Filmography | Awards |
Image Credits | SHOW BOAT (1936) | GONE WITH THE WIND
| THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON
The most successful black film actor of her time, and one of the most
recognizable and beloved character actresses of the 1930s and '40s, Hattie
McDaniel made a name for herself playing primarily maids and servants in over
100 films, ranging from comedies and dramas to westerns and musicals.
(Some estimate her film appearances to number as high as 300.) Though a
few of her earliest characters epitomized Hollywood's most derogatory black
stereotypes, as her career progressed, Hattie's roles evolved from being the
object of humor to being the purveyors of it. Though still working as a
domestic servant in white homes, her characters at their weakest occasionally
talked back to their employers with increasingly biting honesty; at their best,
they projected authority, humanity and common sense -- always with a sense of
humor. A divisive figure among film historians and scholars who tend to
see her as either a pioneer for or an embarrassment to her race, Hattie's place
in the racial annals of cinema history has yet to be decided. But color
aside, her performances are unquestionably those of a gifted actress and
comedienne, and those gifts earned her both an Academy Award in 1939 and the
esteem of millions of moviegoers.
After years as a radio and vaudeville performer, Hattie McDaniel began her film
career in the early 1930s playing bit parts such as
Marlene Dietrich's maid in BLONDE VENUS
(1932) and one of Mae West's jovial maids
in I'M NO ANGEL (1933). She first began to attract attention however when
she sang a duet with Depression-era humorist and movie superstar Will Rogers in
John Ford's southern comedy JUDGE
PRIEST (1934), one of the first films for which she received onscreen credit.
Following her JUDGE PRIEST success, Hattie suddenly found herself in high
demand and the subsequent years proved to be some of the most prolific of her
career. Among her more-than-a-dozen film roles of 1935 was that of
Katharine Hepburn's hired help in
George Stevens' ALICE ADAMS,
adapted from Booth Tarkington's novel about a girl from a poor family with
grandiose social aspirations. An unkempt, gum-chewing servant who performs
her required duties to the least of her ability, Hattie's character sees through
Alice's airs and makes a memorable contribution to one of the film's best scenes
-- Alice's dinner party.
Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's groundbreaking Broadway musical
BOAT, adapted from Edna Ferber's epic novel about the effects of racial
prejudice and the scourge of gambling on the lives and loves of generations of
entertainers traveling along the Mississippi River in the late 1800s, was first
brought to the screen by
Universal in 1929 as a mostly-silent film with a sound prologue of musical numbers.
In 1936 the studio adapted the play to the screen again, this time as an
all-talkie featuring several members of the original stage cast and three new
songs. As Queenie, the wife of the Cotton Blossom's colored
stevedore Joe (Paul Robeson), Hattie sang duets with both Robeson and the film's
star Irene Dunne (left), including "Can't Help
Lovin' Dat Man." Interestingly, when
MGM made a third film adaptation of the musical in 1951 with
Kathryn Grayson and William Warfield, the
Queenie character was almost eliminated entirely.
In the first of two films Hattie made at RKO
with Ginger Rogers in 1938, VIVACIOUS LADY
(right), she plays the small and rather unremarkable role of a washroom
attendant. Later that year in
Ginger's eighth musical with
Fred Astaire and a decent
screwball comedy, Hattie once again makes a very minor contribution, this time
as an attendant (named "Hattie") at the country club where most of the plot
It was also in 1938 that Hattie landed what was to become the most important and
famous role of her career -- that of Mammy in
David O. Selznick's
adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's Civil War epic
GONE WITH THE WIND (1939).
Arriving at her audition dressed for the part, Hattie's impressive ability to
cry while reading the scene in which Mammy tells Miss Mellie about Rhett's
all-consuming grief at the loss of his daughter earned her the coveted role over
more established black actresses like Louise
Beavers. And Hattie's outspoken, brassy comic performance opposite
stars Vivien Leigh (left) and
Clark Gable combined with her caring,
compelling quieter moments earned Hattie praise from the vast majority of black
film critics, many of whom had grown increasingly critical of Hattie and her
unabashed willingness to play subservient film roles. Most importantly
however, Hattie's performance earned her the respect of her peers in the film
industry and an Oscar as the year's Best Supporting Actress -- making Hattie
McDaniel the first black actor ever to receive an Academy Award.
of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture
industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my
life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting for one of
the awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and
I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the
future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the
motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel,
and may I say thank you and God bless you."
--Hattie McDaniel's Acceptance
Speech delivered on January 29, 1940 at the 12th Annual Academy Awards.
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