Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Hattie McDaniel: more than just Mammy

I love the movie, Gone with the Wind and one of my favorite characters is Mammy, who was portrayed by the wonderful and talented, Hattie McDaniel. Hattie McDaniel was born June 10, 1892 in Wichita, Kansas. The 13th child of former slaves, Henry, a Baptist minister, and Susan, a gospel singer, Hattie began perform from a very early age. She had a natural flair for singing and she began her professional career while still in high school. While Hattie McDaniel is best known for her role as Mammy, she was accomplished in many other ways. She has appeared in over 300 films. She is also known as friends with many of Hollywood’s most popular stars such as Will Rogers, Shirley Temple, Olivia de Havilland, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, and Bette Davis. She was also known for her community service efforts.

In 1925, she became the first African American woman on the radio as she perform on the Professor George Morrison’s Melody Hounds in Denver. In 1931, she would join her acting siblings, Sam and Etta McDaniel in Los Angeles where she perform on her brother’s radio show as “Hi-Hat Hattie,” the bossy maid who often forgot her place. She would get her on-screen break in the film Judge Priest (1934) with Will Rogers which displayed her singing talent. She also appeared in The Little Colonel (1934) with Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. While she appeared in films, she also continued to work in radio. She is well known for playing the sassy and opinionated maid.

It was her friendship with Clark Gable which helped win her the role of Mammy, Scarlett O’Hara’s scolding maid. She ultimately won the part when she came to her audition in full costume. Due to the segregation laws at the time in Georgia, Ms. McDaniel was not allowed to attend the Atlanta premiere of the film. Clark Gable threatened to boycott the premiere because she was not invited. She wouldn’t allow him to do so and convinced him to go anyway. She would win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1940. She would be the first African American to be nominated for an Oscar as well as the first African American to win an Oscar. Her award would be bittersweet because she was not allowed to sit with her Gone with the Wind co-stars at the ceremony. Her win would be a reminder to her about how much the film industry and the country still had to go in regards with racism.

Hattie McDaniel was often criticized for the roles she portrayed. The progressive black community of the time saw her roles as “offensively old-fashioned.” Ms. McDaniel often felt that this criticizes cost her some film roles and feared roles would disappear if the criticism was “too loud.” As film roles diminished, Ms. McDaniel turned once again to radio. She took a starring role in CBS’ The Beluah Show, where she played a maid who broke racial stereotypes. She also took a role in community service and gained a reputation for generosity. During World War II, she was chairman of the Hollywood Victory Committee which provided entertainment at military bases as she entertained the American troops with the United Services Organizations (USO) and helped sell war bonds. She also helped raise funds for the Red Cross relief programs which helped Americans who had been displaced by floods.

Hattie McDaniel passed away on October 26, 1952 at the age of 60 from breast cancer. She was buried at the Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery because her first choice of the Hollywood Cemetery would not allow her to be buried there due to the racism of the day. However, in 1999, a pink and gray granite monument was erected in her memory after her family didn’t want her moved from her resting place. To me, Hattie McDaniel was more than just Mammy in one of my favorite films. She was an immensely talented actress who did it all and helped her fellow man in times of need as well as paved the way for future African-American actresses who would follow.