Snowflake of Lumberton

snowflake1

What? Yes!

Snowflake, the black American comic actor showcased in numerous ’30s and ’30s films, and best-known for his appearances in Preston Sturges comedies, is a disturbing figure when seen with modern eyes. A gifted comic, he is generally cast in demeaning roles, as a half-witted servant or train porter, and he plays them to the hilt, without any obvious desire to subvert the stereotype or turn the joke around. At the same time, he’s an appealing sort of fellow, so his appearances often create a kind of sadness that colonises his scenes in a film and threatens to spill over. Another weird thing is that he always seems to be playing a character called Snowflake — in COME AND GET IT, he doesn’t get any lines or even any bits of comedy business, he just stands around grinning, but is referred to by Edward Arnold as “Snowflake” several times, raising the unresolved question of how Edward Arnold knows this guy so well.

Looking around the internet, not much seemed to be known about him — even his real name was in question — and then it turned out that, naturally, Diarmid Mogg of The Unsung Joe had uncovered the facts in the case of M. Snowflake, and he was kind enough to pass on to me the article he’d sourced (since Snowflake is actually TOO PROMINENT a movie actor to be featured on Diarmid’s very special site). Fascinating to discover that Snowflake, real name Buster Hayes (how can anyone called Buster require a nickname?), was born in the town where BLUE VELVET is set. Just think, if he had lived, he could have played one of the old guys working in Kyle MacLachlan’s garage.

Diarmid says:

“Well, Snowflake’s a guy who everyone’s got an opinion about, but no one knows anything about him beyond what they see on screen (which is pretty damning, obviously). How strange. He’s not even in “Blacks in Black and White”, my seemingly exhaustive reference book on black cinema. I guess people just can’t take him these days.

It’s quite unusual to find that someone as prolific as he was never appeared in the syndicated gossip or humour columns. Obviously, it’s partly because he’s black, but Clarence Muse appeared in the papers often enough.

Anyway, I can only find one decent article on him, but it’s a good one.”

Note — like Snowflake’s performances, this article is very much “of its time.”

FEBRUARY 12, 1942

Lumberton’s Only Actor, Snowflake, Tells How He Crashed The Movieland On Recent Visit To His Old Boss Here

By Ray Pittman

Lumberton’s only movie star is a toothsome darky by the name of Snowflake and one can look a far ways before he’ll find a more genteel colored man and yet a more determined cuss when the spirit gets behind him.

Snowflake, for example, went to a moving picture house in Chicago close to a decade ago and saw for his first time the antics of a slim, dark negro named Snowball, who was packing them in back in the thirties.

Snowflake, at that time Buster Hayes, decided point blank that he was going to be a movie star. He went back home, packed his grip, and hopped the rails for Hollywood.

In a matter-of-fact way, and in double quick time at that, the Raynham darky became a movie star—and one who has played in 360-odd pictures in his nine years in Hollywood.

He was never in doubt, was Snowflake. that he’d finally get in pictures. But the way he made the grade was, he’ll admit, just a little bit freakish though on conformity with the accepted Hollywood-crashing procedure. Let Snowflake tell it, as he told this Robesonian reporter during the actor’s recent visit to his old home here:

“Two Genulmans”

“I wuz in Los Angeles walking down the street when I sees two gennulmans standin’ on the corner. I commenced t’ask the gennulmans if they knew wheah I could find a job in the Moving pictures and they says ‘Yes, go to the Hollywood B and B club and tell ‘em there you wants a job.’ I went to Hollywood, but couldn’t find any such club, so I started back to Los Angeles.”

Here Snowflake believes he became confused and ended up on the set of some studio. At any rate, “two gennulmans” again enter the scene.

“I sees these two gennulmans standing together talking and by this time I’m broke. I commence to thinkin’ and wondrin’ how I’m goin’ to get back to Los Angeles and all at once I feels my harmonica in my pocket. I asks these gennulmans if they would mind me playin’ them a little tune for a dime. Well, instead, one of them gives me a dime and I tells him, ‘Thank you, SUH!’ and stahts to leave.

“About that time I heahs one of the gennulmans say to the other gennulman, ‘Hey, Weeks, he’s just the man we need,’ and then the other gennulman hollers at me and says, ‘Hey, come back heah, son!’ So I comes back.”

And to make a long story short, Snowflake was hired on the spot, he says, to do a bit part in Honeymoon Lane. The “two gennulmans” turned out to be “Mistuh Gawge Weeks and Mistuh Eddie Dowling”, the former a producer of his day and the latter the star of Honeymoon Lane.

Well, Snowflake, still going strong, has been in Hollywood ever since, playing bartenders and porters and valets and funny men in pictures of all sorts. Of late he’s appeared quite a bit in pictures starring Don Barry, the Red Rider.

In fact, if you went to the Pastime theatre Saturday, you saw Snowflake yourself. He was one of the ranch hands of the heroine of “Bad Men of Missouri”

Worked For Dr. Dowman

The adopted son of Moriah Munn of the Raynham section, Snowflake-Buster got his start in this world as a general handyman to Dr. E. L. Bowman when the Lumberton doctor was starting out with a practice in the town of McDonald. Dr. Bowman had one of the early “Model Ts” in this section and Snowflake swears he was chauffeuring it for the Doctor when he was only 12 years old.

In his early teens the wanderlust hit Buster and he hopped a work train out of .Lumberton, went to New York, and finally secured work on a train making a New York-Chicago run. It was on the Chicago end of this run that he first saw the show featuring Snowball and for the first time in his life gave a thought to making a living as a movie actor. Snowflake says he rode the rails back into New York, then chucked the works to go to Hollywood and become a movie star.

“I thought Hollywood and Los Angeles was just around the corner. As a matter of fact, I’d never heard of either one of them before.”

The Snowflake-to-be finally got to the West Coast, but not without a deal of hard work. He had to roll up his sleeves and do a little out-and-out work of every nature after his very very slim roll thinned out.

After he reached Los Angeles, he drove a truck for a while. But not for long. Snowflake was headed for the lights.

He’s Satisfied

He holds no grudge with the life Hollywood has handed him, and  is more than satisfied with the money and the compensations his roles have rewarded him with. He’s been married twice, and has dabbled in chicken and turkey farming.

As for the matrimonial ventures, Dr Bowman will tell you that the first of his wives “married him for his money”, then induced him into the chicken farming business.

Snowflake will laugh at this, as he did the other day in the Lumberton doctor’s office, then said: “I didn’t like chickens, ain’t never liked chickens. I got tired of lookin’ at ‘em” Snowflake divorced that wife; he’s getting along fine with his second.

Snowflake looked plenty “Hollywood” the other day in his green sport shirt, gray trousers, and yellow convertible automobile. But with it all he was just plain home folks and doggoned glad to be back in Lumberton for a few days.

It was his second trip home since he left Lumberton. The first time he was gone for 13 years, but he now plans to come more often.

Snowflake’s in his thirties and is perhaps a quarter of a century younger than is his stepmother, Moriah Munn of Raynham. Moriah has been mighty good to him in those years, he’ll tell you, for it was the little colored women who took him as a several-day-old baby and cared for him until he was able to fend for himself.

Mother Disappeared

There’s one thing that bothers Buster, and outside of that he belies his looks if he never had a care. Buster wants to know what became of his folks, and especially his mother, Bernice Hayes, who hasn’t been seen in these parts since soon after the birth of young Snowflake (His real name’s Fred).

If anybody is able to enlighten Buster as to the whereabouts of his mother, please shoot a postcard
in to the Robesonian. It will be forwarded to Snowflake out in Hollywood, and the boy will certainly appreciate it.

And if you want to see Lumberton’s only movie actor on the screen, just watch for the new production “Palm Beach Story” starring Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea.

Snowflake will be the big, scared bartender on a fast train. But we’ll bet he gets in one good solid grin so you can recognize him.

snowflake2

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35 Responses to “Snowflake of Lumberton”

  1. It’s great to get some information on him really —> thank you for sharing the article.
    I always found that scene in ‘The Palm Beach Story’ to be exceptionally funny somehow!

  2. I’m always on the verge of finding it funny, but I can’t. I like him best when he’s being inadvertently wise, as in Christmas in July.

    Dick Powell: “Is it good luck or bad luck when a black cat crosses your path?”

    Snowflake: “Well, that all depends on what happens afterwards.”

    “You said it!”

  3. The gossipy yet overly propper nature of this article juxtaposed with what we always remember about Snowflake’s performance in the Quale and Ale scene – well, there’s just something so tragic about about seeing the two together. Actually, reading and seeing the two combined here remind me of the better scenes in Hollywood Shuffle, or something like that. In the article we have dated portrait an actor, and in the film we have “the black guy” – not to undermine Sturgess’ own ability to write things very much against the grain, but he still works within stock characters, and at the time, yeah – even great comic actors had to be religated to servile roles if they want to work in the movies.

    I can’t beleive you found this thing, D! It’s fascinating!

  4. In The Palm Beach Story Sturges gives one of his greatest lines to another black actor ( research as to who required) who plays a porter on a train. Joel McCrea asks him about Claudette Colbert, who the porter has seen. “Is she travellign alone?” to which thh eporte answers “Well you could say that. He only tipped me a DIME! She’s alone but sh don’t know it!”

    The subject of African-American actors in Golden Age of Hollywood is a rich, complex and troubling one. Often top-flight performers like Hattie McDaniels wouldn’t even get billing. Plus there was a very strange period in the late forties when parts obviously written for blacks were cast with white actors (eg. Joan Crawford’s maid in Flamingo Road.)

    That’s because black actors were starting to unionize. My dear friend the late Frances Williams (she played Joan Bennett’s housekeeper in The Reckless Moment and “Miss Marie” on Frank’s Place) was a big union organizer.

  5. When i first saw THE PALM BEACH STORY I found his character very problematic since it seemed at first to be in the tradition of the minstrels. Seeing it repeatedly I understood Sturges’ stylization since the Ale and Pail Club are just as unreal and far more unbelievably violent and the palpable fear on Snowflake’s face more than subverts it when they start shooting in that compartment.

    In SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, you had a similar disturbing gag with that chef in that mobile trailer that tracks Joel McRea around in one scene flour falls on him and he’s in “whiteface”. I think these gags were deliberate iconoclasms on Sturges’ part because as the scene in the church at the end of the film makes clear, he isn’t at all a racist.

    Don’t forget in much of the mid30s post-code period upto the 40s, most films didn’t have black actors because they were afraid of getting censored in the south or for offending the Hays Code which, I think we can safely say now, were fairly racist. Very few film-makers had black people in their films and unfortunately when they were cast the roles were limited anyway. One of the criticisms back then among anti-Hollywood intellectuals was that you got the sense that black people didn’t exist in America from going to the movies.

    Not that Sturges was striking a blow for civil rights or anything but that he was certainly not conforming to the general pressures of that period.

  6. You sure are a big Cole Porter fan, David. That picture is way too big for my monitor.

  7. Cole Porter? Wrong queer songwriter. You mean Lorenz Hart.

  8. I think what Sturges is is complicated. He’s not racist, but he’s also not sensitive to some of the things that modern viewers, and some 40s viewers, would find uncomfortable. To Sturges, Snowflake in whiteface would just be a funny image, and if something struck him as funny, I think he’d be inclined to use it. Not that he didn’t think deeply about his films, because obviously he did, but he saw no reason to question that gag. I don’t think it functions as subversion, particularly.

    The argument that the Ail & Quail Club are at least as grotesque as Snowflake is true, but where does it get us? I don’t think I’d find the poor steward’s plight that funny anyway, since he’s an entirely innocent victim, a subservient character who’s put through hell for no good reason. I get the impression making him black is supposed somehow to make it funnier, but it really doesn’t. Conversely, all the mistreatment of poor Rudy Vallee in that film is fine, since he’s a multi-millionaire. He can take it!

    Sturges did give Snowflake possibly his biggest comedy role in a studio comedy, in Remember the Night. But again he’s playing a comedy idiot.

  9. Here’s the guy with the great line in Palm Beach Story, also to be praised for his phonetic pronunciation of “yacht” —
    http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0601023/

  10. And as you can see Moore never got screen credit save for the two roles he played in Oscar Michaux films at the very beginning of his career!

  11. Makes a depressing kind of sense. I see Sturges liked him enough to bring him along for The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, after leaving Paramount, which is nice. But he has him playing a bootblack, which is not so nice.

  12. Well this lies at the heart of the national psychopathology. White rule demanded that blacks not be seen as actors but literal embodiments of subservients. Hattie McDaniels was a well-paid proper upper middle-class woman, but the only time you see her this way is in the (phenomenal) “Ice Cold Katie Won;t You Marry the Soldier?” number in Thank Your Lucky Stars. I’m sure that any number of white racists thought she WAS a maid.

    TThins changed after World War II when James Edwards, Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier came along and became genuine stars.

  13. The 30s seem to offer the most troubling stereotypes. In the 40s, there are slightly less embarrassing moments, but there are fewer black people onscreen. And there’s all kinds of studio cravenness, like shooting Lena Horne’s numbers in such a way that they can easily be excised when the pictures play in the south.

    An actor like Clarence Muse fascinates me, because he’ll play demeaning comedy relief roles in Capra films, but when something comes along that he can invest with dignity and gravitas, he really goes for it. Val Lewton gave him a great death scene in Apache Drums, for instance.

    But Snowflake is a comic type, not a versatile actor, and what he does would probably always seem awkward to modern eyes (although he’s good at it), whatever roles he was given.

  14. This of course leads to the quintessential conundrum of Stepin Fetchit. Lincoln Perry was quite well educated and could speak properly in real life but he created the persona of Stepin Fetchit and became a comic actor worthy of the great silent clowns by playing and exaggerating racist stereotypes. He was a fascinating man and a great actor in films like ”Judge Priest” or ”Steamboat ‘Round the Bend” and of course ”The Sun Shines Bright”(a film which Ford claimed to make because of a lynching scene cut in the original which he managed to salvage in his sequel/remake).

    Getting back to the earlier post…
    —————————————–
    I don’t think I’d find the poor steward’s plight that funny anyway, since he’s an entirely innocent victim, a subservient character who’s put through hell for no good reason.
    —————————————–

    And yet it is still funny because it is disturbing. In many occassions black people got killed or lynched by cruelly moronic white dandies like the Ale and Quailers and even though Snowflake doesn’t die he very well could have and for those white fellas it would be a cruel old joke. It’s a very powerful satire.

    In Buster Keaton’s powerful ”Neighbors”, he accidentally gets grease on one side of his face giving him a partial blackface and when a cop sees one side he gives him chase and eventually Keaton hides under a pile of laundry sheets that gets collected by a black lady and when Keaton rises he looks like a KKK and she runs in panic. Is this joke insensitive or satirical?

    Racism was part of American culture back then and film-makers knew that and many of them dealt with that in any way they could. Nicholas Ray in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE makes Marietta Candy’s love for Plato who is yes her charge but who is explicitly spelled out as the only person who loves that boy unlike the absent rich white parents. Then Sirk went even further with IMITATION OF LIFE.

  15. Sorry David, I thought that was Cole.

    Thanks for finding all those versions. Nico’s version is haunting…

  16. I would dispute that Disturbing = Funny. Most of The Palm Beach Story is funny without being particularly disturbing. The Ale & Quail Club are a sideshow to the main plot, a chance for Sturges to get some slapstick in. I’m not sure how satiric it is.

    Likewise Keaton, who had no satiric pretences but does convey a powerful worldview through his comedy, which is basically existential rather than political. If he was doing this comedy today we might call some of it insensitive, but it was perfectly acceptable in his day.

    Keaton’s most dubious moment is probably his blackface routine in College, which I find a bit hard to take.

  17. —————————–
    The Ale & Quail Club are a sideshow to the main plot, a chance for Sturges to get some slapstick in. I’m not sure how satiric it is.
    —————————–

    Come on, this is PRESTON STURGES. Satire is his trade, his calling. He is a satirist the way people are blacksmiths. The Ale and Quail Club is in line with the pretentious society dwellers he enjoys mocking throughout his films, having himself come from that class.

  18. David E.:
    > Wrong queer songwriter. You mean Lorenz Hart.

    Darling, darling David … you must admit that Richard Rodgers had *something* to do with the writing of that song.

    > There was a very strange period in
    > the late forties when parts obviously
    > written for blacks were cast with
    > white actors

    I remember that Kael claimed Patrica Neal was, in essence, playing black in “Hud.”

  19. Granted, Sturges was making fun of the idle rich. This sequence is also part of his “aristocracy of beauty” theme, where Claudette Colbert continually lands on her feet and moves upwards through society due to her beauty, without even doing anything. I’m just not sure how satiric Snowflake’s persecution is… if the point is that rich people persecute their inferiors, that’s not one of his most sophisticated observations.

  20. No it’s not sophisticated. But that’s Sturges all over — mixing the highly sophisticated with the highly un. No wonder he was able to work so well wtih betty Hutton.

    Betty Grable, by contrast, eluded him.

  21. I was just thinking of Marietta Candy in regard to Viola Davis in Doubt. Candy was of course merely the maid whereas Davis is playing to boy’s real mother. But in both instances the boys are queer.

  22. Awesome sequence — it would be harder to imagine a greater confluence of disturbing pre-code elements. I’ve shown it to students and it’s fun to watch them try and process the song lyrics and the imagery at the same time.

  23. The thing that I find fascianting about Cantor is that he doesn’t try to “play” a black person — as Jolson does. He remains Eddie, just wearing blackface make-up

    Here’s another example.

  24. Equal opportunity- where is the overdue appreciation of Theresa Harris? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen her pop up in my wanderings across the cinematic map, from Baby Face to Out of the Past and Val Lewton. She had a very lengthy and rewarding career (put her money away, married a doctor, and retired at a fairly early age from cinema), I’d love to know more about her life and times. Now there’s a biography ripe for the telling, if there’s enough out there to potentially fill a book. Always memorable, whenever and wherever she appeared.

  25. She was great! Lewton was obviously progressively-minded, even if I Walked with a Zombie also plays on racial fears. It’s conscious of that and includes plenty of subversion. While other Hollywood films were casting white people in roles that might logically be expected to go to blacks, Harris appeared in parts that could easily have been taken by whites, which must be almost unique.

    Bill Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie is credited as the first US film with a major character played by an African-American actor with no reference to his race. But on a smaller scale, Lewton was there first. There’s Sir Lancelot too, unlocking the undreamed-of sinister potential of the calypso song, and then turning up in a couple more films just for the hell of it.

  26. Here’s an interesting news story from 1937, which contains an interview with Theresa Harris (quoted in Blacks in Black and White), when she was appearing in cinemas in “Bargain with Bullets”, a movie made by a black film company:

    ———–

    ‘I like working with the Negro film-producing company, now managed by Ralph Cooper, because in the picture I have a chance of wearing clothes’, said Theresa Harris this week. She means a beautiful wardrobe that is usually denied colored women in white movies.

    Miss Harris s currently starred in BARGAIN WITH BULLETS, a gangster film produced by Million Dollar Productions … Not many years ago the actress was considered ‘tops’ among the sepia film players. She played in three successive hits with Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell in one year. She lost none of her talent but the breaks in Hollywood seem to have deserted her. She has turned to the all-Negro company as an outlet.

    ‘A person of any standing professionally takes a long chance with his reputation in joining pioneer companies,’ the actress stated. ‘Naturally facilities are limited. We cannot secure the very best directors. Good players are few. But the opportunity of playing the roles otherwise denied one in white pictures is a great relief to the Negro motion picture artist.’

    Asked if she thought the company had a future, the lady said, ‘It has as much future as any other film company if advanced publicity and important people do not kill it. I believe Mr Cooper is sincere in his efforts. He is certainly hard working.

    ‘We have tolerated so many rotten pictures made in Hollywood by the Jews and whites, I do not see why our own people cannot be tolerant of the pioneering stage of this company.

    ‘All of the players are members of the Screen Actors Guild. Our wages are satisfactory but in many technical matters we are still struggling.

    ‘I never felt the chance to rise above the role of a maid in Hollywood movies. My color was against me any way you looked at it. The fact that I was not ‘hot’ stamped me either as an upiddy Negress or relegated me to the eternal role of stooge or servant. I can sing but so can hundreds of their girls. My ambitions are to be an actress. Hollywood has no part for me.’
    ———————————————————————–

  27. She was a woman who knew the bottom line and wasn’t afraid to explicate it. Therefore ideologically dangerous.

  28. That’s another terrific find, Diarmid. Must look out for that book. I love the phrase “the sepia film players”, somebody should form a company with that name. Or maybe not.

  29. Arthur: “Then Sirk went even further with IMITATION OF LIFE.”

    At the video store this weekend to collect “Easy Living”, I was surprised to find the original Stahl-directed IMITATION OF LIFE in the Preston Sturges section. IMDB claims he was one of eight uncredited writers on the film. Hardly seems fair to release on videotape it in the “preston sturges collection”… I wonder how much involvement Sturges had (I haven’t even seen it).

    I’m late to the party, but this has been a great post and discussion.

  30. Sturges complained that screenwriters were expected to work in teams, “like piano movers.” The early works that reflect his personality include The Good Fairy, maybe If I Were King, and certainly the two for Leisen. It would be hard to detect with certaintly any Sturges influence on Imitation of Life.

  31. I was doing a search after seeing him credited as Snowflake in the 1940 Fred MacMurray/Barbara Stanwyck film Remember The Night. Very interesting that he had so many parts yet was one of the lesser known black race players of that era.

  32. He obviously had some kind of odd fame WITHIN Hollywood, since so many of his characters are called “Snowflake” and they make a point of naming hi in the films. Come and Get It is a particularly gratuitous one, he doesn’t even have any lines, but Edward Arnold calls him Snowflake, even though he’s a train porter and it seems unlikely he’d know him by any name at all.

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