Sometimes we are reminded that the films we love from the 1930s and 40s reflect the times in which they were made .
It still came as a wake-up call when I recently read about Hattie McDaniel’s exclusion from the grand world premiere of Gone With the Wind in Atlanta, Georgia on the 5th of December 1939.
I think it’s fair to say Hattie was one of the stars of the film and David O. Selznick did want her to be there. But, under pressure from white Southern leaders, it was decided Hattie would not join the other stars at the racially segregated Atlanta premiere.
I’ve read that Hattie wrote to Selznick and said she would not be available for the engagement, but I find that hard to believe.
Also, hard to understand today is the fact that Selznick agreed to omit the faces of all the black GWTW actors from advertising through the South.
Black Atlantans had to wait four months before they could see the film.
The premiere at Atlanta’s Loew’s Grand Theater.
At least Hattie was able to attend the 1940 Oscars ceremony, held at the Ambassador’s Cocoanut Grove Hotel. However she was not allowed to sit with the G.WT.W cast. The hotel had a strict no-blacks policy but allowed Hattie in , as a favour.
Sadly, Hattie’s Oscar, which she willed to Washington’s Howard University, has been lost. Considering its importance, one wonders how this happened.
The Academy declined the University’s request to replace the Oscar.
Even Hattie’s wish to be buried in Hollywood Memorial Park was not fulfilled, as the cemetery would not allow a black woman to be buried there.
In her emotional acceptance speech, Hattie said:
“I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.”
In case anyone’s wondering about the Oscar size in these two pictures, it was 1943 before supporting performers got the full size Oscar. Prior to that, they received a plaque mounted on a small base bearing a description of the award plus a molded image of a miniature Oscar.
After the ceremony, every winner was photographed with an Oscar , regardless of the type of Oscar won.
After 1943, Supporting winners could exchange the plaque for a full size statuette, but Hattie never applied for one.
If the Oscar is ever found, it has been valued at half a million dollars.
Hattie’s presentation copy of the GWTW script was auctioned and sold for $18,300.
It was personally inscribed by David Selznick:
“ For Hattie McDaniel who contributed so greatly, with Gratitude and admiration.
David O. Selznick. Xmas 1939.”
Hattie said of her ‘Mammy’ character that she hoped to rise above the stereotype and make her a living, breathing character.
I think we agree she did just that.
Hattie had toured in a stage production of SHOW BOAT in the 1920s. She was a wonderful ‘Queenie’ in the 1936 film version alongside Paul Robeson.
Hattie appeared in lots of films in the 30s – JUDGE PRIEST (in which she dueted with Will Rogers, BLONDE VENUS, THE LITTLE COLONEL, ALICE ADAMS, THE MAD MISS MANTON . Always the maid or cook, but never subservient.
The actresses in the above photo, aside from Hattie, appeared in a variety of roles. Hattie, despite displaying her considerable acting ability and winning an Oscar, continued to play maids , servants throughout her career.
While there was criticism from the black community that Hattie perpetuated the stereotype of black characters in Hollywood films, it could be argued that, like every other actor in Hollywood, Hattie could only play roles she was offered. Typecasting was always prevalent , perhaps even more so for black performers.
There is an excellent 2012 article “Finding the Oscar” by W. Burlette Carter of the George Washington University Law School. Some of his comments:
“Gone With The Wind is the story of a fictional white family of slave owners during the Civil War. It presented the black slaves as unswervingly loyal to the white family they served.”
“It remained true throughout her life that, because she was a negro, she could not live anywhere she wanted, stay in any hotel she wished, be served in any restaurant or store, or sit or perform in any theater – nor could she marry outside of her race.”
It’s amazing to read that the comedy radio show,BEULAH, about a black maid was voiced by a white male actor pretending to be a black woman!
Hattie became ‘Beulah’ on the radio in 1947 and the show ran for three years and was very successful . I read that Hattie earned $2,000 a week in the role.
Her last TV appearance was on The Ed Wynn Show in which she sang ‘Some of these Days’ ( on You Tube)
When “Beulah” transferred to television in 1951, Hattie was only able to make a few episodes before succumbing to breast cancer. She died at the Motion Picture Country Home in 1952.
Few of her white colleagues attended her funeral, instead sending flowers and cards as their proxies. Notable exceptions were Edward Arnold and James Cagney who did attend.
Hattie’s estate was a mere $10,000.
Hattie has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for radio and film.
Carlton Jackson’s 1990 biography gives a good overview of Hattie’s life and career.
There is also a good documentary about Hattie on YouTube, BEYOND TARA, THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF HATTIE MCDANIEL, narrated by Whoopi Goldberg.
Hattie’s parents were born into slavery on a Virginia plantation. Her father was a soldier during the Civil War.
She started as a singer and toured in vaudeville, then switched to radio. In 1930, she followed her sister Etta and brother Sam to Hollywood.
A fascinating life and so reflective of the times Hattie McDaniel lived in.