I’ve seen Gone with the Wind (1939) many times, mostly on television, sometimes with commercials and sometimes not, and once in the theater, when it was released again in the late 1990s. The audience in that theater, when I saw the film on the big screen, was probably 80% African American. I kept watching the black members of the audience to see how they were reacting, and mainly what I saw were looks of love and pride, especially when Hattie McDaniel was on screen as Mammy, yelling at Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett and obsessing over the girl’s lack of manners. Not long after that screening, I saw a re-run of The Cosby Show where Claire Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad) cozies up with her daughter Rudy (Keshia Knight-Pulliam) on the living room couch and prepares to watch Gone with the Wind with her. Claire tells Rudy about Scarlett and Melanie, but she doesn’t say a word about Mammy or Butterfly McQueen’s Prissy.
McDaniel won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Gone with the Wind, beating out her co-star Olivia de Havilland, who played good-hearted Melanie. That award meant a lot of different things symbolically at the time, but it was earned purely on an acting level, too. Just watch the scene where Mammy tells Melanie about the calamities that have occurred since the death of Rhett (Clark Gable) and Scarlett’s daughter. It’s a Greek Chorus type of lament, and it’s a virtuoso opportunity for McDaniel, lasting over a minute without a cut as the camera follows Mammy and Melanie up the stairs. McDaniel holds this long take with as raw an expression of grief as we can possibly handle; she even stumbles over a couple of words because she’s so deeply into this woman’s ever-renewing despair. There’s a moment half-way through when Melanie asks Mammy not to tell her anymore, and I always laugh a little at this point because it seems like de Havilland herself is uneasily signaling, “Please, Hattie, stop, or you’re going to win the Oscar that I want for myself!”
This is very much an Oscar set piece, or a classic Oscar clip, a long take that shows off all the technique and all the emotion alive in McDaniel. I wonder what she thought about to get her to this point. I don’t think just imagining Mammy’s circumstances would be enough to get her as far as she goes here, because we haven’t seen anything like this depth of feeling in the character before, and we don’t see it again. This is the kind of emotional acting that feels like it must come from personal experience, and it shows what McDaniel was capable of. It makes me think that she might have played Berenice in Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding, a part that Ethel Waters triumphed in on stage and on film.
Mammy is a fusser and a manager, but powerless, of course. She cares about how the O’Hara family is perceived, and there are hints in the early scenes that she doesn’t really like Scarlett, who doesn’t at all measure up to her cool, patrician mother Ellen O’Hara (Barbara O’Neil). When Mammy gets in a dig about Scarlett’s obsession with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), McDaniel lowers her eyes, as if she wants to convey that Mammy knows she’s gone too far but is tickled to have done so. “Just like a spider,” Mammy emphasizes, as she looks on helplessly while Scarlett schemes, but when Scarlett marries Rhett, Mammy leaves Tara, the O’Hara homestead, to go and serve this selfish girl in a new house. Her hair starts to grey under the kerchief on her head, but Mammy holds on tight to her outdated standards, her views of lower class whites and blacks as “trash,” her conviction that certain things “just ain’t fittin.’” Mammy is stuck in a prison-like mindset for life, as if she (or the people who wrote and imagined her) cannot imagine liberation, or a new way of life.
Though I’ve seen Gone with the Wind many times, there was a detail about Mammy that I had never noticed before in other viewings. After waking up from her great night of rough sex with Rhett, Scarlett absentmindedly asks Mammy how she is, and Mammy says that she’s fine, except for “this misery in my back.” Scarlett doesn’t seem to hear this as Mammy hobbles out of the bedroom carrying a tray. Scarlett doesn’t notice that Mammy is still carrying trays with her bad back. The film barely notices this detail, and I had never noticed it, either. Women like Mammy were not meant to be noticed too much, on screen, at least. If they’re getting old and have aches and pains, they go about their work still and endure the aches as best they can, with the promise of death and glory in heaven as a release.
McDaniel was born in 1895 and grew up in Denver, Colorado, the youngest of thirteen children. Her father had fought in the Civil War, and her mother was a singer of religious music. She wrote songs for her brother’s minstrel show and toured with them extensively as a girl, and in the 1920s she recorded some tunes in a strong, growly voice and sang on the radio, where she was known as sassy “Hi-Hat Hattie.” By 1929 she had hit a rough patch and was working as a washroom attendant and waitress at the Club Madrid in Milwaukee before she persuaded the club to let her sing. In 1931, she hit Hollywood and worked briefly as a maid and cook before getting into the movies, often in un-credited roles.
McDaniel makes a vivid impression in Josef Von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus (1932) as a rough-talking protector of Marlene Dietrich. “That white man’s up to something, I know when a white man’s browsing and when he ain’t,” she says, after looking over a cop on Dietrich’s tail. Dietrich calls her Cora, but then the cop calls her Hattie; in so many of her movies, McDaniel’s character names are interchangeable with her own because no one ever pays close attention to her. In Alice Adams (1935), McDaniel gets big laughs as the gum-chewing, slovenly, sensible maid Malena, who suggests that they don’t serve soup on such a hot night but gets vetoed by her clueless employer (Ann Shoemaker). McDaniel is playing a stereotype here, the lazy black maid, but she invigorates it with specific bits of business that work against that stereotype, like the hilariously aggressive way she shoves a platter of caviar sandwiches at the father of the house (Fred Stone), or the way she almost rolls her eyes when Alice (Katharine Hepburn) sprinkles French phrases into the conversation.
Hollywood cinema of the 1930s is a treasure chest of goodies, jam-packed with great films and good films and films of interest, and it’s a filmic American decade that repays a lifetime of attention, but whenever a black character manages to get on the screen, you have to always prepare yourself for all manner of insulting stereotyping. McDaniel was sometimes asked to play dopey women, or women who were afraid of ghosts or some such shit, but her native sharpness got her through such movies and moments. You never have to be embarrassed for her but rather for the clods who wrote things like that for her to do. The same cannot be said for Louise Beavers, an actress who was McDaniel’s nearest rival for black female roles on screen in the 1930s; when Beavers was asked to play dumb, she went all-out with it, but she also allowed herself moments of stubbornly cranky irritation.
Beavers came across as someone who couldn’t allow herself to identify what was really keeping her down and disrespected, and this quality activates her best performance, the limited mother in Imitation of Life (1934) who embarrasses her light-skinned daughter (Fredi Washington) with her naïve, defeatist point of view. As she aged, Beavers spoke out to the press a bit and questioned the roles she was asked to play, while McDaniel carefully tried to avoid making waves, though she did legally fight to keep her own large house in West Adams Heights, or “Sugar Hill,” when some white homeowners tried to drive the black homeowners out of the area. She was not allowed to attend the Atlanta premiere of Gone with the Wind, and when she won her Oscar, she was not seated at producer David O. Selznick’s table but at a segregated table for two (McDaniel’s first husband died the year they were married, and she was married and divorced three times after that).
In the 1940s, McDaniel was hounded by Walter White, the head of the NAACP, who criticized her for portraying maids. This elicited her famous comment, “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.” It should be remembered that most Southern audiences didn’t even want to see African American performers in the small and demeaning roles they were given; they didn’t want to see them at all. McDaniel was stuck in a very tough spot in film history when any visibility for black performers was better than none, and she handled this situation much more gracefully than Beavers did on screen because she had a distinctively roguish, rude humor to get her through. But McDaniel was not given a showcase like Cabin in the Sky (1943), where Ethel Waters does a real star turn, and she never got a role that could really prove her mettle as an actress, as Waters did in The Member of the Wedding.
The key transitional film for McDaniel is In This Our Life (1942). In her first scenes in that movie, McDaniel’s Minerva is just a familiar huffy-puffy maid, but this role gradually reveals something more layered and serious. Fire-breathing villainous Stanley (Bette Davis) runs over a little girl with her car and tries to pin the blame on Minerva’s son Parry (Ernest Anderson), a smart and upwardly mobile young man who is studying to be a lawyer. Stanley’s sister Roy (de Havilland) goes to see Minerva, who says that her son didn’t do it. This woman has been betrayed by a member of the family she has given her whole life to, and in McDaniel’s face, we can see both the complicated shame and confusion Minerva feels over this betrayal and the heavy knowledge that her son doesn’t have a chance. When Roy asks why Minerva didn’t tell the police the truth, McDaniel looks down to the floor as she says, “They don’t listen to no colored boy.” For McDaniel, in just that one scene and one line, it’s like seeing her break the bonds that had held her in check on screen all her life, but with such freedom comes a new order and a new responsibility, and sometimes it’s too late for some people to change their way of thinking and behaving. The old prison has become too familiar, too comfortable, even, and no really drastic social change or call for change can ever hope to remake them.