Kenneth Spencer - Rotten Tomatoes

Kenneth Spencer

Highest Rated:   80% Cabin in the Sky (1943)
Lowest Rated:   80% Cabin in the Sky (1943)
Birthplace:   Not Available
Although little remembered today, in his time Kenneth Spencer was a notable Black actor in American movies, with a presence reminiscent of his older contemporaries Paul Robeson and Rex Ingram. In contrast to Robeson and Ingram, however, Spencer never found the same choice of leading roles with which to carve a place for himself in the movie history books or most filmgoers' memories. Born in Los Angeles, Spencer displayed an early interest in music and was awarded a scholarship at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, in the 1930s -- though to get there to avail himself of the opportunity, however, he practically had to beg for the train fare. He had spent much of his early adult life working as a day laborer, mowing lawns, banking furnaces, and selling flowers to support himself and his family. Spencer earned a Bachelor of Music degree at Eastman in 1938 and subsequently made his way west, appearing in a revival of Showboat, starring in the opera Gettysburg, and performing in concert at the Hollywood Bowl in California, as well as understudying Robeson in the play John Henry. By 1942, Spencer's bass baritone voice had earned him a regular recital show on the CBS radio network, and his good looks and six-foot-three-inch frame attracted the interest of Hollywood producers. He was particularly busy at MGM in 1943, where he played a key supporting role in the drama Bataan and was cast that same year in Vincente Minnelli's directorial debut film, Cabin in the Sky, in which he portrayed the dual role of the reverend and the heavenly general, in opposition to Rex Ingram's Lucifer Jr. Those two movies, alas, would prove to be the beginning and the end of Spencer's Hollywood career, at least on camera. Spencer, who had command of French, Spanish, Russian, German, and Hebrew, and whose repertory encompassed opera, spirituals, folk songs, Broadway, and popular song, was successful as a nightclub singer in venues such as Cafe Society Uptown in New York, but he juxtaposed engagements such as that with work on Broadway, most notably in the celebrated 1946 revival of Showboat, for which -- with the approval of the producers and publishers -- he altered the words of "Ol' Man River" from "Niggers all work on the Mississippi" to "Colored folks work on the Mississippi." Always sensitive about the way that black characters were treated on-stage and onscreen, he found few roles to play in movies after World War II, though his voice was in demand -- Spencer was chosen as the singer of the ballads composed by Earl Robinson and Millard Lampell for Lewis Milestone's drama A Walk in the Sun (1946); those ballads, heard at several key points on the soundtrack during the film's depiction of six hours in the life and death of an army platoon, were a groundbreaking musical device at the time. Spencer was getting some singing and recording opportunities (including several performances for Columbia Masterworks, the most prestigious classical label in America), but he also had vivid memories of overt racism in the United States -- he'd been driven off the stage during a benefit performance in Chicago before the war, by a group of hooligans -- and its subtle manifestations as well. Finally, like a number of notable black performers before him, including Robeson, Adelaide Hall, Josephine Baker, and John Kitzmiller, Spencer turned to Europe as a more open and hospitable, as well as a more lucrative, market for his talents as a singer and actor, and he moved his family there at the end of the 1940s. He made a half-dozen movies in Germany between the early '50s and the early '60s, and was constantly engaged as a singer over the next 15 years. He died in a plane crash just outside of New Orleans while visiting the United States early in 1964.

Highest Rated Movies



No Score Yet Bataan
  • Wesley Epps
80% Cabin in the Sky
  • Rev. Green, the General

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