Monday, January 14, 2008

Lewton's Calypsonian: Sir Lancelot

Shame and sorrow for the family

Calypso singer Sir Lancelot's motion picture career is not surprisingly overlooked. After all, he played bit roles in a handful of films. Yet I think he is a somewhat important figure in American film. At a time when black males could only play servants and shoe-shine men, Sir Lancelot was allowed to portray more dignified characters, who could sometimes offer commentary on the story's events.

In I Walked With A Zombie, Lancelot gets his best role, and it's over in a hurry. Nevertheless, the role is tailor-made for a Calypsonian, as he sings a topical song which comments on local controversies. Instead of just being tossed in for diversion, his song actually introduces the back story of brothers feuding over a woman.

While Lancelot feels compelled to apologize when Wesley Rand overhears his song, later he sings it again when Rand has passed out drunk and Betsy tries to roust him. In this scence, he warns Betsy of impending disaster and shame with new lyrics, all the while advancing in menacing fashion. What other black actor got to scold a white woman in 1943?

Perhaps his status as a foreign-born black with an exotic job description, Calypso Singer, made it easier for him to be cast this way in the 1940s. While Lancelot never became a star, others followed in his path. America would later embrace fellow Caribbeans Harry Belafonte and Sidney Portier, long before it could accept black actors from places like New York as leading men.

He appeared in two other Lewton films, playing a crew member in Ghost Ship, and yes, a servant, in Curse of the Cat People. You can also see him in To Have and Have Not, and hear his observational singing in Jules Dassin's Brute Force.

More on his career at

1 comment:

Maya said...

Michael, thank you so much for your contribution to the Val Lewton blogathon. I was hoping someone would write about Sir Lancelot, one of the most memorable members of Lewton's acting ensemble. Though Sir Lancelot is a "servant" in Curse of the Cat People, I would qualify that he's far from your average 1940s Black servant and invested with an agency unique for its time; a tribute not only to the man as an actor but to Lewton's open mind as a producer.

Much has been written about an element often seen in Lewton's films where characters are "marked" for danger and, in I Walked With A Zombie, it's Sir Lancelot who marks Frances Dee with his menacing ballad.

Thanks as well for catching the joke in the film's opening credits. Not many people do.