James Baskett, Happy Birthday! Born February 16th; 1904-1948

James Baskett accepting his Honorary Oscar from Ingrid Bergman



An overlooked actor, whose best work has not been seen in the United States (excepting on VHS and DVD imports) since 1986. I of course am speaking of the still controversial Song of the South, 1946, a Walt Disney live action-animated feature length film. What is sad is that an Oscar worthy performance, (oh, by the way, Baskett did win an Academy Award, albeit an Honorary Statue for his work in Song of the South) is hardly seen by the current generation. Whatever side you fall on (pro for release on DVD or con to keep it in the vault) there is no question about the talent of James Baskett; his wonderfully textured voice with a multiplicity of variations, his expressive face and his acting acumen. But his career did not begin with Song of the South, he appeared (as Jimmie Baskette) on Broadway with the musical revue “Hot Chocolates” with Baby Cox, Edith Wilson and Bill Robinson (of whom he was a close friend), in the role of “The Master of Ceremonies”. Also, Mr. Baskett appeared with Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds on Broadway and in Harlem at the Alhambra theater for Valentine’s of 1931, in “My Valentine“, a romantic revue; further as a local newspaper explained it, “Jimmie Baskett will bring echoes of Broadway stage” to Harlem in “The Killer” [1]. One can assume that Baskett could have continued making a living and living off his local celebrity in New York, but Hollywood was calling his name.   

James Baskett’s film debut was in 1932’s Harlem Is Heaven, and beginning in 1938 he garnered starring roles in Gone Harlem and Policy Man, Straight to Heaven, 1939, and Comes Midnight, 1940. There is an unconfirmed report that Baskett provided the voice for “The Preacher Crow” in Dumbo, 1941, but that part went uncredited as well; he played the role of “Lazarus” in Revenge of the Zombies, 1943. In 1945, Mr. Baskett auditioned for the role of the “Butterfly” [2] in Song of the South, when Walt Disney heard him, he met with James Baskett and subsequently, in addition to the “Butterfly” part, Disney offered him the role of Uncle Remus and Brer Fox; while Johnny Lee (voice of Brer Rabbit) was on a USO tour, Baskett voiced Brer Rabbit, for the Laughing Place scene. Baskett’s vocal talents were suited well for radio and from 1944-1948 he was on The Amos and Andy Show as the lawyer, Gabby Gibson.

Yes, James Baskett was a star, the first black man to win an Oscar; what his future acting career held we will never know (reportedly Disney wanted to feature him in another film) but we do know that he left a powerful legacy and that we are richer for having any of his work in our midst but none the less, poorer for not having more record of his unique talent.

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By C. S. Williams

[1] Source: New York Age, Saturday February 14th, 1931 edition

[2] Source: http://www.songofthesouth.net/movie/biographies/baskett.html



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