tells him that if Chico goes, then she goes with her. And, as she’s the main attraction at the speakeasy, Dad relents. We see that not only are Lily and Chico friends, but also friends on an equal footing. (Possibly lovers as well?)
Armed with the advice of her only real male friend, a bookseller who teaches Lily the philosophy of Nietzsche, Lily sets off with Chico after Dad is killed when his still blows up. Hitching a ride on a freight train, they are caught by the conductor, but Lily offers him “fare in kind.” Chico simply turns her back and sings “St. Louis Blues” as we know what’s going to occur next. As Lily lands a job in New York and begins her climb, Chico is right there. Because she cannot exist openly as an equal, she assumes the position of Lily’s maid. But we are wise to her real role as friend and co-conniver. Besides, what maid walks around in a fur collar?
Baby Face proved that Harris could do more than answer doors or serve coffee. But, times being what they were, that would be her most lucrative roles, unfortunately.
Buck Benny Rides Again (Paramount, 1940): This is a slight, but funny, comedy
about Jack Benny’s attempts to make Ellen Drew believe that he’s a real cowboy. Harris has a small, but decent role and gets to interact with Eddie Anderson, as Rochester, who (as usual) ends up stealing the movie.
The Flame of New Orleans (Universal, 1941): The first American film from exiled French director Rene Clair (fleeing the Germans after France fell in 1940). Again, Harris is a maid. But this film is more in the mold of Baby Face, as Harris is more than a maid to courtesan Marlene Dietrich, who is posing as a society woman and juggling two rich men, a banker and a sea captain against one another. Harris basically reprises Chico in this film, but has many more lines and Clair provides her with some real glamour shots, which reveal her natural beauty. It may well have been that her role was a major factor in the censors demanding large cuts in the film before it would be allowed to be released.
I Walked with a Zombie (RKO, 1943): This was Harris’ second film for producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur. Both had reportedly been impressed with her small, unbilled role in Cat People and offered her a role in this film. Again she played a maid, but the character is well developed and she has some good scenes with star Anna Lee. In fact, this might be her biggest part in a well-known film. Tourneur also spends time highlighting Harris’s beautiful face and animated expressions as she comes face to face with the undead. Despite the subject matter, which may not appeal to all, this is a film to watch to see Harris’s beauty and acting talent.
Out of the Past (RKO, 1947): In an unbilled part, Harris only has one scene in this classic noir, but director Jacques Tourneur knew she could do much with a very small part. She plays Eunice Leonard, Jane Greer’s former maid and has a dandy little scene with Robert Mitchum in the nightclub scene when Mitchum tries to find out where Greer has gone. Again, though a small part and only one scene, the role is important in moving the plot along and Harris acquits herself well.
Theresa Harris is a perfect example of how sheer perseverance can get one through a hostile universe. Though she would never get the chance to become a major movie star, her performances never give that fact away. Imagine what she could have done today.