Sunday, March 7, 2021

Born Today March 7: Madame Sul-Te-Wan (Nellie Crawford)




The ground breaking, but also some-what controversial black actress known professionally as Madame Sul-Te-Wan was born Nellie Crawford on this day in Louisville, Kentucky. She was the daughter of freed slaves, and was raised by a single mother who established her own business and herself as a laundress with skill.  The wealthier people (aka white) of the city sought out her mother Cleon for her services. When she was old enough, she employed her daughter for delivery. Eventually theatrical circles also used her mother's laundry business and Nellie got bitten hard by the acting bug delivering laundry to theaters. There she would stick around and watch rehearsals. When old enough, she sought out theatrical work herself and this lead her to Cincinnati. Joining a black theatrical company where she began using the stage name "Creole Nell." She would eventually found her own company, before setting her sights on film work. Somewhere along in this time frame she began going by the name under which she is credited in films: Madame Sul-Te-Wan.  Lillian Gish later commented that no one ever knew where the name originated from and that "no one was bold enough to ask." Also during this time, she married and had three sons, and got divorced--herself becoming a single mother. Two of her children would eventually follow her into acting, and, in fact, appeared in a few films with her.  While her film appearance in D.W. Griffith's A Birth of a Nation, is often listed as her film debut, she did in fact show up in at least one other film in 1915. She played a cook in the Kalem short The Cause of It All, directed by Chance Ward. (There are plenty of sources that state that she insisted she entered films in 1913, but as of this writing what those films are/were remains a mystery.)  But, it was her role in Griffith's "epic" The Birth Of A Nation that both stirred controversy (mostly much later on) and made history. The cast was for the films was HUGE for a start; and the uncredited cast, which included Sul-Te-Wan and the director himself, was at least twice as large as the credited cast. Of course, there were black actors in films before this, so what was the history making part?  Nellie Crawford, under her acting name, became the VERY FIRST black actor to have a contract for acting in a motion picture--an actual contract. It was for $25 dollars a day, that is nearly $650 dollars a day adjusting for monetary inflation!! It's breath taking and should be shouted from the rooftops; and, in fact, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1986 for that very thing. But, it took until 1986 for that induction to go forward in part due of her very controversial friendship with Griffith after ward. She had apparently written a letter to Griffith introducing herself when she learned that Griffith was shooting Kentucky--as he, himself, was a Kentuckian.  The letter has never been verified, but she did make it into Nation and he subsequently cast her in his apology Intolerance: Love's Struggle Through The Ages the following year (albeit in the uncredited portion of the cast, which, if anything, was even larger than Nation). Griffith later stated that he was struck by her elaborate dress (her outfits even off the set often included elaborate turbans and long ornate dresses). She thereafter kept in touch with him through the death, attending a memorial service for him in Hollywood when he died in 1948. It was her seeming "reverence" for the man that has caused wrangling back and forth since the 1960's; most people today (and for some time now) give her a pass on this, with--I think--good reason. As mentioned above, she was a single mother and a black woman acting in Hollywood. Beyond her roles in the two Griffith epics, she thereafter was able to get tiny roles in films with the Gish sisters (she is also listed as uncredited in the Mae Marsh film Hoodoo Ann from 1916, penned by Griffith as "Granville Warwick").  After 1917, she played a lot of maids (a lot!), the first of which was as "Esmerelda--Jane's Maid" in the 1918 Tarzan of the Apes starring Enid Markey as Jane and Elmo Lincoln (of course) as Tarzan.  Maid roles came in some films that were A-listed however, including: Old Wives for New (1918) and Why Change Your Wife? (1920)--both directed by Cecil B. De Mille.  She also had a role in the short comedy The Son of a Sheik in 1922, credited as "Madame Suterman;" I mention this only because it was co-directed by Al Christie who was a white producer who would have a production facility in the latter part of the decade that made black films for black audiences. She followed this up with another tiny role in a De Mille film Manslaughter in 1922. In 1924, she had her "Mammy moment" in the Harry Carey western The Lightning Rider; in 1925 she was cast as "Easter" in the Matt Moore comedy The Narrow Street, a Warner Brothers picture. That would be the end of her officially credited roles for the decade (actually, for most of the rest of her career).  Later in 1925, she found herself back in a tiny role in another De Mille film The Golden Bed; while in 1927 she had a similar role in a the Buster Keaton film College. In 1927, Universal produced it's especially long (nearly 2 and 1/2 hours) version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, a partial silent with actor James B. Lowe as Uncle Tom; Sul-Te-Wan though was relegated to a tiny role with no credit (the uncredited cast, again was a large one, and it inlcuded the likes of Rondo Hatton and Francis Ford--older brother of director John Ford).  She was just just two more films in 1929 and that was it for the decade. Her first film appearance in a full talkie was the 1929 King Vidor musical Hallelujah.  She had a handful of credited roles in throughout the rest of her career, but most of the rest of her forty odd roles were tiny stereotyped roles: maid, cook, servant, slave...and one additional "mammy" role in King of the Zombies in 1941. She did have one appearance on a television series. In 1955 she was in a named role in the series "Medic" a dramatic medical reenactment show, playing "Grandma Jonson" in "All My Mothers, All My Fathers" (1x22).  She literally worked right up until the time of her death, with her last film appearance coming out after her death. She was the "witch woman" in the made-for-television film Tarzan and the Trappers, a cut down pilot for a no-go series of the same name; it was aired in March of 1960. Nellie Crawford had passed away in 1959, having suffered a fatal stroke at the age of 85 on the 1st of February. She is interred at the Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood. Her two sons that followed her in the profession were Onest Conley and Odel Conley (who died tragically young). 


[Source: AJM (Find a Grave)]





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