When it comes to Black entertainment history in Hollywood, you should always be prepared to learn something new. A good place to start is the Turner Classic Movie Channel. TCM sometimes features those pioneering Black stars that you may or may not have heard of, opening you up to a whole new era of Black stars, who despite the odds, made an imprint on Hollywood and then got lost in the racial divide. That is definitely the case with actress Theresa Harris, known as “The Beautiful Maid.”
On a recent Saturday night, I clicked on TCM to see a movie entitled “Babyface” starring Barbara Stanwyck. It was a Pre-code film made in 1933 before the Hays Code went into effect. First published in March 1930, the Motion Picture Production Code (popularly known as the Hays Code after its creator Will H.Hays) was the first attempt at introducing film censorship in the United States through laying down a series of guidelines to film producers. At that time, Hollywood films reflected ‘real’ life so to speak, be it sex, drugs, alcohol, illicit behavior, even nudity; it was up there on the big screen. The Hays Code although adopted in 1930 but not seriously enforced until 1934, also happened to completely overlap The Golden Age of Hollywood where the films were raunchy at best, and some Blacks even had a little more camaraderie with their White counterparts.
“Babyface” was a story about a young woman named Lily Powers (Stanwyck) who literally slept her way to the top of the social ladder and took her best friend, Chico (Harris) who fronted as Power’s maid, when they were around the social elite.
From the minute Harris appeared on the screen, you knew she had something. Her delivery was cool, and engaging for that time period, very ‘homegirl’ like. She and Stanwyck were like sisters. And Harris’s time on the screen was almost equal to Stanwyck’s.
I was intrigued by this beautiful, talented Black woman I had never seen in a film before. And I figured because her role was so substantial in “Babyface,” that she must have died young, because surely otherwise she’d be in the ranks of Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge in Black film history.
Like me, playwright Lynn Nottage was so taken by Harris in “Babyface” that she wrote an Off-Broadway play “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” about race, sex, fame and the dream—and crushing reality—of Hollywood.
In a New York Times 2011 article, Nottage said, “I was struck,” she said of the performance,” by how different it was from so many of the other representations of African-American women that I had seen from that period.” The title character in Nottage’s play “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” was based in part on Theresa Harris. She was portrayed by actress Sanaa Lathan.
According to her bio, Harris appeared with more stars of the Golden Era of Hollywood than anyone else, but always as a maid or servant of some sort.
According to her bio, in “Professional Sweetheart,” another pre-code film starring Ginger Rogers, Harris played a spunky, sexy maid who teaches Ginger a thing or two about being “hot,” and ends up replacing Rogers as a singer, and sings a hot song on the radio that turns on the White male listeners, another shocker and rarity at the time for a Black actress.
Harris was featured prominently in such films as “Hold Your Man,” “Black Moon” “Gangsters on the Loose,” “Jezebel,” “The Toy Wife,” “Tell No Tales;” “Love Thy Neighbor,” “Blossoms in the Dust,” “I Walked With A Zombie,” “Cat People,” and others.
Back in those days it was an advantage to be a “triple threat;” and Harris was definitely that. Not only could she act but she could sing and dance. She sings “Saint Louis Blues” in “Babyface,” and her performance simply knocks you out. She also partners with famed actor Eddie Rochester Anderson in one of several song-and-dance routines in movies such as “Buck Benny Rides Again.”
It is said that Harris appeared in close to 90 films, working at every major studio with most of the big stars. She was respected by studio executives, producers, directors, and co-workers alike, who sometimes went out of their way to get her more lines and screen time.
Despite going uncredited in most of her film roles, she was well known to Black audiences of the era. Some Black theaters would feature her name on the marquee when her films were shown, rather than the names of the films’ leading actors.
Harris is quoted as saying, “I never felt the chance to rise above the role of maid in Hollywood movies. My color was against me. The fact that I was not ‘hot’ stamped me as either an uppity ‘Negress’ or relegated me to the eternal role of stooge or servant. I can sing but so can hundreds of other girls. My ambitions are to be an actress. Hollywood had no parts for me.”
Harris also appeared on early television in shows such as “Alfred Hitchcock Presents (TV Series) —Elsie the Servant (1 episode, 1956); “The Amos ‘n Andy Show” (TV Series) (1 episode, 1955); The Girl at the Station (1955); Gloretta (uncredited), as well as several other productions.
Harris married a doctor and retired from the movies in the late 1950s, living comfortably after having carefully invested the money she made during her movie career. Harris, originally from Houston, Texas, died in 1985 in Inglewood.