Walter Neff has just killed Mr Dietrichson – throttling him to death in his own car – and now he needs to get on to that train without anyone seeing his face, so that, later, they’ll only remember seeing a man with crutches and everyone will assume that it was Mr Dietrichson, not Walter Neff, who was on board when the train pulled out of Glendale.
He tells his partner in crime, the newly widowed Mrs Dietrichson, “You take care of the redcap and the conductor. Keep them away from me as much as you can. Tell them I don’t want to be helped.” She tells him not to worry, but he can’t stop himself.
He goes over the plan one more time, because it’s important – because, if she makes even one mistake, they’ll both end up in the gas chamber – but mostly because it stops him thinking about what he has just done.
He’s so intent on what he’s saying that he doesn’t notice the redcap approaching and Phyllis has to place her hand on his chest to stop him talking. Although they’re both acting extremely suspiciously, the redcap doesn’t notice; he takes Neff’s coat and bag and strides off without a backward glance, brisk and efficient, intent only on getting his passengers aboard the train as quickly as possible. If Neff were less rattled, he might reflect that the redcap’s unswerving focus on his job is just like that of his friend Barton Keyes, the claims man at the insurance company – “a doctor and a bloodhound and a cop and a judge and jury and a father-confessor all in one” – on whose desk the Dietrichson claim will shortly end up…
But that’s another story. For our purposes, the star of this scene from Double Indemnity (1944) is the redcap, played by Harold Garrison:
His presence as an extra in this film, a Paramount production, is evidence of a huge change that must have recently occurred in his life because, for the previous two decades, he’d been an indispensable fixture on the MGM lot, where he’d become one of the most influential black men in Hollywood.
He’d started off in the early 1920s as a bootblack, with a shoeshine stand just inside the main gates of the studio. The studio employees called him Kid Slickem – or Slickum, Sliccem or Sliccum, depending on the source – on account of his ability to produce a brilliant shine with his polish and rags.(1)
As the decade progressed, however, Harold found himself in demand for more than just his shoeshine skills. He ran errands, operated elevators, delivered messages and sorted mail. More importantly, when the studio required large gangs of black extras for films set in Africa or in the southern plantations, Harold was given the job of supplying them. All the studios relied on certain black men to operate as informal Negro casting agents – at Paramount, it was Oscar Smith, and at Columbia, it was Henry Martin, who were both also nominally bootblacks.(2) Their positions gave them a degree of power over black actors, which was not always used benevolently. The black journalist, Charles Snelson, wrote about these “studio Negroes” in The Pittsburgh Courier: “Another decadent evil, to my way of thinking, which is truly a disgrace to the race, is the fact that when some fortunate Negro happens to edge-in to a little favor at a certain studio, he is the worst task master of his own people they have to contend with. He often goes so far as to tell the white employer just what handicaps to place in the paths of his brothers and what burdens to place upon their shoulders. He is often a typical ‘Esau who sold his brethren for a mess of porridge’.”(3)
Snelson didn’t mention Harold or the others by name, but anyone who knew the studios would have known who he was talking about. In any case, whatever powers of patronage they might have had were diminished by the end of the twenties, due to the establishment of the Central Casting Bureau, which appointed its own black agent, Charles Butler.
In 1929, King Vidor convinced MGM to allow him to make Hallelujah, an all-black musical that would be filmed on location in Tennessee and Arkansas. He explained that he had always “nurtured a secret hope” to bring Negro life to the screen because “the sincerity and fervor of their religious expression intrigued me, as did the honest simplicity of their sexual drives.”(4) Harold was named as an assistant director on the picture, and black newspapers were sent press releases proclaiming that his appointment demonstrated that the studio genuinely wanted to depict the real experiences of Negroes in America.
Harold’s responsibilities involved helping to arrange the casting calls in the northern cities, overseeing the travel arrangements for the lead actors on segregated railroad cars in the south and acting as an intermediary between Vidor and the local extras on location. It was the highest position that any Negro had ever occupied in MGM or any other studio. Harold’s on the left in this picture, looking justifiably pleased with himself:
At the premiere, Harold was separated from the rest of the crew and sent upstairs to the Jim Crow gallery – according to Photoplay magazine, he was “probably just as happy there, for he appeared with a broad smile, his dusky friends, and a tuxedo and a green fedora hat”(5) – and afterwards, he returned to his shoeshine stand inside the studio gates.
The following year, W S Van Dyke shot the adventure film, Trader Horn, in east Africa. When he returned to America, he brought with him two Maasai tribesmen for reshoots. Their names were Mutia Omoolu and Riano Tindama. Mutia was a chief who owned land and raised cattle and Riano was one of his men. They spoke no English and they had no notion of what to expect in the west. Upon their arrival in Hollywood, they were placed in Harold’s care, a decision that was presumably based more on skin colour than on any cultural expertise on Harold’s part.
In fact, Harold and Mutia did indeed have something in common, as Van Dyke had relied on Mutia to supply and manage all the local extras who appeared in Trader Horn. A press report stated, “Mutia, if you please, is the first ‘casting director’ the jungle has every known. In previous years, Mutia collected much extra change through a capacity for rounding up his native brothers whenever the white man wanted a Safari gang. But since Africa was added to odd locations used by Hollywood, Mutia has become the millionaire of his people by producing mob scenes, drum beaters, lion hunts, orgiastic dancers and dusky ladies who can stir up a mean wiggle.”(6)
That, however, was the extent of their shared experience, and Harold – along with Phillip Rifkind, their interpreter – had difficulty keeping Mutia and Riano happy and out of trouble. A newspaper article entitled “Jungle Actors Are Unhappiest Of Film Stars”, though marred by the amiable bigotry that characterised popular writing about Africans at the time, gives an idea of the problems Harold faced:
“To begin with, every bright bauble and color stopped them cold. They wouldn’t move on. And when the lights came on at night, they broke away from their guides and started running terrified into the crowd … Their first contact with anything approaching the familiar came when they observed a couple of women applying lipstick … Believing that, even as their native women, they were preparing some beautiful form of disfiguration, the natives let out a lusty ‘Lubidy-oo-ump’ or whatever it was, and all but stopped traffic.”
Harold had to make sure that they were decently dressed at all times, which wasn’t easy. “Clothes and shoes were particularly obnoxious to them. Mutia, who has stood spear thrusts in his bared chest, wept like a child when his shoes became tight and he could not take them off.”
Mutia, on the left, in a still from Trader Horn
The article says that the only activities that the Africans seemed to enjoy in America were acting, in which they had found “a simple, child-like pleasure”, and watching themselves on screen, which would “invariably cause them to break into laughter and have a swell time.”(7)
However, they also enjoyed the company of the Central Avenue prostitutes that Harold procured for them. After one liaison, a prostitute took Mutia back to her brothel, where, according to a recent history of MGM, “a party proceeded until Mutia realised that his watch was missing.” Enraged at the theft, “he picked up a woman and swung her around by her ankles, knocking the other girls into the walls and furniture.” Harold was called to deal with the aftermath, and the studio hushed up the affair.(8)
There’s another story about Mutia and Harold, but it’s almost certainly untrue, or at least heavily embroidered. Apparently, while Mutia was in a Culver City hospital with a case of venereal disease, he began to suspect that a woman whom he considered to be his girl was sharing her favours with Harold, so he snuck out of the ward and made for the MGM administrative offices, where he hid in the bushes between the executive building and the commissary until he saw Irving Thalberg, the head of the studio, walk by, whereupon he leaped from the shrubbery with a knife, which he held to Thalberg’s throat. “Boss keep Slickem away from my woman,” he said before disappearing back into the undergrowth.
Mutia Omoolu, in Trader Horn
After the reshoots were finished, Mutia and Riano returned to Africa. Mutia invested his movie cash in a truck and a store and set up an inter-village transport business. He settled back into his home life, and refrained from talking about Hollywood for fear of being considered “a big liar”. Riano was last seen on the streets of Nairobi, still wearing his good western clothes, but down to his last few American dollars. No one knows what became of him after the money ran out.(9)
Harold’s story becomes a little mysterious around this time as well. He still ran his shoeshine stand on the lot and continued to work as MGM’s black majordomo until at least the mid-1930s – he was there in 1932, when he was called to testify in the investigation into the death of the producer Paul Bern, who used Harold as an after-hours chauffeur and errand runner – but he seems to have left the studio toward the end of the decade, when he started to appear in occasional bit-parts and supporting roles in all-black films made by new studios such as Million Dollar Productions and Dixie National Pictures, the wholly or partly black-owned companies that produced films for the 400 black cinemas across America.
In Million Dollar Productions’ Gang War (1942), the story of two gangs competing for control of Harlem’s jukebox business, Harold played a minor henchman. His appearance in the credits not only gives us our first clear look at his face, but also finally settles how he wanted his nickname to be spelled:
Harold’s performance is rather good, but it’s the only substantial role he ever took; his handful of other credits are all the smallest of bit parts, like the redcap in Double Indemnity. It’s possible that, however good he might have been at acting, his real value to the black independent studios lay in the intimate knowledge of the day-to-day work of a motion picture studio that he’d picked up over his two decades as an MGM insider, watching and learning from men like Thalberg, Mayer, Van Dyke and Vidor. Indeed, it seems likely that it was those studios’ recognition of his expertise and offer of dignified employment that persuaded him finally to leave his home territory.
The only question is, did he set up shoeshine stands on their lots, too?
Sources: (1)"African American Extras in Hollywood During the 1920s and 1930s" by Charlene Regester, in Film History, Vol 9; (2)Slow Fade To Black, by Thomas Cripps, OUP 1977 provides the information on Smith, and The Los Angeles Times of 7 April 1935 supplies the information on Henry Martin; (3)Charlene Regester's article, see above; (4) Black City Cinema by Paula Masood, TUP, 2003; (5)Masood, ibid; (6)Ogden Standard-Examiner, 27 April 1930; (7)ibid; (8)Irving Thalberg by Mark A Vieira, UCP, 2009; (9)Carroll Daily Herald, 8 July 1931.