The man's profile was classic! His hair was slicked to a high shine and nary a strand was ever out of place, and whether in high drape pants or fitted out in a tux, Emmett "Babe" Wallace was always immaculate! So impeccable! In Stormy Weather, he's forever immortal, and oh, so fine and mellow!
Stormy Weather (1943) assembled a cast of the most stupendous black talent of that era including Lena Horne, Katherine Dunham and her dancers, Cab Calloway, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Fats Waller and the scene stealing Nicholas Brothers in a legendary performance that many consider to be the best tap routine ever captured on film. However, one walks away from a viewing of Stormy Weather with many thoughts and questions. It helps to know that the movie was never meant to be taken seriously, and was made as a quick diversive for wartime audiences. Rife with disturbing racial stereotypes common in films of that era, Stormy Weather has endured the tempestuous winds of time.
Lena Horne's beauty is absolutely mesmerizing, but just who was the pretty brown daddy that played her more realistic love interest? Just who was that beautiful brown-skinned singing' man? Despite a major role in the film, Emmett "Babe" Wallace's name is glaringly absent from the film credits.
That's just one reason why we need to meet Emmett "Babe" Wallace and remember him! He was born in Brooklyn NY in 1909. By the time he was a young adult, he had written a few songs and was working as a singer and dancer in many of the famous Harlem hot spots such as Small's Paradise, the Cotton Club, and the Apollo Theater. When Ella Fitzgerald inherited Chick Webb's orchestra after his death, Wallace helped front the band for a short time. Devastatingly handsome, film work was only a natural progression, and his talents stood on their own merit.
Typical of the period, Wallace would have been described as a "bronzed Erroll Flynn" meaning he was relegated to "race" films for "colored" audiences. Maybe it doesn't matter because those were often the only films that black entertainers were featured in. Ultimately, they were helpful in reaching a wider audience, and Babe Wallace appeared in a handful of them and left an indelible imprint on every one.
Along with "Dickie" Wells, another Harlem dancer and playboy, Wallace captures your full attention in Smash Your Baggage aka Baggage Smasher's (1932). The Black Network (1936) co-starring Nina Mae McKinney, is widely regarded as one of the absolute best of the genre. Glamourous & sophisticated, Mckinney is regarded as the first black female sex symbol in the movies. Every bit her match, Wallace appeared with McKinney several times on film and they had a brief affair. A bonafide ladies man, Wallace often had affairs with his female co-stars including Vivian Dandridge, whom he met on the set of Stormy Weather, and together they had a child.
Regardless, Emmett's potential was never realized in Hollywood. It's said that they "never knew what to do with" our early black stars if they weren't playing maids and butlers. But what did they really WANT to do with them? He could've been a contender, but nonetheless set the tone for many brothers who would follow in his footsteps including Herb Jeffries and Harry Belafonte.
During the 1950's, Wallace moved to Israel where he often sang in Yiddish and enjoyed success as a popular recording artist. He developed a solid reputation all over Europe touring with old friends like Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton. In the latter part of his career, Broadway beckoned and he appeared with Robert Guillaume in Guys And Dolls!
Unfortunately, "Babe" Wallace is largely forgotten today, except by afficionados of early black cinema. Fortunately, some recognition was to come in 1989 when he was presented with the Paul Robeson Award by the Black American Cinema Society.
When I decided to research Wallace, I didn't find much information, but what little I could find suggested that Wallace might actually still be alive. But he would have had to be damn near 100 years old. I found out that he was a resident at the Actors Fund Retirement Home in New Jersey. I got excited and my first inclination was to call the home but I didn't want to be too familiar. Besides, what would I say? Upon further research, I found that I was actually too late. Mr. Wallace had already passed away, and I had just missed him.
Through my frustration, I found Babe's grandson, Jimy Bleu (above left). Bleu understood! He told me many anectdotes about his grandfather, and shared that a documentary celebrating Babe's life and career was currently in post-production. It promises to be a tremendous tribute to Wallace, one of our least known, most handsome, talented, and certainly one of our best entertainers.