Hattie McDaniel, Magnificent Mammy

In 1940, Screen Life magazine published an article on Hattie McDaniel, called “Magnificent Mammy.” The article was in their June issue and was written by John Franchey.

To Hattie McDaniel has come the greatest honor Hollywood can offer– an Academy Award. Screen Life salutes this remarkable woman and brings you her fascinating story.

Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel, in “Gone With the Wind,” 1939

When the master of ceremonies at the annual dinner of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that the award for the best supporting role of the year 1939  was about to be presented, a hush fell over the ermine and white-tie audience.

Earlier, that evening, Vivien Leigh, surprising no one, had swept forward, dazzling and distant, to receive the gold statuette for the best starring job of the year. There had been generous applause for the English actress who, in her role of Scarlett O’Hara, had nosed out Bette Davis (Dark Victory), Greta Garbo (Ninotchka) and Greer Garson (Goodbye, Mr. Chips).

Now the air was electric, as the speaker motioned for silence. For best supporting actress, he paused, Miss Hattie McDaniel…

A cheer went up from the crowd. Then a moon-faced, colored woman, face aglow and decked out in evening gown, furs and a brace of gardenias, moved up front and center, a ponderous figure that seemed bursting with pride and humility.

Hattie McDaniel and her date, Fernando Yorba, arrive at the Oscars.

When Fay Bainter handed her the Oscar, there was another salvo. A great colored actress, the first of her race ever to attend an Academy banquet, was receiving a moving tribute for her stirring portrait of Mammy, the O’Hara major-domo, whose fierce love and loyalty to her white folks had illuminated so many hundreds of feet of Gone With the Wind.

Later, she explained how she did it. I just had a picture of what Mammy must have been, I had it deep in my heart. And that’s how I played it. Throughout some 150 pictures, Hattie McDaniel has been playing roles from deep down in her heart, all of them circumscribed by one obvious limitation, but all of them warm, alive and unforgettable.

These same 150 pictures have catapulted the ample Hattie into the undebatable distinction of being the screen’s most popular mammy, a genial monolith of a woman, whose menacing gestures, expansive grin, eloquent eyes and elastic inflections have driven off all competition, leaving her master of all she surveys, which is good for something like 18 jobs a year, from every studio operating on the gold standard.

She’s been a cinema mammy for everyone from Shirley Temple to Jean Harlow, with such way stations as Miriam Hopkins and Irene Dunne. Will Rogers liked nothing more than to find her cast in his pictures. Only trouble with Hattie, he used to say, is that she shows me up like a plugged nickel.  She’s a born actress.

If Hattie McDaniel is a born actress, there was no sign from on high when she arrived, no thunder, no lightning. Her grandmother could easily  have been the prototype for the Mammy she, herself, was later to create for the Margaret Mitchell picture.

She, herself, was cradled in Wichita, Kansas, the daughter of a Baptist preacher, who had left his native Richmond, to trek westward with his huge brood to the Kansas plains where Hattie, the 13th offspring was born shortly after journey’s end.

McDaniel pere weighed Wichita and found it wanting. Perhaps he hadn’t gone far enough West, he began to suspect. Finally, he decided to move on to Denver. Hattie was only two when she crossed the Rockies. Denver was more to the parson’s liking.

Here the Rev. McDaniel, devout and industrious, set about to build him a church, gather unto himself a flock. It was slow work. But joyous, too. Mrs. McDaniel, blessed with a golden soprano, rich and round, enlivened the sermons with solos, spirituals and even the Bach cantatas.

The fruits of the Rev. McDaniel’s labors were not so numerous as sweet.  The children were growing up, one by one, and striking out for themselves.

In a brood of 13, Hattie, the youngest, found  herself anything but the center of attention at home. But, at school, right from the start, things were different. She astounded teachers and scholars alike. As far back as the third grade, she was always answering questions like How do you spell monster? with a learned (and windy) explanation of a moot point in the Bible. If she didn’t know the answer to 7×7, then she did know the prophets, major and minor, the disciples and even the complete Sermon on the Mount, with the first four Psalms thrown in. For which, of course, she was indebted to her father. 

As time went on, Hattie learned to harness this talent for balancing the class on her head. Long before she finished grammar school, she had annexed the post of the academy’s most popular girl. No school play, pageant or sing-song was ever reeled off without Hattie doing her bit.

A critic on the Denver Post called her the most interesting one-man theatre the colored race had ever produced in Denver.

All this praise was fine, but life wasn’t all footlights and applause for young Hattie. Hardly turned 15 and she began looking around for a way to augment her father’s meager income. She could find nothing more spectacular than being a mother’s helper. So, she snapped it up.

Mostly, I used to wash dishes, wash clothes, cook the dinner and then mind the baby when the white folks went off after dinner, Hattie recollects nowadays. And far from being wistful about this phase of her youth, she looks back upon it with pleasure. It taught me much. Later on in my career when times got slack, I was glad to fall back on what I had learned as a mother’s helper and all-around servant.

For two years, she managed to hold down her job and attend high school. These were the fatal years. During sophomore year she did such astonishing things in the school auditoriums and Sunday School Epworth Leagues around town that the White Women’s Christian Temperance Union awarded her a gold medal in dramatic art. The immediate cause was a recital of a non-Shakespearean bit of literature called Convict Joe. She had the good ladies weeping.

That settled it. If she could do it for pleasure, then she could do it for pay. She decided suddenly, so suddenly that it left the Rev. McDaniel flabbergasted, that she was going to part company with her high school education and become an entertainer.

How she bucked the terrific odds that stood in the way of her land of heart’s desire is a melody of C-sharp minor that takes too long to tell. Stymied by youth, lack of money, absence of professional training and inexperience she managed to get a hearing before Professor George Morrison, leader of a big-time colored orchestra that toured the West as far as San Francisco. He was taken by her personality, her laughter and her voice that caught at your throat. He hired her.

She was an overnight hit with the Professor and his boys. She got more publicity than the whole shebang put together, including the Professor who was no mean figure, himself. Thanks to Morrison, she became the first colored girl ever to sing over the air.

Denver and points West became too confining for Hattie, so she struck out for herself, determined to make a name as a solo entertainer.

Hattie McDaniel poses with her Best Supporting Actress Oscar, which were plaques at the time.

First off, she negotiated a deal which put her on the important Shrine and Elks circuits which toured the South palying for the hundreds of lodges and the millions of brothers. She was such a big noise that she was lured over to the Pantages Circuit. For two years, she was a headliner on the Pantages Circuit. Back in Denver, Professor Morrison reading of her brilliant barnstorming junket wrote and urged her to try vaudeville. She did.

Her debut as a vaudeville performer was launched in Kansas City in 1927. She was the entire act (as though it needed more!).

She wrote the act, herself, wrote the music and sang her four compositions: Brown-Skinned Baby Doll, Just One Sorrowing Heart, Boo-Hoo Blues and Quittin’ Mah Man. It was Quittin’ Mah Man that became the talk of the town. Kansas City hailed her in print as the colored Sophie Tucker and the female Bert Williams. A record company, tipped off by a scout, invited her to make recordings of her songs.

She was riding high when the years of the locust came upon her, a dismal period that exhausted all the cash reserves she had stored up. She was broke when she piled out of a bus in MIlwaukee, looked the town over and started casting out lines. Not a single nibble. At least, not in show business. Things began to look desperate indeed when someone had the gall to offer her a job as a maid in the ladies room of Sam Pick’s Suburban Inn. Like a good trouper, she took it.

It won’t be for long, Hattie, she told herself with prophetic insight. And she was right.

The second week she was there, the manager rounded up his help a little after midnight and broke the news: all his entertainers were sick or out of pocket. Was there any amateur talent lurking around in the persons of the doormen, waiters, bus boys, ladies room hostesses and what have you?

It was Hattie’s cue. She pushed her way through the men folk up front and served notice on the manager that she could sing.

Hop to it, he said.

Three minutes later the band struck up St. Louis Blues and Hattie McDaniel turned on her contralto. When she did some improvising around with the bars, St. Loo-wee woo-man, with yo dye-man ri-ing, the house cut loose with impromptu yippees. She sang for forty minutes.

When she walked off the floor, weeping with joy, she never went back to her menial chores. Far from it, the manager hired her on the spot to be the master of ceremonies for the Inn. A fortnight later he sent her to Chicago to round up talent for an all-colored revue which she dreamed up and broached to the boss.

For two years, she stayed on. leaving finally when the place changed hands. I guess I was aching for a change of climate, she you today. Two years in one place is a powerful long time.

An interlude of wandering about the country and she ended up in Hollywood long on hope and short on friends. The former she found slipping away from her gradually while the latter kept mounting. Wherever she went she was a geyser of energy, a solar system of energy and a limitless lode of good humor.

She was the toughest woman to say No to I’ve ever run into, a Warner Bros. casting man was to say later on. You thought you were hard until you had to shake your head at this friendly creature and tell her you had no parts- which was the truth.

Undaunted, she kept toting her press book around with her and opening it up at the drop of a Go ahead; let’s see it. Finally, she managed to get an extra job or two. Her spirits were restored. Jubilant, she offered herself out as cook around Hollywood to keep her going until the break came. And she turned her relative talents into making the best chicken and dumplings Hollywood had ever seen.

On off days she cruised around the studios. When she wasn’t doing this, she was haunting the broadcasting stations. And when she was doing neither one, she was writing, of all things, a scenario to sell to the films.

Her first important part came, thanks to Lew Ayres, from whom she almost stole the picture- or so he says, with typical modesty. After that it was a cinch. There followed roles in such films as The Blond Venus, Judge Priest, The Little Colonel, China Seas and Showboat.

The work kept coming.

She snagged good parts in Nothing Sacred and went to town. She romped through The Bride Walks Out. Then they gave her a well-tailored part in The Mad MIss Manton.

Then, as it always happened in fiction and films, she was drenched in good fortune. An advertising agency offered her an important spot on a doughnut radio show as Hi-Hat Hattie. When it died a-panting, she moved into an ether version of Showboat. From here she could see land of heart’s desire. Studios began to plead for her services. She had finally arrived.

Forty-two (come June 10) and easily Hollywood’s most shining colored citizen, Hattie McDaniel still clings to the same life pattern of simplicity, hard work, good sense and relaxation at home.

Already paying a handsome income tax, she not only cooks at home, but does the washing, including the unwieldy sheets. When she isn’t doing a picture, she even does the house work, lumbering about in a house-dress, moaning her own Boo-Hoo Blues or whooping it up with Quittin’ Mah Man.

Following the winning of the Academy Award, the studio photographer made a call on Hattie to get some publicity pictures. He found her presiding over a washing machine. It looked like a natural and so he snapped her in action. A few days later an excited manufacturer noticed the picture in the paper and especially his washing machine. He called Hattie up from New York and asked if he could use the picture for advertising purposes. While she was debating it in her mind, he broke out with an offer to send her immediately the best model his company makes as a gift. With such persuasion, Hattie capitulated like a daisy chain. Actually, she could have made a deal for five times as much as the machine was worth. And in cash. But anything to do with the home takes Hattie out of this world.

Magnificent mammy that she is on the screen, the strange truth about Hattie McDaniel is this: she’s been married twice but has no children of her own. Strictly speaking, that is.

But in practice, it’s a different story. She looks out for her sisters’ kids, her brothers’ offspring and the progeny of assorted kinsmen ranging down to fourth cousin. Small wonder that her screen portrayals of aggressive motherliness, fierce affection, boundless loyalty and unquestioning faith and kindness never ring hollow. She lives her roles offscreen.

The Academy Award was wonderful and all that, but nothing in her life ever touched the occasion of her visit to Denver, where she is such a lion that they handed the city over to her. They had to call out the colored fire department and the white police to hold back the crowds that turned out to glimpse Hattie.

If she likes you enough to tell you about it, then you’re apt to discover tears rolling down that moon face of hers when she’s finished.

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