Theresa Harris

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

This post is part of the Acting Black Blogathon hosted by Dell on Movies. Click here to read many more posts celebrating the work of black actors. 

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15 thoughts on “Theresa Harris”

  1. Nice spotlight of one of my favorite actresses of the 30’s. She was wonderful. See her in “The Company She Keeps.” She has a great moment as a con, giving Jane Greer what for in prison. Love her.

    1. Me too, love to see her anywhere, she always manages to spice up whatever tiny role she had, and then when she got something substantial she really went to town. She has that great scene in Tell No Tales, where she’s not a servant, in her own home, part of a mystery. Underrated lady. Thanks!

  2. I really learned a lot from this post I’ve probably seen her a time or two, but had no idea of anything about her. Now, I most wonder what it must have been like for her getting into and attending USC in the 1920s. Thank you so much for this entry.

    1. Thanks, it’s short and sweet considering all the roles you can talk about but, an overview to hopefully introduce her to more people so they can start having fun spotting her like I do. 🙂 Great to go back and spotlight these pioneers.

  3. I’m so jazzed that you did this post — and I wish I’d known about this blogathon! Poop. Theresa Harris is a favorite of mine, and I’m glad to know more about her!

    1. And there is so much more to know, she is one of those “I know the face” actors who really get your attention as soon as you start watching classic movies, and you start to enjoy her appearances everywhere. Glad to highlight her among more modern actors being covered. Thanks!

  4. She definitely stands out in BABY FACE, though I never understood whether her relationship to Stany was that of one friend to another or mistress to servant.

    1. Yes there’s such a closeness in their relationship in that movie. I love the moment when she’s about to get fired by Stanwyck’s father and she says something like “if she goes, I go!” Thanks!

  5. Thanks for this. She had one of my favorite lines in one of my favorite movies, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE: “There are other doctors–better doctors.”

    1. Yes, that was so good, and with that genre more likely to be “discovered” by younger generations, it’s a nice way for viewers to get to know Harris. She got some great parts at RKO & with Lewton. Thanks for commenting!

  6. It’s just great that you did this, Kristina!

    Too few know and appreciated the wonderful Theresa Harris, as often as they may have seen her. A tremendous talent. I don’t have too much to add to what you wrote except to note that her singing debut in THUNDERBOLT is mesmerizing, a wonderful moment in an underrated movie. I see that Josef von Sternberg, who directed it (his first sound film), then cast her in MOROCCO so seems to deserve some credit for helping her get her career started.

    I guess for me as for others, my favorite role is in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE–great character and like Bob I savor her delivery of that specific line though she has her share of other great moments in that beautiful film.

    1. I have a copy of Thunderbolt here, never seen that one, and that’s a great point to give credit to von Sternberg for casting her in those. In Zombie she was really memorable, plus the noirs and the Lewton pictures always seem to be big discoveries for younger viewers, so it’s it’s great she gets remembered for her work in those. One of the big familiar faces of classic film and she deserves the attention. Thanks!

  7. Theresa Harris always added a bit of magic to any scene that she appeared in. You can’t take your eyes off her- regardless whether she is playing a maid, a slave, or a convict. What’s more- she is gorgeous! She is equally as luminous as the many stars who she appeared with, whether it was Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich or Barbara Stanwyck. They had to know it. too. That’s why, in some movies, she is darkened up and dressed down- so as to not out glam the stars. In “Baby Face”- she basically co-stars with Barbara Stanwyck, yet she is uncredited. Add to that the irony of the fact that John Wayne, who is only in a couple of scenes receives top billing ! What a shame she came way too soon. Still- she left enough for us to appreciate and enjoy. She is timeless!

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