20 April 2012

The Help: Black Maids in Marlene's Movies

Hattie McDaniel in Blonde Venus
Cora (Hattie McDaniel), Blonde Venus
Are you Team Venus in Furs or Team Blonde Venus? Let's pit Wanda von Dunajew against Marlene Dietrich's movie parts to settle the score. Wanda enslaves Severin von Kusiemski. Marlene Dietrich's characters figuratively enslave Immanuel Rath, La Bessiere, Pasqualito Costelar, Antonio Galvan, Tom Bradley, Dan Brent, Hank McHenry, and--well, you get the picture. Wanda has three black women at her service. Dietrich's characters have only one at a time: first Viola (played by Evelyn Preer) and then Cora (played by Hattie McDaniel) in Blonde Venus, Clara (played by Lillian Yarbo) in Destry Rides Again, Clementine (played by Theresa Harris) in The Flame of New Orleans, Mary Lou in The Lady Is Willing and Idabelle in The Spoilers (both played by Marietta Canty), and an unidentified one in Rancho Notorious (actress also unidentified).

Unlike Wanda's black servants, who appear like the Furies whenever their mistress rings her bell, Dietrich's maids make their onscreen appearances primarily to provide buffoonery. Who was laughing then? Who's laughing now? More importantly, are you laughing--and why? Below are portraits of the black maids for you to consider the next time you watch these Dietrich flicks. Because I consider GIFs an antiquated format perfect for showcasing ludicrous gestures, I cobbled together a few as well.

Blonde Venus (1932)

Marlene Dietrich as Helen Faraday/Jones greets Evelyn Preer as Viola in Blonde Venus
Helen Faraday/Jones (Dietrich) introduces
Viola (Preer) to Johnny (Dickie Moore)
Unable to care for her son Johnny while she's fleeing from her husband and earning money at cabarets, Dietrich-as-Helen Faraday/Jones hires the heavy-set Evelyn Preer-as-Viola, who finishes almost every sentence with "Ma'am" and a smile. Meanwhile, Helen speaks to Viola in the same maternal tone she reserves for Johnny. While on the run, Helen and Johnny become destitute, eventually finding themselves outside Galveston, Texas [note: IMDB cast credits indicate that this setting is New Orleans, but the title card and potted cacti say otherwise, no?] in a broken-shuttered shack crawling with fowl. Nevertheless, Helen somehow manages to acquire the services of a new maid, Hattie McDaniel-as-Cora.

As the chickens cluck her arrival, Cora breathlessly ascends a staircase to warn Helen about a suspicious person (Detective Wilson). Racializing the situation, Cora calls him "that white man" and reveals her ineptitude by confessing that she forgot to tell Helen about him earlier. Following Helen's orders to investigate the man, Cora puts on a smile and feigns Southern hospitality when she approaches Wilson, but her face hardens during the exchange and especially during the scene fade, evoking the "sassy mammy" stereotype for which McDaniel became famous. In fact, I'm surprised Cora doesn't roll her eyes and intone an "mmhmm" after hearing Wilson's baloney.

When she returns upstairs to share her intelligence with her distressed mistress, Cora asserts, "That white man's up to something. I know when a white man's browsin' and when he ain't." Helen trusts her maid's judgment and heads downstairs to handle the matter herself, putting on her own seductive front. Ever faithful, Cora promises to guard Johnny: "No, ma'am. They ain't nobody gon' get by me." When Helen takes Wilson to her home, both mistress and maid can barely hide their disdain. Truly, Helen and Cora are far smarter than Wilson, the white man for whom they play whore and "aunty," respectively.

Marlene Dietrich and Hattie McDaniel in Blonde Venus
Helen (Dietrich) & Cora (McDaniel)
Despite their similarities, Helen and Cora are each others' foils physically, racially, socioeconomically, and narratively. Cora is an obese, black, poor, and transitory bit character, while Helen is our sexy, white, upwardly mobile protagonist. We watch Helen recover her wealth and family, but the book closes on Cora, who may still be buttoning her blouse with a clothespin for all we know. Flighty employers like Helen offer little job security, yet how they affect domestic servants like Cora and Viola bears no importance to this plot. Incidentally, the actress who played Viola, Evelyn Preer, was a new mother during the filming of Blonde Venus, and she passed away on November 19, 1932, months after the movie premiered, making this her final screen role.

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Lillian Yarbo as Clara in Destry Rides Again
Clara (Lillian Yarbo)
Lillian Yarbo-as-Clara makes her first appearance with her head quivering between two pillows. Dietrich-as-Frenchy kicks her upon encountering this sight, but it must be okay because the two seem to have lived in symbiosis for years. At any rate, Clara was in Frenchy's way and on her chair! Rather svelte for a mammy, Clara compensates with an accent thicker than Mississippi mud, declaring, "Mmm . . . I'd like to sank my chattering teef in some Lousiana ursters!" To quell her maid's homesickness, Frenchy hands her a coin and says, "Here, sink your teeth into this. Maybe that'll stop the chattering."

Marlene Dietrich as French and Lillian Yarbo as Clara in Destry Rides Again
Frenchy (Dietrich) & Clara (Yarbo)

Unerringly loyal to Frenchy, Clara knows exactly when to hand her mistress her next costume and when to wield her rolling pin to shoo away unwelcome company like Destry. Clara can also diffuse a poignant moment, thinking aloud, "That's the peculiarest-acting man I ever did see. He's got personality. Mmm . . . sure has," while Frenchy contemplates Destry's comment about her makeup and--metaphorically--the facade she maintains to hide her true self. It's as if Clara is serving us, the audience, who can't quite make out whether we're watching a comedy or a drama.

During a dressing room scene in which Clara massages Frenchy's feet, we learn the kind of reward Clara gets for her fealty--her mistress's beer-stained dress. Perhaps, then, I'm understating Clara's behavior. Maybe I should admit that she's downright submissive, scurrying out of the room at Ken's command. We never know how Clara carries on after Frenchy dies, but I hope she at least makes her way back to New Orleans.

The Flame of New Orleans (1941)

Theresa Harris in The Flame of New Orleans
Clementine (Theresa Harris) at the opera
We first see Theresa Harris-as-Clementine at an opera, sitting among other black people in the gods. Meanwhile, Dietrich-as-Countess Claire Ledoux sits in a box, and less wealthy whites sit in the stalls. Whether this scene was a nod to 1940s black audiences who were relegated to balcony seating at mainstream white movies, I don't know. Nor do I know whether Clementine is a servant or a slave, given that The New York Times reviewer T.S. identified the movie's time period as antebellum. I do, however, know that Claire and Clementine are the most beautiful women in the house, yet all eyes are on the former after she pretends to swoon. Even the conductor turns to see our white heroine in distress. Claire knows what it takes to get attention, and Clementine smiles deviously when a man behind her notes, "That's your missus that fainted."

Like Cora in Blonde Venus, Clementine acts as her mistress's watchful eye when an middle-aged banker named Charles Giraud shows romantic interest, but she herself falls under the radar of Giraud, who dispatches his manservant William to follow Clementine. Henceforth, Clementine's character develops in a narrative separate from Claire's, quite unlike the other black maids in Dietrich's films.

I could speculate that Rene Clair, a recent arrivé to the U.S. when he directed this movie, didn't share the same ingrained notions of black characters as his American(ized) peers. Norman Krasna, an American, co-wrote the screenplay, though, and the racialized humor exudes with American insight. When we see William approach Clementine, he asks, "You afraid of the dark?" Her response: "You're not so dark." Walking together down a New Orleans street, the two flirt, and William compliments Clementine by telling her she's more beautiful than her mistress. You know what? I agree! Harris, however, really plays her part a la Dietrich, often facing forward and mostly moving her eyes. Of course, Dietrich would have never allowed her suitor to cast shadows on her visage.

Theresa Harris in The Flame of New Orleans
Forget making it rain! Giraud makes it hail on Clementine
Unlike the other black servants in Dietrich's films, Clementine is highly sexualized. She may wear the mammy's traditional gingham uniform, but it can't hide her lustrous curls and narrow waist. Even the white Giraud interacts flirtatiously with Clementine, tossing coins between her cleavage, which everyone--surprisingly also William--finds humorous. This erotic compensation positions Clementine as a Jezebel, who sells information about her mistress like a prostitute peddling her body. The camera especially emphasizes this analogy by showing a close-up of Clementine and scanning her from head to toe, disingenuously so we may follow the coins that slide down Clementine's clothes to the floor. Furthermore, Claire extends the Jezebel comparison by asking Clementine, "Where did you get these [the coins]? In the daytime?" On another note, Clementine performs the same spy role that Cora plays in Blonde Venus by warning Claire that Giraud has plotted her assault in the park. Is there any motif that configures black women as bearers of white people's secrets? If not, there should be.

The next time we see Clementine, she's among other black people outside Claire's home, listening to Samuel, her mistress's carriage driver, wildly exaggerate the "assault" that he has survived while riding Claire through the park. Notably, the actor playing Samuel, Clarence Muse, typifies the coon caricature, having mastered the type after years of experience in films such as Blonde Venus. Remember the stuttering bartender during the "Hot Voodoo" performance? Of course, black people are not the only ones who see themselves lampooned in The Flame of New Orleans. Mischa Auer plays the same Russian stock character we saw in Destry Rides Again--just with a different name. Then, we have Gus Schilling, who plays the character whom I affectionately call "The Flamer of New Orleans":
Bob Evans, Theresa Harris, Gus Schilling, Marlene Dietrich,
William, Clementine, Gus Schilling being extra fabulous as the couturier, Claire, some boring chick

Despite the buffoonery, we see Clementine enjoying life among other black people that's separate from her duties to Claire. Because she's enjoying this discrete existence, she also fails to notice Giraud entering Claire's home. By the time Clementine catches Giraud, he has already heard Claire express her gold-digging ways. Playing Claire's accomplice, Clementine helps dupe Giraud into believing that Claire has a lookalike skanky cousin named Lili who pursues rich men. Consequently, this movie's plot devolves into a ridiculous trickster tale, which I'll reserve for detailed discussion in a future blog post.

I will at least state that Clementine does not merely support Claire's avaricious deceit; rather, she induces it. Claire considers returning to Paris, but Clementine pragmatically reminds her that she lacks the funds to do so. Not only does Clementine grimace disapprovingly at the budding affair between Claire and the rough trade Robert, she brazenly disputes her mistress's caprices. Amused, Claire hints that Clementine's own romance influences her views, coyly observing, "Every woman needs a little William." I can't tell whether that's solely the case, but Clementine intentionally hinders Claire's attempts to woo Robert and defies her mistress's orders when they jeopardize her relationship with Giraud. Once Claire assesses the value of romancing Giraud, she finds inspiration in Clementine's words to flesh out her sleazy Lili alter-ego.

For those of you who have seen the movie, you know Claire becomes a runaway bride and boards roughneck Robert's boat, presumably leaving behind Clementine, yet I don't get the sense that Clementine even minds. At Claire and Giraud's wedding, we see Clementine and William sharing a tender moment, as if they're vicariously marrying each other. In contrast to the other black maids in Dietrich's movies, we get some sense of a conclusion to Clementine's story.

Clementine & William
Surprisingly, Clarence Muse of all people may have bolstered the notion that Rene Clair perceived black characters differently. While doing a bit of research on the actresses I mention in this blog, I learned that Muse regularly wrote a column for the black weekly newspaper, Chicago Defender, called "What's Going on in Hollywood." In his piece for January 11, 1941, Muse cited Rene Clair as saying that Bob Evans (the actor who played William, and whose surname Muse recorded as Edwards) would "furnish [. . .] the 'sex' appeal for Miss Harris." Notably, none of the other movies mentioned in this post addresses the black maid's sexuality, except The Spoilers, which regards the topic not as appealing but as amusing.

The Lady Is Willing (1942)

Marietta Canty as Mary Lou in The Lady Is Willing
Mary Lou (Marietta Canty)
In contrast to the pragmatic employees who immediately bristle at Dietrich-as-Elizabeth Madden's foundling, Marietta Canty-as-Mary Lou tenderly welcomes her boss's new addition, seemingly oblivious to the added duties that come with an infant. A jovial mammy, Mary Lou conjectures that Madden had her go on vacation to give birth to the baby. Both Madden and her "business representative" Ken gently correct Mary Lou, as if she were a child.

Another scene features Mary Lou answering a phone call from the presumably black doorman, whom Mary Lou chides, "George! I thought I told you not to call me during my business hours!" Mary Lou is quite possibly the ideal mammy, mindful not to let her private life bleed into her service to Madden, and she jogs her hefty figure to Dr. Corey the moment she hears that Madden needs $25,000 and roots for Dr. Corey during his scuffle. Mary Lou's subservience only wavers when Madden tries to usurp her domestic obligations by rising early to cook breakfast. We last see Mary Lou tearfully answer Madden's phone in Boston when Dr. Corey calls, and her final words filter through the doctor to us. Again, we witness a maid who transmits information, and Mary Lou deserves credit for reuniting Dr. Corey with Madden as well as saving the baby, but her role never extends beyond that of domestic prop.

The Spoilers (1942)

Idabelle (Canty)
Marietta Canty must have made an excellent impression in the Columbia production, The Lady Is Willing, because she ended up in this Universal flick, playing the role of Idabelle. If you think Clara has it rough in Bottleneck without her Louisiana oysters, poor Idabelle is stuck in the most remote American frontier--Alaska. Even though Idabelle beams with joy the moment her mistress Dietrich-as-Cherry comes home, the North Pole simply can't meet the creature comforts that Cherry orders for her love interest, John Wayne-as-Roy Glennister. "Eggs is scarcer than watermelons around here," Idabelle informs Cherry. The dearth of black people is Idabelle's own concern, though: "I sure hope there's some colored folks on that boat. I's getting' mighty tired of pretending Eskimos are from Virginia."

Of course, friendship and a sense of community aren't Idabelle only needs. While dressing her mistress, Idabelle offers the compliment, "Miss Cherry, you sure look like the medicine [that's] good for what ails a man," to which Cherry pouts, "All we need, then, is a man, eh?" Reflecting on her own lovelorn state, Idabelle answers, "If you's referring to me, Miss Cherry, there sure is an absence of good, solid color in this country." Later, Cherry commiserates, "We've been wasting a lot of time waiting for something we're not going to get, Idabelle." Of course, Cherry's situation can't compare to Idabelle's. After all, they're in a land full of white men, and we--the audience--see two (Glennister and Randolph Scott-as-Alexander McNamara) who've undoubtedly got their eyes on Cherry. Cherry may be blind to her prospects, but jokes go completely over Idabelle's head. Does she seriously believe Cherry wanted her to sit on the eggs? When all else fails, laugh at the mindless mammy?

The next time we see Idabelle, she's rebelling like Clementine, refusing to put away the tray of brandy and hard-boiled eggs (yes, that's right) meant for Glennister. When Glennister unexpectedly arrives to enjoy the delicacies, Cherry demands that Idabelle confiscate the tray, but Glennister refuses to relinquish it. What's an obedient mammy to do? Excuse herself from the room! Which is exactly what I'd like to do when I watch the next scene featuring Idabelle.

Marietta Canty and John Wayne in blackface
Idabelle and Glennister (Wayne) in blackface
During a bank robbery, Glennister and his crew are disguised in blackface, which Glennister doesn't remove for his "date" with Cherry. Opening Cherry's door, Idabelle comes face-to-face with the black man of her dreams. Glennister plays along the naïve Idabelle, garbling his words in attempt to sound black, and Idabelle falls for it! Idabelle doesn't immediately get the joke, but she does get the movie's best punchline: "Well, if y'all thinks I'm the common kind that messes around with anything that comes along—I says, if you think I'm that kind of a hussy—I'll pour y'all a cup of coffee!" Only after Glennister removes his hat to show off his "tan-line" does Idabelle realize his identity.  Not only does Idabelle find the blackface amusing and attractive, she also submissively fetches the soap and water to wash it off Glennister.

Due to her big mouth, Idabelle spoils Glennister's alibi by barging into the room with his soot-covered shirt while McNamara and his henchmen are there to arrest him. Once again a step behind the beat, simple Idabelle thinks McNamara & Co. are mere company. Is Idabelle really so guileless, though? When Cherry and McNamara arrive and inform Idabelle that Glennister has been shot, Idabelle collapses. Cherry herself appeared faint during her entrance, but roles quickly reverse, the mistress now serving her maid. Cherry asks McNamara to get some brandy from the kitchen, leaving Cherry to quickly revive Idabelle, let her in on the secret that Glennister has escaped safely, and commission her acting skills to keep McNamara at Cherry's. Idabelle relishes this ploy, making McNamara drag her to the soft couch. We don't see Idabelle during the final big fight scene, but we musn't forget her pivotal part in the movie: her actions are important enough to both imperil and aid Glennister. 

Rancho Notorious (1952)

Marlene Dietrich and black maid in Rancho Notorious
Altar Keane (Dietrich) with unknown black maid
While Dietrich-as-Altar Keane drives a carriage down a Virginia City (Nevada?) street, our very own Watermelon Woman shields Altar from melanogenesis with a parasol, ensuring that her mistress remains almost as white as her horses. I know nothing about carriages and have read that the two are in a barouche, but it should have been a victoria to match the maid's dour attire.

Boozily recalling Altar, a barfly named Dolly observes that women would be happy if lightning hit her, implicitly because Altar attracts men. With the camera following only Altar and her impassive maid, I get the impression that the maid somehow doesn't count as the fairer sex. In fact, Dolly doesn't even acknowledge the maid's existence, telling us that Altar would shut her door on a cattle baron even though we see that Altar leaves her help with the task of turning away gentleman callers. As far as Dolly is concerned, the white horses are more noteworthy than the black maid.
Marlene Dietrich's black maid in Rancho Notorious
Unknown black maid played by unknown black actress


  1. Interesting analysis. Too bad you write primarily only Dietrich related posts, you could do a whole series on Hollywood actresses and their on-screen maids.

    1. Thanks, Kim. A series on that subject would be quite engrossing, but I don't know whether I'd have much to say that Donald Bogle hasn't already said in Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks. It is, however, a topic I haven't seen discussed much in relation to Dietrich's movies; in fact, Bogle only wrote in passing about McDaniel in Blonde Venus, and I didn't agree with his assessment that she was "a humorless, less jolly version of Louise Beavers" because McDaniel did her own thing with the role of Cora, definitely contrasting with and upstaging Preer in the role of Viola. Maybe other CMBA bloggers--or movie bloggers at large--would like to do a blogathon on lead actresses and their on-screen maids? I'd be curious to read their perspectives.

  2. Fascinating again Joseph!

    1. Thanks, umaneo. I'm thinking of writing about Lin Mayberry, who toured with Dietrich during WWII, but am not finding much about her except that she took a lot of photos of Dietrich and played the harmonica. If you or any other Dietrich fans know of anything about her (or sources that mention her), let me know.

  3. I appreciate the analysis and the recognition of black actors and actresses.