Understandably, the late Eartha Kitt is best remembered for her role as "Catwoman" in the 1960s television version of "Batman." That is quite an accomplishment in and of itself because she only appeared in three episodes. Yes, three. She also won an Emmy for playing a heroin-addicted nightclub singer in a memorable episode of "I Spy" and, of course, there was Boomerang. However, Eartha Kitt did have an interesting movie career that went far beyond what are considered camp favorites today.
In 1957, she starred opposite Sidney Poitier (and received top billing although Poitier was clearly the focus) in "The Mark of the Hawk." Skip to 2:39 to see Poitier and Kitt in the opening scene.
In 1958, she starred opposite Nat King Cole and Ruby Dee as a nightclub singer in "St. Louis Blues." When I interviewed Ms. Kitt in 2001, she told me how much she admired Nat King Cole and loved working with him. Inexpicably, there is a thirty-second "Catwoman" clip that precedes this video, but it is pretty hilarious.
In 1959, she starred opposite Sammy Davis, Jr. and a cast of greats from the black theater including Frederick O'Neal, the founder of the American Negro Theater, in the controversial (and watered down) film version of the hit all-Black Broadway play, "Anna Lucasta." Rosetta LeNoire (best known as "Mother Winslow" on the television series "Family Matters" and James Edwards, a fantastic unsung actor with leading man potential that went unrealized, were also in the film. Kitt not only starred, she and Sammy Davis, Jr. also had financial participation in the movie. From Within Our Gates: Ethnicity in American Feature Films, 1911-1960 by the American Film Institute (emphasis in bold mine):
Before the film's world premiere in Chicago in November 1958, the MPAA Advertising Code Administration refused to approve a number of ads for the film, claiming, according to The Hollywood Reporter, "that the ads blatantly portray the femme lead as a prostitute" and that "the 'art emphasizes her posterior.'" According to Daily Variety, United Artists informed the MPAA that they would run their ads without the Advertising Code Administration's approval, if necessary. Daily Variety reported that the MPAA might possibly withdraw their seal of approval for the film. United Artists then ran follow-up ads attempting to capitalize on the ad campaign controversy by using the slogan, "Why won't they let us tell you what sort of woman 'Anna Lucasta' is?" The Advertising Code Administration also refused to approve the follow-up ads, citing a regulation prohibiting publicity based on censorship. In January 1959, the MPH noted that the revised ad copy had finally been accepted. According to a January 1960 Hollywood Reporter news item, Eartha Kitt and Sammy Davis, Jr., who both had "financial participation" in the film, sent letters on Longridge letterhead to hundreds of exhibitors in the south requesting correspondence because they felt that many Southern theaters did not book the film on "racial grounds."
So, you see, Eartha Kitt did not merely make "blink-and-you-miss-it" guest spots in films. She starred in and had "financial participation" in films during a time when she would not be served in many restaurants in America.
Let me also say, I was also disappointed that Ricardo Montalban and Cyd Charisse were not recognized in the montage. Ricardo Montalban is best known to many as "Mr. Rourke" of "Fantasy Island" of course, but he also acted, danced and sang in some memorable Hollywood musicals in the 1940s (Check him out with Ms. Charisse and the late, fabulous Ann Miller.) He also spoke out for better, and more varied, opportunities for Latino actors - a factor some think may have harmed his career.
It may not be a big deal to some or mere "sour grapes" but I really believe the omissions this year were rather egregious considering how little recognition and appreciation many of these actors received in their lifetimes for the extra hurdles that they had to jump.