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Movie Mom

An Unusual Role for a Black Man in 1940

posted by Nell Minow

I love catching up with old films on Turner Classic Movies, so when I saw one called “Third Finger Left Hand” starring two of my favorites, Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas, released in 1940, I set my DVR. It turned out to be a delightful romantic comedy characteristic of the era. Loy plays a very successful woman executive who made up a fake husband to avoid distracting questions about her romantic life. She tells everyone he is traveling in South America. Douglas finds out what she has done and pretends to be the husband, back from his travels. The expected complications ensue.
But what is not expected is a scene near the end as Loy, Douglas, and the lawyer who hopes to marry Loy are on a train where what at first appear to be typical black porter is waiting on them. And then it turns out that Sam (played by Ernest Whitman) is not a typical porter; he has a law degree, and he knows more about the law than the lawyer he is waiting on. For 1940, in an era where movies often cut out the scenes featuring African-American performers for distribution in the South, this was remarkably progressive. Even though there was never a suggestion that perhaps Sam might want to leave his job as a porter and go to work in the firm of the white lawyer he outsmarted.
Whitman didn’t make many other films. In those he was listed in the final credits as “Nubian Slave” or “Black Man on Train” or not listed at all. In “Gone With the Wind,” he is listed on the Internet Movie Database as “Carpetbagger’s friend (uncredited). In this movie, even with a significant speaking part, he was not listed in the credits at all, which says more about the racial attitudes at the time than the character he played. In the 1930’s and 40’s, black characters were often the ones in the movie who told the truth or otherwise explained what was going on. This was not a political statement; it was a narrative convenience to put the writer’s voice in a marginalized character who could freely be ignored by the white characters. In a sense, Sam is such a narrative convenience; he shows up to help bring the couple together. But still, Sam and the man who portrayed him, Ernest Whitman, deserve some credit for a brief movie moment where a black man got to show a little bit of what he was capable of.

  • http://www.midnightreckoning.com MidnightReckoning

    You make a good point Nell. I noticed the movie listing, but I didn’t get a chance to see it. Observant of you to catch what was likely a subtle nod and recognition of human value. Hollywood has been complicit in wrongful stereotyping from Day1, and I agree when we discover in film archives those moments of clarity in an otherwise deliberate celluloid universe, we find something of great value.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/moviemom/ Nell Minow

    Thank you, Midnight. The movie is a pleasant little trifle and it is always a pleasure to see Loy and Douglas. But, like you, I really get excited about these small glimpses of a kind of foresight and generosity of spirit that is the spark of what we know will be great changes ahead. An even better example is Canada Lee in “Body and Soul.”

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