Ernest Anderson.Posted: January 9, 2010
John Huston’s second film as a director, In This Our Life (1942), contains several excellent performances, but none more noteworthy — and tragic in its way — than that of a newcomer, Ernest Anderson.
Anderson has an important role in the film as Parry, a young black man who decides to better himself by going for his law degree. Currently he works as a shop assistant to the character played by Olivia de Havilland; they get along well and she has a benign interest in his future. As he puts it in his speech to her, a white man working in a low position for a white employer has a chance for advancement, but a black man working in a low position for a white employer will always be only that until he dies. To rise, he must have a profession that will allow him not to be in a white person’s employ. And so he is studying the law.
Anderson instantly gets your sympathy in this quiet speech. He has a luminous intelligence and a gentle, understated pride that are in marked contrast to other portrayals Hollywood demanded from black actors of the time. You’ll find no exaggerated “black dialect” in his speech patterns, no shuffling in his walk or his manner. Turns of the plot (which I won’t spoil) only deepen your sympathy for the character — and your regard for the actor’s range in his handful of key scenes. You’re aware that you’re watching, in its treatment of race and racism, a very progressive movie for the time, and an equally progressive performance. Anderson seems a precursor to Sidney Poitier ten years later; if anything he is the more natural actor.
The performance is such a standout that it won Anderson a best acting award from the National Board of Review in 1942.
The story goes that Bette Davis (who stars in the film along with de Havilland) proposed Anderson for the part when she noticed a special quality about him as he served her lunch in the Warner Brothers commissary. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and he made good in it. You watch him and see a career full of promise.
Yet an odd feeling begins to set in. You notice that while he looks vaguely familiar, you can’t actually place him in any other movies. And that means he must not have gone on to great things, because if he had, you’d surely recognize him from those.
A look at his credits on the Internet Movie Database tells the tale — a bitterly ironic one. In the 24 movies he made after In This Our Life until his last one in 1970, these are the roles he played in 18 of them, in order: George M. Cohan’s Valet; Club Car Steward; Messenger; Train Porter; Black Man; Sam, Elevator Operator; Waiter; Wong, Houseboy; Second Elevator Operator; Redcap at Airport; Mme. Brizar’s Footman; Eddie, Train Steward; Black Man; Fred Johnson, Train Steward; Train Porter; Porter on Twentieth Century Ltd.; Ernie, Ice Cream Vendor at Beach; and Sol, Roomservice Waiter.
The speech he makes in his spectacular debut role — about a black man never being able to rise when working for a white employer — was prophetic about his own career. That spectacular debut role was his one shining hour.
A product of Ernest Anderson’s obscurity is that there is not one picture of him on the world wide web that shows him clearly. In fact, there is just one picture of him of any kind — a very small one, from In This Our Life, in which he’s a tiny figure in the composition, all but invisible. The pictures of him accompanying this post are freeze-frames I snapped myself from my television set. Moments frozen in time.