Clarence Muse, a pioneer film actor

Clarence Muse
Mon, 1889-10-07

On this date, we mark the birth of Clarence Edouard Muse, born in 1889 in Baltimore. He was an African American lawyer, writer, director, composer, and actor.

After high school, Muse earned a degree in International Law from The Dickinson School of Law of Pennsylvania in 1911. Disgusted with the poor opportunities for Black lawyers, he then went into show business. Muse appeared as an opera singer, minstrel show performer, vaudeville and Broadway actor; he also wrote songs, plays, and sketches. An active participant in the burgeoning Black theater movement of the 1920s, Muse was a member of the progressive all-Black Lincoln Players.

His Hollywood film assignments generally confined him to stereotypes, though Muse was usually able to rise above the shuffling "yassuh, boss" portrayals required of him. He was given dignified, erudite roles in films designed for all-Black audiences. "Broken Strings," 1939, was one and on occasion, he was allowed to portray non-submissive roles in mainstream films. (It must have come as quite a shock to southern audiences in 1941 when Muse, playing Bela Lugosi's independent-minded butler in "The Invisible Ghost," spoke harshly to a white female servant, addressing her as "you old fool!")

Muse also composed the songs and co-wrote the story for the 1938 Bobby Breen musical "Way Down South." He also was the composer of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," which was Louis Armstrong's theme song.

During World War II, he served as a member of the Hollywood Victory Committee that arranged the appearances of stars overseas, and he made hospital tours to entertain wounded soldiers.

In 1953, Muse married for the second time to a Jamaican, Irene Kellerman. Though he was an outspoken advocate for better and more equitable treatment for Black performers, Muse was a staunch supporter of the controversial TV series "Amos 'N' Andy." He pointed out that, despite the caricatured leading characters, the series allowed Black actors to play doctors, bankers, judges, professors, and other parts generally denied them in "white" shows. In 1955, Muse was a regular on the weekly TV version of "Casablanca," playing Sam the pianist (a role he nearly got in the 1942 film version) and in 1959, he appeared in the film "Porgy and Bess." Other film credits include "Buck and the Preacher" (1972) and "Car Wash" (1976).

In 1973, Clarence Muse was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, then went back to work, remaining active in films until the year of his death, 1979, when he was featured in "The Black Stallion."

The Ghost Walks:
A Chronological History of Blacks in Show Business, 1865-1910
Henry T. Sampson
Scarecrow Press (Metuchen, NJ., 1988)

To become an Actor or Actress

Person / name: 

Muse, Clarence