Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Musical Staring Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, Howard Keel, Joe E. Brown, Agnes Moorehead, William Warfield, Frances Williams, Marge and Gower Champion directed by George Sidney, Produced by Arthur Freed, Screen play written by John Lee Mahin based on Edna Ferber’s novel.
Not long ago, I watched “Showboat,” attracted not to the movie itself. I’d seen it many years ago. Katherine Grayson and Howard Keel’s songs still ring in my head more so than the plot. No, I watched because Frances was in it. For a few brief seconds, she appeared, a background figure as was the other Black actors and a host of extras – delivering one line, or moving in and out of scenes, barely on camera. My eyes focused on my TV screen; I scanned each scene, searching for a glimpse of my friend.
Finally I spotted her in her brown frock buttoned to the neck, looking modest, prim and proper, hair pulled back into a neat bun, just slightly out of focus. Reacting to the goings on of the main characters, she smiled, clapped her hands and nodded her head as they delivered their lines deftly. And I remembered all she’d told me about that production, the seventeen bandanas wardrobe presented to her; she refused each time. Her reaction to Joe E. Brown, “a right-wing reactionary,” she called him and with her usual candor, told him how she felt about the country denying Black people equal privileges. She talked about William Warfield – came close to calling him an Uncle Tom, and about her meeting with Ava Gardner whom she liked.
But mostly I thought about her training in all areas of theater, the fourteen years at Karamu, the oldest Black theater in the country where she’d learned to write, direct, act, work the lights and create costumes; her two years in Moscow studying theater; and her roles on Broadway in A Raisin in the Sun and You Can’t Take It With You, among others. Yes, there she was, Queenie, with one line and out of focus shots, and I shook my head in disgust – Hollywood!