Cast & Crew
Hilda Offley Thompson
When band leader and fledgling songwriter Bob Jordan encounters difficulty finishing his first song, "Cinderella," Barbara, the adopted daughter of Bob's landlady, Mama Keyes, encourages him to put love into his words. Bob confesses that he has never been in love, and Barbara, who has fallen for him, helps him complete the song. Barbara, whose deceased parents were "troopers," wants to go into show business, feeling it is in her blood. Mama Keyes, however, disapproves of Barbara's ambitions and looks down on the activities of another tenant, the Great Joseph, a soothsayer who attempts to read the future in his crystal ball. After Bob's song becomes a hit, he is introduced at a society party to Vivian Marston, the largest stockholder at the swank Swan Club, the city's top nightclub. Although she is engaged to Ralph Williams, a down-to-earth man who hopes to end her capricious ways, Vivian flirts with Bob and offers him a booking at the club, even though Bob does not want to shove the current band leader, Barney Ray, out. When Bob comes home late after the party, he tells a suspicious Barbara about the job at the Swan Club and offers her a share of his royalty check, saying it takes a woman to write "heart interest stuff." Vivian arranges with the manager of the club, MacMillan, for Barney to change the club's name to the "Cinderella Club" in honor of Bob's song. At Bob's debut, which is attended by Barbara, Mama Keyes and the Great Joseph, Bob is a hit, but complains about muffing the last line of "Cinderella." Barbara suggests he hold a "Cinderella slipper" during the song with the lyrics written inside, but is unable to give him hers, as she has dancing plates on them. Later, Barney complains to Lester, the press agent, that Vivian, who now flirts with Bob, had him removed because he refused to play up to her. Soon news of Vivian and Bob's romance appears in the gossip columns. Bob rarely comes home to the boardinghouse, and Barbara, stoically accepting her apparent defeat, gets a job singing at the Hang Out Club. Ralph is angered by Vivian's claim that the gossip about her and Bob is false and insists that they are indeed lovers. After Vivian slaps him, he threatens to inform the newspapers that he is finished with her, but she begs him not to break their engagement. Later, when Bob, who never knew about the engagement, arrives at the club, Vivian tells him that he is just a friend to her. Knowing that Vivian will now offer no resistance, Mac, who is angered at the fact that Bob never shows up for rehearsals, fires him. Meanwhile, at the Hang Out Club, Barney, who is impressed with Barbara's singing, asks her to join his band, but when he insults Bob, she slaps him. Sometime later, Bob visits the Hang Out Club and apologizes to Barney, saying that the job of replacing him was too big. Lester finds them together and says that Mac has been looking for both of them because business has fallen off since Bob left the club. Lester then comes up with the idea to have Bob be the vocalist for Barney's band. Lester presents the idea to Mac, then suggests they have a contest in which all the women will bring a slipper, and Bob will pick one. The owner will receive a cash prize plus a week's engagement at the club if she is a singer. When Bob returns to the club, Vivian explains that she had to agree to let him go because her reputation was at stake. She tries to rekindle their romance, but Bob walks away from her. On the night of the contest, Bob, remembering Barbara's early words, picks a slipper with a tap dancing plate attached. She kisses him and they both sing "Cinderella." After she announces that she is not going to let him get away this time, Lester arranges for them to marry in the club. As Bob and Barbara marry, Vivian sits with Ralph.
Hilda Offley Thompson
John Kirby's Band
Leonardo & Zola
Apus & Estrellita
Walter Fuller's Orchestra
Big Sid Catlett
Jacob M. Lehrfeld
The fifth feature produced by (and second directed by) Arthur Leonard, Sepia Cinderella (1947) is one of the last "race movies", a genre that stretched from the silent era to the end of the 1940s. These films presented a parallel Hollywood where actors like Lorenzo Tucker and Slick Chester were billed as "The Black Valentino" and "The Colored Cagney", as well as a place where African-American actors already working in supporting roles in Hollywood could take on parts other than bug-eyed servants or sassy mammies.
Often produced by white or integrated independent production companies, race movies, like Hollywood movies of the time, were an escapist fantasy of glamour and intrigue, but they also took seriously their responsibility as purveyor of moral conduct and enlightenment for a generation of African-Americans new to the middle class. Working in close proximity to white people for the first time (often in their homes as domestic help) gave them new insight into how impoverished their former lives had been. The universal appeal of movies, combined with the African-American respect for the performative, oral tradition as a way to tell stories, made race movies an important way for African-Americans to learn how they should dress, talk, and behave, in the hopes that they, too, would find a place at the table. (This moral imperative cut both ways, too; although the quality of race movies ranged from middling to excruciating, black audiences felt an ethical obligation to support the only images on screen contradicting the prevailing minstrel show stereotype.)
Sepia Cinderella is just that sort of morality tale, with its medicine sweetly sugarcoated by swing jazz. Bob Jordan (Billy Daniels, singer of "That Old Black Magic" fame) is a struggling songwriter encouraged by "nice girl" Barbara (Sheila Guyse) to come up with a new song. After composing "Cinderella", however, he falls under the sway of sexy impresario Vivian Marston (Tondaleyo), who schemes to get her hooks into him by making him a headliner at her venue, the newly rechristened "Cinderella Club". The good-girl/bad-girl love triangle shuffles itself out over the movie's meager 67 minute running time, leaving audiences to enjoy uninterrupted performances from vintage jazz acts such as Deek Watson and the Brown Dots, the John Kirby Sextet, Walter Fuller's Orchestra, Harlem vaudevillians Apus and Estellita, and Billy Daniels himself.
The most perplexing thing about Sepia Cinderella is a non sequitor cameo from none other than - Freddie Bartholomew? The child actor who rose to fame in David Copperfield (1935) and Captains Courageous (1937) now appears here as a nightclub patron 10 minutes before the movie's conclusion, in a scene completely disconnected from the plot. He complains about doing jokes for vaudeville but then performs several of them, demonstrating several accents as if in a screen test. (Screen test is right - at age 23 (and after a military stint), the former child star was ready to prove he could return to acting in adult roles.)
How Freddie Bartholomew got involved in Sepia Cinderella is unclear, but his jarring presence as the only white performer in an all-black cast highlights part of what signaled the death knell for the race movie. In 1942, the NAACP held a successful series of meetings convincing industry heads to increase the profile of African Americans working in Hollywood, both in front of and behind the camera. As film scholar Thomas Cripps put it, as Hollywood started to address race in bigger budget films like Pinky (1949) (which, while hiring white actors to play light-skinned African-Americans, was willing to confront race in a way other movies had not), African-American audiences tired of seeing the claustrophobic all-black world of the race movie "that denied spectators the delight of seeing African-Americans either in alliance or conflict with white people."
The producers of Sepia Cinderella did their best to drum up interest with a gala premiere/benefit for Jackie Robinson, held in Los Angeles at the Lincoln Theater and emceed by Eddie Anderson, comic sidekick to Jack Benny on radio, but the race movie's time had come and gone. (At one point, in a bid to attract audiences, the promoters removed "Sepia" from the film's title in advertising.) Bartholomew gave up on acting and went into a very successful second career as a vice president at a Manhattan ad agency. But as one star descends, another ascends: Sidney Poitier's first screen role was as an extra in this film.
Producer: Jack Goldberg, Arthur Leonard
Director: Arthur Leonard
Screenplay: Vincent Valentini
Cinematography: George Webber
Art Direction: Frank Namczy
Film Editing: Jack Kemp
Cast: Billy Daniel (Bob), Sheila Guyse (Barbara), Tondaleyo (Vivian), Ruble Blakey (Barney), Jack Carter (Ralph), Dusty Freeman (Mooney), George Williams (Sonny), Fred Gordon (Press Agent), Harold Norton (Night Club Master of Ceremonies), Hilda Offley Thompson (Mama Keyes).
by Violet LeVoit
Cripps, Thomas. Making Movies Black: The Hollywood Message Movie from World War II to the Civil Rights Era. Oxford University Press, 1993
Gabbard, Krin. Jamming at the Margins. University Of Chicago Press, 1996.
Parish, James Robert. Great Child Stars. Ace Books, 1976.
Goudsouzian, Aram. Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon. The University of North Carolina Press. 2003.
McCann, Bob. Encyclopedia of African American Actresses in Film and Television. McFarland, 2009.