Hattie McDaniel (1895 - 1952)

Hattie McDaniel
Hattie McDaniel

Hattie McDaniel was a movie actress who rose to international prominence for her portrayal of Mammy in 'Gone with the Wind' in 1939. As well as a movie actress she was a talented comedienne, stage actress, radio performer, and television star. She was the first black woman to sing on American radio and also the first black performer to win an Academy Award. When she attended the awards ceremony she was the first African-American to do so as a guest, not a servant.

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Hattie McDaniel was born on June 10, 1895, in Wichita, Kansas, the youngest of 13 children and the daughter of former slaves. The family moved to Denver, Colorado where Hattie went to school which she abandoned in her somophore year in order to start her showbusiness career touring with the family's minstrel group which starred two of her brothers, Sam and Otis. When Otis died in 1916 the troupe hit hard times, and it was 4 years before her next big opportunity when she joined George Morrison's band, 'Melody Hounds', a black touring group, and in 1925 she went on to become a radio singer with the group, on station KOA in Denver. She later headed for Hollywood and started to get bit parts in movies.

Her first credited role was in 1932 in 'The Golden West' and she played a maid. Between then and her final movie in 1949 she made over 100 screen appearances, many of them uncredited, and the overwhelming majority of them as cooks or maids. She was put under contract in 1935 by Fox Film Corporation to appear in 'The Little Colonel' with Shirley Temple, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and Lionel Barrymore. In the same year she showed her comedic talents as Jean Harlow's maid and travelling companion in 'China Seas'.

She was featured as Queenie in Universal Pictures' version of 'Show Boat' in 1936, starring Irene Dunne and Paul Robeson. In the same film she and Robeson sang a duet together, 'I Still Suits Me'. After this she had large roles in 'Saratoga' in 1937, again starring Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, and 'The Shopworn Angels in 1938, with Margaret Sullavan.

It is noticeable that her maid characters became gradually less and less subservient, a trend which shows first in 'Judge Priest' in 1934 and becomes more pronounced in 'Alice Adams' the following year, in which she serves dinner while keeping up a running commentary of observations and grumbles. By 1938 in 'The Mad Miss Manton' we find her actually telling off Barbara Stanwyck, her employer. The assertive trend continues into her greatest role, perhaps the most famous maid role of all time, that of Mammy in 'Gone with the Wind' in 1939. Here she is full of advice and help and is, in many ways, superior to most of the white people around her. One of the reasons she got the role was the suport given to her by Clark Gable who had already worked with her several times.

For her role in 'Gone with the Wind' Hattie won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, and she was the first black person to win an Academy Award. Sadly, the honor, which she accepted with poignant gratitude, did not lead to the widening of opportunities that it should have done, and she continued in relatively minor roles for the rest of her film career which continued right through the 1940's.

She played Olivia de Havilland's loyal southern maid Callie in 'They Died with Their Boots On' in 1941, and the following year she appeared in 'In This Our Life' starring Bette Davis and once again she played a maid, but this time directly confronting racial issues as her son is wrongly accused of manslaughter. She continued to play domestics through the war years in 'The Male Animal' in 1942, 'Thank Your Lucky Stars' in 1943, with Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis again, and 'Since You Went Away' the following year, but she was less feisty and assertive than previously.

In response to criticism from the black community, McDaniel justified her generally subordinate roles by explaining that the choice was either to play a servant or be one. Yet her maids do have their own style, often displaying sharp-tongued familiarity with their employers.

Hattie McDaniel was married 4 times, in 1922, 1938, 1941 and 1949 but each marriage was short-lived. She had no children.

Her last last film appearances were 'Mickey' in 1948 and 'Family Honeymoon' and 'The Big Wheel' in 1949 and then she spent her final years successfully, first on radio and then on TV as the eponymous 'Beulah' from 1950 onwards, another maid but, surprisingly, the lead role, and a big hit with audiences. It was during the run of these shows that she was diagnosed with the breast cancer that claimed her in 1952.

Her last wish was to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. She wrote that she would like a "white shroud", "white gardenias in my hair and in my hands" and "a pillow of red roses". The owners of the cemetery refused to allow her to be buried there, as they did not take blacks. Her second choice was Rosedale Cemetery, and that is where she lies today.

Hattie McDaniel Academy Awards

One Win:
Best Supporting Actress ... Gone with the Wind (1939)
No Unsuccessful Nominations: