Theresa Harris was a talented and pioneering black actress, and one of the most familiar faces in classic movies. She was in 80+ films, uncredited for many, and though she often got a variation on a servant role, she did her best to defy racial stereotypes, avoided using a predictable dialect and managed to spin her screen time into something fun, memorable, and scene stealing. She was elegant and sassy, intelligent and powerful, always such fun to spot in small roles and did wonders with meatier parts.
In 1933 alone she made 13 movies. In Professional Sweetheart, Harris showed Ginger Rogers a few moves and took her to a Harlem club. In Baby Face, Harris is Barbara Stanwyck’s maid Chico, but she has just as much screen time and is essentially her equal, a best friend who shares in the rewards of Stanwyck character Lily’s rise in fortune, including being dressed just as elegantly as her boss. She shared scenes with huge stars like Bette Davis as in Jezebel (1938) or the all-stars of The Women (1939). I was recently impressed by her small but powerful part in the crime movie Tell No Tales (1939), where she played a boxer’s widow.
Harris was born in Houston, on New Years’ Eve 1906, to a construction worker and school teacher. She studied theater and music at USC, went on to appear in stage musicals, inspired by artists like Ethel Waters and Louis Armstrong. After being spotted by a talent scout, Harris made her screen debut with a singing bit in Thunderbolt (1929). She kicked off the 1930s in the Marlene Dietrich movie Morocco, and played many variations on servant roles, natives and waitresses through the pre-Code era.
Once at RKO, she got a little more room to display her musical talent, as in the Jack Benny comedies Buck Benny Rides Again and Love Thy Neighbor (both 1940), where she sang and danced, and played girlfriend to Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. At RKO, Harris also became a fixture in Val Lewton’s and Jacques Tourneur’s films, with memorable parts in Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943). She was in many great crime pictures including Phantom Lady (1944), Out of the Past (1947), The Big Clock (1948) and Angel Face (1952).
She had the lead in an all-black production, Gangsters on the Loose (aka Bargain with Bullets, 1937) and lobbied for race pictures and the establishment of black studios. She was understandably frustrated with the lack of variety and options for a black actress, but within those limits, working with the times and the available parts, she certainly made the most of what she got. She created vivid characters, was a valuable player, and blazed a trail for black actors. She retired from films in the 50s, continued to appear on TV for some years, and died in 1985. Her contributions were recognized in 1974, when she was inducted into the Black Filmmaker’s Hall of Fame.