Today we continue our mini biography of Hattie McDaniel. Part 1 is here if you haven’t read it yet or want to re-read it.
Gone With the Wind was Hattie McDaniel’s highest production value and largest picture. Competition for the role of Mammy was intense. In fact, First Lady Elanor Roosevelt wrote to the producer asking him to cast her own real-life maid for the part. Hattie McDaniel had worked with co-star Clark Gable previously on the film China Seas and the two had become friends, and it appears Clark may have suggested Hattie play the role. (One source indicates this. Others don’t specify.)
The Atlanta premiere of Gone With the Wind was one of the largest such events in U.S. film history. Fans lined a parade route stretching from the airport to the theater as the (white) stars rode by and waved from convertibles. The massive spectacle of Southern pride and Hollywood glitter lasted over two days of planned events. One of the largest events was a “Gone With the Wind” Ball put on by the Junior Chamber of Commerce. A young Martin Luther King Jr. performed at that ball as part of a “Negro boys choir” from a nearby church.
The city of Atlanta had informed MGM Studios that black cast members would not be welcome at any of the planned segregated events. Jim Crow laws prevented Hattie and her costar Butterfly McQueen from sitting in an all-white theater, attending an all-white formal ball, or otherwise mixing with Atlanta’s white high society. In fact, Atlanta’s elite were so very, very racist, Hattie and Butterfly’s pictures were not featured in the program. (In all premiers outside of Jim Crow segregated areas, both of their pictures appeared.)
Clark Gable threatened to boycott the Atlanta premiere in protest of their segregation of Hattie. She persuaded him to go anyway, not wanting to make waves she would then leave behind for blacks living in the South. Producer David Selznik tried to persuade the studio to let him take Hattie with them anyway, so she wrote him a letter claiming to have other plans to let him off the hook. Hattie McDaniel was present for the Hollywood premiere of Gone With the Wind and the program and kiosk pictures at that event featured her face prominently.
Hattie McDaniel was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Supporting Actress category in 1939 making her the first African-American to be nominated for any award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She won the award in February 1940, making her the first African-American to receive an Oscar in any category. In fact, Hattie was the first black person invited to the Academy Awards as a guest rather than a servant. However, segregation being what it was, Hattie and her invited guest sat at a table alone in the back of the room, apart from her other (white) cast members.
Hattie accepted her award with the following words:
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.
In 2010 when Mo’Nique became the fifth African-American woman to win an Academy Award for Acting (four wins in the Supporting Role category, one for Lead), she gave a nod to Hattie in her acceptance speech, saying, “I want to thank Miss Hattie McDaniel for enduring all that she had to, so that I would not have to.”
Tune in later this week for the final installment on Hattie’s desegregation work, death and burial.