Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American actor to win an Academy Award for 1939’s Gone With the Wind, wrote this touching piece in a 1947 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.
An utterance of a first century Jewish scholar, “I am became all things to all men,” can very aptly be applied to Hollywood — film city of the world. To the blue-nosed moralist, it is a city of gin and sin. To a producer, it is an exacting place of business. To the actor or actress, it is a powerful potentate, holding in its hands honor or oblivion. To the tourist from Salt Lake, or Peoria, or Milwaukee, Hollywood is a man-made fairyland.
Sixteen years ago, I was a tourist from Milwaukee.
I had headlined on the Pantages and Orpheum circuits, but vaudeville was as dead as last month’s hit song. The stock market crash of ‘29 had left big business paralyzed and every town had its breadline and hobo jungle. Entertainers were a dime a dozen and, even at that cut-rate price, there were no takers.
Milwaukee was really my springboard to Hollywood. I landed there broke. Somebody told me of a place as a maid in the ladies’ room at Sam Pick’s Suburban Inn. I rushed out there and took the job. One night, after midnight, when all the entertainers had left, the manager called for volunteer talent from among the help. I asked the boys in the orchestra to strike up “St. Louis Blues.” I started to sing — “I hate to see that evening sun go down.” … I never had to go back to my maid’s job. For two years I starred in the floor show.
I was little more than a kid, but I was old in show business. I won a medal in dramatic art when I was 15. One year later, my oldest brother Otis, who wrote his own show and songs, persuaded my mother to let me go on the road with his company. I loved every minute of it, the tent shows, the kerosene lights, the contagious enthusiasm of the small-town crowds.
Sam Pick’s patrons were nice to me, but they kept asking me one question that disturbed me – “Why don’t you go to Hollywood and get in the movies?.”
Some friends were driving to Los Angeles. They persuaded me to come with them. I had a shiny new pocketbook but very little cash in it.
People are always telling me about the “lucky break” I got in pictures. I don’t take the trouble to tell them of all the years I sang in choruses, worked in mob scenes, thankful for the smallest thing. A call from Charlie Butler at Central Casting was like a letter from home, a bit part with a line of dialogue was like manna from heaven.
Old Father Time has a way of shuffling along and, as the years went by, I found myself working with such great stars as Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Irene Dunne, Barbara Stanwyck, Will Rogers, Margaret Sullavan, Bette Davis and Jimmy Stewart. Many extras complain about getting tired of sitting around on the sets. I never tired. A soundstage was as exciting as a William Spears mystery. I learned so much, just sitting and watching.
From incidental comedy roles, David O. Selznick cast me as Mammy in Gone With the Wind. I was now a recognized featured player and although I had had other large roles at most of the major studios, this was my first chance at a straight dramatic role. For it, Hollywood bestowed upon me its greatest seal of approval, the Academy Award for the best supporting actress for 1939. I shall never forget that night at the Ambassador when Fay Bainter so graciously presented me with the coveted award. It was one of those always-to-be-remembered nights. Everybody was shaking hands and congratulating me. It was like Old Home Week in Kansas.
My own people were especially happy. They felt that in honoring me, Hollywood had honored the entire race. That was the way I wanted it. This was too big a moment for my personal back-slapping. I wanted this occasion to prove an inspiration to Negro youth for many years to come.
Recently, Hollywood had been criticized for its portrayal of the Negro on the screen. I have been censured by some of my race for not joining in the denouncement. Many of those loudest in their condemnation are newcomers who do not remember the days when no Negro player was given a dressing room, when there were no hairdressers on the sets for Negro actresses, when no studio hired a Negro wardrobe girl. I have seen many changes in the film city and the trend has been one of increasing gain. We have been welcomed into the unions where the rate of pay is standardized. Members of our group have served on the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild. Louise Beavers now serves in that capacity.
Critics have said that Hollywood insists on casting all Negroes as menials or clowns. Our memories are short-lived. In one of MGM’s Dr. Gillespie series, Lionel Barrymore watched a Negro doctor (Jack Carr) perform an operation in a New York tenement house. Clarence Brooks played a Negro doctor in Arrowsmith. Stymie Beard, formerly of Our Gang comedies, Ida James and another Negro girl were classmates of Shirley Temple in the graduation scene of Since You Went Away. Leigh Whipper stood out against lynch law in Ox-Bow Incident, and again in Mission to Moscow he portrayed the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who walked out of the Peace Conference after his prophetic voice painted the dismal picture of Fascist growth and terrorism. Caleb Peterson was a dignified veteran in Till the End of Time. During the war years, Rex Ingram, Kenneth Spencer and the late Ben Carter were soldiers.
I have never apologized for the roles I play. Several times I have persuaded the directors to omit dialect from modern pictures. They readily agreed to the suggestion. I have been told that I have kept alive the stereotype of the Negro servant in the minds of theatre-goers. I believe my critics think the public more naïve than it actually is. As I pointed out to Fredi Washington, “Arthur Treacher is indelibly stamped as a Hollywood butler, but I am sure no one would go to his home and expect him to meet them at the door with a napkin across his arm.”
George S. Schuyler, brilliant Negro columnist of the Pittsburgh Courier, had this to say about my role in Three’s a Family: “There is no more reason for assuming this maid to be typical of the Negro race than there is for assuming that the old, almost-blind physician in the picture is characteristic of the medical profession when he tries to deliver the wrong woman of a baby. It seems to me to be good, rousing slapstick, at which Hollywood has traditionally excelled. No farce is factual and no intelligent person expects it to be.”
If I speak from a personal angle it is not because I am not aware of what Hollywood has done for others. In one picture, Imitation of Life, Louise Beavers became famous. Hollywood made practically unknown Lena Horne into an international singing star; it sent Eddie (Rochester) Anderson’s stock sky-rocketing.
I have never gotten over my crush on Hollywood. At heart, I suppose I am still a tourist from Milwaukee!