In a twist of fate, the newest Gone With The Wind controversy burst on June 10th, Hattie McDaniel’s birthday. Ms. McDaniel, who portrayed Mammy in the film, received an Academy Award for best supporting actress and was the first African American to win an Oscar. She received that award for her skillful acting in Gone With The Wind.
As I scrolled through the news on that day, I felt sad. Does removing and vilifying Gone With The Wind take away something from Ms. McDaniel’s achievement? Or does the removal somehow bring a sense of reparation or justice for the injustices she faced during her lifetime? I suppose the answers will vary. Today, let’s dig into the facts of her life and see if we can gain some clarity:
Born on June 10, 1893, Hattie McDaniel was the youngest of thirteen siblings. Both of her parents had been enslaved prior to the Civil War and her father had served in the Union Army. Seeking a new place to settle after experiencing increasing segregation and threats, the McDaniel family settled in Colorado. Hattie’s father and several of her brothers went into show business, and as she grew up, Hattie loved to perform, sing, and recite.
Her professional career as an entertainer started with a minstrel show, and by the 1920’s, she performed on radio shows and recorded some of her own songs and music. During the early years of the Great Depression, Hattie worked as a ladies’ washroom attendant at a nightclub since the club owner insisted that she had no talent and could not sing. One night, though, Hattie seized the stage and started paving her road to California and Hollywood.
In 1931, she joined some of her siblings in the Golden State, seeking roles in films and performing as “Hi-Hat-Hattie” on a radio program. The roles on screen and radio were maids and housekeepers and the entertainment industry paid her such low wages that Hattie worked as maid to make ends meet. Though Hattie appeared in more than 300 films, she received screen and print credit for just 83 movies at that time.
By the mid-1930’s, Hattie’s talent was noticed by the major studios. Fox Film Corporation offered her a contract and she played in a Shirley Temple film. One of her first major feature roles was in Show Boat (1936), and Hattie made friends with many Hollywood stars who recognized her talents and character. Roles for African American women were limited in 1930’s Hollywood, though, and Hattie was often cast as a maid, servant, or slave. However, biographer Carlton Jackson points out: “Actually…in the mid-thirties, Hattie’s film image was not totally that of a servile, groveling menial. On the contrary, she became known to many movie audiences as an independently-minded, sometimes even sassy, operator of the household.”[i] She often “stole” the scenes from white actors or actresses and delighted audiences.
Referencing the unfortunately limited roles, Hattie declared to a Hollywood reporter, “I’d rather play a maid than be one.” Though she made a choice to work within the studio systems and endured segregation and racism regularly, Hattie made it clear that she had made decisions which she hoped would open the doors for other African Americans to go farther in the growing entertainment world. She also took stands when she felt strongly about an issue and felt that she could change a director or studio effectively. In 1947, after her Gone With The Wind fame, Hattie wrote an article for the Hollywood Reporter, saying: “I have never apologized for the roles I play….Several times I have persuaded the directors to omit dialect from modern pictures. They readily agreed to the suggestion. I have been told that I have kept alive the stereotype of the Negro servant in the minds of theatre-goers. I believe my critics think the public more naïve than it actually is. As I pointed out to Fredi Washington, ‘Arthur Treacher is indelibly stamped as a Hollywood butler, but I am sure no one would go to his home and expect him to meet them at the door with a napkin across his arm.’ ”[ii]
Though she saw herself as a ground-breaker shattering a few glass ceilings along the way for other African American women who would follow her footsteps, others in the black community did not find her Hollywood roles and life agreeable. Gone With The Wind put Hattie McDaniel in the target seat and spotlight from the beginning. It started with the publication of the best-selling novel in 1936 which quickly sold movie rights to David O. Selznick. The leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People led the charge against the book and movie, pointing out racist language and stereotypes. They pressured Hollywood about the script. (Hattie actually convinced Selznick to drop several verbal slurs because she refused to say them or have them said to her).
Some sources claim that Clark Gable recommended Hattie McDaniel for the role of “Mammy” since he had worked with her on a previous film and recognized her acting talents. Initially, Hattie did not expect to get the part, but she auditioned with enthusiasm. Once she had the role, Hattie joined other black actors and actresses on a segregated set. They threatened to walk out unless certain steps toward equality and appreciation for all talents were taken, including the removal of racial designated areas within the set and preparation areas.
Hattie befriended many of the film’s stars, including Vivien Leigh who often went to lunch with her. She shared a laugh with Clark Gable who filled their glasses with scotch instead of colored water for one memorable “take.” Hattie doctored the cast when they were ill with colds, making a home remedy cough syrup (with a healthy dose of bourbon) which because standing joke and favorite with Gable who became a life-long friend. Olivia de Havilland recognized that Hattie would probably win a major award for the scene when Mammy talks with Melanie about little Bonnie’s death.
Though small breakthroughs had been made socially on the sets of Gone With The Wind, Hattie and her fellow black actors and actresses faced an unkind world when the movie finally premiered. They were forbidden to attend the opening night in Atlanta, Georgia. Even when Hattie was nominated for an Academy Award, David O. Selznick had to convince the event site to change their segregation rules to allow her attendance. (More on the movie’s release and Hollywood’s racism in the next post.) For her role in Gone With The Wind, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar. Presses and reviewers praised her stereotypical portrayal of faithful Mammy in the myth of “happy Southern plantations,” in language that is awkward to 21st Century readers, but was supposed to be laudatory and liberal in the segregated world of the 1930’s.
Following her success from Gone With The Wind, Hattie starred in more films during the 1940’s. She performed with the USO during World War II and toured to promote Gone With The Wind. Later, she became the first black actor or actress to start in her own radio show, creating the comedy series called “Beulah,” and making $2,000 per week for her performances. However, the show created controversy for continuing to use racially stereotypical scenarios. In 1952, Hattie stepped away from entertaining; she had been struggling with health challenges and had been diagnosed with breast cancer. On October 26, 1952, at age 59, Hattie McDaniel died of cancer. She had requested to be buried in Hollywood Cemetery, but her final request was denied because of segregation and she was buried in Rosedale Cemetery.
Through her life, Hattie McDaniel battled racism and segregation nearly everywhere she turned in the entertainment industry. She chosen to push some boundaries and accepted others. Her talented acting in Gone With The Wind secured a historic moment when she won Hollywood’s high award for best-supporting actress. While this acknowledgement of her skills should never be used as an excuse for the racism and segregation she endured, it does bring the question: should we forget the movie that led to her ground-breaking achievement?
Perhaps her own words offer strong, concluding thoughts to ponder. On July 7, 1940, Hattie McDaniel appeared on a radio show in Cleveland, Ohio. Although her words were probably tempered and scripted in that era for the public audience, she offered powerful statements about how she viewed her achievements through Gone With The Wind:
I want to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you for the many lovely and kind things you have said about me from time to time, and for the many kindnesses shown to me . . . for I realize you were showing recognition for my work in the movie version of Gone With the Wind. I want you to know that I feel no great personal pride for my contribution to the world of art. Rather, I feel that the entire fourteen million or more Negroes have all been raised a few notches higher in the estimation of the world. Each one of us is an ambassador now, either for good or ill for our race. The entire race is usually judged by the actions of one man or woman. Therefore, if I am proud at all I am proud of the fact that Hattie McDaniel has been able to add something which I hope will be a lasting credit to our race….
It is not necessary for me to speak of the picture, as I know most of you have seen it. But I would like to say that every actor and actress is possessed of the absorbing passion to create something distinctive and unique. He or she desires a role which will challenge his capabilities and send him searching for new mannerisms, and latent dramatic power…. My desire for the part of Mammy, which I played in Gone With the Wind, was not dominated by selfishness…. In playing the part of Mammy, I tried to make her a living, breathing character, the way she appeared to me in the book. There was an opportunity to glorify Negro womanhood; not the modern, streamlined type of Negro woman who attends teas and concerts in ermine and mink, but the type of Negro of the period which gave us Harriett Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Charity Still; the brave, efficient, hard-working type of womanhood has built a race, mothered our Booker T. Washington, George W. Carver, Robert Moton, and Mary McLeod Bethune. So you see, the mothers of that era must have had something in them to produce men and women of that caliber…. To you young people who are aspiring to succeed in some line of endeavor, in spite of the troubles that many of us have experienced, let me say this: There is still room at the top.”[iii]
To be continued…
Sources & Citations:
Pyron, Darden Asbury (editor). Recasting: Gone With The Wind In American Culture. University Press of Florida, 1983.
[i] Jackson, Carlton. Hattie (Life of Hattie McDaniel) (p. 27). Madison Books. Kindle Edition.
[iii] Jackson, Carlton. Hattie (Life of Hattie McDaniel) (pp. 61-63). Madison Books. Kindle Edition.