Clarence Muse

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Clarence Muse
Clarence Muse in 1978.jpg
Muse in 1978
Born(1889-10-14)October 14, 1889
DiedOctober 13, 1979(1979-10-13) (aged 89)
  • Actor
  • screenwriter
  • director
  • singer
  • composer
Years active1921–1979
(m. 19??; div. 19??)
Irene Ena
(m. 1952)

Clarence Muse (October 14, 1889 – October 13, 1979) was an American actor, screenwriter, director, singer, and composer. He was the first African American to appear in a starring role in a film, 1929's Hearts in Dixie. He acted for 50 years, and appeared in more than 150 films. He was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1973.

Life and career[edit]

Polly Ann Young, Bela Lugosi, and Clarence Muse in Invisible Ghost (1941)

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of Alexander and Mary Muse,[1] he studied at Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, Pennsylvania for one year in 1908. He left because he believed he could not make a living in law as an African American. He later received an honorary doctorate of laws from Dickinson School of Law in 1978.

By the 1920s Muse was acting in New York during the Harlem Renaissance with two Harlem theatres, Lincoln Players and Lafayette Players.[2] While with the Lafayette Players, Muse worked under the management of producer Robert Levy on productions that helped black actors to gain prominence and respect. In regards to the Lafayette Theatre's staging of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Muse said the play was relevant to black actors and audiences "because, in a way, it was every black man's story. Black men too have been split creatures inhabiting one body.".[3]

Muse moved to Chicago for a while, and then moved to Hollywood. He performed in Hearts in Dixie (1929), the first all-black movie. For the next fifty years, he worked regularly in minor and major roles. Muse appeared as an opera singer, minstrel show performer, vaudeville and Broadway actor; he also wrote songs, plays, and sketches. In 1943, he became the first African-American Broadway director with Run Little Chillun.[4]

Muse was also the co-writer of several notable songs. In 1931, with Leon René and Otis René, Muse wrote "When It's Sleepy Time Down South", also known as "Sleepy Time Down South". The song was sung by Nina Mae McKinney in the movie Safe in Hell (1931). Later it became a signature song of Louis Armstrong.[citation needed]

He was the major star in The Broken Earth (1936), which related the story of a black sharecropper whose son miraculously recovers from fever through the father's fervent prayer. Shot on a farm in the South with nonprofessional actors (except for Muse), the film's early scenes focused in a highly realistic manner on the physical labor of plowing scenes with black farmers. In 1938, Muse co-starred with boxer Joe Louis in Spirit of Youth, the fictional story of a champion boxer, which featured an all-black cast. Muse and Langston Hughes wrote the script for Way Down South (1939).[5]

Muse performed in Broken Strings (1940), as a concert violinist who opposes the desire of his son to play "swing".[6] From 1955 to 1956, Muse was a regular on the weekly TV version of Casablanca, playing Sam the pianist (a part he had been considered for in the original Warner Brothers film). In 1959, he played Peter, the Honey Man, in the film musical Porgy and Bess.

Muse appeared on Disney's TV miniseries The Swamp Fox. Other film credits include Buck and the Preacher (1972), The World's Greatest Athlete (1973), and as Gazenga's assistant, "Snapper", in Car Wash (1976). His last acting role was in The Black Stallion (1979).


Muse received an honorary doctor of humanities degree from Bishop College in Dallas, Texas, in 1972. He was a member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, Omega chapter. Muse died in Perris, California, on October 13, 1979, one day before his 90th birthday and the same day that his final film was released.

Partial filmography[edit]


  1. ^ Sampson, Henry T. Blacks in Black and White, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1995; ISBN 0-8108-2605-4
  2. ^ Peterson, Bernard L. The African American Theatre Directory, 1816-1960: A Comprehensive Guide to Early Black Theatre, Greenwood Press, 1997; ISBN 0-313-29537-9
  3. ^ Penn, Arthur S. Before the Harlem Renaissance. Collodion Press: New York. 2010.
  4. ^ Clarence Muse profile,; accessed June 15, 2017.
  5. ^ Belton, John. Movies and Mass Culture, Rutgers University Press, 1996; ISBN 0-8135-2228-5
  6. ^ Gabbard, Krin. Jammin' at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema, University of Chicago Press, p. 109, 1996; ISBN 0-226-27788-7


  • Sampson, Henry T. Ghost Walks: A Chronological History of Blacks in Show Business, 1865–1910, Scarecrow Press, Incorporated, 1988 – ISBN 0-8108-2070-6
  • Wintz, Cary D. Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, Routledge, 2004 – ISBN 1-57958-389-X
  • Penn, Arthur S. Before the Harlem Renaissance. Collodion Press: New York, NY. 2010.

External links[edit]