Unsung Heroes of White Hollywood

In the fictitious universe of cinema, the hero takes on several forms.

On occasion donning a cape or tights, they can wield superpowers that overcome the nefarious villain with picture-perfect timing before the film’s end credits. They are the lone gunslinger who rides off into the sunset; the trench-coated detective who cracks the case in the nick of time; the swashbuckling lion heart who swings in from high – whereby rescuing the damsel in distress and thus saving the day. Whether it’s the Cinderella arc or the achilles heel, the rebirth or the tragedy, these heroes and heroines share the liberty of a common privilege: the godlike immortality of living forever on screen. 

But the sad and untold truth is that not all heroes have enjoyed similar fates. Indeed, the biggest flaw of history is its selective memory. And, as the pages have turned and the chapters surmounted, some of the most incredible heroes have been literally whitewashed from our collective minds. 

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For Hollywood’s unsung heroes, fighting an uphill battle was something they had to do both on and off screen. In fact, it was a part of their everyday life – like brushing their teeth, or taking out the trash. And yet, not only did they manage to forge successful careers on the silver screen, but they often made bold and courageous decisions to speak out against social injustice and inequality… even if that meant risking their own reputations, and in some cases their livelihood.  

Since 2015, Privilege of Legends has been committed to unearthing jewels of cinema history that may not necessarily be as widely discussed by film critics; or for some reason or other may have somewhat faded into obscurity.

In the cases of the three unsung heroes that have served as the inspiration for this series, if it wasn’t being silenced or banished for their vocal political stance, they were effectively blackballed from the industry due to racial prejudice, in an industry that has been culpable of perpetuating stereotypes of minorities on screen for far too long.  

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At the Holy Cross Cemetery in Anaheim, California, amongst a sea of legendary names like Bing Crosby, John Ford, Bela Lugosi, Fred MacMurray, Edmond O’Brian, Rita Hayworth and Sharon Tate lies an inconspicuous tombstone with an outrageously bold name. With appearances in over 15 Hollywood motion pictures between the early 1940s and late 1950s, regular primetime slots on radio and television, and a catalogue of highly influential Calypso music that paved the way for the likes of Harry Belafonte, surprisingly little is known nowadays of the remarkable life of Sir Lancelot

Born in 1902 (although this date is disputed, and has even been quoted by a few sources to be as late as 1910), Lancelot Victor Edward Pinard’s early life on Cumuto in Trinidad – one of the southernmost islands of the Caribbean, wasn’t exactly one that you would necessarily associate with hardship or struggle. Lancelot was the son of a well-respected local government official and anglophile, and the family had initially hoped that he would pursue a career as a pharmacist, sending the young man off to study medicine under the bright lights of New York City

From a very early age, music and performance was very much in his blood; having regularly attended the opera as a child, and growing up singing in the traditional classical German lieder and Italian arias- testament to the hotchpotch of culture on the small island nation at the time. 

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Indeed, for a young man with such a passion for performance and song, a metropolitan hub such as New York City in the late 1930s would have been nothing short of a revelation – and it wasn’t long before the young international student was fully immersing himself in the vibrant music scene uptown.

It was at some point along this journey that Lancelot managed to catch a performance from revolutionary black lyric tenor and composer Roland Hayes; and not long after this he made the life-changing choice to switch his studies over from medicine to music. This executive decision would prove to be a double-edged sword for him from here on in. 

Very little documentation can be found on exactly why or when the young Lancelot made the transition from classical music to the Calypso rhythms of his Afro-Caribbean roots. But not long after this he was pretty much performing full time in various clubs throughout Harlem. At one of these venues he met the legendary promoter and fellow Trinidadian, Gerald Clark, band leader of the Calypso Orchestra and The Caribbean Serenaders.

With Clark’s endorsement, Lancelot Pinard hit the recording booth for his first studio session; and in 1940 he took on the moniker Sir Lancelot for his debut show at New York’s heralded live music venue, the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village. This sobriquet may seem outlandish or peculiar to those used to more conventional names, but in a culture that had birthed such other Calypsonian heavyweights as Attila the Hun, Mighty Sparrow, or Lord Kitchener, such a dynamic name was probably a no-brainer in the end. 

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Pretty soon the name Sir Lancelot was on every headlining bill, and before long he was the poster boy for the wave of Calypso music that was sweeping through the black live music venues of the Big Apple. But it wasn’t until he took to the road in the early 1940s, with a west coast tour of California and Oregon alongside pianist and composer Lionel Belasco, that white audiences eventually caught wind of his talents, and things really began to take off in another direction. 

Sir Lancelot’s career in film began in earnest in March 1942, when Columbia Pictures released the light-hearted spy caper Two Yanks in Trinidad, starring Brian Donlevy and Pat O’Brian. Less than two years prior, MGM had hit a home run with the controversial civil war epic Gone With the Wind, receiving a whopping 10 out of 13 Academy Award nominations, and breaking all records for the highest grossing film… an accolade they would hold onto for 25 years.

Hattie McDaniel – the black actress who played the role of ‘mammy’ (the slave house servant for the wealthy O’Hara family’s cotton plantation estate) had just become the first black actor to receive an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Alice Adams 1935 RKO
Films like RKO Studios’ 1935 drama Alice Adams incensed its white audiences, who accused the black actress Hattie McDaniel of trying to upstage her white co-stars.

The white majority of Academy board members seemed equally moved with Hattie’s performance; and they felt that the time was fitting for them to credit an ethnic minority for doing so. They seemed little concerned however, that McDaniel could find little roles aside from the ones that perpetuated negative racial stereotypes– like that of Fox Film’s 1935 period drama, The Little Colonel, starring Lionel Barrymore and Shirley Temple (of which she plays yet another black servant who looks upon the days of the segregated south with a fond nostalgia).

This seemingly recurrent type-casting by white producers of black actors as butlers, maids and slaves meant that Hattie McDaniel was ostracised by the black community for perpetuating these narrow-minded stereotypes, and she was also vilified by white audiences for what they interpreted as trying to upstage her white counterparts onscreen (a case in point would be her portrayal of the shrewd maid alongside Katherine Hepburn in RKO Studios’ Alice Adams in 1935). Indeed for many black or ethnic minority actors in Hollywood at the time, the chips were stacked high against them, and they simply couldn’t win.  

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Pat O’Brian and Brian Donlevy duke it out in the Columbia Pictures film Two Yanks in Trinidad.

Let us leap forward two years later, where Sir Lancelot would debut on the silver screen for Two Yanks in Trinidad. Despite being a mostly minor, uncredited role, here Lancelot breaks from the studio’s stereotypical mould altogether. He is not depicted here as the oppressed slave; nor does he portray the submissive and compliant servant. In fact, he is sharply dressed in the signature tuxedo that would become synonymous with his image, and would be one of the very first times the Afro-Caribbean rhythms of his homeland would be depicted on screen. 

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It was later that year when Lancelot would return briefly to Trinidad. Whereupon learning that their son had traded in his studies of medicine to pursue his dreams of being on stage, the family allegedly ousted him for the dishonour that he had placed on the Pinard name. This no doubt had a profound effect on Lancelot; and shortly after he wrote the song Shame and Scandal in response, of which became one of his most renown songs, and was later covered by The Wailers and The Skatalites among others.

In addition, the story of this song was used by the great filmmaker Val Lewton as commentary for his 1943 horror/noir I Walked with a Zombie for RKO Studios. Here, Sir Lancelot plays a more prominent role on screen; foretelling with an eerily prophetic accuracy the unfolding elements of the film’s dark plot lines.  

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Following the success of Cat People a year prior, director Jacques Tourneur was given the go-ahead by RKO to direct I Walked with a Zombie in 1943.

Lancelot would receive his first acting role (albeit uncredited) for Val Lewton’s next venture later that year, as ship crewman Billy Radd in the RKO underrated psychological thriller The Ghost Ship. Both he and vaudeville actor Ben Bard had been recruited by RKO from a smaller stock company – a method of which Lewton had used before to pool his cast and crew from, when restricted to the shoe-string budgets that he was working with at the time.

Here, director Mark Robson (Orson Welles’ assistant editor on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, and making his directorial debut with both this film and The Seventh Victim, released the same year) utilises the lighter Calypso melodies provided by Lancelot to create atmosphere with the contrasting themes of murder in the film. 

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The Ghost Ship had initially fared well for RKO upon release; that is until Lewton was sued for plagiarism by playwrights Samuel Golding and Norbert Faulkner. The pair had claimed that the script was blatantly lifted from a play that they had submitted to the producer as a possible film. As a result of the law-suit, sadly the film was pulled from theatres and not released for nearly 5 decades, when the picture fell into the public domain in the late 1990’s. 

In 1944, Sir Lancelot would feature in one of his more prominent acting roles – this time for the Reed family’s endearing cook, Edward, in yet another Val Lewton production, RKO Studios’ psychological thriller, The Curse of the Cat People.

On the surface, Lancelot’s character here appears largely subservient. But upon closer inspection, his role is far more integral to the mechanics of the film’s plot than it may seem. Edward’s presence is by no means relegated to the family kitchen; in fact he is everywhere in this film, serving as little Amy Reed’s confidante and faithful ally. Exploring the psychology of the imaginary friend, a young Robert Wise – in his directorial debut here (I Want To Live!, Odds Against Tomorrow, Westside Story, The Sound of Music) uses the relationship between Edward and the misunderstood Amy Reed to highlight the little girl’s struggle to be understood by her parents. 

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Lancelot would not work again with RKO Studios aside from an uncredited role as a Calypso singer in the 1945 slapstick film Zombies on Broadway. He had a string of mostly minor appearances up until the 1950s – including as a crewman aboard the Warner Brother’s screen adaptation of the Hemmingway novel To Have and Have Not (1944), starring Hollywood darlings Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall… or as prison inmate Calypso Jones in Jules Dassin’s crime masterpiece Brute Force (1947) starring Burt Lancaster.

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The industry tried to cash-in again on his fame as a Calypsonian artist in the forgettable Eagle-Lion produced Linda, Be Good in 1947… or as a singing novelty act in Michael Curtiz’s 1948 musical Romance on the High Seas. It seemed that Hollywood just couldn’t find room for another black face in an industry that was dominated by white male executives. 

 

Furthermore, Lancelot’s growing dissatisfaction with the conservative political parties at the time, combined with his vocal support for Third Party progressive presidential candidate Henry Wallace, only served to inflame relations with studio executives and producers.

Lancelot Stage

Deeply moved by Wallace’s Century of the Common Man speech in 1942, he released his own musical tribute to this: Common Man, of which Wallace wrote him a personal letter of thanks (Lancelot had written a number of songs with political messages around this time, including Defenders of Stalingrad, Atomic Energy and Walk in Peace). 

“Some have spoken of the ‘American Century’. I say that the century on which we are entering – the century which will come into being after this war – can be and must be the century of the common man. Perhaps it will be America’s opportunity to support the freedoms and duties by which the common man must live. Everywhere, the common man must learn to increase his productivity so that he and his children can eventually pay to the world community all that they have received…” 

  • Excerpt of ‘The Common Man’ speech, by Henry A. Wallace

 

But on radio and television, it seemed that Sir Lancelot’s popularity as a musician never waned… that is of course if he kept his music clean of any political messages. In any event, he featured regularly on shows presented by Ray Anthony, Ed Sullivan and Dinah Shore.

In the early 1950s he spent some considerable time touring the international stage, including a stint in Europe, where his brand of Calypso rhythms were now being received with growing enthusiasm. But his time away from America only seemed to hamper his opportunities for greater roles onscreen, only making two more appearances in film in 1957 and 1958. 

Sir Lancelot Vinyl

He featured briefly in 20th Century Fox’s camp science-fiction horror, The Unknown Terror, credited here as The King of Calypso. And his final film was for the role of Scipio, in the swashbuckling Paramount Pictures 1958 Technicolor epic, The Buccaneer, starring Yul Brynner, Charles Boyer and Charleton Heston. The Buccaneer was the only film that happened to be directed by Anthony Quinn; after Cecille B. Demille (Quinn’s then father-in-law) fell seriously ill during production. 

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Whilst the film career of Sir Lancelot had completely dried-up by the late 1950’s, he continued performing and recording new music up until the early 1970’s, shifting toward a new conscious style that he would later describe as ‘gospel calypso’. Harry Belafonte would later credit Sir Lancelot as one of the biggest influences to his music, eventually making a hit out of the song ‘Jump in the Line’, of which Lancelot had covered decades earlier (Jump in the Line was first recorded by Aldwyn Roberts, AKA Lord Kitchener – considered by many as the greatest calypsonian of the postwar era).

According to celebrated folk singer and social rights activist Pete Seeger, blues singer Lead Belly’s Equality for Negroes song was also inspired by the music of Sir Lancelot. Although the documentation is sparse, Lancelot’s influence was truly groundbreaking and far-reaching (The theme song for the 1970’s television sitcom Gilligan’s Island is yet another example). 

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According to television producer Sherwood Schwartz, the theme for Gilligan’s Island was supposed to be sung by Sir Lancelot.

Lancelot spent his final years on the other side of the globe in Australia, living with his nephew, musician Brian Pinard, whom he’d also recorded his last album with under the name Knights of the Holy Trinity, alongside American guitarist Steven Springer.

Though he passed away from natural causes in March of 2001, his legacy continues to live on through his musical gift that spread through the west via cinema and the stage.

Sir Lancelot was rejected by his family for his decision to become a performer, and struggled to find his place in an industry dominated by a flagrant lack of diversity. And yet, the message in his musical voice still resonates with those that take the time to lend an ear. 

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