Oscar Winning Pioneer Actress
When Hattie McDaniel won her Academy Award (Oscar), for Best Supporting Actress as Mammy in Gone with the Wind in 1939, she and the other winners were honored at a banquet in a Hollywood hotel.
It was a great achievement, especially since she was the first Black person to win such an award, yet there were details often forgotten. For after her gracious remarks, Miss McDaniel returned to her table on a far wall of the banquet room, purposely placed away from the other guests. A seat she had only been granted as a favor since the hotel was racially segregated. Yet how ironic, since that was the same atmosphere that decreed that of her many screen roles, were supporting parts as domestics. In fact though she appeared in more than 300 films, she received onscreen credit for just 83.
Despite these limits, Hattie McDaniel maintained her integrity as an actress, playing the roles she did with dignity and skill. Still, she encountered criticism from Black and White alike—Black critics saying she should protest the limitations—and White opposition saying that she was too “sassy.” She simply responded, “I’d rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be one for $7.”
Hattie McDaniel was born in 1893 to formerly enslaved parents in Wichita, Kansas—her mother a gospel singer and her father a Civil war Union veteran. The youngest of thirteen, Hattie moved later with her family to Denver, Colorado where she attended high school.
As a songwriter-singer, Miss McDaniel performed with family members for a while. Then she received her first break in 1920 when she took roles on the radio, as well as making records. Then as parts became few due to the national depression, she found work as a restroom attendant in a Milwaukee nightclub, that hired only White performers. However, when patrons realized her talents, they persuaded management to let her perform, which she did for more than a year.
Hattie then left for Los Angeles where she again returned to the radio where she had a small role on a local program and soon became the main attraction in this position. She also began to play supporting (often uncredited) parts in films.
Then in 1934 she was cast in the film Judge Priest even though she played a domestic, it was an important part and she also got to sing—including with the star Will Rogers. In fact, director John Ford was so impressed with her acting ability, that he arranged scenes to give her more screen time. After 1935 she began to play bigger and better roles, though they were again as a domestic, she was also allowed to sing. One part was as the cook Queenie in Show Boat (1936) opposite Paul Robeson where she sang a duet with him as well as with the other cast members. Another one was in a 1937 role in Saratoga where she costarred with Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, who became not only a friend, but also future costar in Gone with the Wind.
In many roles as domestics, Miss McDaniels often played her parts as bossy and “sassy” which brought criticism from some moviegoers, particularly in the south. On the other hand, she was often critiqued by some in the Black community as being too submissive and compliant, and not demanding larger parts.
Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone With the Wind was a runaway best seller. And when it came time to cast the film, there was intense media scrutiny on who would play not just the major roles, but the secondary parts too. Since Mammy was an important character in the novel, many wondered who would play her in the movie. The competition for the role was fierce—in fact First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt even suggested her own maid to play her. According to one source Clark Gable suggested his friend Miss McDaniel, though the actress herself reportedly thought her previous comedic roles would prevent her casting. But Hattie auditioned—in maid’s uniform—and won the part.
As the film was released, and the premiere was scheduled for Atlanta, there came a challenge about the Black actors attending. Georgia law decreed segregation in theaters, but though studio head David O. Selznick requested an exception for Miss McDaniel to attend, the studio did not support that. In fact, though Clark Gable threatened to boycott the premiere if “Mammy” was not allowed to attend, Miss McDaniel persuaded him against that tactic. However, Miss McDaniel was certainly able to attend the California premiere, and Mr. Selznick’s insisted that her picture be predominately displayed. Miss McDaniel told reporters, “I loved Mammy. I think I understood her because my own grandmother worked on a plantation not unlike Tara.”
Miss McDaniels’ career continued playing domestics—but in the1942 film This Is Our Life her character in the film challenged race as an issue—when her law student son is falsely accused of manslaughter. There many similar roles in other movies from the 1940s.
Besides her film career in the 1940s, Miss McDaniels became involved in supporting the troops during WWII. In fact, she was chairman for the Negro Division of the Hollywood Victory Committee, that arranged entertainment for Black soldiers at military bases. During her career, according to one source, she “gained a reputation for generosity, lending money to friends and strangers alike.”
Then as public interest began to turn to television in the early 1950s, she began to appear on TV including on variety programs, but also on her own series. In 1951 Miss McDaniels joined the The Beulah Show where she played the housekeeper for a White family, and actually was one of several actresses to play the role. However, Hattie had first played the role on radio from 1947, and thus became the first Black woman to star on a network radio program; she only appeared briefly on television because she became ill with breast cancer.
Hattie McDaniels died of her illness in October, 1952 and thousands of mourners attended her services. However, even in death there was still racial segregation. She had wanted to be buried in Hollywood Cemetery but it had a Whites-only acceptance policy, so she was interred in Rosedale Cemetery. However, in 1999 Hollywood Cemetery offered to have Miss McDaniel re-interred there, but when her family declined, they installed a cenotaph (plaque) honoring her overlooking a lake.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.