The legacy of Pullman porters and the labor union eventually formed by them – the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters – is an important one in American and labor history. Correspondingly, Pullman porters have left their imprint on American film in many different ways through the years, though the volume and type of those depictions might be wanting.
When George Pullman ventured in to the business of sleeping class accommodation on the railroads after the Civil War, he made a decision to hire only black porters – attendants for all aspects of the sleeping car experience – owing to several factors: a large, newly available labor pool willing to work; the ability to pay lower wages to black men; and to recreate – for the white middle classes who would ride the train – the upper class experience of being waited on by paid servants. Working conditions were long, tough, and underpaid, and yet it was an available job for black men systematically excluded from much of the labor force, which meant something. In 1925, under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was formed and, and conditions and pay for the profession began to improve. The Pullman porters, aided by the BSCP, have been seen as contributors to the black middle class that grew between the 1920s and 1960s in America (excuse my brevity – you can read more in many places, including here, here, here, and here).
The first black film company – the Foster Photoplay Company – was formed in 1909 and put out two shorts The Pullman Porter (1910), and The Railroad Porter (1912), which are often credited as the first films directed by a black director with an entirely black cast. The slapstick films were generally considered to posit African Americans positively and not in the racist archetypes of the day (these films came out a few years before D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation), and featured Pullman porters in both. The latter film is also credited with having the first chase scene in film history.
Pullman porters made it into the peripheries of many other films in the silent era, all too often, unfortunately, against a reductive and racist backdrop. For example, Fast Black (1924), features two white characters, one of whom has his face accidentally blackened by a car’s exhaust pipe, and responds to an ad for a ‘colored Pullman porter.’ According to IMDb, the rest of the film is driven by “mistaken identity due to accidental blackface.” Unfortunately, many of these films have now been lost – we know, very little, for example, about Roscoe Arbuckle’s 1919 ‘The Pullman Porter’ except that it starred white actors. Al Jolson, whose relationship to African Americans and race in America was much more complex than initial appearances, used Pullman porter tropes and archetypes in his 1913 album and song Pullman Porter’s Parade, promoting the song with blackface material.
In the Talkies era, the ubiquity of the Pullman porter in American life is perhaps most visible through scanning over the filmography of Dudley Dickerson. Dickerson, who appeared in around films beginning in 1932, played a Pullman porter (or some type of role on a train) in the following titles: The Alligator People (1959), The Opposite Sex (1956), Tonight We Sing (1953), Everybody Does It (1949), It’s a Great Feeling (1949), The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949), It Had to Be You (1947), Hold That Lion (1947), I’ll Be Yours (1947), Rolling Down to Reno (1947), The Falcons Adventure (1946), One Way to Love (1946), The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), A Guy, a Gal, and a Pal (1945), Together Again (1944), His Wedding Scare (1943), George Washington Slept Here (1942), Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942), Spy Smasher (1942), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), All-American Co-ed (1941), Knute Rockne All American (1940), On Trial (1939), The Sisters (1938), Broadway Musketeers (1938), The Adventurous Blonde (1937), Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936), and Polo Joe (1936). A scan of Dickerson’s filmography (here) has him cast in a vast array of servile roles as a minor or supporting actor, and he is often not credited. Below is Dickerson in Hold That Lion (1947), a short with the Three Stooges franchise (Dickerson’s spot begins at 4:05).
However, not all films featuring Pullman porters were consigned to base and stereotypical motifs at the peripheries of films. For example, Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play The Emperor Jones was adapted twice – in a 1933 screen version directed by Dudley Murphey (starring Paul Robeson), and a 1955 made-for-TV film produced by Kraft Television Theatre (starring Ossie Davis). The Emperor Jones tells the story of a Pullman Porter who eventually becomes the emperor or a Carribbean island. The story is certainly not without its criticism – frequent use of the word ‘nigger’ and plays on sexual myths about black men among them – though it certainly cuts against the grain of films featuring Pullman porters at the time.
Still, the imprint of Pullman porters on American film is more than just depictions of Pullman porters on screen. Oscar Micheaux was a Pullman porter before becoming one of the most successful black directors in the silent and talkie era. As a porter, Micheaux was able to travel across and see the country, establish relationships with wealthy people who would later finance his films, and learned how to manage business operations. We’re quite thankful it helped launch his career in film, and the Lincoln Motion Picture Company.