Friday, September 7, 2012

Theresa Harris, Classic Movie Actress

Few people today know anything about Theresa Harris, but if you have seen more than a handful of classic movies in your life, you have seen her. Harris, who was born in Texas in 1906, appeared in more than 80 films between 1929 and 1958, although many of her roles were small, uncredited parts. How could someone appear in so many classic movies and yet be so obscure?

The answer is simple, if disheartening. Theresa Harris was an African-American actress working in the lily white world of Hollywood's "Golden Age," and for almost thirty years this talented and beautiful performer spent her time and talent playing servants, maids, and slaves to the silver screen's most celebrated stars. Gorgeous, poised, and charismatic, Harris might have become a huge star had she been born in a different era. In recent years, she has attracted some new and long overdue attention, as this 2011 New York Times article about the play, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, reveals, but she’s still far from being a household name.

Here are just a few notable films where you'll find Theresa Harris, always memorable for her beauty and solid performances in spite of the small size of her roles. 

Baby Face (1933) - This pre-Code Barbara Stanwyck drama is probably the best place to see Harris in a larger role; as Stanwyck's companion and collaborator, Chico, Harris has significant screen time and some subtle character development. Early in the film, the two women function primarily as friends and equals, but as Stanwyck’s ambitious Lily sleeps her way to the top, Chico has to resort to playing lady’s maid in Lily’s increasingly swanky digs. At least Lily never abandons or betrays Chico, as she does her male victims, and Chico clearly benefits from the relationship.

Jezebel (1938) - Harris plays the slave maid, Zette, to Bette Davis' tempestuous Southern belle in this gripping period melodrama. She would play similar roles in a number of pictures, where her uncredited maid characters often remain nameless, even though they have scenes and lines with the top-billed stars.

Cat People (1942) - Harris appears in a bit part in this horror classic from Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur; look for her as the waitress in the restaurant scene. This time, at least, she’s not a maid or a servant, and she has a few nice lines with her costars.

I Walked with a Zombie (1943) - A second outing with Lewton and Tourneur offers Harris more screen time as Alma, one of the servants on a voodoo haunted tropical island. Aside from Baby Face, this might be Harris' biggest role in a well-known film. It’s not an especially liberated part, but Harris plays a well-developed character and has many important scenes with star Anna Lee. You’ll also get a great look at Harris’ gorgeous face and animated expressions, which highlight her unrealized star potential.

Out of the Past (1947) - Harris only has one scene in this classic noir film, but director Jacques Tourneur knew from experience that she could do a lot with a very small part. Watch for her as Jane Greer's former maid in the club scene where Robert Mitchum tries to find out where Greer has gone.

Tension (1949) - If you blink you'll miss Harris as a drug store customer in this underappreciated noir gem starring Audrey Totter and Richard Basehart. This kind of role was also typical of Harris’ career, but at least some of the walk-on parts broke away from the maid stereotype.

You'll also find Harris in The Women (1939), Phantom Lady (1944), The Big Clock (1948), The File on Thelma Jordan (1950), and Angel Face (1952). 

An earlier version of this article appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

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