Evelyn Preer

The first black sound film was “Melancholy Dame,” a comedy two reeler, starring Evelyn Preer, Roberta Hyson, Edward Thomspons, and Spencer Williamson.

Edward Thompson and Evelyn Preer, a husband and wife comedy team in real life, and Spencer (Andy of Amos & Andy) Williams and Roberta Hyson are featured in this black comedy of errors.

Essentially, Preer thinks that Thompson is fooling around with Hyson, who is his dancing partner at a cabaret that the couple owns and wants Hyson thrown out on her ample derriere. However, there is more to the relationship between the dancers than exceeds Preer’s worst imaginings! Roberta Hyson really makes this film special with her sassy and infectious personality. Her dancing early in the film must have wowed audiences in the early days of sound. But her showdown with Preer is a sight to behold. The look on her face as she gleefully departs after giving Preer a piece of her mind defies description on paper. Sadly, she is forgotten today. This film was remade a few years later as THE BLACK NETWORK with another sister of sass, Nina Mae McKinney. (Coincidentally, Amanda Randolph, also of Amos & Andy fame as Sapphire’s Mama, appeared in the latter film).

In between Micheaux films, Preer starred in numerous Lafayette productions. Along with the staging of Shakespearean and Afro-American dramas, she starred in such mainstream classics as Oscar Wilde’s Salomé (1923), Within the LawThe Yellow TicketThe Cat and the Canary and Anna Christie throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. In 1926, she had a successful stint on Broadway in David Belasco’s production of Lulu Belle. Preer supported and understudied German actress Lenore Ulrich in the leading role of Edward Sheldon’s steamy drama of a Harlem prostitute. She won further acclaim as Sadie Thompson on the West Coast in a revival of Somerset Maugham’s fallen woman melodrama, Rain in 1928 and likewise squeezed some musical comedy and cabaret into her repertoire. Preer was also a recording vocalist in her own right, occasionally backed by such diverse musicians as Duke Ellington and Red Nichols.

She starred in three comedy shorts: The Framing of the Shrew (1928), Melancholy Dame (1928) and Oft in the Silly Night (1928). Thompson, Spencer Williams and Roberta Hyson costarred in these early Talkies released through Paramount. They are available on VHS under the title Birmingham Breakdown. A race musical for Aristo Films, Georgia Rose (1930), presented Preer in her feature Talkie debut.

In April 1932, Preer gave birth to her only child, Edeve (Sister Francesca) Thompson. She developed post-parturition complications and died of double pneumonia in November. Edward Thompson continued as a popular leading man and heavy in numerous race movies throughout the 1930s and 1940s. He died in 1960.

With the exception of Within Our Gates (1920) and the three Christie shorts, none of Preer’s other film performances have survived to fully assess and evaluate the legend, whom critics called the “Race’s most famous and most versatile actress.” Preer’s legacy rests on her Micheaux reputation and a handful of jazz records. Along with the neglected Anita Bush, Shingzie Howard, the sisters Lucia Lynn and Ethel Moses, Mercedes Gilbert and the tragic Nina Mae McKinney, Evelyn Preer ranks, as one of cinema’s most enigmatic but important Afro-American actors.

Evelyn Preer’s daughter Sister Francesca Thompson is assistant dean at Fordham University, Bronx, New York.