Hattie McDaniel: More Than a Bit Part Player

Here is a Bit Actress who needs to be recognized on my blog.  Her accomplishments were amazing, yet she never really became more than a Bit Part player in most of her movies.

Hattie McDaniel (1892 – 1952) was born in 1892 to former slaves; her father actually fought in the Civil War in the U. S. Colored Troops.  She graduated from high school in Denver, Colorado, and was able to get some work singing on the radio and recordings.  She is considered the first African American woman to sing on the radio.  After the stock market crashed, she worked as a waitress in a club in Milwaukee, and eventually became a regular on their stage.

McDaniel started as an extra or a singer in films in the early 1930s, with stars Lew Ayers, Una Merkel, Lionel Barrymore, Hoot Gibson and Marlene Dietrich.  It has been my thought that a novice in Hollywood could learn their trade by observing the more important stars in a film, and I am sure Hattie was no exception.

In 1933 she worked with Mae West in I’m No Angel for Paramount, also starring Cary Grant.  She then scores a big role opposite Will Rogers in Fox’s Judge Priest (1934), and even sings a duet with him.

The next year she works with the biggest star in Hollywood, Shirley Temple, in The Little Colonel.  This was another chance to work with Lionel Barrymore (she made four films with Barrymore), and also with Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson.

If you have a chance to watch some of McDaniel’s films in chronological order, you can probably see her refining and enlarging her ‘Mammy’ character.  She starts out as a maid, but slowly starts getting more confident in her ability, almost to the point of becoming confrontational.  You can see the changes between her part in Alice Adams (1935) with Katharine Hepburn and The Mad Miss Manton (1938) starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda.

1935 saw her in China Seas with Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, then came 1936 and Show Boat starring Irene Dunne.  Hattie plays Queenie and gets to sing again.  Another Harlow film, Libeled Lady (1936) with William Powell and Myrna Loy, and then a major role in Saratoga (1937), again with Harlow and Gable.  A busy couple of years!

She was in Vivacious Lady (1938) with Jimmy Stewart and Ginger Rogers, and in 1939 she worked with Oliver Hardy in Zenobia, one of the later films he made without Stan Laurel due to a contract dispute.  Hattie’s roles finally settled back into less than great parts for Hattie as the years progressed.

Hattie McDaniel is best remembered as Mammy in Gone With the Wind (1939), and this may be her strongest role as a maid.  That part won her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.  She was the first African-American to win an Oscar, and the first to attend the award ceremony as a guest rather than a servant.  The next time an African-American actress would win an Academy Award was 51 years later, when Whoopi Goldberg took one home for Ghost in 1990.

After that big year, she continued to work hard, but in smaller roles.  She was in They Died with Their Boots On (1941) with Errol Flynn, and in 1942 in George Washington Slept Here with Jack Benny.  In 1946 she works for Walt Disney in Song of the South, appropriately.

She ends her acting career on TV, starring in a handful of episodes of “Beulah” in 1952, after replacing Ethel Waters in the role.  She would be replaced by Louise Beavers and soon after that she died of cancer.  She was the first African-American to be buried in Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Hattie McDaniel must have been quite a lady.  She was also active in charity work, and in bringing respect to her middle class community of Sugar Hill in Los Angeles.  Although she made quite a good salary for most of her work, she had a load of medical bills at the time of her death and left an estate of only $10,000.  Not fair for such an impressive actress.  She didn’t just open doors, she knocked down walls for future generations.

Allen Hefner has been interested in movies since an early age, attending the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, PA for every Saturday Matinee during his youth, when 50 cents bought you a two-reeler (usually The Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy), a few cartoons, and a feature film. As a member of The Sons of the Desert,he was privileged to enjoy the company of many film buffs, and to meet many stars of the past. Write to him anytime at bitactors@gmail.com and visit Bit Part Actors.