BearManor Media, Billie Holiday, Dark Waters, Elia Kazan, Gang Smashers, Irving Thalberg, Jimmy Monroe, King Vidor, Nina Mae McKinney, Paul Robeson, Pinky, Race Movies, Safe in Hell, Sanders of the River, Stephen Bourne, The Black Garbo, William Wellman
Nina Mae McKinney, who made her screen début in King Vidor’s Hallelujah! (1929) – one of the first Hollywood films to feature an all-black cast – was hailed by MGM’s Irving Thalberg as ‘the greatest acting discovery of the age’. A vivacious beauty, Nina Mae had more in common with ‘It Girl’ Clara Bow or glamorous comedienne Carole Lombard than with the enigmatic Greta Garbo, to whom she was compared.
But like many other black actresses of her generation, McKinney was reduced to playing bit parts and never fulfilled her initial promise. Her subsequent career included roles in ‘race movies’ (films made outside Hollywood, for black audiences) and cabaret success in Europe. The British film historian, Stephen Bourne, who has previously written about other black female stars of the early twentieth century – including Ethel Waters and Butterfly McQueen – has now investigated the life and work of Nina Mae McKinney in his latest book, The Black Garbo.
She was born in Lancaster, South Carolina in 1912. Her parents were among many black Southerners who migrated to New York, while the young Nina Mae was raised by her great-aunt. She came to the Big Apple as a teenager, and before long had joined the chorus line of a hit Broadway show. It was there that she was spotted by King Vidor, the Texan-born director of silent classics like The Big Parade and The Crowd.
‘She was third from right in the chorus,’ Vidor said of Nina. ‘She was beautiful and talented and glowing with personality.’ 16 year-old McKinney was a last-minute replacement for singer Honey Brown in Vidor’s first sound picture, Hallelujah! She played Chick, ‘a dancer and streetwise hussy of ill-repute,’ who seduces the sharecropper hero, Zeke (Daniel L. Haynes.)
Hallelujah! was considered so risky that MGM insisted Vidor invest his own salary in its production. Although marred by racial stereotyping, it was praised by critic Richard Watts Jr as ‘one of the great motion pictures’, and has more recently been selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Langston Hughes, poet of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote in his short story, The Moon: ‘the first coloured movie star I fell in love with was Nina Mae McKinney, who was showing herself off in a picture called Hallelujah…(She)was so beautiful she made my heart ache.’
In William Wellman’s 1931 film, Safe in Hell (aka The Lost Lady), Nina Mae took the role of a waitress who befriends a runaway prostitute (played by Dorothy McKaill). In 1935, she played a singer in Reckless, a star vehicle for Jean Harlow. However, most of Nina Mae’s scenes were cut. It has been observed that Harlow’s tough, sexy persona was strikingly similar to Nina’s in Hallelujah! But as Bourne admits, ‘No one would have called Jean Harlow the “white Nina Mae McKinney”.’
Like other black American stars, including Josephine Baker and Adelaide Hall, Nina Mae eventually tired of constantly facing discrimination, and tried her luck in Europe. In 1933, Charles B. Cochran – London’s answer to Florenz Ziegfeld – cast Nina Mae in a West End revue, and she followed this with a series of successful variety tours and even featured in some of the first BBC television specials.
Fayard Nicholas, who starred with Nina Mae in a short Vitaphone film, The Black Network, told Stephen Bourne in 1990, ‘She had the talent. She could sing, dance and wisecrack with the best of them, but she came along too early and there was no place for her.’ In an interview for the Sunday Dispatch, Nina Mae gave a hint of the prejudice she had encountered in New York. ‘Sometimes I’ve gone into a restaurant, and they say they’re full up. But I can see empty tables. It makes you feel’ – both hands touched her heart – ‘awful bad.’
Britain’s top film producer, Alexander Korda, cast her opposite Paul Robeson in Sanders of the River (1935.) Robeson later disowned the film, which ‘glorified the British Empire and colonialism.’ His near-naked appearance was humiliating, and Nina Mae didn’t fare much better. She was criticised for her jarring American accent and heavy make-up, unsuited to the character of an African tribal wife.
Nina Mae travelled as far as Australia to perform, though bouts of illness also hindered her career. But by 1938, she had returned to the US permanently. In the first of her ‘race movies’, Gang Smashers, she played a glamorous undercover detective. Her name was still famous enough to ensure billing over the title. Stephen Bourne considers the film ‘as good as any Hollywood crime drama.’
Throughout the 1930s, Nina Mae was romantically involved with her manager, Jimmy Monroe. They were married in 1940, but within a year they had divorced. Monroe went on to marry Billie Holiday, another ill-fated union.
When Lena Horne was signed to MGM in 1942, it must have seemed that black actresses were finally overcoming racism. But in fact, little progress was made. Nina Mae played Merle Oberon’s maid in Dark Waters (1944), a gothic melodrama. Her penultimate film role, in Elia Kazan’s race drama, Pinky (1949), she played Rozelia, ‘a razor-toting whore from the shantytown’. Bourne notes that she was now overweight, and her looks were fading fast.
During the 1950s, Nina Mae attempted to revive her nightclub career. She became something of a regular feature in ‘Where Are They Now?’ items published in magazines like Ebony, Jet and Hue. Rumours spread that she was addicted to drugs and alcohol, and by 1960 she was seriously ill. When Nina Mae died in 1967, aged 54, her death certificate described her as ‘widowed’ and a ‘domestic servant’.
Bourne’s tale of ‘a star who should not have been forgotten’ is brief, and poignant. He takes a respectful approach to McKinney’s life and work, with references to leading black film historians such as Donald Bogle. This attention to detail helps to put Nina Mae back in her rightful place alongside other pioneering African-American stars of the entertainment world.
The Black Garbo: Nina Mae McKinney by Stephen Bourne is available now in paperback and on Kindle.
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