Although he appeared in more than 150 films, Clarence Muse played a character with a second name only six times. Something similar is true of hundreds of bit-part actors, of course, but the meagre second-name count seems particularly unfair in this case, given Clarence's obvious accomplishments. He had a degree in international law from the oldest law school in Pennsylvania. He was a pioneer of the black theatre movement in the 1920s and founded Harlem's Lafayette Theater.(1) As a performer, he was daring enough to become "the first Negro on the American stage to make up like a white man".(2) He was also a musician, a composer and an opera singer. "Great!" said Hollywood, "We need a man with just your talents to stand around in the background of our movies, dressed as a Pullman porter!"
Clarence didn't seem too upset about it, though:
In Alice in Movieland, a short film from 1940, Joan Leslie, then an ingénue on the threshold of stardom, plays, fittingly enough, an ingénue on the threshold of stardom. Clarence plays the guy who carries her bags off the train. The still above shows Clarence in an uncharacteristically unprofessional moment, a single frame in which he catches the camera's eye and grins. For the rest of his time on screen, he performs flawlessly; an exemplary embodiment of the qualities of self-effacing subservience and obedience that the Pullman train company required in its employees.
For decades, the Pullman company was the largest single employer of black people in the world.(3) George Pullman, who founded the company after the American civil war, established a policy of employing only black men (ex-slaves, initially) to work as porters, judging that, "for passengers to feel truly comfortable on his sleepers, they had to see the porter as someone ... you could look at but not notice, as if he did not exist. An invisible man."(4) Pullman's policy was enormously successful, and thousands of ex-slaves, then thousands more of their children and their children's children became Pullman porters. Except for the ones in Hollywood, who became actors who played Pullman porters. There are hardly any black actors who were active in the 30s, 40s and 50s who don't have a porter or two somewhere in their résumé. And Clarence Muse had considerably more than that.
Look who shows up in the scene in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943) when Joseph Cotten is escaping from the police on a Pullman sleeper:
Clarence has a couple of lines, informing Cotten that his stop is coming up. To the audience, Cotten's behaviour is incredibly suspicious: he's been hiding out in that curtained-off section of the car for the entire journey, and has allowed no one, not even the man who brought his bags on the train, to see his face. It doesn't make any difference to Clarence's porter, though. It's none of his business how a man wants to travel, even if he's obviously a desperate fugitive fleeing justice. White folks and their unknowable ways: best pay 'em no mind.
White folks' ways confuse him again in The Thin Man Goes Home (1944). William Powell and Myrna Loy have just got off the train when Powell remembers that he's carrying a bottle of milk that he'd promised to fill up for a nursing mother in their carriage. As the train pulls out, Powell deftly slips the bottle into the hand of the porter who is (rather oddly, on reflection) waving goodbye to the station.
The face that Clarence is pulling as he regards the bottle is the exaggerated, bug-eyed expression you see on virtually all the black servant characters in films of the time. Clarence hardly ever used it, usually managing to find some way of suggesting that his characters might have some thought going on in their heads. Donald Bogle, a writer on black cinema, credits Clarence's stage experience with enabling him to avoid the flamboyant "uncle tomism" of many of his peers. "Even the manner in which he walked -- with head lifted, body erect, eyes straight ahead -- indicated a self-respect and black self-awareness that other actors of the period lacked."(5) However, he's got little to do in this scene but play for laughs, so out comes the Stepin Fetchit mug.
When Clarence heard that he had been given a part in a Sherlock Holmes film, did he allow himself to hope, not unreasonably, that he might not be cast as a Pullman porter this time? I hope not, because the inexplicably anachronistic plotting of Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943), which involves Nazi espionage in the middle of world war 2, takes Holmes to America on the trail of these two sweethearts, who are reunited -- unfortunately for Clarence -- at a train station:
Clarence is there to help passengers disembark because, I suppose, the director felt that a train-station scene just wouldn't feel right without him standing somewhere in the background.
However, Clarence didn't always play train staff. In 1938, he played a vengeful crime boss's henchman: a wily killer in disguise. What was the disguise? Well, the film's called Prison Train...
Those two obvious mafia types are his associate henchmen, who are also undercover (a C-minus for effort, though). The previous century's eccentric staffing policy meant that their undercover disguise doesn't entail any dinner serving or bag carrying, for which they must have been thankful. Hooray for George Pullman!
Apart from having to play porters all the time, Clarence probably had a great time in the 30s and 40s. Most mainstream Hollywood studios didn't want him for anything better than minor character parts, but Frank Capra, among others, gave him some good work, including a supporting lead role in Broadway Bill (1934). In 1940, he became the first black director of a Broadway show (Run, Little Chillun). More importantly, that year also saw the release of an independently produced film designed for a black audience, which Clarence co-wrote and starred in: Broken Strings:
According to the Pittsburgh Courier, America's most widely read black newspaper, "The motion picture 'Broken Strings' is an artistic triumph! Here is a Negro movie that tops anything and everything that has been done".
Of Clarence, the review, written for an audience who might well have seen him in black theatre productions back in the 1920s, said: "Mr Muse's portrayal of a concert violinist who thought that swing music desecrated the very word 'music' is indeed masterful ... Clarence Muse can well be proud of his role in this picture ... He was the Clarence Muse of old, playing as he did years ago when he paced across the stage ... [He played] a role where he could run the gamut of emotion ... his greatest screen characterization yet."
The newspaper loved the film. Unlike the usual black cinema offerings, it had neither gunplay nor negro spiritual numbers. What it had was emotional power -- enough that "probably for the first time, women will shed a tear viewing an all-colored cast film." There was something else, as well: "The picture is also extraordinary because you see Negroes conducting successful businesses ... You will see Negro bank tellers [and] neat and trim Negro nurses. Jess Lee Brooks plays a surgeon".(6)
Of course, there is not one Pullman porter.
Clarence kept on acting, but didn't write another film. He played over a dozen more porters during the rest of the 40s, before going into semi-retirement. He died in 1979.
Sources: www.imdb.com, (1)New York Times, October 17, 1979; (2)Brownsville Herald, November 27, 1949 (via www.newspaperarchive.com); (3)Tye, Larry, "Rising From the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class" (Owl Books, 2004) - , p28; (4)Tye, Larry, ibid, p25; (5) Bogle, Donald, "Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History" (Fourth Edition), (Continuum), p54; (6)Pittsburgh Courier, March 25, 1940, quoted in Sampson, Henry T, "Blacks in Black and White: A Source Book on Black Films" (second edition) (Scarecrow Press, 1995), p360.