I picked up this still because I found the juxtaposition of two major musical stars together in the shot, one white and one black, seemingly functioning as equals, quite intriguing. The film is CAIRO (1942), a musical comedy with a World War II spy theme produced at MGM, and it stars Jeanette MacDonald, Robert Young, and Ethel Waters.
Based on this still, I wanted to see the film to determine how big a role Waters had. She’s billed third, so it had to be more substantial than black performers normally got in films of that era. And Waters was quite a big star at the time, maybe not in Hollywood, but certainly on stage, records and the nightclub circuit. I finally watched the film and I’m happy to say she has a big role. Granted, she plays MacDonald’s maid, but she also functions as her secretary and traveling companion and is in a lot of the film and participates in much of the action.
The plot is pretty silly and has to do with the efforts of a naïve American reporter (Young) to smoke out a Nazi spy ring in English-occupied Cairo. MacDonald plays an American singer and movie star who’d left America three years earlier and somehow wound up doing a gig in Cairo. The film opens with Young watching one of her movies and it’s revealed that he’s a big fan of hers. Through one of those ridiculous misunderstandings that drive the most contrived Hollywood movies, Young winds up suspecting MacDonald of being the head of the spy ring and she winds up suspecting him of being a Nazi agent. He applies for a job as her butler and she gives it to him, all so they can keep a close eye on each other. The real spies are aware of all this and are more than content to manipulate the situation to their advantage. The whole thing culminates in a confrontation at the Pyramids (recreated none too convincingly on an MGM soundstage, like everything else in the film) and a wild aviation climax with Young trying to bring down an out-of-control radio-operated plane filled with explosives.
The major point of interest for me was Waters’ performance. I’m happy to report that she plays the role without a hint of stereotype and only a slight trace of dialect. She participates in two of MacDonald’s musical numbers, singing a little opera with her as MacDonald bathes, and jumping in at a rehearsal with “Waitin’ for the Robert E. Lee.” She then gets a full-fledged number of her own in a performance amidst ancient ornamental sculptures at the “Native Festival,” where she’s dressed in an elegant black gown. The song is “Buds Won’t Bud” and was written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg and includes the lyrics, “Buds won’t bud, breeze won’t breeze and dew won’t dew / One and one ain’t even two / When the love you love won’t love you…”
The performance gets her the attention of a black man in Arab garb, to whom she says, “Don’t look at me, I ain’t Mecca,” but he turns out to be from Central Avenue in L.A. (Earlier Waters had declared that all she wanted was “a colored boy who speaks a language other than French.”) His name is Hector and he’s played by Dooley Wilson, better known as Sam in CASABLANCA, and he even joins Waters in a reprise of “Buds Won’t Bud,” with more hopeful lyrics reflecting their new-found interest in each other. He later shows up in the climactic action at the pyramids alongside Waters. How often in these movies did we see a maid get any lovin’?
At one point, MacDonald, Young and Waters all go to a movie theater together and there’s never any hint of segregation. (This was Cairo, Egypt, after all, not Cairo, Georgia.) Waters is MacDonald’s companion throughout and is as much a participant in the “investigation” as MacDonald. The scene we see in the still at the top takes place outside their own house as they try to sneak in to search Young’s room without anyone seeing them. (Don’t ask.)
It’s not a very good movie, but it does have some amusing self-referential lines about MacDonald’s Hollywood career including a response to Young’s question about whether she’s ever been to San Francisco: “Yes, I was there with Gable and Tracy and the joint fell apart,” a reference to the movie, SAN FRANCISCO (1936), about the San Francisco Earthquake, in which she’d starred with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. The Waters scenes are fun to watch and I wish she’d performed more numbers. I also wish Dooley Wilson had been given more to do and more to sing. But, alas, it was MacDonald’s picture and she had to take center stage.
This was MacDonald’s last movie for six years. She did two more at the studio, THREE DARING DAUGHTERS (1948) and THE SUN COMES UP (1949), and never did another movie, although she did make some TV appearances in the 1950s. Waters made only two other movies in the early 1940s: TALES OF MANHATTAN (1942), an anthology film in which she appears in a sequence with Paul Robeson, and CABIN IN THE SKY (1943), also at MGM, an all-black cast musical in which she co-starred with Lena Horne and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. She then appeared in a dramatic role in Elia Kazan’s PINKY (1949) and got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She appeared on Broadway in “Member of the Wedding” and reprised her role (Berenice Sadie Brown) in the 1952 movie version, starring alongside her Broadway co-stars, Julie Harris and Brandon De Wilde.
I remember seeing Waters on the Johnny Carson Show one night in the 1970s and she sat on the couch next to Mickey Rooney, who recalled knowing Waters from their MGM days, and she put her arm around him and said, “This is my baby.” It was the only time I ever saw Rooney genuinely happy on one of these shows.