Thursday, December 22, 2011

First colored girl in the office: 1950s workplace integration

Check out this oddity from the 1950s: A dramatically-acted government film about a company hiring its first black office employee.

The film, The New Girl in the Office, was made by the President's Committee on Government Contracts, an agency created by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 (JFK changed the title of the agency in 1961, leaving me to believe the film is from the 1950s).

The New Girl in the Office stars Gail Fisher as Mary the aforementioned girl who gets a secretarial job in a white-owned company because of new federal equal employment policies. Employees are hostile and Mary is get the picture. The film features Ed Asner, Lou Gossett, Clarice Taylor and other actors whose faces would, along with Gail's, become familiar in the decade to come.

The film is 30 minutes long and is almost laughably dead-serious--and a little patronizing--in its earnestness. "She's gotta be so likeable, that any white girl with a chip on her shoulder would think twice before she starts any trouble," one character says.

Which isn't to say there aren't some laughs here, although unintentional. The Urban League leader who tells  the very cute Mary at 11:32 that not taking chances causes one's pride to "shrink down to 10 inches" is clearly trying to send her a coded message of a different sort, ain't he? And I think the boss's secretary is passing--that's why she's accepting. The dark-haired male executive with the hot coffee fetish is also, I bet.

Some good old mid-century sexism is at play. The women are the cattiest about Mary; the guys seemed to take it in stride. One of the chicks threatens to quit, but instead of letting her go, the boss persuades her to stay to keep the other women from leaving. Pimp!

Of course, the secretaries end up accepting Mary. Even the one that threatened to quit. I wish she would have made a sequel in about 1970 when Mary goes back to school, gets her degrees, and decides to move up the ladder a little more.

As an actress, Gail Fisher was a bit of a ground-breaker herself. An early 1960s spot she did for All laundry detergent made her the first black person to have speaking lines in a national television commercial. She's best known for being Joe Mannix's secretary--and clearly he was digging on her--in the 1968 to 1975 television show Mannix. She died in 2000 at 65.

1 comment:

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