Pity the Clown


Yesterday I wrote about Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which began the process of freeing the slaves. But as history continues to point out, 145 years of legal freedom doesn’t always translate into equal opportunity for many African-Americans.

This has certainly been the case for most of Hollywood’s history.

I was reminded of this recently when I watched a schlocky “horror” film from 1932 called The Monster Walks, about a killer ape. (Blame insomnia.) There was nothing memorable about the movie except for a curious entry in the credits which listed the person playing the character “Exodus” as someone named “Sleep n’ Eat.”

Just as I feared, Sleep n’ Eat turned out to be an African-American man playing a stereotypically lazy, dim-witted chauffeur who jumps at everything that goes bump in the night.

The man who was relegated to these roles was actually named Willie Best, who was born in 1916 in Sunflower, Mississippi (a town I’m sure was nowhere near as delightful as its name suggests). Best was discovered on stage by a talent scout and came to Hollywood in 1930. He eventually appeared in over 100 films, including High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart. He had great comic timing, but was never able to rise above the role of the ‘comic-relief’ servant. It’s a real shame too, because Bob Hope and Hal Roach, two men who certainly knew comedy, considered him to be one of the greats.

Best appeared on some long-running early television series, but by the latter period of his career, his work was increasingly vilified by civil rights activists who viewed his work as representative of a racist era in Hollywood. It didn’t seem to matter that he was just earning a living at the time, and was better than his material.

Like many of his contemporaries, Best ended up trapped between eras in Hollywood, and was underappreciated by both. As his Wiki-bio points out, “Best was alternately loved as a great clown, then reviled, then pitied, finally virtually forgotten.”

The story of Willie Best makes me wonder how many great Denzel Washington-caliber careers of the past were lost due to prejudice. Which goes to show that when opportunity isn’t equally shared … everyone suffers.

Willie Best's grave in Burbank's Valhalla Cemetery.

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About deadwrite

Freelance writer, film historian, taphophile View all posts by deadwrite

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