Posted by Moira Finnie on February 17, 2010
Last year, in part because of the celebrations surrounding the films of 1939, I had a chance to introduce Gone With the Wind to younger viewers in my family who had never seen the film. It’s not a favorite movie of mine, so I could understand their appalled reactions to the innate racism of the story that implied that a slave’s first loyalty was to the families that owned them, (even after the Civil War and emancipation). Seen at a glance in GWTW, maybe the antebellum South’s biggest problems may only seem to be uppity white trash like Victor Jory’s oily Jonas Wilkerson, or the need for rebellious girls like Scarlett to maintain their hypocritical poses in a rigid social structure, while secretly acting on their own half-understood impulses, and the upheaval caused by those damn Yankees. But look a bit closer and you can see the story of changing attitudes and a brave woman struggling to make her mark in a world that both rejected and accepted her. I don’t mean Scarlett Katie O’Hara, either.
Perhaps the strange nostalgia that Hollywood bathed the Old South in from The Birth of a Nation (1915) on culminated in the orgiastic grandeur of GWTW, but, seen in context, the latter film’s cultural impact was part of the beginning of the end of certain prejudices as well. The movie, which still makes money in just about every format in which it has been marketed, may often seem overblown but is fun and repeated viewings there is still one performance that consistently brings the story to moving life for me. Whenever the luminous Hattie McDaniel (1895-1952) appears on screen, she is a clear-eyed character completely unhampered by social niceties, or even the need to restrain herself in order to survive in a topsy-turvy world. Playing a woman who acts as a Greek chorus, a conscience, a pillar of strength and a judgmental maternal figure–all delivered with a ferocious edge of anger, impatience and seemingly inexplicable love for members of the white O’Hara family, particularly Scarlett, she is enormously appealing. In a way that was echoed by fellow character actresses and truth-tellers Eve Arden and Thelma Ritter, her Mammy told it like it was, but with a difference that made her bravery more impressive–she was an African-American woman playing a slave in a period when such stock characters were most often dehumanized.
McDaniel and the filmmakers took what might have been a clichéd role embodying the ugliest of racial stereotypes and transformed it into a portrait of human being of considerable complexity, endowing her character with a rich blend of humor, empathy, and intelligence. While the story did not acknowledge her character’s life when white people weren’t around, a viewer would have to be quite obtuse not to recognize her vital sense of her own power and her intuitive understanding of others. This is particularly true of Scarlett (Vivien Leigh), whose ploys she readily sees through, but there is also a particularly sympathetic affinity passing between Mammy and the realistic and dashing Rhett Butler, who was played by Clark Gable, an actor who had enjoyed working with her previously in China Seas (1935-Tay Garnett) and Saratoga (1937-Jack Conway). (If you have a chance, see Saratoga sometime and revel in their exchanges throughout the film, in which the appealingly raffish pair seem to be rehearsing for their mock battles and affectionate skirmishes in GWTW).
Landing the role meant competing with such popular performers as Louise Beavers, whose touching work in Imitation of Life (1934-John M. Stahl) has never received the accolades it deserved. According to several sources, Beavers, who had previously established a reputation for creating characters of an exceptional gentle sunniness, arrived to audition for Mammy dressed in her finest clothes, while Hattie McDaniel came dressed in the apparel that her character would wear. As an actress, McDaniel, the daughter of two former slaves, must have been sensitive to the implications of her role since, throughout the film, she remains very near center stage, even while other characters die or disappear from the massive story as an entire society is transformed. As a child she had been so prone to singing nonstop that she later explained that her mother used to give her a dime to knock it off for a while, and her father and brothers were all musicians and performers at some time during their lives, so leaving school at an early age may have had some appeal for her. As a former vaudevillian who had traveled with a minstrel show until the Depression forced her to take on jobs as real maids and as a ladies room attendant, McDaniel‘s film career before GWTW had included several roles playing servants on screen beginning in 1932. In retrospect, some earlier parts now seem surprisingly docile, such as her role as a contented plantation slave–complete with a Southern dialect–in The Little Colonel (1935-David Butler).
However, there were strong hints that her spirit, backed up by her powerful physical presence and resonant voice could not be held down by increasingly outdated archetypes when she played a character, even if she was a maid most of the time. A kind of breakthrough came under George Stevens‘ direction in Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams (1935), which told the story of young woman (Katharine Hepburn, in one of her most finely tuned early performances) and her slightly pretentious ambitions for herself and her poor family as she sought to find a place in small town society. After inviting a young man from a prominent family (Fred MacMurray) to dinner, a hired maid (Hattie McDaniel) is signed on to serve an elaborate meal on a particularly hot evening. Sullen, and silently disgusted with these affected white people (Hepburn refers to the maid as “la domestique”) who insisted on having her wear an ill-fitting maid’s cap, McDaniel‘s brief scene builds into a rhapsody of domestic disaster as everything goes wrong and her contempt for these people grows more evident. Some critics felt that the actress deserved special mention, with Andre Sennwald in his 1935 review of Alice Adams in The New York Times reflecting audience’s delight in his comment that no review would be adequate “if it neglected to applaud Hattie Daniels for her hilarious bit as the hired maid during the classic dinner scene.”In The Mad Miss Manton (1938-Leigh Jason), she answers the door and throws a pitcher of water in the face of Henry Fonda, an act of enormous impudence and physical aggression for that time. In The Shopworn Angel (1938-H.C. Potter), Hattie yells back at her employer Margaret Sullavan whenever she is barked at by her. In addition, McDaniel clearly has other priorities outside of work, and it is implied that the character likes to step out at night, and sleep late in the morning–just like her musical comedy star boss (and many real human beings).
These unusually assertive roles did not escape the attention of critics and audiences. Production Code Office honcho Joseph Breen reminded RKO that the impishness shown by the actress in roles such as The Mad Miss Manton “may be objectionable in the South where the showing of Negroes on terms of familiarity and social equality is resented.” Despite reported script changes that led to the part being trimmed of its “inappropriateness”, in the existing film the actress had a field day, answering a persistent doorbell with the muttered remark, “I ain’t deaf…sometimes I wish I was” and when sharply reminded by her employer (Barbara Stanwyck) that an individual “is our guest”, the maid simply points out that “I didn’t invite her.”
As her prominence grew within the film industry, she found herself straddling a fault line that grew during her lifetime as the country moved toward the Civil Rights movement that burst forth shortly after her death. White and black audiences were often united in their appreciation of her, but progressive if perhaps somewhat naive observers, were understandably pained by the menial roles McDaniel and others were consistently asked to play. From Hattie McDaniel‘s point of view, she was a working actress at a time when most of her co-workers were unemployed and her presence on screen, along with her ability to mold her parts to comment on the stereotypes may have reflected a gradualist approach to change that she favored. Her intelligent playing, warmth and humor enabled her to transcend expectations, but the actress had little control over her career choices, and could wind up in a film such as Maryland (1940-Henry King), playing painfully hackneyed roles that demeaned her and all actors of color–not to mention the effect on audience assumptions. To McDaniel, her articulate speech, regal carriage, and beautiful clothes off screen reflected her own awareness that “I’m a fine black Mammy [on the screen], but I’m Hattie McDaniel in my house.”
With the blockbuster status of Margaret Mitchell‘s bestselling Gone With the Wind and David O. Selznick‘s flair for publicity, the casting in GWTW attracted the attention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which, under Walter White wanted to have some influence over the script’s depiction of the Black characters and the racially charged dialogue. According to several biographies, Selznick mollified his critics in the black press by promising to hire a technical advisor specifically representing their interests (he never did, though he did hire a white Southern historian as a consultant). Eventually the script, which underwent so many revisions throughout shooting that censorship became nearly impossible, was amended to remove the hateful “N” word completely from the script, though it was used by Hattie McDaniel‘s character in the script when criticizing black tramps she encountered in a scene set in Reconstruction period, almost up to the time of shooting. In a release to the black press, McDaniel, as a contractee of Selznick International, was also photographed with three individuals identified as onset representatives of the black community concerns (two were actually film production employees). Despite these fast shuffles, Hattie’s broad shoulders carried the mantle of one of the most fully realized black characters in a major motion picture up to that time. One scene in particular, when Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) arrives to comfort the Butlers after their daughter’s tragic death, stood out as a consummate piece of acting. Mounting the stairs, a heartsick Mammy explains that “Mister Rhett done los’ his mind since Bonnie was killed trying to make her pony take a high jump,” locking himself and his child’s cold body away in his bedroom and refusing to hear of anyone’s burying the child in the ground, concerned that this would even be considered, since the girl was so afraid of the dark. De Havilland, who privately nursed hopes of an Oscar nod for her restrained but powerful performance said later that “the scene probably won Hattie her Oscar and that almost broke my heart too–at least at the time.”
Despite delivering a performance that Variety would say “set a mark on this moment in the picture as one of those inspirational [high points] long remembered,” credit and respect from her colleagues on the set and in her industry as well as audiences had to wait. When the Selznick organization made it known to Atlanta officials that the black members of the cast such as Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, Oscar Polk and Everett Browne would be attending the premiere in late 1939, this was nixed when it became clear that these actors would not be made welcome. When the mock-up of the souvenir program for the premiere featured a prominent photo of Hattie McDaniel along with her co-stars Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard and Olivia de Havilland, there were objections raised. In private, an outraged David Selznick felt that he was in a spot that made him “seem ungrateful for what I honestly feel is one of the great supporting performances of all time”, but, even though it galled him, after reflecting on what was at stake financially, and with the advice of his counselors, he accepted the Southern city fathers’ edict, and removed Hattie‘s picture. One of the few bright notes in this sad recounting was the name of one of the youths who was a part of the celebration in Atlanta on December 14, 1939 as a member of the Ebenezer Baptist Church Choir. Then ten years old, Martin Luther King, Jr. would eventually be instrumental in changing such accepted customs.
After the film received a more general release, the accolades poured in, with particular praise for McDaniel‘s multi-dimensional characterization. Critics, including Edwin Schallert of The Los Angeles Times wrote that her “remarkable achievement” was “worthy of Academy supporting awards while some publications in the Black community and the liberal press were understandably troubled by the flaws in the film, such as the warped picture it painted of slavery and the Confederate cause. Criticism of those scenes that depicted “Negroes as ignorant, incapable and superstitious” might appear side by side with articles in the same periodicals that praised Hattie McDaniel‘s performance and pressed for her nomination for an Oscar. Leading up to the nominations and voting period for the Academy Awards, for the first time, Black entertainment professionals, including veteran actor Clarence Muse and select journalists, were admitted to the Academy for voting. Outwardly jubilant, the attention and pressure that the actress endured from this period on in her career must have been gratifying and daunting. As she tried to explain to those who questioned her choice of the role, Hattie said, “This is an opportunity to glorify Negro womanhood. I am proud that I am a Negro woman because members of that class have given so much.”
McDaniel did receive her nomination and the enthusiastic public support of Selznick, and many members of her industry and audiences. Breaking a color barrier in American life while having her acting receive its due must have been gratifying for the actress, whose name was submitted along with Maria Ouspenskaya for Love Affair, Geraldine Fitzgerald for Wuthering Heights, Edna Mae Oliver for Drums Along the Mohawk, and, of course, Olivia de Havilland for GWTW. Seventy years ago this month, on the evening of February 29, 1940, as about 1,700 people gathered at the Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Hattie McDaniel arrived on the arm of her escort, F.P. Yober, in a blue gown with a few discreetly sparkling rhinestones, topped with an ermine cape and with gardenias cascading from her hair onto her right shoulder. However, as she entered to take her seat, the actress, who was greeted by spontaneous applause among the attendees*, even though, she once more found herself seated, not with her white co-workers from this production, but in the corner of the room away from them. The rest is history:
Despite this, one more slight among many, the film won 8 Oscars that night, and the next day on the front page of The Los Angeles Sentinel was a large picture of the actress with one word under her radiant, if slightly stunned visage: “Winner.” Her comment as she was accosted by a flying wedge of reporters after receiving her award was the simple comment that “Well, all I have to say is I did my best and God did the rest.”
In the remaining twelve years of Hattie McDaniel‘s life she continued to produce a prodigious amount of work in film, radio and television while her cherished Oscar was prominently displayed in her home. Her private life appears to have been sometimes painful, (she was married four times, each time relatively briefly and lived with declining health beginning in the mid-40s), but publicly and professionally, she presented an example of an African-American whose efforts to honor her deep spiritual roots by helping others among her family, friends, community and country have much longer shadows than she could have imagined.
In a pair of sad codas to this story of a vibrant, pioneering woman who endured so much in her quest for achievement and recognition, Hattie McDaniel‘s Oscar is now missing, (seen at right, the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in those days was a smaller statuette with an attached plaque). After her death of breast cancer in 1952 at 57, the star left her history-making Oscar to the leading Black institution of higher learning, Howard University. Hattie McDaniel hoped that the Oscar might inspire future generations there. In the tumultuous days following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, the statuette reportedly went missing, with some reports claiming that the award was consigned to a watery grave in the Potomac River by students bitter over its association in a time of stereotyping and racism. As far as I have been able to confirm, Howard University has not confirmed that part of the story, but has reported the Oscar as missing and AMPAS has declined to provide a replacement to the school. As of last year, Tom Gregory, a regular contributor to The Huffington Post, reported that this situation has not been resolved. If anyone can clarify this situation further, I hope that they will share any facts they may know about this matter.
Days after Hattie McDaniel‘s death, her expressed wish to be buried in Hollywood Memorial Park (now known as Hollywood Forever), was denied–since the cemetery was white only, (even in death?!). Consequently, an estimated five thousand mourners and limousines loaded down with flowers and the famous accompanied her body to Rosedale cemetery, where she rests today, (seen at left). In 1999 Hollywood Forever (clearly under new management), held a ceremony 47 years after her death to unveil a cenotaph in her memory consisting of a pink marble pillar with three hundred attendees gathered to finally honor her memory.
To be honest, I only pay desultory attention to modern day Oscar races. The participants seem somehow blander and airbrushed than some of those who came before, but my interest was piqued by a news item in The Hollywood Reporter on November 11th of last year that warmed my classics-lovin’ heart. In a story about the award season that was earning kudos for Mo’Nique, the actress who stunned critics and audiences alike as the abusive mother of victimized child in the extremely powerful film Precious (2009), the odds-on favorite to win an Oscar as the Best Supporting Actress in this year’s Academy Awards mentioned that she owns the rights to the life story of Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American to garner an Oscar for her outstanding role in Gone With the Wind (1939) and she hopes to use any new found clout to prepare a biopic about the complex career and life of the GWTW actress with Lee Daniels, the director of Precious.
As Todd Boyd pointed out in his recent thoughtful piece on The Root, it took almost two and a half decades for that color barrier to be breached again after McDaniel‘s coup, with Sidney Poitier’s win as Best Actor for Lilies of the Field (1963-Ralph Nelson), followed by Lou Gossett, Denzel Washington, Whoopi Goldberg and Cuba Gooding‘s wins in the supporting categories. Since 2001, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Jamie Foxx, and Forest Whitaker have been awarded Best Actor and Actress Oscars, with Morgan Freeman and Jennifer Hudson receiving recognition for their excellence in the Supporting categories. I’m not sure if in this distracted age all the movies that have earned Academy Awards will live as long as GWTW but isn’t it possible that some of those real barriers are gone? Still, I can’t help hoping that somewhere Hattie McDaniel was smiling if she could hear Mo’Nique‘s comment about her Best Supporting Actress nomination when the actress said “I’m really appreciative to be in that category with that woman. It’s phenomenal. She was amazing for what she did to the entertainment industry. She brought people together through love.”
For those of us who enjoy Hattie McDaniel any way we find her, I have included a clip from Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943-David Butler), a film in which she joyously rocks the house singing an Arthur Schwartz and Frank Loesser song, “Ice Cold Katie”, ably assisted by just about every Black performer in Hollywood at the time, including Willie Best, all in the name of a cause she supported for years–entertaining the troops in wartime:
After winning the Oscar as Best Supporting Actress last night, Mo’Nique told reporters that the “reason why why I have on this royal blue dress is because it’s the color that Hattie McDaniel wore in 1940 when she accepted her Oscar. The reason why I have this gardenia in my hair, it is the flower that Hattie McDaniel wore when she accepted her Oscar. So for you, Miss Hattie McDaniel, I feel you all over me.”
*One reason why the people in the Coconut Grove may have been eager to applaud Hattie McDaniel‘s approach that night was the fact that The Los Angeles Times leaked the names of the winners in their late edition just prior to the Academy Awards ceremony, a not uncommon event in the early years of AMPAS history. If that happened today, a special prosecutor would probably have to investigate the matter.
Benshoff, Harry M., Griffin, Shawn, America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies, Wiley-Blackwell, 2004.
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