I was astonished and saddened to find very few public records or information about Hattie McDaniel. Unless you want to regurgitate the same old stories and more often than not that information isn’t very consistent making it hard to sift fact from fiction. She doesn’t grace the covers of vintage celebrity magazines, I was hard-pressed to find many in-depth documentaries and next to nothing in the way of interviews. In fact, McDaniel was only credited in 90 films but had appeared in at least 200 more without even getting a mention on the cast lists. So to quote our trailblazing McDaniel who deserves so much more “I did my best, and God did the rest.”
“Many filmmakers would say that there’s no such thing as a movie capable of shaking the World ” – DEREK MALCOLM (1995)
That is until the mother of all event movies, one of the most anticipated of its time and one of the 1st technicolor epics was finally completed, Gone With The Wind (1939). Directed by Victor Fleming and noted for such movies as The Wizard Of Oz (1939) along with some of MGM’s most prestigious films including Red Dust (1932), Bombshell (1933) and Reckless (1935) all vehicles used to showcase one of the great bombshells of our time, Jean Harlow.
Gone With The Wind, with all its smoldering passion was produced by the obsessional David O. Selznick the son of the silent movie producer Lewis J. Selznick, almost guaranteeing the success of the film with his trademark workmanship. It has been said that he allowed it to sadly overshadow his entire and very accomplished career. O.Selznick became convinced that he had wasted the rest of his life simply trying to outdo it. Regardless, he went on to give us many more amazing films such as Rebecca (1940), Spellbound (1945), Duel In The Sun (1946) and so many more amazing films which came before the epic Gone With The wind.
The film boasted a bevy of stars such as Vivien Leigh who shockingly smoked four packs of cigarettes a day on set, sadly she made relatively few films after the success of Gone With The Wind as her bipolar disorder led to long periods of inactivity. Thankfully we did get to see her tremendous talents in Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and Ship Of Fools (1965) and now famous for beating 1400 other actresses to play Scarlett O’Hara. Clark Gable a close second with three packs of cigarettes a day and referred to as “The King Of Hollywood” with a career spanning over 3 decades and 60 films. Olivia de Havilland, one of our last remaining movie stars of the Golden Age of Classical Hollywood. Leslie Howard, the matinee idol who went on to become a war hero and then there was McDaniel an American actress of stage and screen, professional singer-songwriter, and comedian to name only a few.
The film’s extremely lavish premiere almost outdoing the rich, opulent experience of the movie itself was held at the Loew’s Grand Theatre on December 15, 1939. An estimated three hundred thousand residents and visitors, most in period costumes formed 7 mile long lines down the streets to watch the procession of limousines that collected all the stars from the airport. Well not all the stars, McDaniel was noticeably absent. In fact, all people of color involved in the film were advised they were not only barred from attending but also excluded from being in the souvenir program due to Georgia’s Jim Crow segregation laws. To add insult to injury O.Selznick had to agree to get the posters for the movie redrawn, removing every colored character, before leaders in the Deep South would allow the movie to be shown in cinemas.
Both O.Selznick and Gable fought tirelessly to get permission for the stars to be able to attend the big event. Gable went as far as to threaten to boycott the entire premier, but the fearless and humble McDaniel persuaded him to attend. It seemed more important in her mind to promote the film that everyone had worked so hard on than to worry about her and after all, she was used to this sort of treatment living in an often hostile America.
The world premiere was a wild success as was the Hollywood debut on December 28, 1939. O.Selznick this time absolutely insisted that McDaniel be able to attend and that her picture be featured prominently in the program alongside her costars.
And so McDaniel, the 13th child of a former slave attended her first big movie premiere but it had been a long, hard and slow battle which would last throughout her entire life to reach this groundbreaking milestone.
Of Human Bondage.
McDaniel’s father, Henry was born into slavery in Virginia, he never knew his actual birth date and had no memories of his mother and father. Slaves were defined as nothing more than property with little to no rights. They couldn’t learn to read or write, vote, marry or have their own property to name but a few. Anyone enslaved had no protection from the law and were simply left at the hands of their more often than not, merciless master. Subjected to long, difficult exhausting days with the constant threat of whippings and brutal beatings. Surviving with the bare minimum of food which usually consisted of cornbread and pig fat, working in rags made of hard itchy burlap and shoes so uncomfortable that most slaves preferred to risk being barefoot, even in the cold of winter. Life was tough, no doubt about it, in fact, it was nothing short of bleak.
After being freed, Henry was a Civil War veteran who suffered greatly from war injuries that were never properly attended to by a Doctor. He was left deaf in one ear, suffered from excruciating headaches while enduring constant ringing in the other ear. A bomb that had shattered his jaw was left to heal on its own resulting in pieces of jaw bone constantly breaking off and the wounds never healing inside his mouth. This caused an infection that drained from his ears and mouth into his throat. He could barely walk from the damage that frostbite had caused to both of his legs and had a difficult time with manual labor, the only work afforded to a person of color at this time.
Yet brave Henry tried his best using his pained and broken down body to haul, lift, climb and dig to support his ever-growing family and it was often done on an empty stomach. When Henry’s body could work no more he applied to the United States Government for a disability pension, often given to war heroes who came back with injuries preventing them from being able to support themselves.
What was so easily given to the white injured soldiers was kept from many like Henry. For years he was denied and for years he persisted but every time he was turned down. Finally, after writing letters from 1886 to 1902 he was granted a very small pension to help look after his family. McDaniel often thought about her family’s extreme poverty and malnourishment. Back then with very little opportunities given to people of color, the Klu Klux Klan gaining momentum, the hatred, the beatings, being looked at as less than a dog and with fewer rights than a white child, the future must have looked absolutely hopeless. Yet out of this extreme gloom and darkness grew a tiny ray of hope in the shape of a little girl that managed to grow and flourish despite her surroundings.
Master and servant.
So what does it feel like to be the first person of color to win an Oscar for playing a dutiful slave in a world not too dissimilar to her own?
After many years as a hard-working extra, McDaniel was finally starting to get offered better roles. From Alice Adams (1935) with a young Katharine Hepburn along with her role in the (1934) movie Judge Priest which gave McDaniel the chance to show off her singing and dance talents she had learned as a child. She happily sang with a kind of inner joy alongside a very popular actor of the day, Will Rogers who started out in vaudeville stage, silent film and then managed to successfully cross over to the talkies. Directed by one of the most important and influential filmmakers of his generation, John Ford renowned for his epic Westerns like Stagecoach (1939), Fort Apache (1948), The Searchers (1956) along with his great adaptations of classic American novels such as the film The Grapes of Wrath (1940) took a special interest in McDaniel. Ford, known for his exacting direction was not always easy to work with but he was won over by his new find. He padded out her initial lines to include the above-mentioned song and was elated to find that McDaniel was a quick study. Ford was nothing short of delighted with her performance and word started to get around. McDaniel’s part as Aunt Dilsey won a lot of praise and it started to raise her profile which led to many other future parts. Later she played Queenie in the movie Show Boat (1936) and once again got to feature her singing talents on a number of songs.
The competition to get the part of Mammy in Gone With The Wind was just as cutthroat as those going for the part of Scarlett O’Hara. McDaniel didn’t believe she really had a chance as her body of work so far had meant she was now looked upon as more of a comedic actress. Regardless, McDaniel turned up for the audition in character dressed as an authentic maid and the rest is history.
It’s hard to imagine anyone else in that role as she cleaned and commented her way through the movie. McDaniel had such a good rapport with many of her fellow actors, especially Gable that audiences frequently lost sight of the master and servant relationship. Although some of the storylines like Song Of The South (1946) were clearly covering the reconstruction period which tried to convince us that slaves were truly content in bondage rather than free and Gone With The Wind with its sympathetic depiction of slavery.
In fact, some members of a mostly southern audience had made complaints against McDaniel’s Mammy reporting that she was too familiar with her white owners. Regardless the lines between master and slave were becoming more often than not, blurry and less easy to clearly define which made some people more than a little uncomfortable.
Heavyset and dark-skinned McDaniel had the physical characteristics that Hollywood associated with the role of a domestic, the most likely career option for women of color in the early 20th century. With big, soft yet curious eyes bursting with curiosity, mischief, and knowledge she exuded vibrancy and could quite easily steal any scene, you couldn’t stop watching her.
Brave McDaniel had a string of firsts under her very accomplished belt. She was the first woman of color to sing on the radio in the United States. The first to be nominated for an Oscar, the first to actually even attend the Oscars and the first to win an Oscar. It would be another 24 years before another actor of color, Sidney Poitier would win for his role in Lilies of the Field (1963). She was making an income that was unheard of for that time for a woman of color. She was so successful that MGM wouldn’t allow her to play anything else or to lose any weight even though she weighed over 300 pounds. This was a lady who simply refused to give up, she kept going and kept plowing forward despite all the hurdles and discrimination from both the white and now sadly her own community. Before and after her Oscar nod, McDaniel and others were being criticized for accepting roles deemed demeaning to their race.
She had played in over 300 movies playing a maid in 93 of them throughout her career. However, let’s be reasonable here, no one was offering up roles where McDaniel could play a judge or scientist and if the role was offered she would have happily taken it. With her own principles firmly in place, she forged a path. She turned down roles if she found them offensive and before taking on the role of Scarlet’s mammy she stated, ”I want to turn this stock role into a living, breathing character.” She did so successfully. McDaniel simply did the best with what was on offer to her and she managed to thrive and make a lucrative career out of it.
When movie roles dried-up she often was able to fall back to being a real maid a skill passed down from generations in her family but as a domestic, she was expected to be invisible, voiceless and compliant. McDaniel’s now-famous quote to all that criticized her, “I’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid than $7 a week being one” You see McDaniel looked at her role as Mammy as not degrading but as playing a kind of earth mother to the household. She took that character and made it distinctively her own breathing life into each of her roles giving them all an individual flair. They were strong, funny, wise and often the voice of reason, in fact, McDaniel’s Mammy ran the household and was most certainly not invisible.
Hattie’s lost legacy.
The whereabouts of McDaniel’s Oscar is shrouded in mystery and still unsolved to this day. A determined McDaniel directly approached O.Selznick armed with glowing reviews. It was then that O.Selznick put her forward for the Oscar nomination.
It’s important to remember that on what should have been a happy occasion of winning the Oscar she was not actually invited to the ceremony due to segregation laws. When she finally and reluctantly was told she could come she and her partner had to sit in the back out of sight from all the white elegant showbiz people. Just like in many of her movie roles she was always the maid, amid glamour but not part of it. Her speech had to be read word for word from a script that was already prewritten for her and she was sternly informed not to deviate.
Has there ever been an Oscar win that was so heavily burdened with a dark undercurrent and significance? Luckily, McDaniel never buckled under the restraints of appearance, gender, or race. Her name was called and in one instance McDaniel went from the dark recesses of the room right up to the very brightly lit front to face an all-white audience that included some of the most famous of that time. It was the most incredible night of her life to date tainted with having to make the long walk back to the very rear of the room, in the dark and once more out of sight. The rest of the big famous white stars then took off to glamorous after-parties which McDaniel was not invited to instead, she went home alone.
With the help of Gone With The Wind’s success, McDaniel’s co-stars went on to have very lucrative and long careers however McDaniel’s slowly declined. Here’s what she said in an interview in 1944 about her plummeting prospects following her Oscar win, “It was as if I had done something wrong.”
She was increasingly at the center of a political tug of war. On the one hand, she had Walter White, a leader of the N.A.A.C.P. criticize that performers of color were embarrassing their race by portraying what he called ”grinning stereotypes” and he especially went after McDaniel. On the other hand, some of the moviegoers felt uncomfortable with McDaniel’s increasing familiarity with her white costars and the further blurring of the chain of command. But she continued, never deviating from being loyal yet subversive and devoted yet bossy.
When McDaniel won the Oscar for best supporting actress she was also up against her costar Olivia De Havilland. It is strongly rumored that when a young De Havilland lost she didn’t take it well running to the toilets in emotional distress due to sheer disappointment. She was promptly told by a famous person in the industry that it was wrong for her to be so upset towards McDaniel for winning the award. After all, this may be the only great thing that has ever happened for her and probably will be the only thing in her entire life. A brave De Havilland learned a great lesson in kindness and empathy that night not having any more ill will about losing the award.
McDaniel was honored by the students of Howard University with a luncheon after she had won her Oscar. Always wanting to inspire and help others, McDaniel’s last will and testament bequeathed her Oscar to Howard University as a beacon of hope. McDaniel’s Oscar sadly vanished over 40 years ago but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences refuses to replace it to this day, despite pleas from historians and her family.
Apparently it vanished during the student protest riots of the late 1960s and has never been found. The most popular myth, the award was thrown into the Potomac River by students that were angry about racial stereotyping. Truth be told nobody knows what happened to the Oscar and it’s still a mystery to this day.
A symbol of racial progress.
”GIRL, don’t you know actresses are beautiful and white?”
The words whispered to a young ambitious McDaniel when she voiced her desire of becoming an actress. Yet a determined McDaniel went full steam ahead regardless and went on to be the first woman of color to win the Oscar and even accepted her award in a Segregated ‘No Coloured allowed’ Coconut Grove in The Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles.
For a while McDaniel basked in her Oscar glow often being seen around town draped in fine furs and in 1941, she could finally afford her own home. Can you imagine such a milestone for someone who more often than not had to constantly struggle against poverty? On this happy occasion, McDaniel moved into the Sugar Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles where she held extravagant parties. However, the dark undercurrent of racism was never too far away.
McDaniel still wasn’t free to just go into any old restaurant, hotel or theater and certain stores were still segregated in California. Then, in 1949, white residents filed a lawsuit against McDaniel and other people of color who owned homes in Sugar Hill citing their property deeds forbade sale to non-Caucasians.
When her new neighbors tried to evict her along with others from their homes, she bravely threw herself into a legal battle. Some of her white friends like the ever-present and loyal Gable and James Cagney petition for her to be able to stay. The fight was again long and hard but she won the right to stay in her own home.
McDaniel’s case set a precedent that would later help the Supreme Court rule it unconstitutional for the courts to enforce restrictive housing covenants. And so brave McDaniel had helped to change a small but pivotal part of the LA segregation laws.
McDaniel and Gable.
By the time Gable arrived on the set of Gone With The Wind, he was already one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. When stars slowly started to arrive on set to begin work some of the cast noticed that the portable toilets set up were assigned to either colored or whites only. While O.Selznick had taken great measures to appease concerned parties regarding how people of color would be portrayed in the movie it would seem he lost sight on how segregation would play a part on his set. Remembering that some of the cast including extras had come from already fully integrated cities. When Gable was shown the signs by some of the extras he was outraged and told the movie’s director, Victor Fleming, that if those signs didn’t come down, “you don’t have a Rhett Butler!”. To which the signs were promptly taken down.
Gable was already good friends with McDaniel prior to making the movie. Inside the Coconut Grove, as McDaniel walked from the back to collect her Oscar, Gable stood up and shook her hand to congratulate her in front of the entire room. Gable first met McDaniel while making the movie China Seas (1935) They soon became close friends during filming that would go on to last their lifetime. Gable loved to prank McDaniel and much of their downtime between takes was spent laughing. One such memorable prank happened on the set of Gone With The Wind when Gable replaced the tea, which was supposed to look like brandy in the decanter for real brandy during the scene in which they were supposed to be celebrating the birth of Scarlett and Rhett’s daughter.
McDaniel was well known for her lavish social gatherings mostly for the colored Hollywood elite, with the exception of Gable who was always welcomed by all with open arms. A tradition was formed where Gable would drive to McDaniel’s every Sunday to indulge in her famous big cooked breakfast where many a chat took place while eating eggs over easy. McDaniel had many friendships with some of Hollywood’s top white stars such as Joan Crawford, Olivia de Havilland, James Gagney, Shirley Temple, Bette Davis, and Henry Fonda just to name a few but it was Gable with whom she was closest and he always had her back.
Until the end.
“She knew she was supposed to be subservient, but she never delivered a subservient line”
McDaniel was to be taken from us far too soon as she courageously battled an aggressive form of breast cancer. Racism followed poor McDaniel even in death and winning Hollywood’s highest honor wouldn’t change the indignities that met McDaniel at every turn. Her last remaining wish was to be buried at the Hollywood Cemetery however it was denied because that too was still segregated. The constant contradiction, simultaneous praise, and racial humiliation is something that constantly shadowed McDaniel’s career. Still the optimist in her very last days of illness, McDaniel held a deathbed party with friends and family circulating around, drinking, eating and laughing. Guests would go in one or two at a time and visit with her to say their goodbyes. “She was in many ways radical,” to the very end.
Gone with the wind, one of Hollywood’s most revered and controversial films will live longer than we do. So should McDaniel’s bravery, many triumphs and her illustrious career which has given moviegoers many years of joy along with many unanswered questions. Her impact reaches far beyond the movies she was in as she played a pivotal role in helping to change the landscape of Los Angeles and its segregation laws. She broke down barriers and blurred the lines about what a woman of color can and can’t do.
McDaniel went on to have two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and her image is celebrated on a U.S. postage stamp. The rights to the book Hattie McDaniel – Black Ambition, White Hollywood has been purchased with a BIO picture in development. For many years to come, McDaniel’s life and triumphs will continue to be celebrated and who knows she may even outlive Gone With The Wind or at least come in as a close second. McDaniel lived her life with optimism, great courage and warmth from within that made many want to be around her just to feel her glow.
As quoted by McDaniel, “You can best fight any existing evil from the inside”.