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Best Actress in a Supporting Role Academy Award for Gone with the Wind (1939)
Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to be nominated for and win an Oscar.
Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one. ~ Hattie McDaniel
Hattie McDaniel: Learn more about her, review her filmography and more
Hattie McDaniel was born to former slaves on June 10, 1895, in Wichita, Kansas. She was the youngest of 13 children. In 1900, the family moved to Colorado, living first in Fort Collins and then in Denver, where Hattie graduated from Denver East High School.
At age 15, McDaniel married Howard Hickman on January 19, 1911, in Denver, Colorado. He died in 1915.
McDaniel was a songwriter as well as a performer. She honed her songwriting skills while working with her brother’s minstrel show. After the death of her brother Otis in 1916, the troupe began to lose money, and Hattie did not get her next big break until 1920. From 1920 to 1925, she appeared with Professor George Morrison’s Melody Hounds, a black touring ensemble. In the mid-1920s, she embarked on a radio career, singing with the Melody Hounds on station KOA in Denver.
Her second husband, George Langford, died of a gunshot wound in January 1925, soon after she married him and while her career was on the rise.
From 1926 to 1929, she recorded many of her songs for Okeh Records and Paramount Records in Chicago. McDaniel recorded seven sessions: one in the summer of 1926 on the rare Kansas City label Meritt; four sessions in Chicago for Okeh from late 1926 to late 1927 (of the ten sides recorded, only four were issued), and two sessions in Chicago for Paramount in March 1929.
After the stock market crashed in 1929, McDaniel could find work only as a washroom attendant and waitress at Club Madrid in Milwaukee. Despite the owner’s reluctance to let her perform, she was eventually allowed to take the stage and soon became a regular performer.
In 1931, McDaniel moved to Los Angeles to join her brother Sam and her sisters Etta and Orlena. When she could not get film work, she took jobs as a maid or cook. Sam was working on a KNX radio program, The Optimistic Do-Nut Hour, and was able to get his sister a spot. She performed on radio as “Hi-Hat Hattie”, a bossy maid who often “forgets her place”. Her show became popular, but her salary was so low that she had to continue working as a maid.
She made her first film appearance in The Golden West (1932), in which she played a maid. Her second appearance came in the highly successful Mae West film I’m No Angel (1933), in which she played one of the black maids with whom West camped it up backstage. She received several other uncredited film roles in the early 1930s, often singing in choruses.
In 1934, McDaniel joined the Screen Actors Guild. She began to attract attention and landed larger film roles, which began to win her screen credits. Fox Film Corporation put her under contract to appear in The Little Colonel (1935), with Shirley Temple, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Lionel Barrymore.
Judge Priest (1934), directed by John Ford and starring Will Rogers, was the first film in which she played a major role. She had a leading part in the film and demonstrated her singing talent, including a duet with Rogers. McDaniel and Rogers became friends during filming.
In 1935, McDaniel had prominent roles, as a slovenly maid in Alice Adams (RKO Pictures); a comic part as Jean Harlow‘s maid and traveling companion in China Seas (MGM) (McDaniels’s first film with Clark Gable); and as the maid Isabella in Murder by Television, with Béla Lugosi. She appeared in the 1938 film Vivacious Lady, starring James Stewart and Ginger Rogers.
McDaniel had a featured role as Queenie in the 1936 film Show Boat (Universal Pictures), starring Allan Jones and Irene Dunne, in which she sang a verse of Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man with Dunne, Helen Morgan, Paul Robeson, and a black chorus. She and Robeson sang “I Still Suits Me”, written for the film by Kern and Hammerstein.
After Show Boat, she had major roles in MGM’s Saratoga (1937), starring Jean Harlow and Clark Gable; The Shopworn Angel (1938), with Margaret Sullavan; and The Mad Miss Manton (1938), starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. She had a minor role in the Carole Lombard–Frederic March film Nothing Sacred (1937), in which she played the wife of a shoeshine man (Troy Brown) masquerading as a sultan.
McDaniel was a friend of many of Hollywood’s most popular stars, including Joan Crawford, Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, Shirley Temple, Henry Fonda, Ronald Reagan, Olivia de Havilland, and Clark Gable. She starred with de Havilland and Gable in Gone with the Wind (1939).
Around this time, she was criticized by members of the black community for the roles she accepted and for pursuing roles aggressively. For example, in The Little Colonel (1935), she played one of the black servants longing to return to the Old South, but her portrayal of Malena in RKO Pictures’s Alice Adams angered white Southern audiences, because she stole several scenes from the film’s star, Katharine Hepburn. McDaniel ultimately became best known for playing a sassy and opinionated maid.
The competition to win the part of Mammy in Gone with the Wind was almost as fierce as that for Scarlett O’Hara. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to film producer David O. Selznick to ask that her own maid, Elizabeth McDuffie, be given the part. McDaniel did not think she would be chosen because she had earned her reputation as a comic actress. One source claimed that Clark Gable recommended that the role be given to McDaniel; in any case, she went to her audition dressed in an authentic maid’s uniform and won the part.
Upon hearing of the planned film adaptation, the NAACP fought hard to require the film’s producer and director to delete racial epithets from the movie and to alter scenes that might be incendiary and that, in their view, were historically inaccurate. Of particular concern was a scene from the novel in which black men attack Scarlett O’Hara, after which the Ku Klux Klan, with its long history of provoking terror on black communities, is presented as a savior. Throughout the South, black men were being lynched based upon false allegations they had harmed white women. That attack scene was altered, and some offensive language was modified but the film’s message with respect to slavery remained essentially the same.
Loew’s Grand Theater on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia was selected by the studio as the site for the Friday, December 15, 1939 premiere of Gone with the Wind. Studio head David Selznick asked that McDaniel be permitted to attend, but MGM advised him not to, because of Georgia’s segregation laws. Clark Gable threatened to boycott the Atlanta premiere unless McDaniel was allowed to attend, but McDaniel convinced him to attend anyway.
While Jim Crow laws kept McDaniel from the Atlanta premiere, she did attend the film’s Hollywood debut on December 28, 1939. Upon Selznick’s insistence, her picture was also featured prominently in the program.
For her performance as the house slave who repeatedly scolds her owner’s daughter, Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), and scoffs at Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), McDaniel won the 1939 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, the first black American to be nominated for and win an Oscar.
While many blacks were happy over McDaniel’s personal victory, they also viewed it as bittersweet. They believed Gone With the Wind celebrated the slave system and condemned the forces that destroyed it. For them, the unique accolade McDaniel had won suggested that only those who did not protest Hollywood’s systemic use of racial stereotypes could find work and success there.
She married James Lloyd Crawford, a real estate salesman, on March 21, 1941, in Tucson, Arizona. She divorced Crawford in 1945. Crawford had been jealous of her career success and once threatened to kill her.
In the 1942 Warner Bros. film In This Our Life, starring Bette Davis and directed by John Huston, McDaniel once again played a domestic, but one who confronts racial issues when her son, a law student, is wrongly accused of manslaughter.
McDaniel continued to play maids during the war years, in Warner Bros’ The Male Animal (1942) and United Artists’ Since You Went Away (1944), but her feistiness was toned down to reflect the era’s somber news.
She married Larry Williams, an interior decorator, on June 11, 1949, in Yuma, Arizona, but divorced him in 1950 after testifying that their five months together had been marred by “arguing and fussing.” McDaniel broke down in tears when she testified that her husband tried to provoke dissension in the cast of her radio show and otherwise interfered with her work.
She made her last film appearances in Mickey (1948) and Family Honeymoon (1949). She remained active on radio and television in her final years, becoming the first black American to star in her own radio show with the comedy series Beulah. She also starred in the ABC television version of the show, replacing Ethel Waters after the first season.
Beulah was a hit and earned McDaniel $2,000 a week but the show was controversial. In 1951, the United States Army ceased broadcasting Beulah in Asia because troops complained that the show perpetuated negative stereotypes of black men as shiftless and lazy and interfered with the ability of black troops to perform their mission. After filming a handful of episodes, however, McDaniel learned she had breast cancer. By the spring of 1952, she was too ill to work and was replaced by Louise Beavers.
McDaniel died of breast cancer at age 57 on October 26, 1952, in the hospital on the grounds of the Motion Picture House in Woodland Hills, California. She never had any children.