Last week, our piece on British actress Dorothy Mackaill featured this clip from the 1931 drama Safe in Hell:
You probably spotted Mackaill at left in that frame. But who’s the beauty in the center?
Nina Mae McKinney (1912-1967) was a decidedly distinctive American actress, born in small-town South Carolina and hailed in Europe as “The Black Garbo,” which is high praise indeed. At home, she wasn’t quite so highly celebrated, for reasons mostly having to do with Jim Crow and his descendants, but she was respected for her work, and in that Safe in Hell clip she didn’t do that bogus ethnic Stephanie Fetchit voice that marred so many pictures with African-American women, which by all accounts was fine with director William A. Weilman.
Nina Mae decided to get out of Europe after the Third Reich strode into Poland, and while she did find work, it was mostly in B pictures; after the war, she moved to Greece.
And we must mention Hallelujah! Released in 1929, it was that rarest of motion-picture phenomena: a film with an all-black cast, a standard rather than substandard budget, the backing of a major studio — MGM, no less — and a name-brand director: King Vidor. Of course, Metro, concerned about the money, insisted on a slightly scurrilous and decidedly stereotypical story. But Vidor kept sneaking reality into the film, and it became a sizable hit; Vidor was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director. Nina Mae’s character, a sharecropper turned Loose Woman, wasn’t any sort of role model, but oh, how she could dance!
Irving Berlin, the whitest songwriter of them all — see, for instance, the Drifters’ version of “White Christmas” — came up with “Swanee Shuffle,” and Curtis Mosby’s real-life band plays in this legendary dancehall scene.
And if you did the math and figured that Nina Mae was only sixteen at the time — well, forget it. It’s just math.