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Black actors in early Ealing films

Ealing Film Studios became world famous last century, not least for its production line of movies that came to be known as Ealing Comedy. October is Black History Month and Dr Jonathan Oates looks at a lesser known but important part of the studio’s early success: Black actors.

The Ealing Film Studios’ releases between the 1930s and the 1950s are well known but what is less well known is that there were a number of black actors in supporting roles and, in one case in a starring role, in some of these films. They all went on to perform in the stage, on television as well as in other films. In contrast to black actors in Hollywood films in this era, these actors did not play comic or cartoonish roles but strong and intelligent characters.

Robert Adams, born in British Guiana, was given fourth billing in Midshipman Easy and, though he begins in this 1935 film as a character who is a humble servant, when the ship goes into action he proves himself a brave and resourceful warrior. Later, he alone among the prize crew remains sober and he and the young officer of the title take turns in steering their new ship to safety. He is promoted and later saves the hero’s life by fighting and defeating a pirate chief.

Adams was also the stunt double for the American Paul Robeson, well known as a singer as well as an actor in the Ealing film Proud Valley of 1940. Robeson was the film’s star, working in a Welsh coal mine, singing in the village choir and later sacrificing himself to save the lives of his fellow workers in the mine. In posters he dominated and comments in contemporary film reviews were complimentary.

The 1950 Ealing film Pool of London featured crime and life in the docks of the East End of the capital, especially among a group of sailors whose boat had just docked. Bermudan born Earl Cameron had actually been a sailor himself and this was his first work in a film, though he was given fifth billing. He and a white actress had the first known cinematic inter-racial romance in the film, as chaste as it is. Cameron later on had many other roles, including in the James Bond film Thunderball and in Dr Who. He died in Kenilworth last year, lauded with honours.

Then there were two 1950s Ealing films set in Africa, Where No Eagles fly and West of Zanzibar. A number of black actors play members of a tribe who are trying to adapt to modern times. Eric Connor, born in Trinidad, plays the tribe’s chief and he shows restraint, wisdom and courage. Orlando Martins was from Nigeria and he played a game warden, helping combat illegal hunting and ivory smuggling. Elsewhere in the film, black people are shown running their own schools and court rooms.

Some of these actors also formed black theatre companies and black recruitment agencies. Three of them appeared together in the 1959 film Sapphire, about prejudice in late 1950s London, and it is well worth seeing. The names of some of these actors might now be little known, but it is worth seeing their films and appreciating their work – not least because it helped lay the foundations for their successors.

Dr Oates, the borough’s archivist, gave a talk on this subject and you can watch a video of the full talk above or on the Ealing Libraries YouTube channel.

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