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Hattie McDaniel - 8/20
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Hattie McDaniel

She was the first black actor to win an Academy Award, but Hattie McDaniel paid a price to cross Hollywood's color line. Schooled in minstrelsy in the years leading up to the Depression, during which time she developed the stock character of a sassy black housemaid who refused to kowtow to her white employers, McDaniel arrived in Hollywood after the 1929 stock market crash and was soon earning more money playing servants than most stockbrokers were seeing from their investments. Billed low in the credits, McDaniel more than measured up to the likes of Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Jean Harlow and Barbara Stanwyck, often stealing one or two scenes in such films as John Ford's "Judge Priest" (1934), Tay Garnett's "China Seas" (1935), and George Stevens' "Alice Adams" (1935) from their A-list players. Gable recommended McDaniel to producer David O. Selznick for the role of Scarlett O'Hara's nursemaid Mammy in "Gone with the Wind" (1939); Selznick was so impressed with the actress that he had the screenplay rewritten to accommodate her. Though segregation precluded McDaniel from attending the film's Atlanta premiere, vindication came with an Oscar win for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. If her films declined in quality in the years before her death in 1952, Hattie McDaniel had long since proved her point that being one of the first successful African-American actresses was a groundbreaking achievement and that no matter the criticism, she always lived by her credo, "I'd rather play a maid than be one."

Hattie McDaniel was born in Wichita, KS on June 10, 1893. The youngest of 13 children of Baptist minister Harry McDaniel and his wife, the former Susan Holbert - both former slaves - McDaniel grew up in Denver, CO. In 1908, she enrolled in Denver East High School, where she was active in the drama club and won a contest sponsored by the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Dropping out in her sophomore year, McDaniel joined her brother Otis' minstrel show, writing songs and touring with the troupe in Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, while also singing on the radio. The company disbanded with Otis McDaniel's death in 1916. She also founded an all-female minstrel troupe with her sister, Etta Goff. In her time with the McDaniel Sisters Company, she began developing a stock character, an all-knowing, mouthy mammy. In 1920, McDaniel was hired as a vocalist for Professor George Morrison's Melody Hounds, a Denver-based jazz orchestra, and recorded a number of jazz sides for Okeh and Paramount Records, as well as the Kansas City label Merritt.

After the 1929 stock market crash, McDaniel was reduced to working as a washroom attendant in a whites-only Milwaukee nightclub, though she eventually convinced its owner to let her perform. Eventually she joined her brother Sam and sisters Etta and Orlena in Hollywood, where Sam had found work in radio and films. While she looked for acting work, McDaniel became a regular on "The Optimistic Do-Nut Hour," broadcast on KNX, where she perfected the character of Hi-Hat Hattie, an uppity black maid who knew better than her affluent white employers and never tried to hide it. She made her film debut for Universal as a hospital patient in James Whale's melodrama "The Impatient Maiden" (1932), starring Lew Ayres and Mae Clark. A bit as a singer in Harry Beaumont's "Are You Listening?" (1932) at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer followed but when she was cast as a maid in Charles Brabin's political drama "The Washington Masquerade" (1932) and a cook in the Hoot Gibson Western "The Boiling Point" (1932), she found her niche as Hollywood's go-to sassy domestic. Though far from attaining co-star status with Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg's Depression era melodrama "Blonde Venus" (1932), McDaniel's onscreen business with the Berlin import put her on par with her leading lady in the eyes of moviegoers worldwide. McDaniel also worked well with Mae West, playing her opinionated manicurist in Wesley Ruggles' comedy "I'm No Angel" (1933), co-starring Cary Grant.

It was not until John Ford's "Judge Priest" (1934), which put her in the frame with humorist Will Rogers and black sidekick Stepin Fetchit, that Hi-Hat Hattie truly began to assert herself, cutting through the air with her demonstrative, booming voice, and popping her eyes proactively as if to silence any potential disagreement and rebuke the coonish inclinations of Fetchit's lazy houseboy. The manifestation of McDaniel's onscreen persona, as the true whip hand in any of her domestic situations, was evident in many of her films that year, including the comedy "Lost in the Stratosphere" and "The Little Colonel," co-starring Shirley Temple. That same year, McDaniel joined the Screen Actors Guild and signed a long-term contract with The Fox Film Corporation. It was director George Stevens who received credit for revealing the true Hi-Hat Hattie in his film "Alice Adams" (1935). Starring Katherine Hepburn in an early role, the film revolved around a poor girl who aims to make a place for herself in society by pretending to be affluent, roping her parents into the charade of hiring a black maid to impress suitor Fred MacMurray. In the film's classic dinner scene, the white characters leapfrog from one faux pas to another while McDaniel's huffy hireling, Malena Burns, grunts, rolls her eyes, chews gum, and mutters withering asides that deflate the white characters' pretension with the acuity of a Greek chorus. Critics singled out McDaniel's brilliant comic timing and her characters grew in prominence. At MGM, she played Jean Harlow's servant in both Tay Garnett's "China Seas" (1935) and Jack Conway's "Saratoga" (1937) and was capricious society girl Barbara Stanwyck's surrogate mother in "The Mad Miss Manton" (1938). In all of these roles, McDaniel was only nominally subservient to her white employers, to whom she served as life coach, Devil's advocate, and mother confessor.

But it was producer David O. Selznick's "Gone with the Wind" (1939), based on the historical novel by Margaret Mitchell and set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, that provided McDaniel with the role of her lifetime. As Mammy, house servant to spoiled Georgia peach Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh), McDaniel brought her usual stock-in-trade bossiness to bear, but the film's scope and rich Technicolor palette seemed to push the actress through the imagined fourth wall and into the laps of moviegoers. Etched by the actress - and Selznick, who ordered script changes to complement the actress' style - as both a foster mother to the orphaned Scarlett and the film's only true defender of family values, Mammy was at once an expressly comical character and the film's true heart and soul. Though the color of her skin precluded her from attending the film's star-studded but segregated Atlanta premiere, McDaniel was singled out for praise by The New York Times and became the first black actor to win an Academy Award. In fact, it was a credit to the woman's great dignity that she was able to make such a touching, teary speech after being seated at the far rear of the ceremony's venue, while her non-nominated white co-stars sat up front.

Despite the segregation in the world at large, she became a close friend to many of her Hollywood co-stars, among them Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Joan Crawford, Ronald Reagan and Shirley Temple, living and working among them as something like a peer. Unfortunately she drew fire from some blacks for choosing to play second class Americans - prompting the quick-witted actress to quip "I'd rather play a maid than be one." She would play domestics throughout World War II, taking care of Errol Flynn's doomed General Custer in "They Died with Their Boots On" (1941), picking up after displaced New Yorkers Jack Benny and Ann Sheridan in the rural farce "George Washington Slept Here" (1942), wronged by employer Bette Davis in "In This Our Life" (1942), and mentoring scatterbrained teen Joyce Reynolds in Michael Curtiz' featherweight "Janie" (1944) and Vincent Sherman's sequel "Janie Gets Married" (1946). As Aunt Tempy in Disney's "Song of the South" (1946), McDaniel was nursemaid to child star Bobby Driscoll, but the spark of her earlier performances was conspicuous in its absence. In her final feature film role, as a maid in the racetrack drama "The Big Wheel" (1949) starring Mickey Rooney, she barely registered.

Starting in 1947, McDaniel made $1,000 per week as the star of the CBS radio comedy "The Beulah Show." The character originated in 1944 as a supporting player on "Fibber McGee and Molly" and was voiced by white actor Marlin Hurt. When McDaniel assumed the role, she became the first black woman to star in a network radio program. A TV spin-off, "Beulah" was launched by ABC in 1950, with Ethel Waters in the title role. When Waters left the sitcom in 1951, McDaniel took on the role for television as well, but appeared in only six episodes. Diagnosed with breast cancer, she ceded the radio series to Lillian Randolph and the TV show to Louise Beavers. Hattie McDaniel died on Oct. 26, 1952. Though it had been her wish to be buried at the segregated Hollywood Cemetery, her remains were interred instead at Los Angeles' Rosedale Cemetery. Two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame were awarded posthumously. In 1999, a monument was placed in her honor at the renamed Hollywood Forever Cemetery, her preferred resting place.

By Richard Harland Smith

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