Other Noteworthy Performances: Arletty (Le jour se lève), Edna Best (Intermezzo), Alice Brady (Young Mr. Lincoln), Joan Crawford (The Women), Olivia de Havilland (Gone with the Wind), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Dark Victory), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Wuthering Heights), Gladys George (The Roaring Twenties), Margaret Hamilton (The Wizard of Oz), Miriam Hopkins (The Old Maid), Edna May Oliver (Drums along the Mohawk), Maria Ouspenskaya (The Rains Came), Nancy Price (The Stars Look Down), Miriam Riselle (Tevye), Flora Robson (Wuthering Heights), Rosalind Russell (The Women), Claire Trevor (Stagecoach)
This is one category that the Academy got right when they handed the Oscar for best supporting actress to Hattie McDaniel for her layered and subversive performance as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. McDaniel took an offensively written character in a vile, racist movie and transformed her into an emotionally complex human being.
David O. Selznick had been working for years to bring Margaret Mitchell’s love letter to the antebellum South to the screen. The novel was a massive best seller so interest in the project was unusually high. Selznick’s turbulent search for Scarlett O’Hara is well known – so well known that the process was turned into a movie in 1980, Moviola: The Scarlett O’Hara War, with Tony Curtis as Selznick. Imagine how different the movie would have been with Paulette Goddard, Joan Bennett, or (gulp) Jean Arthur. (If you haven’t seen them, it’s worth taking a look at some of the screen tests.)
What we remember less well is the intense battle with black groups and newspapers over the explicit racism of the novel, including a celebration of the Ku Klux Klan as protectors of white womanhood against newly free and uncontrollable black men. Selznick did not want to make a movie that would make African Americans cringe the way Birth of a Nation did in 1915. He promised to tone down the racism of the book and scrambled to excise the most offensive parts, like changing Scarlett’s attackers to an interracial group and turning the Klan into an average everyday posse. Selznick also promised to edit out the word “nigger” which was enough to pacify most of the groups. Despite these changes he retained Mitchell’s idealized vision of slavery. “Good” slaves prospered under the watchful eye of their paternalistic masters, and this was embodied by characters like Pork (Oscar Polk), Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), and Mammy. They are portrayed as innocent, simple-minded souls who were content as chattel. Not only did they require the white man’s guidance and supervision, but they thrived under it.
Gone with the Wind was a smash hit and is the highest profile example of a series of Hollywood movies that chided the North for forcing the Civil War with their rabid abolitionist demands and eulogized the South for their level-headed, chivalrous way of life. Slavery is portrayed as an evil in these films, but Northerners ought to have left the South to deal with “their” problem, which would have eventually resolved itself. In other words the Civil War was an unnecessary waste only precipitated by fanatical Northern fiends who didn’t understand the complexities of Southern life. And this is further confirmed by the depiction of characters from each section. Northern characters are dirty and vicious while Southerners are honorable (see John Ford’s Prisoner of Shark Island or Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific). The only movie I can think of from this period in which Northerners are heroes is Virginia City, but even then the Southerners are not villains – they have to add Mexican bandits for everyone to fight against.
The sympathies of Hollywood rested with the South. This was most clearly articulated in the Errol Flynn/Olivia de Havilland adventure The Santa Fe Trail in 1940. The movie recounts the violence in Kansas during the tumultuous year 1854, when hordes of people from both sides of the slavery debate flooded the state to ensure their side won the coming election that would determine the legality of slavery there. The movie casts John Brown, the fervent anti-slavery guerilla fighter, as the only man standing between peace and violence, as though pro-slavery fanatics weren’t rigging elections and perpetuating their own horrors. Largely, the characters of the movie are the honorable members of a West Point class. They are mostly Southerners (including Flynn) and Northerners who might be against slavery personally but prefer to stay out of it. The villains are ardent abolitionists like Van Heflin (who specialized in playing snakes) and Raymond Massey as the monomaniacal John Brown.
The message of these movies is clear: we should do right by African Americans, but let’s not make the same mistakes we made in the 1850s. Let’s not stick our well-meaning noses into a situation only white Southerners could understand. Let’s not agitate against segregation or lynch law. It might not be ideal, but it works for them. Like slavery, any race problems will work themselves out. Let’s pay heed to the lessons of these movies and not stir up trouble when we don’t understand blacks the way white Southerners do. And we certainly don’t want to provoke another Civil War, especially as the United States hovers dangerously close to war with Japan and Germany.
At first glance Hattie McDaniel’s performance seems to confirm this loopy meta-narrative, but she is able to rescue Mammy from the script’s insidious racism. Her position in the O’Hara family is that of nurturer and protector of the children. She might derive her sense of self-worth from her position in the family she serves, but she subtly wields power within it. There’s a wonderful moment in her first scene where she is trying to get Scarlett to eat before going to a barbeque so as not to be too hungry and make a pig of herself in public. When Scarlett refuses and says Ashley Wilkes told her he likes a woman with an appetite, Mammy almost off-handedly remarks that she hasn’t noticed Ashley offering to marry her. Scarlett stops, looks back, and Mammy demurely smiles and looks away, knowing her comment cut to the bone. Scarlett desperately wants to marry Ashley (though Lord only knows why) and Mammy uses her knowledge to manipulate someone who, on paper, exerts much more power over her. (See the scene below.)
What McDaniel manages to do in this scene is show how some slaves could negotiate the limits on their freedom for whatever scraps of power they could manage. Her relationship with Scarlett is never equal, but McDaniel contributed a level of subversive power that suggested characters like Mammy were never the content simpletons Margaret Mitchell wanted us to believe slavery had shielded the country from.
McDaniel is able to show off her true range as an actress, most notably the heartbreaking scene where she describes the death of Rhett and Scarlett’s child to Melanie in that long shot that follows them up the sweeping staircase. Her pain is palpable and we forget – we suspect she does as well – that she isn’t really a part of this family. She is mourning . Her performance suggests how slavery could blur the lines between master and slave and give the illusion that they could live as though they were part of the same family. But Mammy would always be aware that she was property and no matter how close she was to them, they could sell her whenever they wanted.
Like Stepin Fetchit, Hattie McDaniel took a lot of flack for playing roles that seemed to confirm black stereotypes for white audiences, but as an actress what was she supposed to do? She is famous for saying something along the lines of she would rather play a maid for $700 a week rather than actually be a maid for $7 a week – and good for her. I’m sure she would have rather played less racially charged parts, but she took what she could and added a humanity to her characters that either the screenwriter, director, or both neglected. She thought about Mammy in her historical context and humanized her in a way that has taken several generations for people to truly appreciate. When she won the Oscar in 1939 it was probably for being a “good Negro,” but today we can look back and appreciate the nuance of what she did in Gone with the Wind and confirm that she was a fine African American actress.