Hattie McDanielAug 10th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1895-1952 Hattie McDaniel was an actress best known for her performance as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind. During her career, she also became a lightning rod for criticism of the racially stereotyped roles offered in the entertainment industry at the time.
Brought up in the Family Business
McDaniel was born to Henry and Susan McDaniel, both former slaves, on June 10, 1895, in Wichita, Kansas. Her father had been a soldier in the Civil War, and went on to become a Baptist preacher, a carpenter, and a performer. McDaniel’s mother was a gospel singer. She moved with her family to Denver, Colorado, in 1901. The youngest of 13 children, five of whom died in infancy, McDaniel attended integrated Denver schools, though she was one of only two black students in her elementary school. She soon earned a reputation as a strong personality and a performer among her classmates and teachers. During her sophomore year at East Denver High School, McDaniel dropped out in order to perform with her father’s minstrel show, which was comprised almost entirely of members of the McDaniel family.
Following the unexpected death of McDaniel’s brother, Otis, the family minstrel show began to dissolve in 1916. For several years, she worked menial jobs in order to survive. However, McDaniel returned to the vaudeville circuit in the 1920s, performing with “Professor” George Morrison’s Melody Hounds. She sang live on a Denver radio station in 1925, which placed her among the first black women to perform on American radio.
In the midst of the Great Depression, McDaniel found work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as a bathroom attendant at Sam Pick’s Club Madrid. Because of her habit of singing while working, patrons soon demanded to see her on the club’s formerly all-white stage. By 1931, she was a popular enough performer to travel to Los Angeles, California, and try her luck in Hollywood. McDaniel’s brother, Sam, had a job performing regularly on the KNX radio show “The Optimistic Do-Nuts” in Los Angeles. Once she arrived, he secured her a performance on the show. McDaniel managed to turn the small part into a big success with her characteristic charm and good humor. Soon, she was landing roles as a movie extra or a bit player, although it took several years for her to earn enough money to stop working as a maid and a dishwasher.
Although she appeared in films as early as 1932, McDaniel’s first big break came with her role in John Ford’s 1934 film, Judge Priest, in which she starred alongside Will Rogers. She showcased her musical talents in a duet with Rogers for which she received critical acclaim. In 1935, McDaniel played alongside Shirley Temple and Lionel Barrymore in the role of “Mom Beck” in The Little Colonel. After the film’s release, she became the target of criticism from within the black community for accepting roles that perpetuated black stereotypes. McDaniel responded that she would rather play a maid for $700 per week than be one for seven dollars.
A Famous First
Demand for McDaniel took off in the mid-1930s. She appeared in 12 films in 1936 alone, including Show Boat, where she joined a cast that included the legendary Paul Robeson. McDaniel appeared to be a natural choice for what would come to be her signature role as “Mammy” in 1939’s Gone with the Wind. But the competition was heavy: it was rumored that Eleanor Roosevelt had written to producer David O. Selznick to push for her own maid to get the part. Ultimately, McDaniel won the role by wearing an authentic maid’s uniform to the audition.
Because of that film, McDaniel became a national celebrity. Gone with the Wind received a record number of Academy Awards, a distinction compounded by the fact that McDaniel became the first African American to receive one. Even her critics lauded the Academy’s decision, despite their objections to the nature of her roles, as a step forward for Blacks in the film industry. McDaniel never again attained the level of notoriety that her role as “Mammy” afforded. Although she continued to appear in films regularly, the 1940s were difficult years for her, especially in her personal relationships.
Following a short-lived marriage to Howard Hickman, McDaniel found herself in several unsatisfying and brief relationships. In 1941, she married James Crawford with whom she underwent a devastating false pregnancy in 1944. They divorced the following year. In 1949, McDaniel married an interior designer named Larry Williams, and then divorced him less than a year later. In addition, she found that the roles for which she had previously been cast were becoming scarcer, partly due to the political climate of the times. McDaniel also was dragged into a legal battle over a discriminatory Los Angeles law restricting home ownership rights for Blacks. By the late 1940s, the cumulative strain of the events of the decade had left her depressed and exhausted.
McDaniel finished out the decade on a professional high note with the starring role in the CBS radio show Beulah, which won her praise from a variety of constituencies. However, after suffering a heart attack in 1951, she was forced to step down. The following summer, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. On October 26, 1952, McDaniel died at the on-site hospital of the Motion Picture House in Woodland Hills, California.
Despite the frequent criticism levied at her, McDaniel was in both word and deed, a tireless advocate for herself and all African Americans. In the course of her career, she appeared in over 300 films. While her roles may have been stereotyped, the presence and skill with which she pursued her craft opened doors for other black actors and actresses. More than just the embodiment of the “Mammy” role, McDaniel is remembered as the first African American to earn Hollywood’s highest honor, and as a pioneer for Blacks in film.