Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Ethel Waters

I wonder how well Ethel Waters is remembered today by most people. As a Hollywood actress, I'm guessing she's probably not as well known as, say, Hattie McDaniel or Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge, and as a blues/jazz singer, she may not be as well-remembered as Etta James or Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald.

Hers was certainly not a name I remember from my early childhood, which was steeped in soul, country and disco from the 50s, 60s and 70s. She wasn't someone I learned about during Black History Month. Her songs, or her versions of songs, haven't been used in more recent movies or TV shows or commercials. And no one's made a movie about her (yet).

With so many Hollywood stories over the generations, it's inevitable that even some of the better ones may fall through the cracks as time progresses, but if you're unfamiliar with the history of Waters, as I was, check out what she did in her lifetime: she was the second black actor, male or female, to get Oscar-nominated (after McDaniel, of course); she was the first black woman to get Emmy-nominated; she was the first black woman to star in both a TV series and a radio series; she was a three-time inductee into the Grammy Hall of Fame; she's represented in the Library of Congress; she's in both the Christian Music and the Gospel Music Halls of Fame, and best of all - she's on a stamp!

Not bad for a Philadelphia slum child who was born as the product of a rape. Sadly, it's true: her mother, Louise Anderson, was raped by a man when she was approximately thirteen or so, and gave birth to his child in 1896. Waters got her professional start as a musician in Baltimore after being talked into singing at a Philly nightclub on her seventeenth birthday and blowing the crowd away. From there, it was on to the black vaudeville circuit, and then the Harlem nightclubs, where in 1933, she sang perhaps her signature song, "Stormy Weather," for the first time, at the Cotton Club.

Her voice was a little lower than Holiday's, yet it had much of that same depth of feeling. She has written that she "sang 'Stormy Weather' from the depths of the private hell in which I was being crushed and suffocated." For those who only know her as an older woman, you need to check out this clip of her from a 1929 movie called On With The Show, which was filmed in color, but only black-and-white copies have survived. It gives an impression of what she must have been like on vaudeville. She had flair and pizzazz to match - and such a lovely smile as well!

As an actress, I remember being impressed with her from the first time I saw her, in Pinky. Not knowing anything about her at the time, I thought hers was a strong and commanding presence. Hers wasn't a token role, either; she was crucial to the plot. She earned her Oscar nomination for sure. (Her co-star Ethel Barrymore was also nominated, but both lost to someone named Mercedes McCambridge in All the King's Men.)

Then I saw Waters in Cabin in the Sky, and it was like she was a different actress altogether. She was the good girl to Lena Horne's bad girl, but Waters had more than a touch of glamour to her, she sung beautifully, and she was pretty! She had originated the role of Petunia on Broadway (where she was the highest-paid performer at one point!) and revised it for the movie version, which explains her affinity for the role.

So after conquering vaudeville, radio, Broadway and film, Waters was ready for television. Beulah was based on a radio character from the 40s that appeared in various incarnations of what was more or less the same show. At one point McDaniel, post-Oscar, inhabited the role. ABC picked it up for television in 1950, and cast Waters. She played - big surprise - a maid for a white family (over 30 years before Nell Carter and Gimme a Break!), but Waters thought the show was racist and quit after one season.

She got her Emmy nomination for appearing in the series Route 66 in 1961. A dramatic show about a couple of guys just driving around the country for no particular reason, Waters plays a dying jazz singer who wants to see her old bandmates one last time. It's on YouTube; haven't seen it yet, but the IMDB reviews seem positive.

Waters found religion later in life and toured with Billy Graham. She wrote an autobiography, His Eye Is On the Sparrow, which was adapted for the stage. She died in 1980, and though she was approved to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, it hasn't been funded yet. (What, you thought they just bestowed those things out of kindness?) And if she had a rep for having a diva attitude, well, she wouldn't have been the first by any means. Learning about her has been extremely enlightening for me, and I hope it was for you too, because she was a real trailblazer.

Next: William Powell

Films with Ethel Waters:
Cabin in the Sky

Jack Lemmon
Jean Arthur
Edward G. Robinson
Rita Moreno
Frank Capra
Bernard Herrmann
Joan Blondell
James Dean


  1. Ethel's was an amazing career and life. Thanks so much for those clips and thoughts. Like you, I first became familiar with her through the work in the later years and seeing the younger woman at work is wonderful.

    PS: If you catch "Johnny Guitar" on TCM tonight, you can see Mercedes McCambridge.

  2. Yeah, I figured you'd know who she was. Not exactly a household name either.

    The younger Ethel Waters was something, wasn't she? I neglected to mention that she was also influenced by Josephine Baker, and in Google-searching for images, I saw some rather... interesting pics of the young Ethel. Suffice it to say she was quite the hottie once upon a time.

  3. I've seen four episodes of the Beulah TV show. The episodes I watched starred Hattie McDaniel. What little entertainment value the show had was hard to enjoy due to the scenario. I'm sure the makers of the show thought they were being progressive at the time, but it doesn't sit well today.

  4. That's unfortunate, but to be fair, I suppose they had to crawl before they could walk.


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