Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Remembering... Hattie McDaniel

Although she never really faded from the collective consciousness, Jill Watts' memorable 2005 biography Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood does much to limn the legacy of one of black Hollywood's pioneers...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketFamous in her day for the quote 'I'd rather play a maid for $700 a week than be a maid for $7', Hattie McDaniel was nothing if not true to her credo, eventually becoming the first African-American to win an Academy Award - Best Supporting Actress - for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939); she was also the first black woman to sing on the radio, the first black woman to star in her own radio and television program, and as early as the late 1920s record for Okeh Records...

McDaniel appeared in over 300 films during her career (although she only received onscreen credit for about 80 of them) including minor turns in Blonde Venus (1932) with Marlene Dietrich and I'm No Angel (1933) with Mae West (alongside another pioneer Louise Beavers), and a memorable one in Alice Adams (1935) with Katharine Hepburn; following her Oscar win she appeared in In This Our Life (1942) with Bette Davis and The Male Animal (1942) with Henry Fonda. Her final film role was Family Honeymoon (1949) with Claudette Colbert.

In life as in death her legacy has been blunted by political correctness; throughout the 1940s the NAACP lobbied Hollywood to write better roles for blacks than menials. Hollywood's response was typical; it simply stopped casting blacks altogether, a prohibition which lasted well into the 1970s, when the Blaxploitation genre first surfaced.

Not one to let such a turn of events get her down, Hattie McDaniel embarked on the final role of her career, that of Beulah - yet another wise-cracking maid. When she first played the role on radio McDaniel was the first black woman to have played the role; previously Beulah had been played by Marlin Hurt, a white man. McDaniel later replaced Ethel Waters in the role on television; after only a few episodes, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and was in turn replaced by Louise Beavers.

Hattie McDaniel died on this day in 1952 at the Motion Picture House in Woodland Hills, California; she was 57. Once again she was followed by Louise Beavers, who also died on this day, in 1962.

Denied the opportunity to be buried at Hollywood Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard because she was black, McDaniel was instead buried at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery, now a part of Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park. In 1999, seeking to redress this egregious bigotry, the new owners of the Hollywood Cemetery offered her family the chance to bury her there after all; unwilling to disturb her remains, the offer was refused. Instead, the newly renamed Hollywood Forever Cemetery installed a cenotaph in her honour, which remains a popular attraction there.
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