Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Theresa Harris Bio (Star of the Month, Sept. 2015)

"The Beautiful Maid", "Dainty", "sepia-toned comedienne"--most newspaper and magazine articles always made sure to reference her physical beauty before mentioning her name, Theresa Harris, People of Color in Classic Film's featured star for September 2015.

Theresa Harris was born on December 31, 1906 (some sources say 1909) to sharecroppers Isaiah and Mable in Houston, Texas. The Harris family relocated to California when Theresa was about eleven. After graduating from the infamous Jefferson High School, she attended the UCLA Conservatory of Music and Zoellner's Conservatory of Music to become a music teacher. Theresa had the voice and the talent, and she'd gained the education, but like many others, Hollywood started calling her name in the 1920s.

Theresa Harris made her film debut as a singer in the 1929 film, Thunderbolt. Over the next two (almost three) decades, she would play singers, servants, "tribal women", and random background characters in almost one hundred movies. Although she typically played their servants (and many times went uncredited), Theresa Harris is often praised for playing alongside more Hollywood starlets than any other Hollywood actor or actress--from the ladies gone too soon, like Thelma Todd (Horse Feathers), Lupe VĂ©lez (The Half Naked Truth), and Jean Harlow (Hold Your Man); to the women who lived long enough to see their impact, like Barbara Stanwyck (Baby Face, her most notable role, and Banjo on My Knee), Ginger Rogers (Professional Sweetheart), and Bette Davis (Jezebel).

(With Eddie "Rochester" Anderson in Buck Benny Rides Again, 1940)

Most of Harris' credits were from the 1930s and 1940s. As the mid-1950s rolled around, she appeared less in film (more on television) and soon, she retired from show business completely, living comfortably on the money made from her 30-year film career with her husband, Dr. John Robinson. Theresa Harris died of undisclosed causes on October 8, 1985. She was 78 years old.

These days, Theresa Harris is mostly remembered for being a "beautiful maid"--a great actress, singer, and dancer, but Ms. Harris (Robinson) should also be remembered for being a champion of her race. She boldly spoke against discrimination she'd faced in Hollywood and encouraged the Black-American community support black-owned film companies, specifically Million Dollar Productions:

"I never had the chance to rise about the role of maid in Hollywood movies. My color was against me anyway you looked at it. The fact that I was not "hot" stamped me either as uppity or relegated me to the eternal role of stooge or servant. I can sing but so can hundreds of other girls. Hollywood had no parts for me." -- a popular quote by Theresa Harris, repeated in the August 28, 1937 issue of The Afro American.

Perhaps this quote is an indicator that Theresa Harris left Hollywood at one point? Here is another quote from the same article:

"Asked if she thought the company [the black-owned Million Dollar Productions] had a future, Miss Harris said: "It has as much of a future as any other film company, if adverse publicity and an impatient public do not kill it. I believe Mr. Cooper [Ralph Cooper] is sincere in his efforts. He is certainly hard working...We have tolerated so many rotten pictures made in Hollywood by whites, I do not see why our own people cannot be tolerant in the pioneering stages of this company...".

This month, when I view and review some of Theresa Harris' work, I will do so while keeping in mind that Theresa Harris was a force. On camera, she was the maid, the "tribal woman", the spectator--but behind the camera, she was a Paul Robeson, a Fredi Washington, a Clarence Muse, a Hazel Scott--a fighter and a woman of wisdom.

Check in later for a Theresa Harris "appreciation post"!


The Afro American (Google News Archive)

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