Not of this World: Stepin Fetchit
Updated: Dec 21, 2022
Not of this World: Stepin' Fetchit
Let's begin by acknowledging that Stepin' Fetchit is an incredibly controversial and polarizing figure in Hollywood History. Now that that's out of the way let's start.
When I was about eleven, sometime in the dark ages, I watched Charlie Chan in Egypt on television. It was playing on our mammoth fourteen-inch black and white Zenith television receiving from WOR-TV 9 from the tower of the Empire State Building. About Charlie Chan, and why that's a problem for today's viewers. Warner Oland from Sweden was Hollywood's most beloved Chalie Chan. He played the Chinese-American detective in sixteen films from 1931 to 1938, when he died mid-film. That film, Charlie Chan at Ringside, was recut with additional scenes and turned into the equally problematic Mr. Moto's Gamble. The German-born (okay, Austro-Hungarian Empire is too much to write) Peter Lorre as the suave Japanese spy, Mr.Moto.
The fact that Warner Oland was not Chinese or American weighed on the actor, and he became proficient in Mandarin and studied traditional Chinese calligraphy. He could order off the menu in Chinese restaurants and was a massive star in China. He also made sure plenty of Chinese actors played in the films. Even having Keye ("snatch the pebble from my hand") Luke play Lee Chan, Charlie's American number one son. "Okay, Pop?" But we're not here to talk about Charlie Chan beyond the appearance of the weirdest character I have ever seen in a dramatic film, Show Shoes.
When my mother remarried, I got a new dad for 3.5 days a week. For the other 3.5 days, I was the possession of my old, dearly beloved dad. On this day, I was with my stepfather, Lloyd Chester Wilson III, who was, amongst other things, an African American.
He had firm beliefs like, "Do you know why you can't dance?"
"Because I'm eleven?"
"No, because you're white!" Guffaws would follow this answer. It was also the answer to many questions he would pose to me over the following 40+ years of our relationship. He and I are watching Chalie Chan solve some mystery about stolen, supernatural antiquities. (Today, we'd call them looted.) Chan's assistant was Snow Shoes, played by Stepin Fetchit, who was himself a character created by an actor.
I was astounded by his performance. "Zounds!" I exclaimed. Not literally dark ages, "Jumpin' Jehosephat!" this century perhaps? "Crikey!" Not quite. I'm going with, "Yikes!"
Stepin Fetchit was so shockingly weird I could only respond, "Yikes!" I had never seen anyone act like him.
Initially, I thought they were making fun of the mentally disabled, and it made me uncomfortable. My stepfather shed some light on the subject. "See what white people think black people are like?" I had seen many black actors from around the same period. Rochester didn't act like that, nor did Bill Robinson. or Paul Robeson. I was dumbfounded, momentarily mute (not a common occurrence, I'm telling you!) that anyone thought this was how a person, regardless of skin color, would behave. I had questions, but I knew I was in some danger here. (This was a less enlightened time and corporal punishment was the norm, not the exception.) My stepfather concluded that as much as he hated him, Stepin Fetchit was kind of funny. I was on the fence. I could see the humor, but I didn't think I should laugh. He laughed enough for both of us.
This strange character was born in Florida, Lincoln Theodore Perry. His mother was a seamstress from the Bahamas, and his father was a cigar roller from Jamaica. He ran away from home at fourteen and joined up with a traveling show as a comedic dancer. He eventually headed to Hollywood, where he became a star. Lincoln Theodore Perry, as Stepin Fetchit, appeared in over fifty films and became the first African-American millionaire. Perry's character was billed as the "Laziest Man in the World" He brought playing "Stupid" to heights that have never been topped. Not even the great Jerry Lewis could act as dumb. (That's a bold statement!) Thinking about it, the Stooges were smarter. Perry was, in reality, an intelligent fellow, regularly contributing to the African-American newspaper, The Chicago Defender. Besides being the first "Millionaire," he was the first African-American comedian on television. He was a successful vaudeville artist, a comic, a dancer, and a manager of a traveling carnival.
Stepin Fetchit Dance Man
20th Century Fox offered him a screen test in the early 1920s. He went with the broadest characterization he could muster and got the gig. He just found a way to make money and ran with it. In the film, In Old Kentucky, Stepin Fetchit bursts into stardom. Not only does it feature his unique shenanigans it features a well-developed love story for the comedian and Cotton Club performer Carolynne Snowden. The romance between black people was a huge surprise in a Hollywood film from 1927.
Still from In Old Kentucky
Marrying Carolynne Snowden in the last reel of In Old Kentucky.
The reaction to him was so great that 20th Century Fox offered him a five-year exclusive contract.
He wasn't the first black movie star. That would probably be Bert Williams of the 1914s Darktown Jubilee. Williams was also a Vaudeville star and a cast member of the Ziegfeld Follies. He was required to perform in blackface for some reason. (Can you believe this nonsense?) Bert Williams was a gifted vocalist and sold many records. Upon his death, he was eulogized by Booker T. Washington and laid out at the Masonic Lodge on West 23rd Street in Manhattan, where thousands of fans of all races paid their respects.
Not so much with Stepin Fetchit. As his wealth and popularity grew, his ostentatious life off-screen became a little off-putting to the press and Hollywood business minds. (Alright, the white media and white studio execs.) Even though 20th Century Fox's press machine promoted their first black star by focusing on his private life. They fanned the flames of Perry's ability to make news. Circulating stories of his flamboyant high style of life: his six houses, his sixteen Chinese servants, his lavish parties, his twelve automobiles. The biggest was a champagne-pink Chauffer (white, of course) driven Cadillac limousine with his name emblazoned on the side in flashing neon lights. The press agents felt that maybe they had gone too far. After World War Two, tastes changed. Attitudes changed, and by 1947 Lincoln Theodore Perry was filing for bankruptcy.
Stepin in race car
Even after Hattie McDaniel won her Oscar for Gone with the Wind, the film world didn't change. In early Hollywood, black performers were to stay out of sight. Stepin Fetchit loved the spotlight. In interviews from her win, Ms. McDanielle states that she had based her characterization on her grandmother, who, as an enslaved person, worked in the same capacity as her Mammy character did. (I'm not calling her a Mammy, that's the character's name - actually!) Southern theater owners and other loudmouths complained about the character's uppity manner and were angered over her Oscar win. This opinion was something the Academy took under advisement. Another person of color winning an Oscar did not get "officially" repeated until 24 years later when Sidney Poitier won the Best Actor Oscar in 1964 for Lilies of the Field. Another twenty years passed until Louis Gossett Jr. did it for Best Supporting Actor for An Officer and a Gentleman. Today it's a common occurrence.
Hattie McDaniel and Faye Bainter
You may have noticed the word "officially" in there. James Baskett won an Honorary Oscar for playing old Uncle Remus in Walt Disney's flawed masterpiece, Song of the South. They didn't have to nominate him as the best actor, and he could still win. This situation drew less ire from the previously mentioned loudmouths. By old, Baskett was 44 years old when he died a few months after his Oscar win.
Let's get back to Stepin Fetchit. Like many stars whose lights had dimmed in post-war cinema, he pivoted to television. Even there, his characterization was a bit too much. Sure there were stereotype roles all over movies and T.V., but Stepin Fetchit as a character was too much. Since my first viewing in the previous century, I have seen many variations of these characters played by various performers. Not one even comes close to the absolute weirdness of Stepin Fetchit.
As the civil rights movement gained steam in the 1950s, his name became synonymous with racist characterization and behavior. He spent the 1950s struggling to find work and landed small parts in "Race" movies geared toward an African American Audience. His schtick never changed, but the world did.
To sum up, I'd like to paraphrase some bits from Mel Watkins' book, Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry. Watkins writes that, like most people, he thought of Stepin Fetchit as a symbol of the negative side of the African-American experience. In his research, he discovered Perry to be very different from his Fetchit character. "This is an amazingly complex man. Intelligent. He was anything but what people take him to be."
The laziest man character of Stepin Fetchit was inspired by something out of slavery. Watkins writes, "It was called 'putting on old massa'. Break the tools. Break the hoe, do anything to postpone the work." Ultimately the white characters would become so exasperated that they would do the work themselves. (I guess hilarity would then ensue?) "Black Americans understood it perfectly and laughed heartily at it." I agree in principle, but the actual character was so incredibly outré that it couldn't maintain its audience into the present. Stepin Fetchit was something the Civil Rights movement wanted to put into the rearview mirror.
Jimmie Walker, who can be seen in my upcoming documentary, Willie Tyler and Lester: Hello Dummy, knows something about being labeled a stereotype. When he starred in Good Times on television, he got criticized for making his character, J.J., a Stepin Fetchit throwback to the minstrel show. If you are familiar with him, you know he has opinions. "The way they make it sound, it's like Stepin Fetchit permanently harms black people," says Walker. "I disagree. I don't think it's a bad character. I think it's a funny character." Walker and Watkins agree that the Fetchit character is a subversive trickster. Stepin Fetchit never gets around to fetching anything!
In his later years, he continued to write and moved to Chicago. Somehow, even with the haters, Lincoln Theodore Perry never really vanished from public life. He was friends with Malcolm X, Muhammed Ali, and Dr. Martin Luther King. On a sad note, at Dr. King's memorial, soul singer Liz Lands, she of the five-octave range, performed, May What He Lived For Live. A little ditty, credited to Berry Gordy Jr, Esther Gordy Edwards, and W.A. Bisson or, as you have guessed, Lincoln Perry.
Step and Ali
There is a Stepin Fetchit star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It's in a prime locale, right on the corner of the northeast corner of Hollywood and Vine, and it was awarded in February of 1960. Perry received a Special Image Award from the Hollywood chapter of the NAACP in 1976 and got inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1978. Unfortunately, he died at the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital in Los Angeles.
One last thing before you go. It was Stepin Fetchit's idea that he wasn't perpetrating a crude stereotype. He did what he did to get paid and to do what he loved. Which I'm sure is what a lot of actors had to do.
I'm reminded of a joke. A man goes to a shrink. He tells the doctor of his long, storied career in the stage lights. He is now a shadow of himself, being reduced to shoveling poop behind the elephants in the circus. He is very depressed. "Why don't you quit?" suggests the doctor. "What and leave show business!"
Winston Churchill said, "History is written by the victors." I'm not sure when there will be an actual victory, as film history is still getting written. But I'd like to end this with Lincoln (Stepin Fetchit) Perry's own words from 1968: "I became the first Negro entertainer to become a millionaire. All the things that Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier have done wouldn't be possible if I hadn't broken that law. I set up thrones for them to come and sit on." Maybe, he's a little bit right?
Stepin and wife Dorothy Stevenson