A problematic figure in these annals, Stepin Fetchit is much maligned nowadays for having played a shiftless, shuffling, mumbling, lazy no account servant in Hollywood movies throughout the 1930s. On the other hand, he’s one of the first African Americans to get his foot in the door — even if the foot was wearing a hobo shoe. Mel Watkins, in his terrific book about African American comedy On the Real Side, postulates that the comedian’s character was actually a brand of subversive sarcasm, an exponent of a coping strategy that dates back to slavery days. Stepin Fetchit (real name Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, born on this day in 1902) was the first African American to get screen credit and the first to make a million dollars in show business.
At the age of 14, he’d run off to join an all-black minstrel show. Later, he formed a two man act with a friend name Ed Lee called “Skeeter and Rastus — Two Dancing Fools from Dixie”, and they worked the black vaudeville circuits. Gradually, the act evolved and they became “Step ‘n’ Fetchit”. When his partner left the act, Perry kept the name for himself. He got his first film role in 1925, reportedly by remaining in character before, during and after the audition, a strategy he was reported to have used frequently in order to outsmart his directors and producers. He was in some of the biggest hits of the 1930s, including several with his friend Will Rogers and one with Shirley Temple. He was also highly influential: performers of the era who emulated include Matthew “Stymie” Beard from Our Gang, Mantan Moreland, and Willie Best (a.k.a “Sleep ‘n’ Eat”).
By the 1940s, however, the Hollywood parts were few and far between (although he made numerous low budget all-black pictures) and he was forced to declare bankruptcy). It was back to the chitlin circuit and nightclubs for his last few decades. I will say this: you can see him in the amazingly weird 1974 picture Amazing Grace starring Moms Mabley, Slappy White, Moses Gunn and Butterfly McQueen. I’m warning you right now: I consider it well worth watching, but you just may consider it far too weird. Stepin Fetchit suffered a stroke in 1976 and spent his last few years in the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital, passing away in 1985.
To find out about Stepin Fetchit and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever books are sold. For more on comedy film please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc