An image of Theresa Harris from PM magazine, Oct. 29, 1949, listed on EBay for $60.
Lena Horne was an angry, angry woman—she felt that if she’d been white she’d have had the career of Rita Hayworth or Doris Day. Anna May Wong was an angry, angry woman, as she saw Katharine Hepburn, Luise Rainer, Loretta Young and Sylvia Sidney cast as “Asian” in unintentionally hilarious makeup, while Anna’s career languished. Today, Peter Dinklage is an angry, angry man, as he knows damn well that if he were six feet tall, he’d be another George Clooney. Life is not fair, and show business even less so.
I don’t know if Theresa Harris was angry or not, but she sure as heck got cheated out of the career she should have had. Gorgeous, great singer, amazing actress—given just small roles, she still managed to steal movies from under the noses of Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Harlow, Thelma Todd, Tallulah Bankhead, Ginger Rogers, Kay Francis and Bette Davis. Usually she was, of course, a maid (or a washroom attendant or a slave or a prisoner). Harris worked steadily through the late 1950s, only occasionally getting to really shine (her number “My, My!” with Eddie “Rochester” Anderson in Buck Benny Rides Again, sadly, is not on YouTube). Maybe she was just too beautiful; it was easier to get cast if you were Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers or Butterfly McQueen and didn’t compete with the leading lady for sex appeal.
Here’s Theresa Harris in her very first film, 1929’s Thunderbolt, and indeed she is:
Here she is in her best role, as Barbara Stanwyck’s pal Chico in Baby Face; this scene was axed from the scandalous pre-Code movie (sad note: the cute, lecherous train cop is played by The Crowd star James Murray, and we all know what happened to him):
Theresa Harris had a happy ending of sorts, thank goodness—she married a doctor, was smart with her money and died in 1985, aged 78. It’s her tough luck—and ours—that we only get such fleeting glimpses of what she could do.