Hattie McDaniel


I’m in the midst of reading the biography Hattie McDaniel, Black Ambition, White Hollywood by Jill Watts.  Several years ago I read Watt’s Mae West: An Icon in Black and White.  She’s a very good writer and researcher and, besides involving my favourite topic of film, this book broadens my education on black people and the issues they have had to deal with during and after slavery.

I still haven’t yet reached what I think would be Hattie’s pivotal year of 1939 where she is cast in Gone With the Wind, winning an Academy Award; however, up until the end of 1938 she had roles in dozens of films, whether they were as an extra, in shorts, or non-speaking parts.  In any event, I chose three films that sounded interesting to me which I viewed this past week.

The first film that McDaniel was given lines in was the 1932 film The Impatient Maiden.  When I read this, the title registered with me and I recalled that I had a copy of this film in my collection.  It wasn’t a sharp copy, probably made from a 16mm print, but it was certainly better than the one you can find online.  I realized the reason I must have bought this film was that it was a pre-Code directed by James Whale and included a cast of well-known actors from that time period: Lew Ayres, Mae Clarke, Una Merkel and Andy Devine, these last three definitely being of interest to me.  I can’t say that it was a particularly good story but it was none-the-less worth my while.  It’s based on a morality novel written by American writer Donald Henderson Clarke, published in 1931.  Ruth, a young woman (Clarke) works for divorce lawyer Albert Hartman (John Halliday) and at 19 is already worldly, somewhat jaded and fatalistic in her view of marriage.  Myron Brown, a naive, young doctor-in-training (Ayres) with high ideals falls in love with her.  But the Great Depression is at its height and although Ruth appears to never quite reach the depths of selling herself for luxuries, she does acquire some from her employer in his persistent hope that she will eventually succumb and make herself available to him.

Mae Clarke and John Halliday

The two supporting roles were Dr. Myron’s nurse, Clarence Howe (Andy Devine) and Ruth’s roommate and best friend, Betty Merrick (Una Merkel).  I am always interested in films that include these two actors, especially during the pre-Code era.  Devine, with his trademark raspy voice, is still relatively slim.  Una plays her scatterbrained character here to the hilt, and the two make an unusual but possibly understandable couple.  But it’s Devine who lit up the screen for me, along with the beautiful art deco set of the luxury penthouse closer to the end of the film.

Andy and Una

The Impatient Maiden was directed by James Whale and was the film sandwiched between his two classics Frankenstein (1931) and The Old Dark House (1932).  Apparently, it was originally to be directed by Cyril Gardner and starring Clara Bow.  But when her career tanked, the property was shelved.  However, just after shooting wrapped for Frankenstein, Carl Laemmle Jr. asked Whale to dust off the screenplay and direct.  Already with a set cast including Lew Ayres who was already well-known from his leading role in the successful All Quiet on the Western Front made in 1930, Whale agreed but had no delusions as to the script being a superior one in any way.  It was his choice to cast Mae Clarke (who had made Waterloo Bridge and Frankenstein with him) and he began the first week of filming in December 1931, appearing somewhat bored, at least to Ayres’ point of view, with this given task.

Where Hattie McDaniel comes in is around the 20-minute mark of this 90-minute film.  She’s a patient lying in a ward in a hospital bed while Dr. Brown attends to her.  There’s a close up of his patchwork and McDaniel, who’s skin is very dark, is shown in closeup with this huge, badly taped white piece of gauze affixed to her left eye.  It’s kind of ridiculous looking.  She then asks him in that typical dialect that we have grown to accept poor black people speak in, “Is I gonna have a black eye, doctor?”   I thought that the line was actually supposed to be a joke. I think everyone’s immediate thought would have been, could a black eye on such a dark-skinned person even show up?  Before he can respond, if he was ever going to, his mentor, Dr. Wilcox (Oscar Apfel) shows up to ask him (believe it or not) if he would like to go to a football game with him later on that same day.  Hattie then asks, “Dr. Wilcox, how’s that beautiful husband of mine?”  His reply has a bit of shortness to it, “Well, we put five stitches into his scalp and put him to sleep.”  Hattie’s last comment, “I hope the brute never wakes up.”  Hmmm, so what do we have here?  Domestic violence.

Hattie and Robeson

Next, I chose to watch a film which has been on my meaning-to-see list for quite a while–Show Boat (1936).  Also directed by James Whale, it features both Hattie McDaniel and the great Paul Robeson.  I can’t say I loved this film either especially because, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned, musicals don’t thrill me.  The reason for that is that they slow down the narrative and I have to watch someone singing while doing not much of anything else.  I get it if you love operetta and voices that sing in that style.  Irene Dunne, who plays the main role, was trained as an operatic singer, and she made good use of her talent. The exception for me is whenever Paul Robeson sang.  It didn’t matter if he was whittling away on a piece of wood or shelling peas, he was magnetic.

Next to the scenes featuring Hattie and Paul, the two that stand out to me are when Dunne dons blackface and sings a “black” number, plus the ensemble scene with Dunne, Helen Morgan (who plays the light-skinned Julie who passes as white but who is really mixed, and therefore a “negress”), McDaniel and Robeson when they sing Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine.  Dunne does a little dance there, quite provocative and certainly not the usual moves of a white woman, to be sure.

Hattie plays Queenie, a role she reprised from her California stage performances made in 1933.  You would have thought it was a no-brainer for McDaniel to be cast in this film role, but it was actually almost a miss for her.  As 99% of roles for black actors were subservient, playing devoted servants to white employers no matter how they were treated, this treatment extended to their real lives.  So it was interesting to learn that white actress Tess Gardella was almost cast in the role.  Gardella’s stage persona and actual stage name was “Aunt Jemima”, a role she played in the nine film credits listed on IMDb.  However, the reason that Universal changed their mind in hiring McDaniel was not that blackface was considered offensive, nor to offer employment to actual people who were of the race they were depicting, but because the Hays Office insisted that if Queenie was played by a white woman, regardless if she was in blackface, that any depiction of intimacy between the married couple would be a violation with the censor board’s restrictions on miscegenation.  This really stuck with me.

Allan Jones and Irene Dunne

Time periods jump dramatically and you have to figure the timing out for yourself.  For instance, when Magnolia (Dunne) and Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones) get married and are in their bedroom looking out the window, the scene shifts, if I’m remembering correctly, to Robeson and McDaniel.  Afterward, we’re back with Magnolia, and lo and behold, she’s birthing a baby.  So nine months, at the very least, has just passed.  At one point, just after we enjoy a great musical scene between McDaniel and Robeson where they sing I Still Suits Me, we fade out and end up in Chicago with the Ravenal family.  And that’s it.  I kept waiting but eventually realized we never see Joe or Queenie ever again.  As well, and kind of hilarious is the fact that at the end of the film, Magnolia’s parents, who are still alive, played by Charles Winninger and Helen Westley, must be about 110!

Although James Whale was the director of this film as well, but because he didn’t have much experience directing dance sequences, Le Roy Princz, a top dance specialist from Paramount was engaged to assist.  It appears they worked well together, each taking over the task that suited him best.

An amusing anecdote I read in the biography on James Whale by James Curtis, a book I’m using to cross-reference with, is while Whale had a hard time dealing with Jerome Kern’s interference whenever he was present on the set, he also had to contend with Helen Morgan’s drinking.  Her character Julie becomes a lush in the latter part of the film and apparently this mirrored Morgan’s real-life morning drinking ritual on the set.  A cold shower and cups of steaming coffee had to be applied before her shoots could begin.  Still, she gives a pretty moving moment when she sings Bill.

Show Boat, which took months to make, and with mounting expenses forced the Laemmle family to pledge controlling interest as collateral to the Standard Capital Corporation, costing them the loss of their beloved studio.  Show Boat was completed on March 11 with over 300,000 feet of exposed film in the can.  Three days later, on the morning of Saturday, March 14, 1936, Universal officially passed from the Laemmle family to J. Cheever Cowdin and Charles R. Rogers.  Thirteen days later, on Tuesday, March 24, 1936, Carl Laemmle left Universal for the last time, which could only have been a difficult end for what appeared to be a well-liked and kind-hearted man.

The third film I chose to watch was The Little Colonel (1935), deciding on this film because it also featured Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in his first dancing role with Shirley Temple.  Besides, I wanted to see how the interaction between Hattie and Robinson played out.

Robinson and Shirley

Shirley Temple films usually follow the theme that she has parents in turmoil, only one parent in turmoil, or is an orphan.  In this film, it is the former, with her parents being played by the lovely and throaty-voiced Evelyn Venable and the handsome John Lodge.  Elizabeth (Venable) is the daughter of Confederate Colonel Lloyd (Lionel Barrymore) and when she chooses to marry Yankee Jack Sherman (Lodge), he bans her from his home.  Sherman is an army man, and when we catch up with them six years later, they have an addition to their family in the form of Lloyd, the little colonel (Shirley Temple).  Sherman’s army days have just ended and the beloved little colonel is given a sweet goodbye from the soldiers as the family prepares to leave for civilian pastures.  Two soldiers she doesn’t care for are Swazey (Sidney Blackmer) and Hull (Stephen Chase), who show up again later in the story.  All I’ll say is that her father should have followed his daughter’s instincts when it came to these two men.

Not only is her grandfather, Colonel Lloyd, typically crusty and difficult, he’s also amazingly rude and particularly nasty to his black manservant, Walker (Bill Robinson).  Walker, of course, puts up with this treatment as if it wasn’t happening, but you feel some sort of satisfaction when he agrees with the Colonel’s assessment of himself that he’s an “old fool”.

Shirley and Hattie

Hattie plays Mom Beck, Elizabeth’s, and now Lloyd’s, caretaker.  There is also a cast of many black actors in this film, from the children that seem to be Lloyd’s only friends to the house staff, to the people who work on the plantation.  One of the most moving scenes was the baptism, with Lloyd being the only white person to witness the ritual.

Since Shirley Temple was a child, even though a female, not only was she able to interact physically with Mom Beck, but also with Walker.  The highlights were her two dancing scenes with Robinson, the first on the staircase leading up to her bedroom in her grandfather’s home, the second in the stables.  Shirley was a few months shy of her 7th birthday, and in these early films, you can’t help but marvel at what a spectacular little child actress she was.  When she talks sassy to her elders–which they mostly deserve–she’s truly a joy to behold!

The ending of the film is shot in Technicolor and we not only have the opportunity to see all the sets and main characters looking so beautiful, but it might be the first time we have the opportunity to see Hattie in colour as well.

What also piqued my interest and helped me make the decision to watch this film was something that was mentioned in the Hattie McDaniel biography.  Apparently, parallels between The Little Colonel and The Birth of a Nation were anything but accidental.  The director David Butler, whose name I know but know nothing about, had worked for D.W. Griffith as a teenager and maintained deep racial prejudices that were apparent on the set.  Shirley was too young to understand although she was aware that something was wrong, remembering Butler attempting to embarrass her rather overbearing father when he was on the set by paying an African-American child to jump on his lap and follow him around, calling him “Daddy”.  This was an example of the atmosphere that McDaniel had to endure as she endeavoured to grapple her way through the film industry.

Lionel Barrymore deserves this, the old grouch

I’ve seen as well as own quite a number of films (1932-1938) featuring Hattie McDaniel, including her earliest films where she wasn’t yet listed in the credits–Blonde VenusI’m No Angel, Operator 13Judge PriestImitation of LifeBabbitt, China SeasAlice Adams, Libeled LadySaratoga, Nothing Sacred, Carefree, The Mad Miss Manton, while still on my shelves are others I haven’t yet de-cellophaned such as Are You Listening?, Merry Wives of Reno, Little Men, Postal InspectorTrue Confession and Shopworn Angel.  I’m sure there will still be one or two more I watch before or by the end of my read of Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood.  I hope this interests you enough for you to catch her in one of her many films too!

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