Theresa Harris

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Theresa Harris
Theresa Harris.jpg
in Professional Sweetheart (1933)
Born(1906-12-31)December 31, 1906
Houston, Texas, U.S.
DiedOctober 8, 1985(1985-10-08) (aged 78)
Inglewood, California, U.S.
OccupationActress
Years active1929–1958
Spouse(s)George Robinson
 
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Theresa Harris
Theresa Harris.jpg
in Professional Sweetheart (1933)
Born(1906-12-31)December 31, 1906
Houston, Texas, U.S.
DiedOctober 8, 1985(1985-10-08) (aged 78)
Inglewood, California, U.S.
OccupationActress
Years active1929–1958
Spouse(s)George Robinson

Theresa Harris (December 31, 1906 – October 8, 1985) was an American television and film actress.

Early life and career[edit]

Harris was born on New Year's Eve, 1906 (some sources indicate 1909)[1] in Houston, Texas to Isaiah (1879–1956) and Mable (1883–1964) Harris, both of whom were former sharecroppers from Louisiana. Theresa’s family relocated to Southern California in the late 1920s. Harris graduated from Jefferson High School with scholastic honors and then studied music at the University of Southern California Conservatory of Music and Zoellner’s Conservatory of Music. She briefly pursued a career in theater, gaining her most acclaimed role as the title character in the Lafayette Player’s musical production of Irene.

In 1929, she traveled to Hollywood and lent her singing voice to the talkie Thunderbolt. This role was uncredited. As she entered the 1930s she found herself playing maids to fictitious Southern belles, socialites and female molls played by such actresses as Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Sylvia Sidney, Frances Dee, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, Esther Williams, Thelma Todd, Kay Francis, and Barbara Stanwyck. These parts, however, were sometimes uncredited. She also floated around studios doing bit-parts, usually at Warner Bros. or Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Aside from maids, she also specialized in playing blues singers, waitresses, tribal women, prostitutes, and hat check girls.

Theresa Harris appeared with more stars of the Golden Era of Hollywood than anyone else. She sang, she danced, appearing in films and later TV. She graced the screen with her magnetic presence and most times stole scenes from the top stars of the day every chance she got and made a lot of dull movies worthwhile. Although stereotyped by receiving only maid roles, Theresa stepped outside the stereotype any chance she got, to show she was glamorous, classy, beautiful, and a true actress. While she often played maids, she always showed dignity, grace, and demanded respect. Theresa didn't exactly fit the mammy/maid stereotype since she was a petite beauty, a stark contrast from the buxom, full-figured images portrayed by her popular contemporaries, actresses Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers, and Theresa was one of the very few black women to not fit that stereotype on screen.

Harris had a featured role as a friend of Jean Harlow in MGM's Hold Your Man (1932), also starring Clark Gable. In 1933, she starred as Chico in the Warner Bros. Pre-code production of Baby Face, which starred Barbara Stanwyck.[2] Between the early 1930s and into the 1950s, Harris played many uncredited parts in films such as Horse Feathers, Cat People, Miracle on 34th Street, Out of the Past, The Big Clock, Gold Diggers of 1933, Mary Stevens, M.D. and Morning Glory. She also played Bette Davis's maid Zette in the film Jezebel (1938).[3]

There were quite a few films in which Theresa got a chance to let her light shine and make you forget her maid costume and see her as a talented actress. In the Pre-Code classic "Baby Face", she and Barbara Stanwyck had equal time on screen, which was rare between black and white actresses at that time. Playing Chico, Stanwyck's friend then maid, Harris gave a moving and memorable performance that contributed to the film becoming one of the essentials of the classic genre. Theresa was allowed to be sexy, glamorous, and her own person, not simply a servant who jumped at her employer's every beck and call, a rarity for a black actress in a maid role in the 1930s, and a true friendship was shared between Stanwyck and Harris's characters, another rarity. In "Professional Sweetheart" 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. But, Pre-Code films always pushed the envelope, which is evident in both "Baby Face" and "Professional Sweetheart".

Although Theresa played maid parts most of her movie career, she depicted moments of excellence in many roles such as "Professional Sweetheart" "Hold Your Man" "Baby Face" "Black Moon" "Gangsters on the Loose" "Jezebel" "The Toy Wife" "Tell No Tales" "Buck Benny Rides Again" "Love Thy Neighbor" "Blossoms in the Dust" "I Walked With A Zombie" "Cat People" and others. Theresa was a versatile talent, besides acting, she could sing beautifully and dance divinely, when she had the chance in such films as "Thunderbolt" "Baby Face" "Professional Sweetheart" "Banjo on the Knees" "Buck Benny Rides Again" "What's Buzzin' Cousin" and "The French Line". When Theresa got the chance to show her beauty and sex appeal, it was often with her screen boyfriend, Eddie Rochester Anderson, they were dynamic on screen together in "Buck Benny Rides Again" and "What's Buzzin' Cousin". In "Buck Benny Rides Again", Theresa and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson sing and dance a musical number, "My, My," that is the most memorable scene, where they sing and dance tap, classical, Spanish, and swing.

Theresa Harris was perhaps the hardest-working woman in Hollywood, appearing 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. 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 career in the movies. She was a patient woman who never gave up hope that there would come a time when she would be able to play more than simply maid roles. Nevertheless, in every role, she displayed class, dignity, beauty, and true acting talent, not simply the old stereotypes associated with black actors and actresses at that time. As one of the industry’s first African American actresses to receive credited and speaking roles, Harris also broke barriers by serving as a member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), where she lobbied for dignified roles for African American actors. She died in Inglewood, California in October 1985.

Later life and death[edit]

During the 1950s, Harris appeared several times on television on such shows as Lux Video Theatre, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Letter to Loretta.[4] She made her last film appearance in an uncredited role in The Gift of Love in 1958.

On October 8, 1985, Harris died of natural causes at her home in Inglewood, California. She was buried in Angelus Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.

Legacy[edit]

The title character in Lynn Nottage's play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is based in part on Theresa Harris.[5]

Selected filmography[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ McCann, Bob (2010). Encyclopedia of African American Actresses in Film and Television. McFarland. p. 150. ISBN 0-7864-3790-1. 
  2. ^ Bogle, Donald (2006). Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood. Random House Digital, Inc. p. 126. ISBN 0-345-45419-7. 
  3. ^ Schatz, Thomas (2004). Hollywood: Cultural Dimensions: Ideology, Identity and Cultural Industry Studies. Taylor & Francis. p. 237. ISBN 0-415-28135-0. 
  4. ^ McCann, Bob (2010). Encyclopedia of African American Actresses in Film and Television. McFarland. p. 151. ISBN 0-7864-3790-1. 
  5. ^ Dargis, Manohla (April 21, 2011). "Just a Maid in Movies, but Not Forgotten". The New York Times. Retrieved November 25, 2012. 

External links[edit]