Muse, Clarence Edouard 1889–1979
Clarence Edouard Muse 1889–1979
Actor, director, writer, composer
During his 50-year career, character actor Clarence Muse appeared in over 200 Hollywood films, as well as numerous theatrical productions. He began his career on the stage, performing with travelling stock companies and then with the Lafayette Players in New York. In 1929, he had a role in the second sound film to be produced in Hollywood, Hearts in Dixie, which featured an all-black cast. According to his obituary in the New York Times, he was also” the first black actor to star in a film”—Way Down South, released in 1939.
At the time, film roles for African Americans were limited and often based on negative stereotypes; Muse, as a character actor, was particularly susceptible to this bias. C. Gerald Fraser, in Muse’s New York Times obituary, described him as” Hollywood’s perennial Uncle Tom… the socially acceptable, ever faithful and subservient ‘good Negro.’”
In spite of the constraints of these early films, though, Muse’s years of experience on the stage were often obvious in his performances.” Clarence Muse is best remembered today as an actor who repeatedly sought to invest his servant roles in the 1930s with a semblance of dignity and a degree of seriousness,” film critic Donald Bogle wrote in Blacks in American Films and Television.” The fact that he played torn characters cannot be denied. The fact that he played those figures with great intelligence and thoughtfulness has often been overlooked,” Bogle continued.
In the sixties and seventies, Muse came under fire for playing such stereotypical parts, but he was not apologetic, or bitter, about the fact that he had accepted these roles.” I have no sad story to tell you of the struggle,” he told Lindsay Patterson of Essence in 1977. He had survived Hollywood—and the pre-Civil Rights era—because he had taken to heart a statement made by the dean of Dickinson College, where Muse had earned a degree in law:” ‘I never met a man or woman who had enough intelligence to insult me,’” he was quoted as saying in Essence.” I grabbed that as a motto and curved on through,” he added. According to David Ragan, writing in Who’s Who in Hollywood 1900-1976, “[H]e (Muse) takes no guff from anyone.”
Born Clarence Edouard Muse, October 7, 1889, Baltimore, Maryland, son of Alexander and Mary Muse. Education: LLB. In International Law, Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Married Willabelle Marshbanks, three children; married Irene Keilman, 1953. Died October 6, 1979 (one source says October 13), Perris, California, of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Career: Actor, director, writer, composer. Performed in over 200 films, including Hearts in Dixie, 1929, Rain or Shine, 1931, Dirigible, 1931, Huckleberry Finn, 1931, White Zombie, 1932, Flying Down to Rio, 1933, The Count of Monte Cristo, 1934, Broadway Bill, 1934, So Red the Rose, 1935, Showboat, 1936, Spirit of Youth, 1937, Way Down South, 1939, Broken Strings, 1940, The invisible Ghost, 1941, Heaven Can Wait, 1943, The Thin Man Goes Home, 1944, Double Indemnity, 1944, Porgy and Bess, 1959, Buck and the Preacher, 1972, The World’s Greatest Athlete, 1974, Car Wash , 1976, and The Black Stallion, 1979. Television appearances include Casablanca (TV series, 1954-55), Black Star of the Silver Screen: The Story of Clarence Muse (documentary, 1977). Musical compositions include” When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” Weary Feet,” River of Freedom,” liberty Road,” Deep and Mighty is the River,” “Have You JEver Been Down Yonder?”, and” Lazy Rain.” Publications include” The Dilemma of the Negro Actor” (pamphlet), Way Down South (screenplay, co-written with Langston Hughes), Broken Strings (screenplay).
Clarence Muse was born on October 7, 1889, in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of Alexander and Mary Muse. After graduating from high school he studied at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, earning a degree in international law in 1911. When he visited Washington, D.C., however, he was appalled by the African American lawyers he met:” patches all over their clothes, chasing ambulances and hustling hard to make a buck,” he was quoted as saying in Essence. He decided then to pursue a career in show business, since” there weren’t too many opportunities for colored lawyers at that time,” he told Ebony. For a black performer at the turn of the century, even the process of looking for work required acting skills:” I played dummy and got in. Had they known about my law degree, I wouldn’t have gotten a job,” Muse was quoted as saying in Ebony.
According to Donald Bogle, writing in Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Muse was a” short, stocky man with a large resonant voice.” In 1912, Muse used his voice to launch his show business career, beginning as a singing entertainer on Hudson River boats and in Palm Beach cafes. Later, he performed at the Airdome Theatre in Jacksonville, Florida. Muse toured with various black troupes throughout the South and East for eight years, before moving to New York City with his wife, Willabelle Marshbanks, and their infant son. The couple would eventually have two more children and divorce.
In New York, Muse acted with the Lincoln Players; later, in 1922, he co-founded the Lafayette Players Stock Company.” Since there was a dearth of good black material, we decided to do Broadway shows,” Muse recalled in Ebony. While a member of the Lafayette Players, Muse became the first black man to perform while made up as a white man, using a wig and a facial preparation of his own devising; he used this technique to play the dual title role in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, to rave reviews. Later, he directed and supervised the production of the opera Thais, with a cast of 190 black actors.” His training was generally in a more serious vein than that of most black performers, and he was not accustomed to working only for laughs,” wrote Donald Bogle in Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films.
In 1929, Muse received a telegram from Hollywood, asking him to play the role of Nappus in the second all-talkie movie, Hearts in Dixie.” My only love was theater, though, so I sent back a ridiculous price for my services, since I wasn’t interested,” he was quoted as saying in Ebony.” But they agreed to my terms of $1,250 a week, which, at the time, was a hell of a lot of money. I went for 12 weeks and stayed forever.” For the next 20 years, Muse had steady work, generally playing small character roles; in one year, 1932, he performed in 14 films. At one time, he was one of the highest-paid black actors in Hollywood.
In 1931, Muse appeared in the film adaptation of Huckleberry Finn, playing the runaway slave, Jim. According to film critic Donald Bogle, writing in Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, “What was most intriguing was that Muse seemed to be miscast because his slave was too intelligent. His dialect was obviously faked and forced… Muse always seemed to be standing at a great distance looking on with his large questioning eyes and sadly shaking his head.”
In 1932—the year that Muse performed in 14 films—he published a pamphlet,” The Dilemma of the Negro Actor.” In the pamphlet, Muse asserted that African American performers were torn between two desires: to display their talent in a serious way to black audiences, or to win financial success by playing stereotypical characters for white audiences.” Someday,” he wrote,” someone is going to write fearlessly about the black man in America, and that will be great drama.”
In 1934, Muse played a co-starring role in Broadway Bill, directed by Frank Capra. According to his obituary in the New York Times, “Mr. Muse played a role of dignity in which he and Warner Baxter were friends who wanted to enter a horse in the Kentucky Derby.” The film was remade in 1950 as Riding High, again directed by Capra and featuring Muse, this time opposite Bing Crosby.
During the thirties, Muse directed Run Little Chillun, a musical play, for the Federal Theater Project. The play had a two-year run in Los Angeles. Years later, in 1943, it was revived on Broadway, making Muse the first black director of a Broadway show.
Muse was also a composer. His best-known song was” When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” made famous by Louis Armstrong. Other songs that Muse wrote include” Weary Feet,” “River of Freedom,” “Liberty Road,” “Deep and Mighty is the River,” “Have You Ever Been Down Yonder?”, and” Lazy Rain.” He also composed a symphony called Harlem Heab’n. In 1937 Muse collaborated with Elliott Carpenter on the lyrics and music for the film Spirit of Youth, about the meteoric rise of a young black boxer—loosely based on the real-life story of Joe Louis. Louis himself played the lead role, while Muse played Louis’ manager, and coached Louis on his dialogue and acting.
In 1939 Muse collaborated with Langston Hughes on a screenplay, Way Down South, a film that Muse later starred in; the plot focused on the relationship between a” kindly” young white master and his slaves. According to Muse’s obituary in the New York Times, it was the first Hollywood film to feature an African American actor in the leading role (other sources do not mention this). Donald Bogle, writing in Blacks in American Film and Television, described the film as” a true oddity in movie history…an early attempt by important black artists to work behind the cameras within the established film industry, bringing to American commercial cinema their own unique point of view.”
The following year, Muse co-wrote another screenplay, Broken Strings, which was produced independently. Playing the lead role in the film, Muse gave” a highly likable performance as a stodgy classical musician who learns the fun of swing music,” wrote Bogle in Blacks in American Film and Television. In 1941, Muse affected a British accent to play a starring role in The Invisible Ghost, opposite Bela Lugosi.
“But he always went back to the faithful servant parts,” C. Gerald Fraser wrote in Muse’s New York Times obituary. These included roles in many different genres of films, such as Zanzibar, Flame of New Orleans, Tales of Manhattan, Heaven Can Wait, Watch on the Rhine, Flesh and Fantasy, and Joe Palooka in the Knockout.
During World War II, Muse threw himself into the war effort. He served as an executive member of the Hollywood Victory Committee, which arranged the appearances of movie stars for overseas troops. He joined the Hollywood Writers Mobilization, helping to prepare war propaganda, and made a series of hospital tours to entertain wounded soldiers.
In 1953, Muse married for a second time, this time to a Jamaican-born woman, Irene Kellman. From 1955 to 1956 Muse appeared as Sam in the television series Casablanca. In 1959, he appeared with Harry Belafonte in the film Porgy and Bess.
In the sixties and seventies, Muse went into semi-retirement. By then, he had begun to draw criticism for the stereotypical roles that he had played in film after film. Despite the pamphlet on” The Dilemma of the Negro Actor” that Muse had written decades earlier, he remained unapologetic for taking what work was available at the time for an African American actor.
In 1973, at a symposium following his appointment to the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, several audience members asked why he had accepted” Uncle Tom” parts.” A lot of you people have called me Uncle Tom, but I have something to tell you,” Muse was quoted as replying in Who’s Who in Hollywood 1900-1976.” You were as dumb as I was. You were the audience and you laughed at what I did,” he continued.
In a 1977 interview in Essence, Muse even criticized the NAACP’s campaign against black stereotypes—calling the group” the National Association for the Advancement of Certain People”—because the campaign had cost black actors jobs. The box office, rather than political pressure, should determine the types of films that are made, he told Ebony in 1972:” Popular demand will cause producers to make good black films,” he was quoted as saying.” … If we wake up, our art can change the political pattern of this country.”
In the seventies, Muse appeared with Sidney Poitier and Henry Belafonte in Buck and the Preacher, and later in The World’s Greatest Athlete, and Car Wash. In 1977, his career was the subject of a television documentary titled Black Star of the Silver Screen: The Story of Clarence Muse. Muse died on October 6, 1979 (one source says October 13) of a cerebral hemorrhage, in Perris, California. His final film, which was released after his death, was the Francis Ford Coppola film The Black Stallion.
British film critic Peter Noble, writing in the book The Negro in Films, classed Muse as” one of the outstanding character actors in Hollywood—a man who ranks with the Lionel Barrymores, Frank Morgans and Hume Cronyns.” According to Donald Bogle, writing in Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, “Muse’s early roles were neither great nor heroic, and taken out of their historical context they might seem far from impressive. They lacked the flashiness that most black performances of the day were noted for. But they appeared at a time when being black and human in the movies was neither easy nor expected.”
Blacks in American Films and Television, by Donald Bogle, Garland Reference Library, 1988.
The New York Times Biographical Service, Arno Press, 1979.
Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, by Donald Bogle, Continuum, 1995.
Ebony, September 1972, p. 50.
Essence, April 1977, p. 17.
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