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Louise Beavers in Back Pay (1930)

by Karen Beavers

These clips feature Louise Beavers’ performance as Nellie in Back Pay (1930). The film is a melodrama, but Beavers’ maid provides levity, delivering punchlines and performing comedic bits of business with a dog. Her scant 2.5 minutes of screen time is spread over three sequences. She appears to have been directed to keep her eyes and body trained toward the main actors so that even when her body fills the frame, our eyes look beyond her. As a supporting character actress, her value is, of course, limited and relational but cutting her scenes together allows viewers to focus on her.

Black actors playing domestic servants onscreen were common in the 1930s. Their roles are usually discussed in structural terms, for good reasons, but it’s also worth asking what we can say about Beavers as a movie actress, or even an artist? Beavers and the other principal actors in this movie perform in an almost presentational style of vaudeville that was common in movies of this period. Her scenes are more about serving malapropisms and jokes than building sustained conversations. The film doesn’t require her to convey deep feelings, but she has an affecting moment while acting as a conduit between the principal actors. In many scenes she is responsible for conveying a single emotion at a time, sometimes concern, other times confusion, but mostly cheerfulness. In her final scene in the movie, however, Beavers conveys a complex mix of worry with a mask of false optimism. She’s funny and moving in this movie, despite the limitations of the role and her (and the film’s) style.

Beavers made over 150 films but had very few starring roles. Her work is rarely discussed in aesthetic terms. What can we see, feel, and talk about when we look at her work closely?

Other media by this contributor

Supporting Characters: Louise Beavers in Back Pay (1930)

Louise Beavers as Nellie in Back Pay (1930)

from Back Pay (1930)
Creator: William A. Seiter
Distributor: Warner Archive
Posted by Karen Beavers