WCW: Hattie McDaniel

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She’s the first African American to win an Oscar, but because Hattie McDaniel (June 10, 1893 – October 26, 1952) spent her career mostly playing maids and slaves, she didn’t always get a lot of respect for her work. But she was still a trail-blazer, and as she famously said: “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.” McDaniel took the opportunities she had as an actor and made the most of them.

Hattie McDaniel began performing early with her sister Etta, creating minstrel shows and routines for Black audiences that parodied white stereotypes. In the 1920s, she sang blues and wrote some of her own songs, like “Boo Hoo Blues.” McDaniel sang in the chorus of a touring production of Show Boat in 1929, but the tour was cancelled by the stock market crash, so she headed to Hollywood. From 1930 to 1952, she played nearly 100 roles in film and lastly TV, not always credited by name, and often portraying domestic servants of some type. Her 1939 Gone With the Wind role and Oscar win was a standout, but it angered Black intellectuals like the leader of the NAACP who complained about Black actors taking stereotypical roles

Offscreen, McDaniel did work with the NAACP and helped fight a racist housing covenant in her Southern California neighborhood that became known as the Black Beverly Hills. She had legendary house parties where people of different races mixed easily, including Lena Horne, Clark Gable, Cab Calloway, Louella Parsons, Paul Robeson, Bing Crosby, Louise Beavers, Duke Ellington, and Esther Williams. Hattie McDaniel also supported the World War II efforts by serving as chair of the Negro Division of the Hollywood Victory Committee.

While Hattie McDaniels may have a small role in these frock flicks, it’s important to honor her contribution and admire how she made her way in the world as a successful working artist.

 

 

Annie in Operator 13 (1934)

Hattie McDaniel, Operator 13 (1934)

This romantic comedy is set during the Civil War.

 

 

Aunt Dilsey in Judge Priest (1934)

Hattie McDaniel, Judge Priest (1934)

The Will Rogers feature is set in 1890 Kentucky and was something of a break-out for McDaniel. She sings five songs and additional scenes were written just for her.

 

 

Asia in Little Men (1934)

Hattie McDaniel, Little Men (1934)

She’s the cook in the school for homeless boys that Jo March & her husband setup in this sequel to Little Women. McDaniel gets in a few quips & sings a little.

 

 

Liza in Harmony Lane (1935)

Hattie McDaniel, Harmony Lane (1935)

A non-speaking role as the cook & nanny in this biopic of composer Stephen Foster, set in the 1850s.

 

 

Becky ‘Mom Beck’ Porter in The Little Colonel (1935)

Hattie McDaniel, The Little Colonel (1935)

While I tend to remember the amazing dance scenes between Shirley Temple & Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in this film, Hattie McDaniel plays a key role as a family confidant, & yes, a housekeeper (& former slave, since it’s set right after the Civil War). Also, that stripey dress is pretty awesome!

 

 

Queenie in Show Boat (1936)

Hattie McDaniel, Show Boat (1936)

This was the first fully filmed version of the musical, & Hattie McDaniel has a duet with Paul Robeson in “Ah Still Suits Me.” Great hat!

 

 

Dehlia in Zenobia (1939)

Hattie McDaniel, Zenobia (1939)

Starring Oliver Hardy (half of Laurel & Hardy), this comedy is set in 1870, & McDaniel has a small role.

 

 

Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939)

Hattie McDaniel, Gone with the Wind (1939)

Hattie McDaniel is second only to Vivien Leigh in total screen time in this film.

Hattie McDaniel, Gone with the Wind (1939)

Clark Gable become friends with McDaniel & they joked around on the set. He even threatened to boycott the Atlanta premiere of the movie when he learned McDaniel wasn’t allowed to attend because of Georgia’s segregation laws. She told him to go anyway.

 

 

Callie in They Died With Their Boots On (1941)

Hattie McDaniel, They Died With Their Boots On (1941)

A fictionalized version of General Custer’s life from the 1850 to 1870s, with McDaniel playing a housekeeper.

 

 

Aunt Tempy in Song of the South (1946)

Hattie McDaniel, Song of the South (1946)

Over a decade after GWTW, Disney made this blatantly racist film for kids, ostensibly set after the Civil War. James Baskett’s performance as Uncle Remus is charming, & Hattie McDaniel does the best she can. But other than getting “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” stuck in your head, I can’t recommend it.

 

 

 

What historical costume movies with Hattie McDaniel have you seen?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

18 Responses

  1. Heather Ripley

    Out of the above I have only seen GWTW – she had the best lines in the film….”and there you are, sitting like a spider”. Kills me each time.

    But I had no idea about most of these other performances. I need to see them, especially the one where Ms McDaniel sings.

    Oh, her house parties – they sound incredible!

    Reply
  2. cljhansen

    Thank you for including Hattie in your WCW. I didn’t know anything about her personal life. She sounds amazing and I am impressed!

    Reply
  3. Sharon in Scotland

    I love the scene in GWTW where she shows off her red taffeta petticoats to Rhett Butler after he noticed that she was rustling as she walked!!!

    Reply
  4. M.E. Lawrence

    That version of “Show Boat” is worth seeing. McDaniel and Paul Robeson work well together, and it was clear (to me, anyway) that Robeson’s role was altered so he’s not a shuffling darkie, but a smart, sensitive man who comes across as the conscience of the film.

    Reply
    • MoHub

      Still my favorite version of Show Boat. A lot of the original Broadway cast was involved, and Helen Morgan’s Julie will break your heart.

      Reply
  5. Saraquill

    Haven’t seen any of these movies. I do enjoy her logic behind the roles she took. Yes, it sucked that there were few non-servitude roles available. Good on her for making the best of a not so great situation.

    Reply
  6. mjsamuelson

    I really need to see that version of Show Boat – didn’t even know it existed! Her costume in that picture sells me on it.

    Honestly, Hattie’s performance is amazing in GWTW. She was severely typecast, but in all the “made the best of a bad situation” roles here, Mammy is a powerful force onscreen and it’s 100% due to Hattie. She more than earned that Oscar, and I think hers is the supporting performance that even now should be used as the benchmark for the award.

    Reply
  7. Sam Marchiony

    Looking back at Hattie McDaniel’s story, I’m reminded of a bit that was in the post-episode 3 featurette of the Gilded Age where Denée Benton points out that we will never know how many Black writers gave up the rights and recognition to their work in order to get paid and have it see the light of day, and that she can’t truly blame anyone who made that choice. I can imagine Hattie McDaniel approaching things from a similar mindset— in addition to the pay being better as an actor, there was also probably the sobering reality that if all the Black actors didn’t take these roles, white people would just play the roles in blackface. So she took the roles, and did what she could off-screen to try and mitigate the damage. A truly fascinating woman.

    Reply
  8. Northcountry gal

    She really was wonderful in Judge Priest. She and the Will Rogers character have a real relationship and her singing is marvelous.

    Reply
  9. Rowen G.

    I read somewhere that when someone told her that she shouldn’t play a slave (in GWTW) she quipped back something like, ‘what should I have done – held out for being Clark Gable’s leading lady?’ (Not an exact quote, I’m sure.)

    Reply
  10. Giselle

    As a woman of ample proportions, I have a mighty need for more images of that striped dress, and the “Showboat” outfit. Those silhouette re amazingly flattering.

    Reply
  11. Nzie

    Yes, great WCW choice. I’ve seen GWTW and The Little Colonel. The Showboat version sounds interesting; I learned about Paul Robeson courtesy TCM a few months ago (better late than never?). Hattie McDaniel sounds pretty amazing; to be a fly on the wall of one of her parties!

    Interesting bit about Clark Gable; good on him on that, although what kind of a movie did he think he was making? It certainly wasn’t one that was challenging segregation or white supremacy. (Of course Gable is also complicated by the posthumous recounting by Loretta Young’s daughter-in-law that, many years after the event, Young said he’d date raped her.)

    Reply
  12. Anne L Thierfelder

    The photo from The Little Colonel is magical. And I like that Shirley Temple’s costume picks up the stripes. Just beautiful.

    Reply

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