Obituary: Francine Everett

FOR TOO long the African-American singer, dancer and actress Francine Everett has been denied her place in the history of American cinema. This is partly because she refused to play stereotypical roles such as maids in 1930s Hollywood. Though she later became a leading lady in several "race" movies of the mid-1940s, and won popularity with black audiences, it took years for these low-budget productions to be given any serious critical attention.

By then the acclaim had come too late for many of the black stars who were featured in them. Everett survived long enough to participate in revivals by African-American film historians and enthusiasts, making personal appearances at screenings, and taking part in discussions. The African-American film- maker and producer William Greaves said of her: "She would have been a superstar in Hollywood were it not for the apartheid climate in America and the movie industry at the time."

She was born Franceine Everette in Louisburg, North Carolina, and gave the year of her birth as 1920, but she could have been older. By 1933 she was performing with a night-club act called the Four Black Cats, and shortly afterwards she commenced her acting career with the Federal Theater in Harlem, an organisation sponsored by the Works Progress Administration.

After marrying the actor Rex Ingram (1895-1969), she moved to Hollywood in 1936. Ingram had been contracted by Warner Brothers to play De Lawd in the film version of Marc Connelly's stage success The Green Pastures. On her arrival in Hollywood, Everett reportedly turned down an offer to play one of the angels in the film. Afterwards, she refused to consider stereotypical black roles and, after her marriage to Ingram ended in divorce in 1939, returned to Harlem.

She eventually made her film debut in the "race" movie Keep Punching (1939) which starred the boxing champion Henry Armstrong. Also in the cast were Canada Lee, who later acted in Hitchcock's Lifeboat and Cry, the Beloved Country, and Dooley Wilson, who went on to play Sam in Casablanca. Thomas Cripps described Keep Punching in his 1977 book Slow Fade to Black as a "satisfying but flawed boxing movie".

A few years later Everett appeared in several "race" movies including Big Timers (1945), co-starring Stepin Fetchit, and Tall, Tan and Terrific (1946). She also took part in Toot that Trumpet (1943) and other "soundies", wartime musical shorts lasting for three-minutes or so (the length of a song), which were made for visual juke-boxes.

But perhaps Everett's most famous appearance was in the magnificently titled Dirty Gertie From Harlem, USA (1946), an all-black musical roughly adapted from Somerset Maugham's Rain. Everett starred as Gertie La Rue who jilts her boyfriend in Harlem and hides out at the Paradice Hotel on the island of "Rinidad". Gertie has two-timed several men which is how she got her nickname "Dirty Gertie". On the island Gertie has fun and sings in a Harlem-style revue. However, her jilted boyfriend eventually catches up with and kills her in an ending straight out of Carmen Jones.

Dirty Gertie From Harlem, USA was directed by Spencer Williams, one of the few African-Americans to be found working behind the camera in the 1940s. Though the film proved a hit with black audiences, it remained a forgotten treasure of African-American cinema until rediscovered in the 1990s. Away from film acting, Everett also made a name for herself as a popular model featured in fashion and cosmetic advertisements throughout the 1940s.

After playing bit roles in two Hollywood movies, Lost Boundaries (1949) and Sidney Poitier's first film, No Way Out (1950), Everett retired from show business. She held a clerical job at Harlem Hospital until her retirement in 1985, but she maintained an interest in black film until the end. She was a member of the Negro Actors' Guild and often participated in seminars about "race" movies sponsored by the International Agency for Minority Artist Affairs (IAMAA).

Unlike her contemporary Lena Horne, Everett did not achieve the attention, success and popularity with white cinema audiences that she deserved. However, her appearances in "race" movies elevated her to fame in America's black community. If Hollywood did not want her, independent film-makers like Spencer Williams were able to make use of her talents.

Their films were shown in big-city ghetto movie houses in the North, and segregated theatres in the South, almost anywhere they could reach black audiences. And Francine Everett was a woman most black audiences - especially women - could identify with. Her musicals may have been produced on shoe-string budgets, without any of the gloss and Technicolor brilliance of Hollywood's extravaganzas. But urban black audiences could identify with the earthiness of Everett, something lacking in her somewhat sanitised, whitewashed Hollywood contemporaries: Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge and Hazel Scott.

In 1991, Harrel Gordon Tillman, an attorney and former judge in Houston, who also acted in many of the black audience films of the 1940s, described Everett's impact in G. William Jones's excellent study of "race" movies, Black Cinema Treasures: lost and found (1991): "That was precisely the charm of those films . . . with Francine Everett in them. I don't care how black you were or how fair you were - you could see someone in those films that looked like you . . . but when you looked at the black that Hollywood put out, you'd see Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge who might not look like you."

Franceine Everette (Francine Everett), singer, dancer and actress: born Louisburg, North Carolina 13 April 1920; married Rex Ingram (marriage dissolved 1939); died New York 27 May 1999.

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