Hattie McDaniel (Gone with the Wind) – Best Supporting Actress of 1939

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)

Hattie McDaniel as Mammy

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.

Mammy coyly exerts power over Scarlett

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.



Filed under 1939, Yearly Best Performances

14 responses to “Hattie McDaniel (Gone with the Wind) – Best Supporting Actress of 1939

  1. I hadn’t seen those screen tests — thank you for sharing!

    Hattie McDaniel did a marvelous job in a difficult role. Even in today’s considerably more nuanced roles, actors of color (and I would include actors playing gay characters here, too) still have to think about stereotypes and messages when they do their work — and, like McDaniel, they often have to take work where they can get it. I can see why she was criticized for the roles she chose, but actors do their best with what they have. To really fight narrow representations of minority groups, we need more diverse storytelling, directing, etc — more voices in authorial positions. If you haven’t seen Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk on “The Danger of the Single Story,” it speaks directly to this and is brilliant.

    • To really fight narrow representations of minority groups, we need more diverse storytelling, directing, etc — more voices in authorial positions.
      I absolutely agree with this. Back when Hattie McDaniel played this part, images of African Americans were controlled by the studios, so it isn’t surprising that even a well intentioned producer like Selznick would celebrate the stereotype of the childlike black man and woman. Since the 1960s literature, theater, and film have given us more complete representations of the African American experience so I think it is important to look back and appreciate the work of once reviled actors like McDaniel and Stepin Fetchit (who was genuinely funny if we can get past the racial implications of his roles). We can celebrate their work without accepting the stereotypes.

      Of course I say this as a white man, but as a gay man I do understand how the “single story” can slant society’s perception of a group. When I was growing up, there were only a few movie depictions of gays in movies. They were always mincing fairies (Johnny in “Airplane”) or sociopathic deviants (like in the truly hateful “Cruising”). It wasn’t until AIDS forced people like Rock Hudson out and compelled filmmakers to humanize homosexuals that these representations became more complex. At the time those movies were hurtful and humiliating; now we can look back at them with a certain nostalgic fondness. The Cinefamily did a Queersplotation film festive a couple of years ago and it was liberating watching movies that would have made me cringe as a teenager in an audience howling with laughter at the archaic representations on screen.

      Thank you for the link to Adichie’s talk. I loved it and appreciated her personal take on this issue. This is a problem we have in this country with both Mexican immigrants (which she talks about) and Muslims. They are getting single story treatment in the media, much as African Americans did under the studio system and gays did until fairly recently. I especially appreciated her comment that single stories perpetuate stereotypes that are “not untrue, but incomplete.” I suspect that there were Mammy’s and Prissy’s under the slave system, just as there were Harriet Tubmans and Fredrick Douglasses.

      • I’m so glad you got the chance to watch Adichie. That talk inspires me constantly, and I like to go back and rewatch it whenever I have time! The stereotype comment you mentioned is one of my favorite points in the talk, too.

        It’s good to hear your experience with gay depictions in film, too. I know nothing about this, because I haven’t seen enough films to really get any kind of sense of how gays have been shown on screen. But I love that Cinefamily did a Queersploitation event!

        • It was such a fun series, especially the truly cheesy prison movies like Caged Men and Fortune and Men’s Eyes. I think Jackie made it out to one of the nights with me.

  2. It’s been a long while since I saw ‘Gone With the Wind’ and to be honest what has mainly stuck in my mind now are the set-piece scenes like the burning of Atlanta, but I do remember that both Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen are good in their roles despite being limited in what they can do by the stereotyping of the characters. McDaniel is also very good in John Huston’s ‘In this Our Life’ (1942), as the mother of a young man (Ernest Anderson) on the first steps of training as a lawyer, who is framed for causing a fatal accident. Sadly the whole African-American story in that film was cut out when it was shown in the South.

    I enjoyed the talk by Adichie and am now keen to read one of her books. The “single story” problem here, and your discussion in the comments, reminded me of an interview I read a while back by film director Pratibha Parmar about the problems she had in getting funding for her feature film ‘Nina’s Heavenly Delights’ because it was a Scottish Asian lesbian romantic comedy, and so it didn’t fit neatly into any category.
    She commented: ““People say ‘We just had Bend it like Beckham a couple of years ago so we don’t need another Asian film’. It’s like a bus, we’re only allowed to come along every now and then.”
    The link is http://www.eyeforfilm.co.uk/feature.php?id=291

    • McDaniel was always good and it’s a shame she wasn’t able to really show off what she could do. I remember her in In This Our Life and I’m sure she will appear somewhere on the list. The way scenes with black actors were cut down or out from Southern theaters would be silly if it wasn’t so tragic. I remember sitting through the truly tedious Down Argentine Way with Don Ameche and Betty Grable and the only scene that got me to perk up was the great dance sequence by the Nicholas Brothers. When I heard that scene had been cut from Southern releases I just shook my head — it was the only scene worth watching in the entire movie!

      I agree with you about the Adichie talk Lisa posted. The quote by Parmar is stunning and sad, as though Bend It Like Beckham can embody all the stories and experiences of Asians in the UK. Movie studios, both here and in the UK, tend to be very conservative. They’re risking large amounts of money and want to play it safe with proven properties. When movies like Bend It Like Beckham or Slumdog Millionaire are successful they explain it away as an anomaly because if they acknowledge there is a large audience for movies like this then they have to admit their approach is wrong and would have to rethink their strategy. Their myopic strategy limits diversity and that is bad for all of us.

  3. PS, on another tack – as ever, I haven’t seen all the supporting actresses you mention here, Jason, but I particularly like Gladys George in ‘The Roaring Twenties’ and Claire Trevor in ‘Stagecoach’ – both films I was rather hoping you would mention in the top ten, though I know it was a year with a lot of competitition!

    • Stagecoach ended up pretty close, but like you said it was a good year. I think it would be somewhere around number 12 or 13 on an expanded list. I also like The Roaring Twenties but I don’t think it would end up in my top 20. It’s a good solid movie though.

  4. Yes Jason, McDaniel is the best supporting actress of 1939; it’s one instance where I completely concur, although there have been others when we came very close. This is one of Oscar’s best moments and by any barometer of measurement it’s one of the cinema’s greatest turns in any acting category. This commanding personality may be a stereotype for some, but her emotionally resonant full-bodied performance is the heart of the film, even more than the goody two shoes turn of Olivia de Havilland, who is still superb herself. This is truly one of your great essays here; you really bring in the facets of her greatness. I know though that overall you like GWTW less than I do, so I’ll hold further discussion on that front till later.

    Your runner-up choices are great too, and I’d have nearly every one of yours there (one is always tempted to go with Margaret Hamilton as tops of course) and I’ll add these:

    Bette Field, OF MICE AND MEN (Allan Fish’s #1 choice of this year)
    Paulette Dubost LE REGLE DU JEU
    Greer Garson GOODBYE MR. CHIPS
    Gale Sondergaard THE CAT AND THE CANARY
    Margaret Lockwood THE STARS LOOK DOWN
    Barbara O’Neill, WHEN TOMORROW COMES
    Ona Munson, GONE WITH THE WIND
    Mary Astor, MIDNIGHT

    God, your entire presentation here Jason is fabulous!

    • Thank you for this great response! I am glad you enjoyed my essay and you agree with the choice. I know McDaniel’s work is still considered controversial in some circles, but I don’t think we should condemn her because her choices were limited.

      As for the list you left me, I agree that all are good performances (though I haven’t seen Barbara O’Neill in “When Tomorrow Comes”), but none of them really stood out for me. I always think back on the movies I watched and only those that left a strong impression on me are included. Surprisingly Bette Field did not stand out for me, even though a couple of other performances in that movie did. And I included Greer Garson with the lead actresses, though I know her role is small compared to Robert Donat.

      But thanks again, Sam!

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  6. Luke

    The book version, I felt did embody this subversive tone. Remember: the book was written in the South and under Jim Crow law (which was actually enforced law). The author made donations to a Southern black college with some of her profits from the novel. The KKK is not glorified in Gone with the Wind, it is described as a by product of Northern martial law. The KKK does not rescue Scarlett from being raped, a freed slave that knew her does. The same freed slave who was singing “Go Down Moses” during the final battle for Atlanta. The battle that set him free. He was marching with “Postle, Prophet, and Lige”. Scarlett meets them in the street and offers her home and aid to them if they need refuge and gives them some of Rhett’s money. This small gesture of kindness is rewarded when Sam saves Scarlett’s life. It’s also no accident that three of the slaves marching were named with prophetic names. The war was ending, and the Negro was going to go free by the will of God.

    Mammy often outsmarts people in the book and uses her servitude to undermine those around her. She doesn’t pick in fields, “runs the house”, and bosses Scarlett around. She even snubs poor Southerners. Uncle Peter is clearly “man of the house”, even if social laws did not permit it to be so on paper. Pork and Dicely are married. Dicely stays with Scarlett because Scarlett ensured Prissy and Dicely stayed together, and not sold apart during slavery. The 2nd half of the book and movie, Prissy, Pork, Dicely, Mammy, Uncle Peter and Big Sam are as free as any other former slave to up and leave to Ohio or New York. They stayed and worked for the white families they knew, because when Scarlett was away in Atlanta sending checks back to Tara, I’m pretty sure they got what they wanted, black and white alike, “fried chicken everyday”.

    Politically correct? no. Sensitive? Not at all. A love letter to the South? not that either. It’s a story about a selfish woman who used people to do what she had to, keep Tara safe from harm, feed the Negros, feed the whining sisters. She used many men in the process and is “punished” for doing so. She’s the ultimate American anti hero. Just an amazing book to read.

    • Thank you Luke for this thoughtful comment. Though I haven’t read the book in many years I’m not sure I agree with you that it isn’t a love letter to the South or that it doesn’t glorify the KKK. David Selznick tried hard to tone down the racism of the book to avoid a “Birth of the Nation”-style controversy. And even with his efforts we still get embarrassing racial depictions and skewed historical renderings of Reconstruction. You say Margaret Mitchell didn’t glorify the KKK but “it is described as a by product of Northern martial law.” That is the standard line of Confederate apologists and I’m not sure why that would preclude glorification. White Southerners established the KKK to intimidate and terrorize a newly freed black population. That white Southerners from later years like Margaret Mitchell and D.W. Griffith admired their efforts to protect them (especially white women) is a stunningly racist and myopic view of history.

      Some of the examples you give of the book’s racial balance read, to me, like examples of Mitchell’s paternalistic racism. To Mitchell, blacks are inherently childlike and need to guidance of racially superior whites. She might decry unnecessary cruelty of some Simon Legree-esque slave-owners, but that doesn’t mean she thought they were equal to her. You say the slaves stayed at Tara instead of going North and that is evidence of racial amity, but with what money were they supposed to leave? And where would they have gone? Of course they stayed. In the worldview of people like Margaret Mitchell, ex-slaves stayed because of loyalty to their masters and this, for them, is evidence that blacks couldn’t make it on their own. Northern politicians were, then, misguided in their fanatical attempts to put blacks on equal footing with whites. These sorts of distortions are what happens when we don’t include different perspectives in our history, like newly freed black slaves.

      Now I’m not saying one shouldn’t enjoy the book or the movie because of these things, but we need to be aware of them. For a better, more balanced view of Reconstruction years read W.E.B. Dubois’ “Black Reconstruction in America,” Eric Foner’s “Reconstruction,” and Leon Litwak’s “Been in the Storm So Long.” They correct some of these distortions and give us a more complete picture of some of these issues.

  7. luke

    I was trying to say gwtw, film and book, was written in a time where the KKK was an actual political party. How advanced could it be? It could be much worse. Its not birth of a nation. Gwtw is subversive in that its a book about survival. Not morals.

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