I recently revisited an important American movie from 1950. The movie is called No Way Out – a tense crime story revolving around race riots in an unnamed city. Joseph Mankiewicz directed and top-billed actors included Richard Widmark and Stephen McNally. But the movie is most famous for the name that appears farther down the credit list. It was the first feature film appearance of Sidney Poitier, who would become the first great African American leading man in Hollywood.
I remember being impressed by Poitier when I first saw the movie many years ago. But watching it anew, I was more taken with a performer who comes significantly farther down the cast list. In fact, this performer was not one of the eight names mentioned in the film’s on-screen credits. Such was the life and career of Amanda Randolph.
Amanda Randolph and her somewhat better-known sister Lillian, appeared in dozens and dozens of movies over four decades in the middle of the 20th century. Both were talented singers and comediennes who had solid successes on radio and on television as well. Amanda, the older sister, starred in the DuMont Network sitcom, The Laytons, on Wednesday nights in the Fall of 1948, making her the first African American actress to star in a network program. After that, she would have her own daytime program, the self-titled Amanda (not to be confused with Amanda Bynes). Lillian, the first African American member to serve on the AFTRA Board of Directors (Hollywood Chapter), was well-known for playing the role of Birdie in the The Great Gildersleeves radio, television and film franchise. Clearly, these were formidable talents.
But there is one little quirk in the careers of the Randolph sisters that says a great deal about America, then and now. They both played the same character on a radio program. Beulah Brown was the fictional creation of a white man named Marlin Hurt. Beulah was a housekeeper who appeared in several radio programs throughout the 1940s, before getting her own show in 1946. Hattie McDaniel played the role for six years before ill health led to her replacement by Lillian Randolph. One year later, Lillian turned the role over to sister Amanda.
What does this say about America? Beulah was a housekeeper, and when you look at the credits for the Randolph sisters, you find a seemingly endless string of housekeepers, cleaning ladies, cooks, and maids. Most were unnamed and uncredited. They rarely played anything else. (Another point of convergence – ABC Television developed a TV program for Beulah in 1950. Ethel Waters played the role for two seasons before giving way to Louise Beavers, another African American actress forever trapped in the role of the maid. For an excellent look at Louise Beavers’ career, check out this piece by Karen Beavers.)
The fact that African American performers had to play a lot of domestics in order to find work in Hollywood is not news. Nor is it inherently bad. There have been some great stories about domestics. The English seem particularly good at it. See Joseph Losey’s The Servant. See any episode of Upstairs, Downstairs. But the fact is there have been very few such examples from American film. The domestics that the Randolph sisters played almost always existed to aid and abet their white employers’ hopes and schemes. They were almost never allowed lives of their own. Dreams of their own. There was the briefest of moments in the 1930s when white-owned production companies devoted tiny budgets to what were known as “race movies” – movies featuring African American actors and geared toward an African American audience. Lillian Randolph’s film debut came in such a movie, a Louise Beavers vehicle no less. Million Dollar Productions’ Life Goes On, in 1937. Sadly, Million Dollar Productions did not exactly live up to its name, and a lack of production value, combined with an unwillingness to foster authentic African American voices as writers and directors, led to the demise of such films before they could ever develop any momentum.
And so Lillian and Amanda sang and acted on radio, and played maid after maid on screens big and small. If you think you don’t know Lillian Randolph, you are most likely wrong. Her most indelible role was as Annie, the Bailey’s maid in Frank Capra’s beloved It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). At the joyous climax of the picture, as she joins the rest of Bedford Falls in handing over money to bail out George, she utters her most famous line: “I’ve been saving this money for a divorce if I ever get a husband.” It’s hackneyed, but delivered with Lillian’s great enthusiasm, it is nonetheless funny. The symbolism of the moment – a lifelong domestic handing over her own personal dreams (in the person of a possible husband) to help save a white man – is almost too painful to consider. So we go along with Lillian and laugh.
Which brings me back to Amanda and No Way Out. She only has a couple of scenes, playing a white doctor’s housekeeper. The plot requires the doctor (McNally) to convince a stubborn and sexy white woman (Linda Darnell) to help stave off a potential race riot after a white thug has died while being treated by the young doctor played by Poitier. McNally has important doctor stuff to do, so he leaves Darnell in the care of his trusty housekeeper Gladys (Randolph). There is a kitchen table scene in which Gladys’ genuine warmth and humanity dominate the proceedings and end up turning the tide of the entire movie. Film historian Eddie Muller says it right there in the DVD commentary. It is the best scene in a pretty darn good movie. I agree with him. And it is all Amanda Randolph.
We get a brief glimpse of Gladys as an actual person in that scene, which is also at least partly attributable to the very good writing of Mankiewicz. But it would be a long time before domestics would get their own developed, interesting storylines. Depending on what side of The Help (2011) debate you land on, you may still be waiting.
It has been 65 years now since No Way Out. There has been progress. I was recently watching young actress Diona Reasonover, who plays the foul-mouthed African American Jewish barber Charmaine Eskowitz on the new TBS sitcom Clipped. The character shows great potential. Her relationship with the older gay barber Buzzy (George Wendt) is the one genuine bright spot in an otherwise run-of-the-mill program. Charmaine has yet to be at the centre of a storyline (that is reserved for the good-looking white characters), but in just a few episodes, she has revealed a back story and an inner life that the Randolph’s would have surely craved. (Though neither would have likely been comfortable with Charmaine’s earthy language.)
Is it possible in this era of polarised opinions to take a balanced view of where we stand? Is it possible to say that things have indeed improved while still demanding that the yawning gap between white and black representation in mainstream media be both acknowledged and acted upon? Such questions have obvious political ramifications. After all, here in the USA, we live in a world which has an African American man as its leader, and yet many people of colour, regardless of gender, age, or economic standing, live in fear of the very state-created bodies which are supposed to protect them.
When Halle Berry won her Oscar for Monster’s Ball (2001), she famously acknowledged pioneering black actresses such as Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne. She also acknowledged “nameless, faceless women of colour” yet to come. It is not surprising that she did not acknowledge the uncredited who came before her. Not many people think of Lillian and Amanda Randolph when compiling lists of important Hollywood actresses. And I’m not arguing that we should. But I am suggesting that we remember them, because they were very good, and they almost never got a chance to show it.
We’ve come a long way. We have a long way yet to go.