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McKinney, Nina Mae (1912–1967)

school film musical lancaster

McKINNEY, NINA MAE (1912–1967). Actress, singer, dancer. A native of Lancaster, South Carolina, Nannie Mayme McKinney performed in school plays at the all-black Lancaster Industrial School while living with an aunt. She left school at age 13 and moved to New York City to live with her mother. She took on the stage name of Nina Mae McKinney and was soon performing in Harlem nightclubs, and landed a role as a dancer in Lew Leslie’s 1928 Broadway musical Blackbirds . Film director King Vidor was impressed by her lively performance on stage and took the sultry 16 year old to Hollywood to star in his upcoming sound film Hallelujah , 1929. As Chick, the half girl, half woman temptress, McKinney received a five year contract with MGM studios and became the talkies ’ first black love goddess and tragic mulatto character. A sexy African American leading lady was not the norm in the 1930s and she only did two pictures under her lengthy contract, Safe in Hell , 1931, and her singing voice was overdubbed for a Jean Harlow song in Reckless , 1935. She also starred in the musical short, Pie Pie Blackbird , 1932, where she danced with the very young Nicholas Brothers. Despite her big breakout, opportunities in America were rather slim. McKinney toured Europe billed as the “Black Garbo,” and was referred to as the dusky “Clara Bow” when she returned to the United States. While in England, she starred in Sanders of the River , 1935, with Paul Robeson. The onset of World War II brought her back to New York, where she married jazz musician Jimmy Monroe, organized a band, and toured the country. Her additional film roles include The Devil’s Daughter , 1939; Mantan Messes Up, 1946; and Pinky , 1949. McKinney also lived and performed in Athens, Greece, during the 1950s and 1960s, when she was known as “Queen of the Night Life.” She would later marry character actor Joel Fluellen in a Mexican wedding ceremony in Caliente, but their union would be short-lived.

Filmography: Hallelujah , 1929; Safe in Hell , 1931; Reckless , 1935; Sanders of the River , 1935; The Devil’s Daughter , 1939; Mantan Messes Up , 1946; Pinky , 1949.

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