McDaniel brought dignity to her roles

WAY BACK WHEN

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February 10, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

McDaniel — While Gone With the Wind is not his favorite film, Sun movie critic Chris Kaltenbach wrote in 1998 that Hattie McDaniel, who was the first African-American actor to win an Academy Award, "brought dignity to her Oscar-winning role as Mammy."

McDaniel - who was a veteran of more than 300 films made between 1931 and her death in 1952 but received screen credit for only about 80 of them - specialized in portraying domestics.

Writer Patrick Giles described McDaniel in GWTW as a "proud character, stubbornly demanding what's right even from those she's supposed to be bowing to."

Nonetheless, such performances aroused the ire of progressive blacks and Walter Francis White, in particular. White, executive of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1931 to 1955, thought such roles perpetuated racial stereotyping and pandered to racists.

McDaniel became a target for White's anger against Hollywood filmmakers.

When Gone With the Wind premiered in Atlanta in 1939, McDaniel, acutely aware that she would be unwelcome in the segregated South, skipped it, informing director Victor Fleming that she was ill.

It turned out there was plenty of segregation alive in Los Angles as well, and during the Academy Awards ceremony held in the Ambassador Hotel's Coconut Grove in 1940, McDaniel was forced to sit alone in the rear of the room.

"When her name was called, she walked up without an entourage. She was completely isolated in a humiliating way. It was so unfair," Molly Haskell, a film historian and writer, said yesterday.

"It was a magnificent role. She had strength, force and intelligence, and could see through Scarlett O'Hara's machinations. She was a force to be reckoned with, and her bulk gave her strength and power," Haskell said.

"She represented continuity from the past to the present. She kept the family together. She was a bulwark," she said. "Even after the Emancipation, there was never any question that she'd go off and leave the family."

There was stiff competition for the role of Mammy - even Eleanor Roosevelt's maid, Elizabeth McDuffie, screen-tested for the part - and in the end, producer David O. Selznick gave it to McDaniel over Louise Beavers.

McDaniel was also given permission by producers to speak straight English rather than overdrawn dialect.

Selznick also ordered that a derogatory term for African-Americans be taken out of the script.

"It's true, Selznick being a Jew was very sensitive and conscious of what that word meant, and it was removed," Haskell said.

After the premiere, a film critic for The Chicago Defender wrote of McDaniel: "One writer said that her ability as an actress would give the world a greater estimate of the Negro race. Another stated that her performance equalled in brilliance that of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh."

Still, criticism came, which caused McDaniel to respond: "It's better to get $7,000 a week playing a servant than $7 a week for being one."

"I really don't think it was her. It was the roles she was playing," said Thomas S. Cripps, a Bolton Hill resident and author, who is an expert on African-American films.

"You can point to such things as her capacity for humanizing a role and always looking for the nuggets of humanity in them. She always had a certain resourcefulness," said Cripps, author of the two-volume Making Movies Black: The Hollywood Message Movie from World War II to the Civil Rights Era.

When the NAACP's White suggested that African-American actors boycott such films, McDaniel responded in a 1947 interview with Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper:

"What do you want me to do? Play a glamour girl and sit on Clark Gable's knee? When you ask me not to play the parts, what have you got to offer in return?"

"She suggests," wrote Hopper, "that the final solution lies in wealthy Negroes investing money in film making. She even suggests the NAACP drop some coin into film production; then they can make pictures suitable to the organization, and Hattie will be only too happy to play in them."

After Gone With the Wind, McDaniel appeared in Song of the South, Since You Went Away and In This Our Life. In 1947, she signed a contract to appear on the radio show Beulah, and after the show went to TV with Ethel Waters taking over the role, there was a public uproar over McDaniel not getting the part.

McDaniel gained editorial control over movie, radio and TV scripts and refused to speak in dialect. This time, her former adversaries, the NAACP and the Urban League, had no objections.

When Waters left to do theater work, McDaniel took over the role until suffering a heart attack in 1951. She died of breast cancer the next year at 57.

"I desire a white casket and a white shroud; white gardenias in my hair and in my hands, together with a white gardenia blanket and a pillow of red roses," McDaniel wrote. "I also wish to be buried in Hollywood Memorial Park."

The cemetery refused to allow her to be buried there because she was black, and she was interred at Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles.

"Hattie McDaniel, who died recently in Hollywood, rode to the pinnacle of motion picture and radio fame through hard work and a restless desire to become a successful actress. This she did the hard way, and it paid off," said an article in the Afro American.

"Although most of Miss McDaniel's characterizations drew caustic criticism because of their stereotypical leanings, she always insisted that they carried a touch of realism because she drew her humor or pathos from her own experiences," the article said.

She left her Oscar to Howard University.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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