Archive for February 8th, 2021

Phil Moore at piano, circa 1946, with John O. Levy on bass. Photo by William P. Gottlieb. Courtesy Library of Congress (LC-GLB13-0639)

by Lee Price

Phil Moore, Part One: The Jackie Robinson of Hollywood Film Crews

Picture a film as an iceberg. We see the top 10%. If it’s a southern iceberg, there might be some penguins lazing on it; if it’s an Arctic iceberg, it might be colored by some seals. But underneath, that other 90% is pure white all the way down.

So if you’re watching Gone With the Wind, picture those people on the screen as the top of the glacier. There’s some diversity on view within the frame. It’s not just a big chunk of white. Without thinking closely about it, you might even make an assumption that the percentage of diversity at the top would be proportional to the percentage below the surface. But that’s not the way classic Hollywoodland worked. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it was white all the way down, just like an iceberg.

I don’t dismiss the classic Hollywood industry for a bigotry that was lodged in nearly every American institution of the time. Classic Hollywood was a strong factor in molding me into the person I am. For instance, classic Hollywood gave me Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which I discovered at the age of 11 and permanently convinced me that lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for. And it’s this same conviction that has fueled a measure of awe and respect in me toward the Black talent who didn’t accept the overwhelming whiteness, the enforced stereotypes, the insults of segregation, and the systemic viciousness of Hollywoodland. The odds were so stacked against those who wanted to enter through the front door that the situation amounted to a classic Hollywood lost cause. Nevertheless, some repeatedly knocked on the door, others attempted infiltration, and a few directly challenged the system. Sooner or later, someone had to get in.

In 1941, Phil Moore (1917-87) became the first African-American to be hired full-time by the music department of a major Hollywood studio, an achievement even more impressive as that studio was the ever-snooty MGM. Moore never received much credit for his contributions to the movies. MGM, as well as the studios (Paramount, Universal, RKO) that received his talent on loan, worked him hard while declining to give him credit for his work. Nevertheless, his full-time starting salary of $1,200 in 1941 was in-line with starting salaries for Hollywood technicians at the time. For a 24-year-old, it wasn’t an insult. Plus, he got to work on some classy material and with some formidable talent.

Phil Moore’s career has a Zelig-like quality to it at times, except he’s not really in the background. He’s on the soundtrack. He’s over there on the piano behind Harpo Marx, Lena Horne, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Dandridge, Frank Sinatra… and they’re listening to what he’s telling them, not vice versa.

Moore had a self-described “all-American boy” childhood in Portland, Oregon, adopted by light-skinned parents who were socially placed and fairly well-accepted in both the city’s white and Black circles. Moore received piano lessons from Edgar Eugene Coursen, one of the area’s top classical musicians, who held him to high and exacting standards. His father’s management of the city’s only hotel open to Blacks led to family friendships with celebrities like Duke Ellington and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Moore absorbed the sounds around him like a sponge, intuitively understanding and appreciating classical music, pop, jazz, blues, and gospel—which is a pretty ideal recipe for success in Hollywood score composing. (more…)

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