Friday, May 20, 2011


The history of classic Hollywood is full of great talents that never made it. Talent often times did not mean you would be making the next blockbuster or winning the next Academy Award. The African-American community was full of talent that never made it. In their case it was extreme prejudice and lack of roles past being a mammy or butler. One great actor that really rose above it and was a renaissance man was Clarance Muse.

Clarence Muse was an actor, screenwriter, director, composer, and lawyer. He was inducted in the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1973. Muse was the first African American to "star" in a film. He acted for more than sixty years, and appeared in more than 150 movies.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1889 he studied at Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania and received an international law degree in 1911. Muse was acting in New York by the 1920s, during the Harlem Renaissance with two Harlem theatres, Lincoln Players and Lafayette Players. Muse moved to Chicago for a while, and then moved to Hollywood and performed in Hearts in Dixie (1929),the first all-black movie.

For the next fifty years, he worked regularly in minor and major roles. While with the Lafayette Players, Muse worked under the management of producer Robert Levy on productions that helped black actors to gain prominence and respect. In regards to the Lafayette Theatre's staging of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Muse said the play was relevant to black actors and audiences "because, in a way, it was every black man's story. Black men too have been split creatures inhabiting one body.". Muse appeared as an opera singer, minstrel show performer, vaudeville and Broadway actor; he also wrote songs, plays, and sketches.

He was the major star in Broken Earth (1936), related the story of a black sharecropper whose son miraculously recovers from fever through the father's fervent prayer. Shot on a farm in the South with nonprofessional actors (except for Clarence Muse), the film's early scenes focused in a highly realistic manner on the incredible hardship of black farmers, with plowing scenes. Muse and Langston Hughes wrote the script for Way Down South (1939). The film was notable for its casting of African American actors in central roles, and for tackling racial issues in the South.

Muse also performed in Broken Strings (1940), as a concert violinist who opposes the desire of his son to play "swing". From 1955 to 1956, Muse was a regular on the weekly TV version of Casablanca, playing Sam the pianist, and in 1959, he played Peter, the Honey Man, in the film Porgy and Bess, with Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge and Sammy Davis Jr. Other film credits include Buck and the Preacher (1972), and Car Wash (1976), as "Snapper". His last acting role was in The Black Stallion (1979), with Mickey Rooney and Teri Garr.

He received an honorary doctor of humanities degree from Bishop College, Dallas, Texas, in 1972, and was a member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., Omega Chapter. Clarence Muse died in Perris, California, October 13, 1979 from a cerebral hemorrhage. He was survived by his second wife and three children...

1 comment:

  1. "Way Down South" is well worth watching. I tuned in to see Bobby Breen, but when I saw Hughes and Muse names in the credits, it made me sit up. Quite an interesting film - and shame on us for not thinking of it for the blogathon!

    Appearing in both "Broadway Bill" and "Riding High", there is a marked difference in the films in that in the earlier version he is more of an employee, while the relationship with Bing is more that of a partner or pal.

    Clarence Muse - quite the man, and quite the career.