Butterfly (1911-1995) McQueen's portrayal of Prissy in Gone With the Wind (1939) rivals Hattie Mc Daniel's Oscar-winning role as the "mammy," and is certainly as popular with audiences as Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara or Clark Gable's Rhett Butler.
Known to generations of movie viewers as Prissy, the frantic, squeaky-voiced servant who is harshly upbraided by Scarlett O'Hara in the 1939 Civil War epic Gone With the Wind, actress Butterfly McQueen was actually a successful Broadway dancer who went on to win critical acclaim for her quirky portrayal of seemingly scatterbrained maids in a handful of popular films in the 1940s. Offscreen, however, she rebelled against Hollywood's rigid system of racial stereotyping and often insisted on altering scenes and dialogue that demeaned people of color. McQueen's announcement in 1947 that she would no longer accept so-called "handkerchief head" parts nearly cost the actress her career. Except for the part of a secretary in the all-black film Killer Diller in 1948, she had no movie offers for the next 20 years. "I didn't mind playing a maid the first time, because I thought that was how you got into the business," she explained in an interview with People. "But after I did the same thing over and over I resented it. I didn't mind being funny but I didn't like being stupid." Returning to New York, she worked as a sales clerk, a waitress, a dishwasher, and an old ladies' companion in order to make ends meet.
Yet McQueen's objection to stereotyped roles was only one of the things that hindered her career. She also had a unique, ethereal quality which made her difficult to cast. "Her comedic gifts were too special and delicate, too unique a blending of the comic and the pathetic, to be effective" in the limited roles available to African Americans throughout the first half of the twentieth century, commented Donald Bogle in Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. "With her large, expressive eyes, her bewildered and perplexed stare, and her quivering tremor of a voice, she seemed almost otherworldly." In the late 1960s McQueen returned to the New York stage, where she had launched her theatrical career more than 30 years before. Soon afterwards a variety of small film and television roles came her way, but none earned her the fame of her early work in Gone With the Wind.
Stage, screen, and radio actress Thelma "Butterfly" McQueen was born in Tampa, Florida, in 1911. Her father was a stevedore and her mother worked as a domestic. When McQueen was five years old, her father deserted the family. In order to support herself and her daughter, Mrs. McQueen sought full-time employment in a number of cities up and down the East Coast, sending Thelma to live with an aunt in Augusta, Georgia, until she had settled on a job as a cook in Harlem. Young Thelma completed her high school education in Babylon, Long Island, after yet another move and went on to study nursing at the Lincoln Training School in the Bronx. In 1934, however, she joined Venezuela Jones's Harlem-based Youth Theatre Group, and her career took a different turn. She began to study dance, music, and drama on a professional level, and in 1935 made her stage debut as part of the Butterfly Ballet in Jones's off-Broadway production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Upon seeing her dance, a friend nicknamed her "Butterfly." She immediately adopted the name as her own, and it remained with her throughout her career.
Two years later McQueen made her Broadway debut as the maid, Lucille, in George Abbott's all-black production, Brown Sugar. Although she played only a minor part and the show closed after only four performances, Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times remarked upon "the extraordinary artistry of a high-stepping, little dusky creature who describes herself as Butterfly McQueen." Following her success in Brown Sugar, McQueen was cast in two more George Abbott productions, Brother Rat (1937) and What A Life (1938). She was still working for Abbott when she auditioned for the part of Prissy in Gone With the Wind.
The Role of a Lifetime
Although McQueen, then 28, was dismissed as too overweight, too old, and too dignified to play a young slave girl, Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick ultimately decided that experienced actors with unusual presence—such as film veteran Hattie McDaniel, who portrayed the O'Hara family's faithful Mammy, and McQueen, who had won critical praise as a member of the Abbott Acting Company—would be more effective than lesser-known players. On the surface, Gone With the Wind, which took more than two years to film and cost close to $4 million, was little more than an elaborate romance between two strong-willed, temperamental characters set against the backdrop of the Civil War-torn South. But in fact, it was much, much more than that.
According to Bogle, Selznick's epic was the first of the Civil War spectacles to provide a realistic picture of black-white relationships in antebellum America. It was also the first in which black actors were given the freedom to transform pasteboard slave characters into complex, three-dimensional human beings. Hattie McDaniel's towering, domineering Mammy contrasted sharply with McQueen's fragile and hysterical Prissy, yet both were equally powerful. "McDaniel was tough and resilient and could take a small incident and magnify it into a mountain," wrote Bogle. "Butterfly, however, could take a big scene and condense it into the tiniest of lyrical poems."
As Prissy, slave girl to the O'Hara family, Butterfly McQueen uttered one of the most memorable lines in cinema history. When the townspeople are fleeing Atlanta in the face of Union Army commander William Sherman's onslaught, Prissy assures Scarlett that she will stay on and help deliver Melanie's baby, claiming, "I'se knows all 'bout birthin' babies." On the day of the baby's arrival, however, Prissy is nowhere to be found. When Scarlett finally locates her and orders her to take over, Prissy stares fearfully into Scarlett's eyes and squeals, "Lawdy, Miss Scarlett, I'se don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies!" Her ill-timed admission earns her an angry slap from Scarlett. In another scene Prissy is shown packing chinaware and other essential items in preparation for the flight from Atlanta. As cannons roar in the background, she screams in terror and rushes frantically from place to place, dropping the dishes as she goes. Later, when she accompanies Rhett Butler, Melanie, and the newborn baby on the journey from Atlanta, she cowers on the floor of the wagon, popping her head up every moment or so to scream hysterically at the sight of the burning city.
According to Bogle, Prissy offered a unique combination of comedy and pathos which, like a tasteless joke told during a time of tragedy, provided "an outlet for the repressed fears of the audience." Because of her "artistic mayhem, her controlled fright, and her heightened awareness and articulation of the emotions of the audience," he wrote, "Butterfly McQueen seemed to flow wonderfully with the rest of the film."
Objected to Racial Stereotyping
Although she had accepted her role in Gone With the Wind with enthusiasm, upon studying the novel more closely, McQueen was distressed by its portrayal of African Americans. "The part of Prissy was so backward," she recalled in an interview with People nearly five decades later. "I was always whining and complaining." In one scene she was asked to appear before the camera in the stereotypical pose of eating watermelon and spitting out the seeds. She refused. In another scene Rhett Butler was instructed to refer to Prissy as a "simple-minded darkie"—a term she found insulting and unnecessary. And while the script called for her to wear her hair wrapped in a head scarf in the traditional "slave girl" style, she insisted on substituting colorful bows. In the end, however, her objections were overruled, and she was obliged to submit to the old-fashioned "wrapped head" look.
Once during an early take of the famous birthing scene, actress Vivien Leigh, who played Scarlett, apparently slapped McQueen too hard, prompting the latter to cry out, "I can't do it, she's hurting me," and insist on a proper apology from Leigh before shooting could resume. McQueen later asked that the slap be mimed rather than risk another painful incident. "I told them, if you really slap me, I won't scream," she recalled in an article in the Columbus Ledger Inquirer, "but if you pretend to slap me, I'll make the best scream you ever heard." She proved equally assertive off the set, voicing her objections when all the black actors were forced to travel in one car, while the white actors rode in limousines. She also joined a group of black castmates in protesting restroom segregation.
After appearing in another servant role—that of Lulu, a perfume saleslady-turned-maid—opposite Joan Crawford in the George Cukor film The Women, Butterfly McQueen returned to the New York stage to play Puck in Swingin' the Dream, a reinterpretation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Her performance earned her the praise of a New York Times critic, who described her as a "piping-voiced Puck whose travesty is genuinely comi…. representing her peculiar artistry in finest fettle." Two years later, however, she was back in Hollywood playing maids. Some critics described her performance in Affectionately Yours (1941) as the best in the film, but she was humiliated by the role she played. At one point her character is forced to deliver what has been considered the most demeaning line ever uttered by a black performer in the movies. Turning to Hattie McDaniel, she croons, "Who dat say who dat when you say dat." The "Uncle-Remus-style" dialect coaching she had received in preparation for her role in Gone With the Wind had been bad enough—she later explained in a New York Times interview that she had not been allowed to speak that way as a child—but in Affectionately Yours, Hollywood had reached a new low in its portrayal of black characters. "I never thought I would have to say a line like that," Bogle quoted her as saying. "I had imagined that since I am an intelligent woman, I could play any kind of role."
Resisted Hollywood Stereotypes
During the early 1940s McQueen appeared in a handful of other films, including Vincente Minnelli's Cabin in the Sky, featuring Duke Ellington's Orchestra and an all-black, all-star cast, and the musical comedy I Dood It. Minor roles followed in Mildred Pierce—here she still played a servant, but a more dignified one—Flame of Barbary Coast, and Duel in the Sun. By 1947, however, she'd had her fill of servant roles, and since Hollywood had little else to offer black actors, she returned to New York in hopes of finding work in the musical theater. In 1951 McQueen mounted her own one-woman show at Carnegie Hall, during the process of which she lost most of her Hollywood earnings. Five years later she played the part of Queen Elizabeth Victoria in the all-black production, The World's My Oyster. This was followed by an appearance in a mediocre adaptation of Molière's School for Wives and, in the mid-1960s, a tedious production called The Athenian Touch, in which she again played a maid and cook. In between she accepted a series of casual jobs, ranging from taxi dispatcher to sales clerk to factory worker, in order to survive. At one point she moved back to Augusta, Georgia, where she gave music lessons, appeared on her own radio show, opened a restaurant, and served as a hostess at the Stone Mountain Memorial Museum of Confederate Times.
In 1968 McQueen returned to the spotlight as Hattie in the off-Broadway musical Curley McDimple and one year later starred in her own musical revue entitled Butterfly McQueen and Friends. This was followed by a powerful performance as elevator operator Dora Lee in George Abbott's play Three Men on a Horse. Over the years she has also appeared in a number of dramatic television productions, including The Green Pastures (1957) and Our World (1987), and in the TV series The Beulah Show. Her role in the 1979 children's special The Seven Wishes of Joanna Peabody earned her an Emmy Award. And in 1986 McQueen returned to the large screen as Ma Kennywick in Mosquito Coast. Three years later she appeared in the movies Pollyand Stiff. Then, in 1989, she played Prissy yet again, signing autographs and quoting her most famous line at the widely publicized celebrations commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Gone With the Wind.
Although the role of Prissy brought her instant fame in 1939, it did little to help her one night some 40 years later when she was passing through the Greyhound Bus Terminal in Washington, D.C., en route to Tampa. Stopping to eat some peanuts in the ladies' lounge, she was instantly accosted by a security guard who mistook her for a pick-pocket. During the scuffle that ensued, she was wrestled to the ground and thrown against a metal bench, injuring several ribs. "It was absolutely the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to me," she told People. "I was shocked." It was some time before a Washington police officer recognized her and arranged for her release. In 1980 she filed a $300,000 suit against the bus line, and four years later was awarded $60,000.
Emphasized Education and Community Service
Throughout her life, Butterfly McQueen has made education a top priority. As early as 1946 she began taking courses in political science, Spanish, drama, dance, and music, first at the City College of Los Angeles and then at the University of California at Los Angeles, Southern Illinois University, Queen's College, and New York University. In June of 1975, at the age of 64, she was one of 3,500 students to receive a bachelor's degree during commencement ceremonies at New York's City College. She has also devoted much of her time and energy to community service work, helping out in the offices of city politicians and serving as a playground supervisor at an elementary school in Harlem. "Show business is only my hobby," she said in an interview with People. "My main job is community work." And McQueen maintains a philosophical attitude about the racism she continues to encounter. "I don't think you should strip people of their prejudice—that's all they have, some of them," she was quoted as saying in People. "We should just leave them alone until they mature."
McQueen died on December 22, 1995, at the age of 84. She died as a result of being burned in her Augusta, Georgia, cottage. According to Jet, McQueen was trying to light a kerosene heater in her cottage. Her clothes caught on fire and she was taken to Augusta Regional Medical Center where she was pronounced dead. She suffered second and third-degree burns on over 70 percent of her body.
Further Reading on Butterfly McQueen
Bogle, Donald, Blacks in American Film and Television, Garland, 1988, pp. 94-95; 420-22.
Bogle, Donald, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films., Viking Press, 1973, pp. 86-94.
Cripps, Thomas, Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942, Oxford University Press, 1977, pp. 360-63.
Landay, Eileen, Black Film Stars, Drake Publishers, 1973, pp. 79-80.
Null, Gary, Black Hollywood: The Negro in Motion Pictures, 1975.
Sampson, Henry T., Blacks in Black and White: A Source Book on Black Films, Scarecrow Press, 1977.
Columbus Ledger Inquirer (Georgia), November 5, 1989.
New York Times, December 3, 1937; November 30, 1939;August 10, 1956; June 3, 1975, p. 29.
People, January 28, 1980, p. 36; December 1, 1986, pp. 69-70;January 8, 1996, p. 103.