Hattie McDaniel's portrayal of a "mammy" figure in Gone with the Wind, a role for which she received an Oscar award in 1940 as best supporting actress, is still regarded as a definitive interpretation. McDaniel (1895-1952) was the first African American to receive an Oscar award.
Hattie McDaniel's 1939 portrayal of Mammy in Gone with the Wind set the screen image of the loyal black maid serving a household of well-to-do white people. Known for her broad smile, ample proportions, and ebullient manner, the actress appeared in over 300 films during the 1930s and 1940s, almost without exception in the character of maid or cook, a role with which she became so identified after the success of Gone with the Wind that many of her fans and friends took to calling her Mammy.
McDaniel enjoyed a long and prosperous career in film and radio drama and in 1940 became the first African American to win an Academy Award; but because she was used exclusively in the role of a domestic, she became the object of intense criticism from progressive blacks in the 1940s. By the time she appeared in Gone with the Wind, McDaniel had broadened her portrait of the Mammy role, endowing the character with an earthy, all-knowing sensibility and delivering her lines with saucy self-assurance. But, caught between the demands of two cultures, McDaniel became embittered by the attacks on her integrity made by the black intelligentsia, and when she died in 1952 the role of Mammy pretty well died with her.
Hattie McDaniel was born in 1895, in Wichita, Kansas, the thirteenth child in a family of performers. Her father, Henry McDaniel, led a varied life as a Baptist minister, carpenter, banjo player, and minstrel showman, eventually organizing his own family into a minstrel troupe. Henry married a gospel singer named Susan Holbert in 1875 and moved their growing family to Denver, Colorado, in 1901.
McDaniel was one of only two black children in her elementary school class in Denver. Racial prejudice was less virulent in the West than elsewhere in the United States, and she became something of a favorite at the 24th Street Elementary School for her talents as a singer and reciter of poetry. Even as a child, according to a letter written to Hattie years later by her teacher, "you had an outstanding dramatic ability, an ability to project to your listeners your strong personality and your ever present sense of humor." McDaniel sang at church, at school, and at home; she sang so continuously that her mother reportedly bribed her into silence with spare change. Before long she was also singing in professional minstrel shows, as well as dancing, performing humorous skits, and later writing her own songs.
In 1910 McDaniel left school in her sophomore year and became a full-time minstrel performer, traveling the western states with her father's Henry McDaniel Minstrel Show and several other troupes. The minstrel shows, usually performed by blacks but sometimes by whites in blackface, presented a variety of entertainments based on caricatures of black cultural life for the enjoyment of mostly white audiences. With her father's troupe, which also featured a number of her brothers and sisters, she visited most of the major cities in the western United States while honing the skills that would later make her famous.
When her father retired around 1920, McDaniel joined Professor George Morrison's famous "Melody Hounds" on longer and more publicized tours. As recounted by Carlton Jackson in Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel, she was unquestionably one of the stars of Morrison's troupe; of one concert, the Portland Telegram wrote that "the biggest show stopper of them all was Morrison's orchestra and its Hattie McDaniel." She also wrote dozens of show tunes such as "Sam Henry Blues," "Poor Wandering Boy Blues," and "Quittin' My Man Today."
Broke into Radio and Film
In the 1920s McDaniel toured constantly with Morrison's troupe and other well-known vaudeville companies. A first marriage ended abruptly in 1922 when her husband of three months, George Langford, was reportedly killed by gunfire. Little is known of this or any of McDaniel's three subsequent marriages, except that they were all relatively short and unhappy. More heartening was the progress of her career, which included a first radio performance in 1925 on Denver's KOA station. McDaniel was one of the first black women to be heard on American radio, the medium in which she would always remain most comfortable.
In 1929, the booking organization for whom she was working went bankrupt at the onset of the Great Depression, stranding McDaniel in Chicago with little money and no job. On a tip from a friend, she went north to Milwaukee and found work at Sam Pick's Club Madrid—as a bathroom attendant. At that time, the Club Madrid engaged only white nightclub performers and had no use for a black minstrel/vaudeville entertainer such as Hattie McDaniel. True to her nature, however, McDaniel could not refrain from singing while she worked, and she became well known among the club's patrons for her unfailing good humor and obvious talent. After repeated promptings from McDaniel's fans, the club's owner gave her a shot at performing on his main stage, where her rendition of "St. Louis Blues" was a smash hit. She remained as a performer at the Club Madrid for about a year, until she was lured to Hollywood by the enthusiastic reports of her brother Sam and sister Etta, who had been living in Los Angeles for several years.
Sam and Etta McDaniel already had small roles in a number of motion pictures, but Hattie was forced to take menial jobs in order to support herself in Los Angeles. Opportunities for blacks in Hollywood were severely limited to a handful of stereotypic roles, and even these parts were hard to come by. Sam McDaniel had a regular part on LA's KNX radio show "The Optimistic Do-Nuts" and was able to get Hattie a small part, which she promptly turned into a big opportunity. McDaniel earned the nickname "Hi-Hat Hattie" after showing up for the first radio broadcast in formal evening wear. According to Jackson, "she instantly became a hit with black West Coast listeners," and eventually stole the show.
McDaniel landed her first movie role in 1931 as an extra in the chorus scenes of a routine Hollywood musical. The next year, she played in her first major motion picture—the Twentieth Century Fox film The Golden West—as a house servant. She continued to appear in a number of similar bit parts, receiving screen credit for none of them, until famed director John Ford cast her in the 1934 Fox production of Judge Priest. In this picture, McDaniel was given the opportunity to sing a duet with Will Rogers, the well-known American humorist, and her performance was well received by the press and her fellow actors alike.
In 1935 McDaniel played "Mom Beck" in The Little Colonel, which starred Shirley Temple and Lionel Barrymore, faithfully reflected the image then held by many white Americans of the happy black servant in the Old South. A number of black journalists objected to Hattie's performance in the film, charging that the character of Mom Beck implied that blacks might have been happier as slaves than they were as free individuals. This movie marked the beginning of McDaniel's long feud with the more progressive elements of the black community.
Won Oscar for Gone with the Wind
Once established in Hollywood, McDaniel found no shortage of work. In 1936 alone she appeared in twelve films, including the Universal release Show Boat, starring Paul Robeson. For the decade as a whole, her performances numbered about forty—nearly all of them in the role of maid or cook to a household of whites. As such, she was a leading candidate for the role of Mammy in David O. Selznick's 1939 production of Gone with the Wind, adapted from Margaret Mitchell's bestselling novel of the same name.
Gone with the Wind was dead certain to be a hugely successful film, and competition for parts was intense in Hollywood. McDaniel won the role of Mammy over several rivals, signing a contract with Selznick that gave him exclusive rights to her work for a number of years. Her salary for Gone with the Wind was to be $450 a week, which—while not in the same league as the pay of stars like Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh—was nevertheless a long way from what her real-life counterparts could hope to earn. Responding to a friend who objected to the limited scope of her film roles, McDaniel is often quoted as having said: "Hell, I'd rather play a maid than be one."
Gone with the Wind rewarded McDaniel with far more than a weekly salary, however. As the loving but occasionally sharp-tongued Mammy, Hattie McDaniel became known and loved by the millions of people who would eventually see the movie, one of Hollywood's all-time hits. Her performance as Mammy was more than a bit part, and it so impressed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that she was awarded the 1940 Oscar for best supporting actress, the first ever won by an African American. In contrast to the widespread criticism she had received for some of her earlier roles, McDaniel's award-winning performance was generally seen by the black press as a symbol of progress for African Americans, although some members of the NAACP were still displeased with her work. At the least, her Oscar was a symbol of possible conciliation between the races, especially potent at a time when the country was preparing to do battle with fascist enemies such as German leader Adolf Hitler.
Feuds with NAACP
Gone with the Wind lifted McDaniel to the ranks of known film personalities and was unquestionably the high point of her career. In the wake of the film's great success, she spent much of 1940 touring the country as Mammy, and in the following year she appeared in three substantial film roles, earning no less than $31,000 for her efforts. She was married, for a third time, to James L. Crawford in 1941, and once released from her contract with Selznick in 1943, she became a free agent in the Hollywood markets.
During World War II, McDaniel worked with the Hollywood Victory Committee, entertaining black troops and encouraging Americans to buy war bonds. But the mid-1940s brought trying times for McDaniel, who experienced a heart-wrenching false pregnancy in 1944 and soon after became the victim of racist-inspired legal problems. At about the time the war ended, the actress found herself embroiled in a legal battle over a restrictive covenant system in Los Angeles, which limited black land and home ownership rights. Having purchased a thirty-room house in the city back in 1942, McDaniel faced the possibility of eviction if the discriminatory restrictive covenant were enforced. She was one of several black entertainers who challenged the racist system in court, however, and won.
Still, throughout the 1940s, a growing number of activists viewed McDaniel and all she represented as a detriment to the budding fight for civil rights. By the end of the war, the United States had entered a new phase in the struggle for equality between the races. Minstrel shows and the stereotyped roles heretofore allowed blacks were no longer acceptable to a growing community of intellectuals and activists, who demanded that films represent people of color as capable of greater accomplishments than those of cook, servant, and shoe shine boy. NAACP president Walter White pressed both actors and studios to stop making films which tended to degrade blacks, and he singled out the roles of Hattie McDaniel as particularly offensive. According to Jackson in Hattie, McDaniel was referred to as "that Twentieth Century Fox specialist in the bug-eye" by a reporter for the New York Post, and she appeared in all three of the films White described as excessively "anti-Negro" (Gone with the Wind, The Little Colonel, and Maryland).
In response, McDaniel defended her right to choose whichever roles she saw fit, adding that many of her screen personae, like Mammy in Gone with the Wind, had shown themselves to be more than the equals of their white employers. Jackson suggested that McDaniel "was a gradualist, 'inadvertent,' reformer, and she accomplished more in this capacity than many of those who had set out specifically to change the system…. Hattie's fight against restrictive covenants, and her straight playing of [black roles] influenced the [ civil rights] revolution more than she or anyone around her realized. Sh…. [proved] to listeners that a black person could have a comedic role without degradation…. She was able to instill a mood of rising expectations in young blacks on their way up in the entertainment and business worlds."
Renewed Success in Radio
By the late 1940s McDaniel found herself in a difficult position. She was nationally famous and loved as the personification of the hard-working, humble black servant yet was under attack for playing that character by many members of the black community; and, perhaps most difficult of all, such roles were disappearing in the changing racial climate of post-World War II America. Inevitably, McDaniel found her screen opportunities drying up even as she suffered insults from progressive blacks, and after her third marriage ended in divorce in 1945, she became increasingly depressed and confused as to her proper path.
Although her screen image was permanently linked to a now outdated stereotype, McDaniel could still use her vocal talent on radio. In 1947 she won the starring role of Beulah on The Beulah Show, a CBS radio show about a black maid and the white family for whom she worked. The Beulah Show had been on the air for some years, but always with white males taking the role of Beulah; when Hattie McDaniel took over the role, she became the first black to star in a radio program intended for a general audience. Beulah was an ideal role for the actress, allowing her to make use of her considerable comedic gifts while not being limited to a crude racial cliche. Moreover, the program was generally praised by the NAACP and the Urban League, along with the twenty million other Americans who listened to it every evening at the height of its popularity in 1950.
McDaniel's last marriage, to an interior decorator named Larry Williams, lasted only a few months. In 1951 she suffered a heart attack while filming the first few segments of a projected television version of The Beulah Show. Although she recovered enough to tape more than an dozen episodes of the Beulah radio show in the spring of 1952, by summer she was diagnosed with breast cancer. McDaniel died on October 26, 1952. She will always be remembered as Mammy of Gone with the Wind, a role that many critics find offensive, many others prize as the movie's finest performance, and all agree could have been played by no one but Hattie McDaniel.
Further Reading on Hattie McDaniel
Bogle, Donald, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Viking Press, 1973.
Bogle, Donald, Brown Sugar: Eighty Years of America's Black Female Superstars, Harmony Books, 1980.
Jackson, Carlton, Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel, Madison Books, 1990.
Noble, Peter, The Negro in Films: Literature of the Cinema, Arno Press, 1970.
Amsterdam News (New York), November 19, 1949; November 1, 1952; April 28, 1979, p. 37.
Collier's, December 1939, pp. 20-21, 32.
Crisis, October 1937, p. 297.
Ebony, August 1948, p. 57; December 1949, p. 92.
Hollywood Studio Magazine, April 1977, pp. 19-20.
Journal of Popular Film, Fall 1973, pp. 366-71.
New York Times, March 7, 1948; October 27, 1952.
New York Times Magazine, December 10, 1939.
Our World Magazine, February 1952.
Village Voice, May 5, 1975.