“He’s fast, but he can’t keep up with you, Charley. If you keep pouring it on, he’ll go down. I know he will…” Canada Lee, “Body and Soul” (1947)
By Richard G. Carter
Imagine a Black actor as familiar to movie audiences as Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson or Denzel Washington — who has vanished from public consciousness. Such an actor was the great Canada Lee, who was revered in Milwaukee’s Black community.
As a movie-happy youngster here, I recall marveling at Lee in a number of quality films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat” (1944); “Body and Soul” (1947); “Lost Boundaries” (1949), and “Cry the Beloved Country” (1951). In the latter, he and Sidney Poitier co-starred as South African ministers in Sidney’s first major role.
Prior to movies, Lee was a force on the stage. In a 1941 review of Richard Wright’s “Native Son” on Broadway, New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, called Lee “the greatest Negro actor of his time, as well as one of the best actors in this country.”
During the Cold War years of the late 1940s-early ‘50s, Lee was labeled a Communist and blacklisted — along with Paul Robeson and other film personalities and entertainers. As a result, his career suffered and he died penniless in 1952 at the age of 45 — shortly before he was to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
In his time as an exemplary actor and civil rights activist, Lee worked with the likes of Robeson, Wright, Langston Hughes, Rex Ingram, Margo Jones, Adam Clayton Powell, William Greaves, Leigh Whipper, Orson Welles, Tallulah Bankhead and John Garfield.
A native of Harlem, Lee’s early life was a mixed bag of music, athletics and theater. He developed an early interest in the violin — studying at the Music School Settlement for Colored People. He made his concert debut at 11 in a student recital at Aeolian Hall. But after seven years, he ran away from home.
In 1921, at 14, Lee became a racing jockey at Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Two years later, he returned home and, at a friend’s urging, he tried boxing. He won 90 of 100 bouts as an amateur — including the national lightweight championship — and turned pro at 19.
Over the next decade, Lee appeared in some 200 professional bouts — winning 175. But he suffered a detached retina in a 10-round bout in 1929 at Madison Square Garden, and eventually lost all the sight in his right eye. He quit the fight game in 1933 and formed a small dance band that played obscure New York City night clubs.
New York sportswriter Ed Sullivan — who achieved great fame in the 1950s-60s hosting a national TV variety show — admired Lee as a boxer and plugged his band in his new entertainment column. As a result, Lee opened the Jitterbug, a short-lived club in Harlem.
Needing a job, he decided to try his hand at acting and won supporting roles in several New York stage productions — one of which, “Stevedore” — toured to Chicago, Detroit and other cities in the 1930s. His first major role was in a Federal Theater production of “Macbeth” with Negro players — adapted and directed by Orson Welles.
Lee followed this up by major parts in New York plays such as “Haiti” (1938), “Mamba’s Daughters” (1939); “Big White Fog” (1940); “Native Son” (1941), and “South Pacific” (1943). The next year, he appeared in his first major movie “Lifeboat” as Joe Spencer, an ex-pickpocket and ship steward to a famous columnist (Tallulah Bankhead).
The first actor cast, Lee is one of nine people — American and British — stranded in the North Atlantic in World War II after their passenger ship and a German submarine sink each other. Lee saves a female passenger (Heather Angel) and her baby, lifts a compass from a German survivor and disarms a second German sailor they rescued.
Lee distinguished himself in other films, including as a doomed, ex-boxer in “Body and Soul”; a sympathetic Harlem police detective in the groundbreaking race drama “Lost Boundaries,” and towering work as a rural South African minister seeking his wayward son in Johannesburg in “Cry the Beloved Country”– his final film.
Perhaps my most vivid memory of Lee’s screen work was in Abraham Polonsky’s “Body and Soul” — considered the first great movie about boxing. This film gained fame for its compelling, climactic fight scenes filmed on roller skates by James Wong Howe.
Lee brought his own experience as a successful boxer to his riveting role as Ben Chaplin, an ex-fighter-turned trainer. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, a distraught Lee urges champion Charley Davis (John Garfield) to press for a knockout in his title defense — then dies in a training ring from a blood clot on the brain.
In addition to his dynamic years on the stage and in quality movies, Lee also starred on numerous radio and television shows in the 1940s and ‘50s, including “You Are There.” His actor son, the late Carl Lee, appeared in a number TV shows as well as Black-oriented films, including “Superfly” (1972) and “The Cool World” (1974).
An outspoken civil rights activist, Canada Lee suffered a heart attack while filming “Cry the Beloved Country” in apartheid South Africa after he and Poitier were smuggled into the country as indentured servants. At the time of his death a year later in 1952, he was preparing to play Shakespeare’s “Othello” in a new movie.
Canada Lee was a great actor and a great Black man — a truly rare combination.
Milwaukee native Richard G. Carter is a freelance columnist