Wednesday 29 February 2012

I'd Rather Play a Maid than Be a Maid

Dressed in a beautiful gown, her hair trimmed with gardenias, her face beaming, Hattie McDaniel arrived at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel on February 29, 1940 for the Twelfth Academy Awards.  That night she would make history by becoming the first black actress to receive an Oscar for a supporting role in the film "Gone with the Wind".  Ironically, she and her guest sat at a table for two, separated from the other guests due to their skin colour.  Nonetheless, Miss McDaniel was thrilled to be given the role and the award stating that she "would rather play a maid than be a maid".

Born in Kansas in 1895 to a Civil War veteran father and a gospel singer mother,  Hattie and her family moved to Colorado when she was young.  She attended elementary and high school there, but then left school to hone her skills as a singer, songwriter, actress and comedienne.  Hattie was the first black woman to sing on American Radio.  She and her brother participated in a minstrel show in the 1920's.  Hattie then moved to Hollywood  where she found work on The Optimistic Do-Nut Hour on radio.

Her film debut in "The Golden West" took place in 1932.  Starring in almost 40 films in the 1930's, Hattie almost always played a maid or a cook.  The N.A.A.C.P. criticized her for perpetuating black stereotypes even down to the "Negro dialect" that she used when she delivered her lines.  However, to her credit, Hattie usually turned these maids into "sassy, independent" characters. 

In 1939, the role of the lifetime presented itself to her when she auditioned for Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind".  Although the competition was almost as stiff for the "Mammy" (a former slave turned maid) role as for the "Scarlet O'Hara" (Southern debutante) role, Hattie still aced the audition, arriving in a proper maid's uniform and delivering flawless lines.  Everyone remembers the famous scene, now depicted on collective plates, of Mammy tightening Scarlet's girdle as the latter holds on to the bedpost.  Gone with the wind is the highest grossing movie of all time and won Oscars for best picture, director, screenplay, cinematography, art direction, film editing and best actress, among others.   

Hattie went on to make many other movies, but it was impossible to top "Gone with the Wind".  She remained friends with Clark Gable, who had played "Rhett Butler", and he attended parties at her house every year.  Although she was married four times, each union was shortlived and childless.  She passed away of breast cancer in 1952. 

Note:  I found an excellent poem on the Internet by poet Rita Dove.


late, in aqua and ermine, gardenias
scaling her left sleeve in a spasm of scent,
her gloves white, her smile chastened, purse giddy
with stars and rhinestones clipped to her brilliantined hair,
on her free arm that fine Negro,
Mr. Wonderful Smith.

It's the day that isn't, February 29th,
at the end of the shortest month of the year—
and the [dullest] too, everywhere
except Hollywood, California
where the maid can wear mink and still be a maid,
bobbing her bandaged head and cursing
the white folks under her breath as she smiles
and shoos their silly daughters
in from the night dew…what can she be
thinking of, striding into the ballroom
where no black face has ever showed itself
except above a serving tray?

Hi-Hat Hattie, Mama Mac, Her Haughtiness,
The "little lady" from Showboat whose name
Bing forgot, Beulah & Bertha & Malena
& Carrie & Violet & Cynthia & Fidelia,
one half of the dark Barrymores—
dear Mammy, we can't help but hug you crawl into
your generous lap tease you
with such arch innuendo so we can feel that
much more wicked and youthful
and sleek but oh what

we forgot: the four husbands, the phantom
pregnancy, your famous parties, your celebrated
ice box cake. Your giggle above the red petticoat's rustle,
black girl and white girl walking hand in hand
down the railroad tracks
in Kansas city, six years old.
The man who advised you, now
that you were famous to 'begin eliminating"
your more common acquaintances
and your reply (catching him square
in the eye): "That's a good idea.
I'll start right now by eliminating you."
Is she or isn't she? Three million dishes,
a truckload of aprons and headrags later, and here
you are: poised, between husbands
and factions, no corset wide enough
to hold you in, your huge face a dark moon split
by that spontaneous smile – your trademark,
your curse. Not matter, Hattie: It's a long, beautiful walk
into that flower-smothered standing ovation,
so go on
and make them wait. 

Rita Dove

*First published in the New Yorker magazine on May 10, 2004.

Photo of Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in "Gone with the Wind" courtesy


  1. Great subject, especially in light of the recent silliness surrounding the movie The Help!!

  2. Kudos to Hattie, she and others like her paved the way for all blacks in Hollywood.