If I had paid closer attention to “The Duke Is Tops,” the 1938 film starring Ralph Cooper and Nina Mae McKinney, I would have noticed that Laurence Criner was the character Doc Dorando, whose all-purpose elixir Cooper is hustling like a snake oil salesman. His name popped up in last week’s column on the actress Kathryn Boyd, where the two of them were the stars in “The Flying Ace.” Criner now gets his profile and as you will see he had a very productive and highly respected career on screen.
“The Flying Ace” may have been Criner’s most successful film and it certainly secured his place as a leading Black male actor in the 1930s and 1940s. From “The Flying Ace” in 1926 to “The Jackie Robinson Story” in 1950, Criner appeared in 19 films and several performances on stage. In the earliest films he was usually the leading man and later a supporting actor or in a few cameo roles.
Laurence Criner (and sometimes listed as Lawrence) was born July 19, 1898, in Waco, Texas. Not much has been reported of his early life but he did serve in the Army in World War I and the Navy in World War II. His acting career began with the famed Lafayette Players in Harlem and later joined with Richard Norman and his troupe in Jacksonville, Fla. Just a list of his leading ladies beginning most notably with Kathryn Boyd, and including Lena Horne, Ruby Dee, and Dorothy Dandridge is enough to distinguish him on film.
We have offered considerable information on his role as Billy Stokes in “The Flying Ace,” and it should be noted that his role there had a tremendous impact on young men who later became members of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen. In 1927, he worked with Oscar Micheaux in “The Millionaire,” and then continued with Norman films. “Black Gold” is where we left off last week with Ms. Boyd in his arms; in 1934 he was Kala in “Black Moon.” He is the high priest in the film which centers on voodoo rituals and his injury riles up his followers, leading to an interminable series of chases for revenge. Interestingly, the film stars Jack Holt and Fay Wray, who a year before starred in the classic “King Kong.”
In 1937, a year before “The Duke Is Tops,” Criner was featured with Cooper in “Bargain with Bullets,” one of many Harlem gangster films produced by Million Dollar Productions, with an all-Black cast. “Gang Smashers” (1938) finds Criner as an undercover cop assigned to expose a Harlem nightclub owner who is also strong-arming local businesses for protection money. He shares the screen with the lovely Nina Mae McKinney and Mantan Moreland, as he will do in several other films. A succession of films continued the gangster theme before he starred in “Midnight Shadow” (1939). I watched this film on YouTube and Criner plays Prince Alihabad, a mind reader arrayed in a turban, who courts the beautiful Frances E. Redd. Her parents want her to be happy but are disturbed that her suitor worships Allah. Ruby Dandridge, Dorothy’s mother, has a supporting role.
“Four Shall Die” is a supernatural crime film released in 1940, in which Criner shares the billing with Dorothy Dandridge in her debut on screen. Comedian Mantan Moreland is among the supporting actors. Two years later Criner is Chief Mojobo in “Law of the Jungle,” an adventure film where he comes to the rescue of two lovers caught in a deadly jam. In 1948, Criner joined Stepin Fetchit and William Greaves, and leading lady Sheila Guyse in “Miracle in Harlem.” Guyse is suspected of killing the business magnate who swindled her out of her family-run candy business. Greaves, later to become a successful producer and director, plays her boyfriend.
Curiously, in the biopic “The Jackie Robinson Story,” in which Robinson plays himself, Criner is not in the cast listing, though there is information that he was in the film, and in fact plays the minister that encourages Jackie to pursue his baseball dream. Also featured in the film is Louise Beavers as Jackie’s mother, and other veteran screen and television actors include Dick Williams and Bernie Hamilton. UCLA football star Kenny Washington also has a small part as a manager. Ruby Dee is outstanding as Rachel Robinson, giving the film some star and acting wattage.
There is no record of Criner’s life after his role in “The Jackie Robinson Story,” and there’s a stretch of 15 years before his death in 1965.