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The fifth feature produced by (and second directed by) Arthur Leonard, Sepia Cinderella (1947) is one of the last "race movies", a genre that stretched from the silent era to the end of the 1940s. These films presented a parallel Hollywood where actors like Lorenzo Tucker and Slick Chester were billed as "The Black Valentino" and "The Colored Cagney", as well as a place where African-American actors already working in supporting roles in Hollywood could take on parts other than bug-eyed servants or sassy mammies.
Often produced by white or integrated independent production companies, race movies, like Hollywood movies of the time, were an escapist fantasy of glamour and intrigue, but they also took seriously their responsibility as purveyor of moral conduct and enlightenment for a generation of African-Americans new to the middle class. Working in close proximity to white people for the first time (often in their homes as domestic help) gave them new insight into how impoverished their former lives had been. The universal appeal of movies, combined with the African-American respect for the performative, oral tradition as a way to tell stories, made race movies an important way for African-Americans to learn how they should dress, talk, and behave, in the hopes that they, too, would find a place at the table. (This moral imperative cut both ways, too; although the quality of race movies ranged from middling to excruciating, black audiences felt an ethical obligation to support the only images on screen contradicting the prevailing minstrel show stereotype.)
Sepia Cinderella is just that sort of morality tale, with its medicine sweetly sugarcoated by swing jazz. Bob Jordan (Billy Daniels, singer of "That Old Black Magic" fame) is a struggling songwriter encouraged by "nice girl" Barbara (Sheila Guyse) to come up with a new song. After composing "Cinderella", however, he falls under the sway of sexy impresario Vivian Marston (Tondaleyo), who schemes to get her hooks into him by making him a headliner at her venue, the newly rechristened "Cinderella Club". The good-girl/bad-girl love triangle shuffles itself out over the movie's meager 67 minute running time, leaving audiences to enjoy uninterrupted performances from vintage jazz acts such as Deek Watson and the Brown Dots, the John Kirby Sextet, Walter Fuller's Orchestra, Harlem vaudevillians Apus and Estellita, and Billy Daniels himself.
The most perplexing thing about Sepia Cinderella is a non sequitor cameo from none other than - Freddie Bartholomew? The child actor who rose to fame in David Copperfield (1935) and Captains Courageous (1937) now appears here as a nightclub patron 10 minutes before the movie's conclusion, in a scene completely disconnected from the plot. He complains about doing jokes for vaudeville but then performs several of them, demonstrating several accents as if in a screen test. (Screen test is right - at age 23 (and after a military stint), the former child star was ready to prove he could return to acting in adult roles.)
How Freddie Bartholomew got involved in Sepia Cinderella is unclear, but his jarring presence as the only white performer in an all-black cast highlights part of what signaled the death knell for the race movie. In 1942, the NAACP held a successful series of meetings convincing industry heads to increase the profile of African Americans working in Hollywood, both in front of and behind the camera. As film scholar Thomas Cripps put it, as Hollywood started to address race in bigger budget films like Pinky (1949) (which, while hiring white actors to play light-skinned African-Americans, was willing to confront race in a way other movies had not), African-American audiences tired of seeing the claustrophobic all-black world of the race movie "that denied spectators the delight of seeing African-Americans either in alliance or conflict with white people."
The producers of Sepia Cinderella did their best to drum up interest with a gala premiere/benefit for Jackie Robinson, held in Los Angeles at the Lincoln Theater and emceed by Eddie Anderson, comic sidekick to Jack Benny on radio, but the race movie's time had come and gone. (At one point, in a bid to attract audiences, the promoters removed "Sepia" from the film's title in advertising.) Bartholomew gave up on acting and went into a very successful second career as a vice president at a Manhattan ad agency. But as one star descends, another ascends: Sidney Poitier's first screen role was as an extra in this film.
Producer: Jack Goldberg, Arthur Leonard
Director: Arthur Leonard
Screenplay: Vincent Valentini
Cinematography: George Webber
Art Direction: Frank Namczy
Film Editing: Jack Kemp
Cast: Billy Daniel (Bob), Sheila Guyse (Barbara), Tondaleyo (Vivian), Ruble Blakey (Barney), Jack Carter (Ralph), Dusty Freeman (Mooney), George Williams (Sonny), Fred Gordon (Press Agent), Harold Norton (Night Club Master of Ceremonies), Hilda Offley Thompson (Mama Keyes).
by Violet LeVoit
Cripps, Thomas. Making Movies Black: The Hollywood Message Movie from World War II to the Civil Rights Era. Oxford University Press, 1993
Gabbard, Krin. Jamming at the Margins. University Of Chicago Press, 1996.
Parish, James Robert. Great Child Stars. Ace Books, 1976.
Goudsouzian, Aram. Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon. The University of North Carolina Press. 2003.
McCann, Bob. Encyclopedia of African American Actresses in Film and Television. McFarland, 2009.