Clarence Brooks


Clarence Brooks 2

Clarence Brooks was born in San Antonio, Texas in December 1896. In 1915, Brooks along with actor Noble Johnson, Noble’s brother, George Johnson, Dr. James T. Smith, and Dudley A. Brooks formed The Lincoln Motion Picture Company, a company that sought to make films correcting distortions of African American images in motion pictures while also depicting the reality of African American life.  Brooks acted as secretary to the budding company, which quickly built a reputation for showcasing the talent of African American performers in three-dimensional roles. In 1916, Brooks made his acting debut in Lincoln’s short, The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition and in 1919, he played the lead in A Man’s Duty.

By 1921 The Lincoln Company had completed five films, but it proved to be a marginal operation. Noble Johnson, leading man and president of the company who helped support the studio by acting in other companies’ productions, was faced with an ultimatum from Hollywood studio Universal. They had found that when theaters showed a Lincoln film starring Johnson to Black audiences, the audience would not go to a nearby theater showing a Universal film featuring Johnson. He was forced to choose between working for Universal, with a promising career, or casting his lot with Lincoln, with slight chance for financial success. Johnson reluctantly resigned as an active member of the company, but retained his financial interest. Dr. James T. Smith then became president of Lincoln. Without Johnson at the helm, there was much uncertainty.  In addition the increased cost of movie making in the 1920s and the declining economy leading to the Great Depression forced most independent Black film producers out of business. The African American community did not have the financial resources, especially in hard times, to sustain independent Black film enterprises.  In 1923 operations of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company ended and the board of directors disbanded. But Brooks was determined to continue with his acting career as he was still interested in challenging racial stereotypes in film. In 1928, he played George Reed in Absent with Virgil Owens and Rosalie Lincoln.

Clarence Brooks 2In 1930 Brooks appeared in Georgia Rose with Irene Wilson, Evelyn Preer, and Spencer Williams and in 1931, he co-starred in Arrowsmith in which he portrayed a Howard University-educated doctor who Ronald Colman’s character encounters while testing a serum in an effort to find a cure for the bubonic plague. The film was nominated for Best Picture, and Brooks’s co-star was nominated for Best Actor, however Brooks was not nominated for his portrayal of an important supporting character vital to the story.  Afterwards, Brooks left acting behind until he was coaxed out of semi-retirement by director and independent film producer Oscar Micheaux. In 1935, he starred in Micheaux’s Murder In Harlem and found that he could continue his acting career in the films which gave him his start.  In race films he could at least play positive roles. In 1937, he played Larry Lee in Dark Manhattan and in 1938, he appeared in Spirit of Youth and Two-Gun Man from Harlem. In 1939, Brooks continued to work in independent films that supported his career philosophy with roles in The Bronze Buckaroo and Harlem Rides The Range.

Brooks continued working the race movie circuit, although the popularity of the genre was fading and the ability to challenge convention through film was becoming more difficult to achieve, as mainstream studios bought out the independent companies and made their own race films that appealed to prejudiced masses and sold out movie houses. In 1941, he appeared in one of the last race movies of the time, Up Jumped the Devil. Once the race movie era ended, Brooks did not work in films until 1946, when he reluctantly decided to turn back to acting to sustain himself and appeared as an uncredited valet in Blue Skies with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. In 1947, Brooks appeared as an uncredited Porter in Welcome Stranger.

The 1950s saw the end of Brooks’ film career. In 1951, he appeared in his last movie, portraying Sunga in Bowanga Bowanga. Brooks walked away from show business entirely after that and in March 1969 died of natural causes in Pasadena, California.

Wild Women a/k/a Bowanga Bowanga (1951)
Rock Island Trail (1950)
Welcome Stranger (1947)
Blue Skies (1946)
Up Jumped the Devil (1941)
Broken Strings (1940)
Am I Guilty? (1940)
Bad Boy (1939)
Harlem Rides the Range (1939)
The Bronze Buckaroo (1939)
Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938)
Spirit of Youth (1938)
Dark Manhattan (1937)
Murder in Harlem (1935)
Arrowsmith (1931)
Georgia Rose (1930)
Absent (1928)
By Right of Birth (1921)
A Man’s Duty (1919)
The Law of Nature (1917)

Source: TCM Classic Film Union Blog; Hollywood Heritage.  Photo source(s):  Hollywood Heritage, Modern Times.

Herb Jeffries

a/k/a Herbert Jeffery
a/k/a The Bronze Buckaroo

Herb Jeffries 1

Update:  On May 26, 2014, Variety reported that a pioneer in African American-targeted Western movies and jazz singer Herb Jeffries, a/k/a the “Bronze Buckaroo,” died. He was 100.  Jeffries died of heart failure in West Hills, California on Sunday, May 25, 2014, according to the LA Times.  His health had been declining for some time.  His survivors include his wife Savannah and his five children.

Herb Jeffries (billed as Herbert Jeffrey) was born Umberto Alejandro Ballentino in Detroit, Michigan in 1913 (some modern sources cite the year as 1911) to an Irish mother and mixed-race father. He grew up watching silent screen cowboys at local movie theatres and learning to ride on his grandfather’s dairy farm in Northern Michigan. Herb fell in love with music at a young age, and sang in a church choir, but he was especially attracted to jazz and blues. He attended school during the Depression and since money was scarce, decided to quit high school and go to work. Years later, he would go back, graduate, and even get several degrees, but at that time, the goal was to earn enough money to help his family. Blessed with an excellent singing voice, he began performing locally in Detroit.

Herb Jeffries 2One night in 1933, Jeffries was singing in a small nightclub when jazz icon Louis Armstrong walked through the door. In an interview by amateur jazz historian Tad Calcara, Jeffries says Armstrong heard him sing, pulled him aside, and changed his life. Jeffries took the Armstrong’s advice and headed for Chicago where he joined a band led by Erskine Tate and was soon spotted by Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines. Hines featured Jeffries in concerts and recordings, and on a national radio broadcast from the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 that brought him national attention.

While in his twenties, Jeffries pitched the idea for an all-black Western to producer Jed Buell, leading to one of the most enduring genres of the race movie movement. Jeffries traveled to Buell’s offices in Gower Gulch, California, and convinced him to take a chance on Harlem on the Prairie (1937), the first sound Western with an all-black cast. Harlem on the Prairie was a rarity in that it also secured bookings in white theatres on both East and West Coasts, thanks largely to Gene Autry, who helped Jeffries and Buell get a distribution deal with Sack Amusement.

With the film’s success, producer Richard C. Kahn approached Jeffries about making follow-up films. With Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938), Jeffries introduced the character of Bob Blake, whom he would play in two other films, The Bronze Buckaroo (1939) and Harlem Rides the Range (1939). With his long frame, rakish mustache and exotic good looks, Jeffries was able to capitalize on two unique styles of films at the time race films and singing cowboy pictures. And although he only made four films in that era, he helped to change the way African-Americans were portrayed in the movies.Herb Jeffries 4

Because of his mixed racial heritage, Jeffries had to use make-up to darken his complexion. He rarely took off his white Stetson, which he wore with an otherwise all-black outfit, so as not to reveal his lighter brown hair. The success of Jeffries’ Westerns did not escape Hollywood’s notice, but he turned down offers to join the major studios, not wanting to play stereotyped domestic roles.

Other films were in the planning stages, but never made because any chances to continue the series ended when Jeffries decided to accept a prestigious singing engagement with Duke Ellington. This led to his greatest recording success. In 1941, when another singer was unavailable, Jeffries stepped into the studio at the last minute to record “Flamingo,” which would become his signature song.

In the ’50s, Jeffries headlined in Europe and ran his own nightclub in Paris. He also starred in one more film, Calypso Joe (1957). He made several television guest appearances, including playing a black cowboy on The Virginian and had multiple guest roles on “Hawaii Five-O” as well as a run on the animated sitcom “Where’s Huddles?”  Jeffries also wrote and directed the nudie classic Mundo Depravados (1967), starring his wife at the time, stripper Tempest Storm.

Herb Jeffries 3Through the years Herb remained active on the lecture circuit and performed benefits for autism and music education. In 1995, he recorded an album of Western songs entitled “The Bronze Buckaroo Rides Again,” which was well received by critics.  In 1999, at 88, he released The Duke and I, a CD of songs he performed with Ellington in tribute to Ellington’s 100th birthday. Jeffries was a recipient of a Golden Boot award in 1996 and was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2003.


Herb Jeffries Filmography
Calypso Joe (1957)
Harlem Rides the Range (1939)
The Bronze Buckaroo (1939)
Rhythm Rodeo (1938)
Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938)
Harlem on the Prairie (1937)

Source(s): Turner Classic Movies,, Voice of America,, IMDB, Variety.