Flipping through cable TV channels this morning, and landed on a TCM broadcast of the 1933 drama “Baby Face” (it started about an hour before I started typing this) – a film that may have been the first to introduce the BBF stock character (BBF of course means Best Black Friend – a usually black actress cast as the leading white actress’ best friend; and even though they’re supposed to be “equals,” the BBF is often 2 dimensional, there strictly to support her white friend, aiding her in eventually overcoming some personal obstacle).
“Baby Face” starred Barbara Stanwyck (the leading white lady) and Theresa Harris (the BBF).
Like a lot of black actresses working in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s, Theresa Harris was mostly limited to subservient roles. And while her role in “Baby Face” is peripheral in the previously-summarized BBF sense, she wasn’t necessarily Stanwyck’s subordinate, which is the most interesting and unique thing about the film. In fact, Harris’ character (Chico) is more like Stanwyck’s co-conspirator. I’d even say that I don’t recall there being much reference to the fact that she’s black, other than the obvious. But I’d say both characters are believed to be, dare I say, “equals” in the film – at least as “equal” as the time period the film takes place would allow.
In short, the film centers on Lilly Powers, played by Stanwyck, who moves to New York from her small industrial town, intent on using men the way men have used her previously. Essentially, her sexuality gets her to the top of the social ladder, with Harris’ Chico as her asexual partner in crime, friend, confidant, and all those other BBF character traits. Yes, there are scenes in which Harris (or rather Chico) does play her maid, but my understanding of those sequences is that they were part of the ruse both of them had constructed together in order to assist Lilly’s ascension by pretension. Chico only pretends to be Lilly’s maid when Lilly is among her many upper class suitors.
It’s also worth noting that, for much of her onscreen time, Chico’s attire matches Lilly’s – from their humble beginnings, to the more ostentatious outfits that the new wealth achieved by Lilly, allots them in the latter half of the movie, after Lilly indeed sleeps her way to the top.
I recall playwright Lynn Nottage saying that the inspiration for the lead character in her play “By The Way, Meet Vera Stark,” was Theresa Harris.
As a refresher, Nottage’s play follows the titular headstrong African American maid and budding actress, Vera Stark, and her tangled relationship with her boss, a white Hollywood star desperately grasping to hold onto her career, over a seventy-year period. Stark pursues her dream of making it in the movies, while also grappling with racial stereotypes through several decades in the 20th century.
Nottage explained that her inspiration for Vera Stark was Theresa Harris whom she was introduced to in, as you’d guess, “Baby Face” – a performance that really got her attention. As she stated a couple of years ago, echoing my thoughts on Harris’ character in the film, “I was struck… by how different it was from so many of the other representations of African American women that I had seen from that period.”
Further, from a 2013 New York Times interview: “This wasn’t one of those nearly invisible black actresses who filled Hollywood movies in the years before the civil rights era, the woman at the edge of the screen announcing visitors and taking hats. Harris’ character is a maid, but she’s also Stanwyck’s companion, and something of a friend. Entranced by both the character and actress, Ms. Nottage started wondering about Harris – who she was and how she got to Hollywood and the types of films she had been able to make in that notoriously inhospitable town.. Curious to know more, she set off on an intellectual investigation that became an aesthetic revelation, as she searched for Harris’ traces in the Hollywood histories of African Americans, in biographies, online, on YouTube and DVD. She didn’t find much, save for movies like “The Flame of New Orleans,” a period confection directed by René Clair in which Harris somewhat reprises her role in “Baby Face,” but with more lines and real glamour shots. With little to go on but the movies, Ms. Nottage began filling in the blanks with her imagination.”
And the result in the end was Nottage’s very own “Watermelon Woman” moment – aka, the play “By The Way, Meet Vera Stark.”
The “BBF” is really an offshoot of the “Magical Negro,” and was only recently coined – recently as in the last 5 to 10 years or so; but there obviously had to have been instances of the phenom prior, for the term to actually come to have any meaning. And I’m now wondering if this was maybe the first time a film actually incorporated what has now become a stock black character. “Baby Face” was made in 1933 – cinema’s still relatively early days. So there certainly wouldn’t have been many other similar instances in mainstream American cinema for a character like Chico to exist up until then (especially one that was so atypical when it came to what was offered to black actresses at the time). “Baby Face” was a Warner Bros product.
The film is on DVD by the way.
Trailer below, although Theresa Harris isn’t in it: