Louise Beavers made her presence known in almost 170 celluloid adventures whether she had a dictionary’s worth of dialogue or none at all. For instance, she milks all of the comedy out of her brief bit as a sleeping washroom attendant in the Pre-Code woman’s flick The Strange Love of Molly Louvain. Nobody ever greeted old school leading man Lee Tracy with a wider smile than her cathouse maid in the sepia toned horror classic Doctor X either.
Beavers, who also appeared in the early Ginger Rogers’ thriller A Shriek in the Night, nicely broke out of the stereotypical roles that Black women were assigned in those years on rare occasions, as well. Of course, the hysteria laced antics she was required to provide as a domestic who stumbles upon a dead body in Shriek were a far cry from progressive despite her animated yet subtle take on the proceedings. (Another saving grace for this particular assignment is that the white maid played by character actress Lillian Harmer here is just as emotionally flighty as Beavers’ fictional concoction.)
But as Nellie LeFleur, the founder of a numbers game, in 1936’s Ballots or Bullets, this fine actress finally played a true contemporary of the leading lady, Joan Blondell, and a very enterprising one at that. Beavers registers with a sincere slyness along the way, providing an appeal that doesn’t diminish even when the writers betray her by making LeFleur, momentarily, long to resign her high stakes position to become Blondell’s hairdresser again. Granted, her most famous role, that of Delilah Johnson in the original version of Imitation of Life, had her back in housekeeping territory, but the film’s look at racism and motherhood gave her a lot to work with, allowing her to create one of early cinema’s most sympathetic characters.
In addition to her prodigious acting talent, one has to admire Beavers’ fortitude, as well. The ‘50s found her providing audiences with some of her most prominently billed roles in projects such as My Blue Heaven (with Betty Grable) and Tammy and the Bachelor (with Debbie Reynolds). Granted, one wishes that the parts she was offered afforded her more range and variety. (Harmer, her Shriek counterpart, may have most frequently been cast as landladies, but she also got to play numerous society women, business owners and stage mothers, as well.) Still, despite the racism she experienced in casting, her bright talent and eclectic energy make Beavers a heroine in my book – and truly one of my favorite performers of all time!
For those interested, TCM has a fairly detailed biography of Beavers on their website, as well – http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/person/12301%7C101475/Louise-Beavers/biography.html.
Until the next time, SWEET love and pink GRUE, Big Gay Horror Fan!