L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Friday, May 27, 2016

Ernest Anderson - If times and hearts had been different....

In This Our Life, with Olivia de Havilland, 1942.

Ernest Anderson was a remarkable actor, and it's unlikely you've ever heard of him.

It's no secret that Gigi and I love classic Hollywood film. And whenever we watch John Huston's In This Our Life from 1942, Anderson is one of the main reasons; his performance is incandescent. The film stars Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland as two contemporary Southern sisters - one good, the other very bad; you can probably guess who was which - and Anderson plays Parry Clay, the son of their family maid (Hattie McDaniel). Some way into the film, we find out his character is studying to become a lawyer, and his scene with de Havilland, as he explains his ambitions to her, is like nothing else I've seen. He presents the plain truth of what it takes for a black man in the South to get ahead in life, to carve out something for himself, but he delivers it with the most graceful, tender earnestness. There is something so compelling about the actor and the character; it's rare that a performer can make you feel so much affection for them after only one scene, but that's what Anderson accomplishes; he makes you love Parry. Which makes it all the more painful when, late in the film, he is falsely accused by the Davis character of committing a hit and run of which she is actually guilty. To see him behind bars, broken in spirit, is devastating. His performance of the scene is beautifully, achingly done. And it carries the weight of the awful truth it represents, the powerlessness of people of color at that time and in that place.

Publicity for In This Our Life, with George Brent and Bette Davis.

And yet, though he continued to work in film, and later in television, he almost never again played another role of substance. Today, you can barely find an image of him on the internet. He has no Wikipedia entry, and what little information one can find on his life often disagrees, even where and when he was born and died. I don't know if he ever married, or had children. I can find nothing on his personal life at all. Below is what I have been able to find, what I believe to be accurate:

In This Our Life, with Frank Craven.

Ernest Anderson (25 August 1915, Richmond, Virginia - 5 March 2011, DeLand, Florida) was educated at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. and Northwestern University’s School of Drama and Speech. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree, Anderson moved to Hollywood where he got non-acting work at Warner Brothers studio before receiving his debut role in In This Our Life. The story goes that it was Bette Davis who suggested him for the part, that she noticed him when he waited on her in the Warner Brothers commissary. It's also said that the part of Parry Clay was originally written employing the "black dialect" most often forced on African-American actors at that time, but that Anderson argued for the integrity of the character and director Huston agreed with him, giving Anderson the opportunity to show Parry's great intelligence and dignity and grace. When the film was released, Daily Variety praised the actor as a "standout", while the South grumbled, many venues cutting his scenes from the film. But it was the African-American community that really noticed this hopeful shift in Hollywood's portrayal of a young black man, flooding Warner Brothers with letters of appreciation.

In uniform, at the Hollywood Canteen with Bette Davis and Eddie Cantor, 1942.

It appears that he was inducted into the army the same year, and after his honorable discharge he returned to Warner Brothers in 1947 as a contract player. IMBD lists forty-one film and television acting credits over thirty-six years, twenty-eight films - the last in 1970 - and thirteen television appearances. Of those forty-one performances, twenty-two were uncredited. And a list of his character titles tells the rest of the story:

Valet; Club Car Steward; Messenger; Train Porter; Elevator Operator; Dining Car Waiter; Black Man; Houseboy; Second Elevator Operator; Redcap at Airport; Footman; Black Man; Train Steward; Cabin Boy; Bellhop; Train Porter; Porter on Twentieth Century Ltd.; Ice Cream Vendor; Room Service Waiter; Butler; Hot dog man; Porter.

The Band Wagon, 1953.
North by Northwest, 1959.
North by Northwest.
Publicity for Three for Bedroom C, with James Warren, Fred Clark, and Gloria Swanson, 1952.
Publicity for Three for Bedroom C, with James Warren and Gloria Swanson.
Publicity for Three for Bedroom C, with Janine Perreau, Gloria Swanson, and James Warren.

We own copies of several of the other movies in which he has small roles: Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Palm Beach Story, The Band Wagon, North by Northwest, as well as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, when he once again worked with Bette Davis, playing Ernie, the beach ice cream vendor at the end of the movie. And no matter the brevity, the slightness of the part, he always attracts notice. At the beginning of The Band Wagon he has a short, light conversation with Fred Astaire and, even there, it's impossible not to notice that there's something very special about him. His voice, his charm. Whenever we see him in anything, no matter how brief his role, we always make note of it. "There's Ernest Anderson!" And always express our regret that he had so little opportunity....

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, 1962.


  1. Recognised Mr Anderson immediately as the sympathetic porter on the 20th Century Ltd in the Bandwagon but hadn't known his name until this post. He was always excellent, no matter the limitations of his roles.

    Film is a remarkable medium, in the way that character can be revealed instantly as real or phoney.
    Only last night I was watching a 1947 film called Daisy Kenyon. Joan Crawford torn between a tough talking, flamboyant Dana Andrews and a self-possessed, quietly powerful Henry Fonda. Crawford and Andrews were good enough in their various ways, but their performances were cardboard compared with that of Henry Fonda. He was the real thing. (Off topic to this post, but fresh in the mind, so I hope it's okay to make that reference. )

    1. Yes, I suppose we're off-topic, but I - love - Daisy Kenyon! One of my favorite Crawford pictures, actually, mainly for the performances of both of her co-stars. Because I would argue that Andrews is just as brilliant as Fonda in this. He's flamboyant, yes, but I read that as the character's drive and hard-edged charm. I've only come to notice/admire Andrews' work fairly recently, and I think that of classic Hollywood's leading men there was no one who could - suffer - as perfectly/beautifully as he did. Here and in other films - especially, The Best Years of Our Lives - when his character is devastated, the absolute brokenness that is clearly present in his big, glittery eyes just astounds me; there is such truth in those moments.

    2. Let me add, though, that I completely get your comment about real versus phony. While I think Crawford is good in this film, she's a completely different "species" from Fonda and, I believe, Andrews.

    3. It was hasty of me to lump Dana Andrews with Joan Crawford. He was really fascinating in that role, his character wasn't entirely predictable and in fact, as the film progressed, I was impressed with the fact of its not being what we think of as a "formula" picture.There was wit mixed in with occasional melodrama. Truly, it was a very stylish sort of hybrid.

  2. lots of movies here to check out which I love! Recognize Anderson of course from bit parts.

  3. Getting back to the topic at hand, namely .Mr. Anderson, I took a look through my books on Black Hollywood and found that there is barely a mention there either. I am curious to see what his theatre history was.

  4. This is so beautifully, heartbreakingly written. I too have noticed Mr. Anderson in his too few movies and I feel as you do. An amazing opportunity at stardom ground under the heel of our then culture. I have just found your vlogs so I am a newbie but I have spent the better part of 24 hours going over each and every post you have made. You have brought tears to my eyes, joy to my heart and a boundless appreciation for all the beauty in the world as well as a seething disgust at the hate and unfairness. You have a fan for life. <3

    1. You are so kind! I'm honestly very touched. Thank you! : )