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Hattie McDaniel: Oscar Winner Made History

Hattie McDaniel OscarHattie McDaniel: Oscar winner on TCM tonight

One of the best and, despite nearly 100 film appearances, most poorly utilized actresses of the studio era was Hattie McDaniel, Turner Classic Movies' “Summer Under the Stars” featured player today, August 20, 2013. Right now, TCM is showing Gone with the Wind (1939), the movie that earned McDaniel – as Scarlett O'Hara's Mammy – the year's history-making Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. She was the first black performer to take home an Oscar; in her (reportedly) studio-prepared Oscar acceptance speech, McDaniel hoped to “always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.” And in my view, she remains among the most well-deserved winners, regardless of skin color. (See also: “Hattie McDaniel Oscar Speech.”) (Image: Hattie McDaniel ca. 1930s.)

Hattie McDaniel movies: 'Show Boat,' 'Alice Adams'

Two other movies showcasing Hattie McDaniel's talents will follow Gone with the Wind: Show Boat and Alice Adams. Although best known as a director of atmospheric horror movies, e.g., Frankenstein and The Old Dark House, James Whale also ventured into other genres. His Show Boat (1936) is one of the better, most elaborate musicals of the '30s; Irene Dunne is excellent (if more than a little too old) as Magnolia, but it's Hattie McDaniel who steals the show whenever she's on screen. (See also: “On TCM: Hattie McDaniel: Mammy in 'Gone with the Wind.'”)

McDaniel is equally excellent in George Stevens' small-town romantic drama Alice Adams (1935), starring Katharine Hepburn at her very best in the title role. As the maid Malena Burns, McDaniel's scene-stealing takes place during a hilarious “fancy” dinner, during which the lower-middle-class Hepburn tries to impress her prospective beau, the wealthy playboy Fred MacMurray. In fact, Alice Adams' dinner scene is a masterpiece of acting, directing, screenwriting, and editing. The film's screenplay, from a novel by Booth Tarkington, was credited to Dorothy Yost, Mortimer Offner, and Jane Murfin; editing by Jane Loring.

'In This Our Life': Black characters with lives of their own

TCM will be wrapping up Hattie McDaniel Day with the John Huston-directed 1942 Warner Bros. melodrama In This Our Life, starring Bette Davis as a – are you ready? – total basket case and Olivia de Havilland as her sane sister. Much like Sam Wood's more prestigious Kings Row that same year, In This Our Life, adapted by Howard Koch from Ellen Glasgow's novel, attempted to show that there was nothing Andy Hardy-ish about small-town American life, what with racism, borderline incest, social injustice, dysfunctional families, assorted personal psychoses, and sisters with men's names (Stanley? Roy? WTF?).

Bette Davis didn't like In This Our Life. Even so, both she and the movie are actually better – in a bad way (I think that would make sense to Mae West) – than one would be led to believe. Huston's film, in fact, is notable as one of the relatively few major Hollywood productions of that era to present black characters, including Hattie McDaniel and Eddie Anderson, as people instead of caricatures. Not only that, but those are people with personal and professional lives of their own; they're not mere satellites to the white characters. That alone makes In This Our Life a must-see.

Note: Initially, I'd suggested that In This Our Life viewers keep an eye out for several cast members from John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941), among them Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre, who, according to various sources, can be spotted in a roadhouse scene. Now, I've watched In This Our Life twice without being able to catch a glimpse of the Maltese Falcon actors. I've always thought it was my fault for not paying enough attention, but apparently I didn't spot them because they're not there. See comment below. Huston's father, however, the future Oscar winner Walter Huston, does have a Certified Cameo in In This Our Life, as the barkeeper.

Hattie McDaniel: A Credit to Her Race

As for Hattie McDaniel, whether or not her roles satisfied the politically correct demands of her era – or of the current era, for that matter – her warmth, pathos, and humor are more than enough to ensure that she bears the stamp of Major Credit to Her Race. The human race, that is.

[“Hattie McDaniel: Oscar Winner Made History” continues on the next page. See link below.]


         
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2 Comments to Hattie McDaniel: Oscar Winner Made History

  1. Andre

    @Cheryl,

    Thanks for the correction. I've seen “In This Our Life” twice. Both times I was unable to spot the “Maltese Falcon” crowd. It's been a while, but I thought *I* was the problem.

    I'll amend the text right away.

    Thanks again.

  2. Hi! Great write-up on Hattie McDaniel. Not only do I enjoy her in her Oscar-winning role in Gone With the Wind, but I also like In This Our Life very much, and the way the two main black characters are written, with son Perry wanting to become a lawyer and given the opportunity to work in George Brent's law office.

    But I must mention an error in your In This Our Life section. The Maltese Falcon cast members of Bogart, Astor, Lorre, and Greenstreet did not appear in the “roadhouse” sequence. They're not in the movie at all. This is an error that got started back in the days before the internet, in a book called The Films of Bette Davis, and from there, it was repeated from book to book, and then website to website.

    On our Peter Lorre site, for the Lorre biography The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre by my friend Stephen D. Youngkin, we dealt with this rumor by posting a couple photos of the “Roadhouse” sequence. Please take a look and you'll see the only Falcon actor in the scene is Walter Huston:

    http://www.peterlorrebook.com/faq03.html

    Best wishes,
    Cheryl