Black History Month and the Code: Seven Dignified Depictions of African-Americans from Breen Era Films

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February is recognized as Black History Month in the United States and Canada. It is sometimes called African-American History Month in America. In these countries, this month is dedicated to celebrating the accomplishments of black citizens past, present, and future. This year, PEPS is joining the celebration with an article about black people in films from the American Breen Era (1934-1954), when the Motion Picture Production Code was enforced. I think that this is a good opportunity to mention some noteworthy scenes from classic films which feature dignified depictions of African-Americans.

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Louise Beavers, classic Hollywood’s most beloved maid.

People like to complain about the slurs and stereotypes which were made about black people during the Golden Era of Hollywood. They also talk about the demeaning roles which black actors always played, since most people of African descent were usually relegated to subservient roles such as maids, porters, and other servant positions. However, this was less a prejudice of the film industry than a realistic reflection of the jobs which most black people held at that time.

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Clarence Muse as a porter

Many people say that the Production Code Administration was responsible for much of the segregation which existed in Breen Era films. The Code’s job was to help films avoid censorship. Unfortunately, in the 1930s-50, many “Jim Crow” segregation laws still existed, especially in the South. Southern censors would hastily delete any scene which showed miscegenation or even excessive fraternization  between races. One particularly stubborn censor, Charles Binford, would “binfordize” any scene which depicted black and white children playing together! Although Hollywood would not kowtow to every whim of every censor, filmmakers had to keep certain prejudices in mind.

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In Since You Went Away, maid Fidelia (Hattie McDaniel) is a vital part of the Hilton household, helping to keep the family together during World War II.

Despite the unfortunate segregation and prejudice which existed in the United States at this time, some films managed to include black characters who stood out as being exceptionally intelligent, well-spoken, and dignified. Some of these characters enjoyed very close, non-servile relationships with white characters in the film, who regard and treat them as equals, as they should. Below are some of the characters who stand out to me.

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Emmett Smith as Sam with S. Z. Sakall in Christmas in Connecticut, 1945.

1. Sam in Christmas in Connecticut from 1945

At a restaurant owned by Felix Bassenak (S. Z. Sakall), Emmett Smith has a brief, uncredited, but memorable role as a waiter or bus boy of some sort. When the distressed Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) tells her uncle, Felix, that a catastrophe has arisen, he is happy, since he doesn’t know what the word means. Thus, he asks Sam, “Catastrophe – what is it?” In a very articulate voice with hardly any trace of a characteristic “black” accent, Sam replies, “It’s from the Greek. It means a misfortune, a cataclysm, or a serious calamity.” Still not understanding, Uncle Felix repeats a few of the words he said and asks, “Is it good?” Sam replies, “No, sir. That’s bad.” It is a very brief role, but he stands out as a very intelligent young man, who politely defines a word which a white man doesn’t know.

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Barbara Stanwyck and the uncredited delivery girl in Christmas in Connecticut.

– Bonus: Delivery Girl

Also in this film, Elizabeth receives a mink coat, which is delivered to her apartment by a very pretty delivery girl. She is an attractive young black woman in a smart uniform who wears a bright smile. She says only a few words, but there is something about her enthusiasm and engaging personality which makes a deep impression on me every time I watch the film. No mere drudge, she seems to take great pleasure in her job, and thus is very dignified.

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Melvyn Douglas and Lee Bowman in Third Finger, Left Hand, 1940.

2. Sam in Third Finger, Left Hand from 1940

Near the end of Third Finger, Left Hand, Jeff Thompson (Melvyn Douglas), Margot Sherwood Merrick (Myrna Loy), and Philip Booth (Lee Bowman), are riding a train to Reno. In a complicated turn of events, Jeff pretended to be Margot’s husband, so she had to marry him to divorce him! However, he doesn’t want to get a divorce, after which she plans to marry Phil. He prolongs matters by complaining about the settlement and demanding the right to legal council.

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Melvyn Douglas and Myrna Loy in Third FingerLeft Hand.

Jeff goes into the corridor and tells Sam (Ernest Whitman), the black porter, that he needs to hire someone who can “look impressive and talk a lot” and thus will be convincing as a lawyer. Sam’s face lights up, and he says, “Well, sir, I’ve studied law by correspondence for the past four years to improve my mind, and if I can be of service to you, sir.” Jeff looks delighted and says, “Sam, you’ve got yourself a client.” In the next scene, we see Sam, looking very dignified with wire-rim glasses, objecting to Phil’s clauses by quoting at length from a heavy legal book which includes many Latin phrases. After he has advised Jeff to object to every clause, he picks up the tray and food and politely asks Phil, “Would you like another sandwich, sir?” Before going to get more refreshments, wise counselor Sam suggests that it would be better if “the party of the first part and the party of the second part,” Jeff and Margot, “arbitrated this matter personally.” His delays ultimately lead to Jeff and Margot getting together, which results in a happily ever after kiss on the platform at the train station in Jeff’s Ohio hometown. As a horrified Phil watches his girl getting away from him, a delighted Sam offers him a drink, saying, “I thought you’d need it, sir.” As he chuckles warmly, he ends the picture by saying, “It looks like this case is closed!”

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Ernest Whitman in a random photograph, since I couldn’t find any pictures of him as Sam.

It is very refreshing to see an African-American in such a dignified, prominent, and important role. Although he works as a porter, Sam is a very intelligent man. Even though he couldn’t afford to go to college, he has become very knowledgeable in legal matters through private study. He does a marvelous job of defeating Phil’s contract. Mr. Whitman is very lovable and inspiring in this role.

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Dooley Wilson in Casablanca, 1942.

3. Sam in Casablanca from 1942

It seems that Sam is a popular name for black men in 1940s films, for here we have the third Sam in a row on this list. Casablanca is called the most beloved film of all time, and Sam (Dooley Wilson) is one of its most beloved characters. This black musician is Rick’s (Humphrey Bogart) best friend for years. He accompanies him from Paris to Casablanca, where he plays the piano at his cafe, Rick’s Place. He performs some great songs,  including “Shine,” “Knock on Wood,” and the timeless “As Time Goes By.” His unique singing represents the iconic love story of Rick and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) as much as any line in this film.

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Dooley Wilson with Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.

Sam is not just in Rick’s employ; he is his best friend. He helps Rick escape from Paris when the latter seems too distraught because of Ilsa’s note to board the train. In Casablanca, he is always looking out for Rick’s best interest. He tries to convince him to go on a little trip, fishing or something, when Ilsa arrives in Casablanca, since he doesn’t want him to get hurt again. By the same token, Rick looks out for Sam, too. He treats him with great respect and demands that others do, too. Signor Ferrari (Sidney Greenstreet) wants to hire Sam for his nightclub and asks Rick, “What will you take for Sam?” Finding the remark dehumanizing, Rick replies, “I don’t buy and sell human beings.” Later, Rick ensures that Sam keeps his job when he sells the nightclub to Ferrari. In Casablanca, people of different races, nationalities, and backgrounds get prominent features. As Sam, Dooley Wilson is just as important as any of them.

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Jerry Scott with Lauritz Melchior in Thrill of a Romance, 1945.

4. Lyonel in Thrill of a Romance from 1945

Thrill of a Romance tells the story of a young swimming instructor, Cynthia Glenn (Esther Williams), who marries a tycoon she has only known for a few months, Robert Delbar (Carleton G. Young). They honeymoon at a mountain resort, but he is called to Washington, D.C. a few hours after they arrive. Thus, she is left alone at the hotel, to fall in love with war hero Major Tommy Milvaine (Van Johnson). She also makes friends with a Danish opera singer, Nils Knudsen (Lauritz Melchior), who is trying to lose a hundred pounds by avoiding his favorite foods.

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Jerry Scott trying to sing in Thrill of a Romance.

One of Mr. Knudsen’s greatest admirers is a young black bellboy at the hotel, Lyonel (Jerry Scott). He gets up the courage to go over to Mr. Knudsen and tell him that he also is a singer. Mr. Knudsen is glad to hear that and asks him to sing for him. However, the poor boy is too scared for any sound to come out, so he runs away. That isn’t the end of Lyonel. Later, when Tommy Dorsey’s band is playing “Please Don’t Say No,” a resonate alto voice wafts through the air. Mr. Knudsen goes in search of the phantom voice and finds that the singer is Lyonel, who is hiding. He brings him out and gives him a chance to sing a solo with the band. He sings “Because” with a very talented unchanged voice. His knees charmingly knock before he starts, but once he starts singing, his love for music overwhelms his fear. In a later scene, Lyonel tells Cynthia that Mr. Knudsen has offered to pay for voice lessons for him. “Isn’t he the nicest man?” he says appreciatively.

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Jerry Scott.

Like Sam from Casablanca, Lionel is a black musician who enjoys great friendship with a white man. Nils Knudsen is very encouraging to the boy’s talent, showing no prejudice against his race. He recognizes his love for music and his talented voice, so he offers him an opportunity to improve himself. With classical voice lessons, Lyonel will have a chance to attain a career far superior to being a bellboy. He may become a great African-American opera singer!

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Leigh Whipper with Louise Beavers and Spring Byington in The Vanishing Virginian, 1942.

5. Uncle Josh in The Vanishing Virginian from 1942

The Vanishing Virginian tells the story of Virginian district attorney Robert Yancey’s (Frank Morgan) life and family from 1913 to 1929. He has a faithful old black servant named Uncle Josh (Leigh Whipper). He and his wife, Aunt Emmeline (Louise Beavers), have worked for the Yanceys for many years, and he and Cap’n Bob love each other like brothers. When two of Captain Yancey’s children, Caroline and Joel (Juanita Quigley and Scotty Beckett), are being chased by a bull, Uncle Josh hears the commotion when plowing nearby. He grabs some of his red long underwear and uses it like a red flag to get the angry bull away from the children. He risks his life to save two children whom he dearly loves. Not long after, Cap’n Bob finds his dear friend’s body lying lifeless on the ground. He picks his deceased friend up and carries him inside as tears stream down him face. At his funeral, the minister asks Captain Yancey to say something about Josh, since he knew him best. Bob delivers a heartfelt, touching eulogy about what a wonderful man he was and how he would risk himself for others. He says that one could say the strain from flagging down the bull was too much for his heart, so it caused his death. However, he believes he was preserved a little longer than perhaps he might have been so that he could save the children’s lives. It is a beautiful moment.

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Leigh Whipper with Frank Morgan in The Vanishing Virginian.

The bond between Josh and the Yanceys, especially Cap’n Bob, is so tender and sincere. The black servant and his white employer are so close and so equal in their relationship that they are more like family members than servant and employer. This is especially touching to see in a picture about the South, where segregation endured longer. Although he is black, Cap’n Bob doesn’t believe that Uncle Josh is at all inferior to him.

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Frank Morgan in The Vanishing Virginian.

– Bonus 1

As the district attorney, it is Captain Yancey’s job to prosecute everyone who comes up before the court. However, there is one case which comes to his attention before it reaches the court. Aunt Mandy Brown (Cleo Desmond), an old black servant of the family, comes to Captain Yancey for help, since her son has been arrested for murder. Bob knows Jefferson Brown (Alfred Grant), and he believes Aunt Mandy when she tells him that it was just in self-defense against a man who was “messin’ round his wife.” He wants to do everything he can to help him, so he enlists the aid of an eager young lawyer who has just arrived in town, Jim Shirley (Douglass Newland). The young man is eager to defend the accused black man.

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At the trial, Cap’n Bob realizes that the jury is set on hanging Jefferson, even though he is innocent. He is eager to preserve innocent life, so he purposely throws the case. He dips his handkerchief in ink and wipes it on his face, pretending like it is an accident. The judge (Erville Alderson) stubbornly insists that he wipe his face, but Cap’n Bob insists that he is not violating any laws. “Is a man not clean just because his face his black?” he demands. The large crowd of African-Americans in the room cheer their approval of his argument. He ends up spending the night in jail but saving the young man’s life. Captain Yancey is a man who will go to great lengths to help his friends, regardless of their race.

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Frank Morgan giving Uncle Josh’s eulogy.

– Bonus 2

At Uncle Josh’s funeral, the congregation sings “Steal Away,” since that was his favorite song. He always sang it while plowing the fields. The black congregation forms a beautiful choir with the organ. One of Captain Yancey’s daughters, Rebecca (Kathryn Grayson), is a singer, so she sings a solo with the choir. This emotional rendition of the beautiful old spiritual is very moving. It is one of the finest points of the film. As all those black people’s voices blend together in a loving tribute to their friend, we see Josh’s weeping wife and children alongside the Yanceys, who feel no shame in joining the chorus at the black church. It is a beautiful moment.

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William Warfield singing “Ol’ Man River” in Show Boat, 1951.

6. Joe in  Show Boat from 1951

Show Boat is a popular story which has been beloved in many forms, most notably the Jerome Kern musical. One of the most famous film adaptions of this musical is the 1951 MGM film, which was the second Code version of said musical. One of the highlights of the film is “Ol’ Man River,” which black show boat worker Joe (William Warfield) sings in his deep bass-baritone voice. Mr. Warfield was a classically trained musician who was very successful in opera and oratorios as well as more popular music. In this his first of only two films, he became permanently identified with the song about the Mississippi, which “keeps rollin’ along,” no matter what happens to the people who live around it.

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William Warfield in Show Boat.

Joe doesn’t have a very big role in this film, but he is very memorable. We see him working on the show boat several times throughout the film. He seems like a member of the family, especially as he plays with his employers’ granddaughter, Kim (Sheila Clark). His biggest moment is on the foggy morning when Julie (Ava Gardner) is leaving, having been revealed as part Negress. Joe, like all the black folks on the boat, was very close to the singer. He goes up to her and says, “Miss Julie,” wanting to express his fondness for her. Not wanting to receive any pity, Julie replies, “Keep riding the river, Joe!” She looks at him with kinship as she clasps his hand before rushing away. Then, he sings his great song, reflecting the turmoil of the folks who live in the post-slavery South, still haunted by segregation and miscegenation laws. Joe’s beautiful singing tells the story better than any dialogue could.

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Ava Gardner as Julie in Show Boat, 1951.

– Bonus: Miscegenation Exception

One of the Code’s clauses which is hated most by modern film fans is the ban on screen depiction of miscegenation, romantic relationships between people of different races. It was used the most in relationships between white and black people, which, as I mentioned above, were particularly taboo in the South. However, in two Code versions of Show Boat, miscegenation is allowed concerning the character of Julie. Although played by white actresses in both versions, Helen Morgan in 1937 and Ava Gardner in 1951, this character is supposed to be part “Negress.” Although she passes as white, her mother is black. When a lug she rejected, Pete (Leif Erickson), tells the local authorities about her racial background, a sheriff pays a visit to the show boat. The miscegenation laws forbid a black woman to be married to a white man, following the “one drop” law, which classified someone with even a little Negro blood as black. Thus, the couple is taken away for investigation.

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Helen Morgan as Julie with Irene Dunne in Show Boat, 1937.

Although the PCA doubtless had concern about censorship issues, this miscegenational relationship was permitted in both film versions. This was largely because the story was very well-known and accepted in many media. The PCA decided that, the censors notwithstanding, the screen could depict this story. Granted, they did not cast a bi-racial actress either time. Lena Horne wanted the role badly in the 1951 version, but many state the racial prejudice of the time would not permit her to get it. It’s true that, while a mixed-race relationship depicted by two white actors may have passed, such a relationship depicted with a woman who really was part black would probably have enraged the Southern censors. However, the Code bravely defied the prejudices by making an exception and depiction a mixed race relationship in the two version of Show Boat and in Pinky from 1949, in which Jeanne Crain played a woman of a similar background.

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Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind, 1939.

7. Mammy in Gone with the Wind from 1939

Although this Civil War Era epic has recently been the subject of controversy because of the depictions of slavery it contains, this movie also includes some strong and sympathetic black characters, before and after emancipation. The greatest of them is Mammy (Hattie McDaniel). This courageous slave woman begins as a servant to Scarlett’s mother (Barbara O’Neil) before caring for her and her children. She stays with the O’Haras and then with Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) through the Civil War and afterward as a servant. Nothing changes in her role, since she never seemed like she was treated as less than human. On the contrary, she bosses Scarlett around without any regard for her social status!

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Hattie McDaniel with Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind.

Mammy is more like Scarlett’s mother than Mrs. O’Hara is, since she dresses, feeds, cares for, scolds, and loves her every day. After Scarlett is married, Mammy enjoys joking around with Scarlett’s confident husband, Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). Their playful banter is charming to see. Through thick and thin, Mammy is always there. Although she is a servant throughout the film, she seems to attain more happiness than any of the white people for whom she works! Maybe that is because she knows her job and does it simply and honestly, avoiding the scheming, envy, and dishonesty which plague the other characters in the film.

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Hattie McDaniel receiving her Academy Award from Fay Bainter.

– Bonus: The First Academy Award for an African-American

One of the most noteworthy things about the role of Mammy is the acclaim which Hattie McDaniel got for her it. She won Best Supporting Actress for her depiction of this Southern lady with a big heart. This award was historic, since it was the first time an African-American was honored at the Oscars. People may complain about the slavery shown in this film, but you can’t erase history. We need films which portray the past to remind us of the mistakes and victories which have been made in our country. Black people’s status had come a long way by 1939, marked by Hattie’s victory, and we have come even farther since then!

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Jeanne Crain as Pinky with Ethel Waters as her mother in Pinky, 1949.

There are many aspects of the Code which are universal and timeless. Miscegenation is not one of them, since the laws and customs of our cultural have shifted to allow greater equality in the last sixty-five years. The ban on miscegenation is the main aspect of the Code which would need to be removed for modern enforcement. However, I don’t consider that changing the basic Motion Picture Production Code. The original Code, as written in 1930 by Martin J. Quigley and Father Daniel A. Lord, did not contain any reference to or ban on miscegenation. It was later added by some unknown member of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). This was done to avoid censorship on one of the hot topics of the day. However, the Code’s original authors were quite offended by this addition, since they didn’t consider miscegenation to be a moral issue. Nevertheless, the Code had to be concerned with more than morality. The PCA’s job was to make films “reasonably acceptable to reasonable people.” Unfortunately, many “reasonable people” of the day did not find any depiction of miscegenation to be “acceptable.” It was for that reason that it was banned, not because of personal prejudice of Joseph Breen or any other member of the PCA.

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Lena Horne in Till the Clouds Roll By, 1946.

We have come a long way since the middle of the century in terms of dignified representation for all races. However, we cannot appreciate the current levels of equality if we don’t honestly acknowledge the social mores of the past. While many opportunities were limited, there were some shining moments for talented African-American actors, such as those I mentioned above. Now that we have more equality, we must work for dignity and decency for people of all races through films which have standards of propriety and morality under a new Production Code!

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Louis Armstrong in Birth of the Blues, 1941.

Have you seen any of these dignified black roles? What are your favorite African-American roles and performances from the American Breen Era?

Follow us to bring back the Code and save the arts in America!

We are lifting our voices in classical song to help the sun rise on a new day of pure entertainment!

Only the Code can make the sun rise on a new day of pure entertainment!


4 thoughts on “Black History Month and the Code: Seven Dignified Depictions of African-Americans from Breen Era Films

  1. I’m glad to see you’ve addressed this part of the Hays Code. I only recently found out about this part of the Hays Code, forbidding romantic relationships between whites and African Americans, and it enraged me so much. I suddenly understood why classic Hollywood has such an all-white face. I love classic Hollywood, and I know the intention of the Hays Code was to help keep society on a solid moral path, and I value that so much. But it doesn’t make me any happier with this one line in the Hays Code that had no business being there. Soothing biased southern sentiments should have been completely disregarded and equality honored.

    As for my favorite, I’m partial to Alex in The Ghost Breakers played by Willie Best. I know he’s not much revered as an African American actor because he did play his roles as a foolish inferior. However, he did what he needed to do to make a living. And he was brilliant. Even his co-star Bob Hope said of Willie Best that he “was the best actor I know.” I have no doubt Willie Best was an amazing man and I wish we could have seen him in performances that really let him shine.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Another good one is In This Our Life (1942). Bette Davis plays the evil sister who kills someone in a hit and run and lets a young educated black man, played by Ernest Anderson, take the blame for it. This ordeal strengthens in him the resolve to become a lawyer. He is encouraged in this, without the slightest condescension, by good sister Olivia de Havilland.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Margot,

      Thank you so much for being the first person to leave a comment on this article! The educated young black man you described from “In This Our Life” sounds like a perfect example of a dignified African-American character from a Code film! I haven’t seen this movie yet, but I have heard about it. I look forward to seeing it and this fine character. Thank you for pointing him out.

      Yours Hopefully,

      Tiffany Brannan


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