Everett, Francine 1917–1999
Francine Everett 1917–1999
Just as the Negro baseball leagues existed to give African Americans the opportunity to play when the major league clubs were closed to them, so existed an African American film industry. Although African Americans had the opportunity to appear in mainstream Hollywood movies, they were often forced to accept subservient roles or those that fostered blatantly negative stereotypes. Between 1910 and 1953, approximately 600 films were made which featured all-African American casts. Known at the time as “race movies,” these films—of which only about 100 exist today—were made with the intent to show African Americans not as buffoons, but as human beings with the same joys and sorrows as people of other races.
Some performers who appeared in these “race movies,” such as Paul Robeson, Lena Home, Dorothy Dandridge and others, went on to achieve a greater success in mainstream movies. However, most of the people who appeared in those all-African American casts were lost to time. In the mid 1980s, roughly 30 films were found in a warehouse in Tyler, Texas and interest in all-African American films—the first independent cinema—was renewed. Those who were involved in creating these films were often called upon to attend symposiums or festivals to discuss their memories.
One such performer was Francine Everett, a natural beauty who could act and sing. Her steadfast refusal to take roles that portrayed African Americans negatively cost her any hope of mainstream success. As the African American-cast films began to lose their audience to the new medium of television, Everett retired from acting to care for her ailing mother. She then worked as a clerk for nearly 25 years at New York’s Harlem Hospital. As the spotlight shone once again on the African American-cast films, the shy and exquisitely dressed former actress began to attend the festivals and discussions to revisit her past. In the mid 1990s, she was slowed by illness and eventually died in 1999.
Born Franceine Williamson on April 13, 1917 in Louisburg, North Carolina, Everett was raised in the town of Henderson. The Williamsons moved to the Harlem section of New York when Everett was young so that she could get a good education. The Harlem of this period, steeped in the cultural revolution known as the Harlem Renaissance, delighted and enthralled Everett, who
Born Franceine Williamson, April 13, 1917 in Lou tsburg, North Carolina; daughter of Noah, a tailor, and his wife; died May 27, 1999, Bronx, New York. Married Booker Everett, c. 1933; married Rex Ingram, 1936; divorced 1939.
Career: Chorus girl at Smalls Paradise in Harlem, c. 1933; performed with nightclub variety act Four Black Cats, 1933; joined the Federal Theater Project in Harlem, 1936; appeared in FTP productions of Haiti and Black Empire, 1936; appeared in Swing It on Broadway, 1937; appeared in the films Keep Punching and Paradise In Harlem, 1939; appeared in musical short Toot that Trumpet with Lou is Jordan, 1943; appeared in film Big Timers, 1945; appeared in films Dirty Certie from Harlem, U.S.A. and Tall, Tan and Terrific, 1946; appeared in musical short Ebony Parade with Cab Calloway, Count Sasie, Dorothy Dandridge and the Mills Brothers, 1947; appeared in the film lost Boundaries, 1949; appeared in the film No Way Out, 1950.
began developing her talents as a singer and dancer. Although she was a student at the strict St. Marks School, Everett sought her education on the storied streets of Harlem.
Because of her striking beauty, the owner of the world famous Savoy Ballroom, Charlie Buchanan, allowed Everett and her friends to enter his establishment even though they were underage. The Savoy’s house band was the legendary Chick Webb Orchestra, who would later have a hit with “Stompin’ At The Savoy” in 1934. They would achieve further stardom by featuring a new singer named Ella Fitzgerald. In this environment, it was difficult for Everett to keep focused on her studies. She soon dropped out of the St. Marks School and joined the chorus of another Harlem landmark, Small’s Paradise.
After her stint as a chorus girl, which only lasted about a month, Everett joined a touring nightclub variety act called Four Black Cats. The grind of touring, and the fact that she didn’t care for the offstage behavior of the male Black Cats, caused her to quit the group. Around this time, she married a Harlem man, Booker Everett. After only one year of marriage, he was tragically killed in an accident.
In early 1936, Everett joined the Federal Theater Project in Harlem. This project was a Works Progress Administration program started during the Depression to give work to actors, writers, directors, and stage crew. The Negro Unit, as it was called, was noted for the all-African American production of Macbeth, which was directed by Orson Welles. Other plays were produced as well, including Haiti and Black Empire, both of which featured Everett in small roles. It was at the Federal Theater where she met her second husband, actor Rex Ingram.
That same year, the couple traveled to California where Ingram had won the role of De Lawd in Green Pastures, an all-African American production which had been a hit on Broadway. Although the film was unique because it featured an all-African American cast, many found the movie full of negative stereotypes. Everett was offered a role as an angel in the movie, but she turned it down.
Everett never felt comfortable living in California, and she would return to New York as often as possible. In 1937 she appeared in another Federal Theater production, the musical Swing It, which appeared on Broadway. With a score by Eubie Blake and Cecil Mack, Swing It told the story of a hapless group of people who attempt to stage a show on a Mississippi riverboat. The show received poor reviews, and closed after only 60 performances. Little else is remembered about the show, except for the fact that it introduced Mack’s swing classic, “Shine.”
Since Everett and Ingram were apart most of the time, it was inevitable that their marriage would fail, which it finally did in 1939. Ingram remained in California, where he won the role of Nigger Jim in the Mickey Rooney film version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Everett stayed in New York, and decided to pursue the opportunities that were available in independent African American films. These films were produced at a fraction of the cost of Hollywood movies. “There was no comparison,” Everett recalled to Nick Charles of the New York Daily News in 1997. “We had poor lighting and poor sound and it was all done on a small scale.” Her first “race movie” was Keep Punching, in which she starred opposite boxing champion Henry Armstrong.
“I was shy about meeting Henry, and I said I had never been in films,” Everett told Charles. However, her exquisite looks, charm and enthusiasm won Armstrong over, and he cast her in the film. In the film, Armstrong played a small-town boxer corrupted by the big city, with Everett appearing as his hometown sweetheart. That same year Everett appeared in Paradise in Harlem, a lavish musical which featured Lucky Millender and his Orchestra, Mamie Smith, Edna Mae Harris and others. Originally titled Othello in Harlem, this film featured an on-stage scene from Othello with Everett as Desdemona. It is considered by many to be a watershed moment in the history of the African American-cast films.
In the 1940s, Everett began to appear as a singer in “soundies.” These three or four minute films featured some of the biggest musical talent of the day, and they would appear in visual juke-boxes or at movie theaters as part of the previews or in-between features. Everett appeared in nearly 50 of these short films during the 1940s, with the most significant being Toot that Trumpet, which featured Louis Jordan and His Band. Everett also found work as a print model and appeared in advertisements for clothes and cosmetics.
In 1945, Everett returned to acting with the film Big Timers. In this film, she played the daughter of a hotel housekeeper who plans to convince Everett’s boyfriend and his well-to-do parents that they live in one of the hotel’s grand apartments. This film also featured the talents of the actor Lincoln Perry, more popularly known as Stepin Fetchit. Although Perry appeared in a number of mainstream Hollywood films, he continued to act in independent African American films.
The following year, Everett starred in the African American films Dirty Gertie from Harlem, U.S.A. and Tall, Tan and Terrific. In Dirty Gertie, a musical based on Somerset Maugham’s Rain, Everett appeared as Gertie LaRue, a promiscuous nightclub singer who leaves her jealous boyfriend in Harlem and hides out at an African American resort hotel on the island of Rinidad. While on the island, she performs in a Harlem-style revue, but meets her end when the jilted lover tracks her down. Dirty Gertie’s director was Spencer Williams, one of the most prominent directors of African American-cast films, although he’s primarily known for his role as Andy Brown in the 1950s television show Amos n’ Andy.
In Tall, Tan and Terrific, Everett again played a nightclub singer. The film, which featured the popular comedic actor Manton Moreland, cast Everett as a singer who remains loyal to her boss after he is framed by gangsters. This would be Everett’s last “race movie,” although she continued to appear in “soundies.” One such notable short was 1947’s Ebony Parade, which featured Cab Galloway, Count Basie, Dorothy Dandridge and the Mills Brothers. Friend and cultural historian, Delilah Jackson, recalled Everett telling her that Ebony Parade was a significant achievement. “That’s when she really thought she made it,” Jackson told CBB. “It was at the Loew’s theater on 16th Street and they put her with Count Basie and Galloway and Dorothy Dandridge…. And she used to sing there, too. They would play Ebony Parade and there would be a short variety show where she performed, and then they showed the feature movie which was The Yearling with Gregory Peck.”
In 1949 Everett appeared in her first Hollywood movie, Lost Boundaries. The film told the story of a light-skinned doctor and his family who all pass as white people in a New England town. Everett’s role was small, and the following year she appeared in another Hollywood production, No Way Out. This movie also featured racial themes, and was the debut film of noted actor Sidney Poitier. Everett had only a short walk-on role, and was not listed in the credits. She returned to Harlem and, as African American-cast movies were eclipsed by the advent of television, effectively retired from show business.
Because she never remarried after her divorce from Rex Ingram, Everett continued to receive alimony and lived with her parents on 145th St. in Harlem. After her mother suffered a stroke, most of Everett’s attention turned to her care. She also spent her days shopping or playing cards with friends. Everett’s friend, Billie Elliott, recalled to CBB, “We use to play cards together and go shopping and go to lunch. She was just looking after her mother.” Following the death of her mother in 1961, Everett moved to her own apartment in Harlem’s Lenox Terrace and began to work at Harlem Hospital. Everett had been to the hospital so often to visit her ailing mother that she made friends with the staff. They soon offered her a clerking position.
In her later years, Everett often turned down invitations to festivals and symposiums. After being mugged twice, once in the elevator of her apartment building, she was afraid to leave her apartment. Her friend, Gladys Wright, of ten accompanied her on outings. “She wanted to go to all these things that she was invited to,” Wright told CBB, “but she wouldn’t go if she was by herself, so that’s when I started to take her.” During the early 1990s, Everett was invited to a film festival in Germany. However, her fear of flying prevented her from attending.
In 1991 a short film on the life of trumpeter Shorty Jackson, entitled Tender, Slender and Tall, was being filmed. Everett’s friend, Delilah Jackson, arranged to have Everett and Billie Elliott appear in the film. In her final acting scene, Everett played a grieving widow at a funeral home. Because the film needed to be shortened, her scene did not appear in the final version of the film.
By the mid 1990s, Everett’s health began to deterio-rate. In January of 1999, she entered the hospital. She was able to return home briefly, but was readmitted in April. Everett was eventually admitted to a nursing home, where she died on May 27, 1999.
In Everett’s obituary, Stephen Bourne of London’s Independent, called her “a woman most black audiences—especially women—could identify with…. [U]rban black audiences could identify with the earthiness of Everett, something lacking in her somewhat sanitized, white-washed Hollywood contemporaries: Lena Home, Dorothy Dandridge and Hazel Scott.” This sentiment was echoed by the former actor Harrel Gordon Tillman, a contemporary of Everett’s. “That was precisely the charm of those films…with Francine Everett in them,” Tillman is quoted as saying in Black Cinema Treasure: Lost and Found. “I don’t care how black you were or how fair you were—you could see someone in those films that looked like you…but when you looked at the black that Hollywood put out, you’d see Lena Home and Dorothy Dandridge who might not look like you.” William Greaves, an award-winning filmmaker and producer and a former actor in “race movies,” remarked to the New York Times that Everett “was a true legend of black film and theater, one of the top stars of the 40s race movies…. She would have been a superstar in Hollywood were it not for the apartheid climate in America and the movie industry at the time.” However, in the eyes of her friends and colleagues, Everett was indeed a superstar.
Bogle, Donald, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Continuum, 1995.
Jones, G. William, Black Cinema Treasures: Lost and Found, University of North Texas Press, 1991.
Sampson, Henry T., Blacks in Black and White: A Source Book on Black Films, Scarecrow Press, 1977.
Woll, Allen L., Black Musical Theatre: From Coon-town to Dreamgirls, Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Guardian (Manchester, England), July 10, 1999.
Independent (London), June 25, 1999.
New York Daily News, May 6, 1997; June 30, 1998.
New York Times, June 20, 1999, A-44.
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with and the archives of Delilah Jackson, cultural historian and founder of the Black Patti Research Project, and interviews with Gladys Wright and Billie Elliott.
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