Watching Movies During the Holidays

LIBERTY, December 30, 2012 – Having never seen the movie, “Gone with the Wind,” in it’s entirety I decided to get the DVD and watch it during the holidays.

Watching the movie you realize the entire social structure and lives of the main characters depended entirely on slave labor in the plantations of the south.

You also realize that those people couldn’t last a week without their slave subjects including my favorite character in the movie, “Mammy,” played by Hattie McDaniel, Scarlet’s house servant. Mammy’s role in the movie lasted from beginning to end as she stayed with Scarlet through thick and thin.

Hattie McDaniel (June 10, 1895 – October 26, 1952) was an American actress. McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Academy Award. She won the award for Best Supporting Actress for her role of Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939).

In addition to having acted in many films, McDaniel was a professional singer-songwriter, comedian, stage actress, radio performer, and television star; she was the first black woman to sing on the radio in America. Over the course of her career, McDaniel appeared in over 300 films, although she received screen credits for only eighty or so. She gained the respect of the African American show business community with her generosity, elegance, great beauty, and charm.

McDaniel has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood: one for her contributions to radio at 6933 Hollywood Boulevard and one for acting in motion pictures at 1719 Vine Street. In 1975, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and in 2006 became the first black Oscar winner honored with a US postage stamp.

The competition to play Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939) had been almost as stiff as that for Scarlett O'Hara. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to film producer David O. Selznick to ask that her own maid, Elizabeth McDuffie, be given the part.[19] McDaniel did not think she would be chosen because she'd earned her reputation as a comic actress. One source claims that Clark Gable recommended the role go to McDaniel; in any case when she went to her audition dressed in an authentic maid's uniform, she won the part.
Upon hearing of the planned film adaptation, the NAACP fought hard to require the film's producer and director to delete racial epithets from it (in particular the offensive slur "nigger") and to alter scenes that might be incendiary and that, in their view, were historically inaccurate. Of particular concern was a scene from the novel in which black men attack Scarlett O'Hara, after which the Ku Klux Klan, with its long history of provoking terror on black communities, is presented as a savior. Throughout the South, black men were being lynched based upon false allegations they had harmed white women. That attack scene was altered, and some offensive language was modified. But another epithet, "darkey," remained in the film, and the film's message with respect to slavery remained essentially the same. Consistent with the book, the film's screenplay also referred to poor whites as "white trash," and it ascribed these words equally to characters black and white.

The Loew's Grand Theater on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia, was selected by the studio as the site for the premiere of Gone with the Wind, Friday, December 15, 1939. As the date of the premiere approached, all the black actors were advised they were barred from attending, excluded from being in the souvenir program, and banned from appearing in advertisements for the film in the South. Studio head David Selznick asked that Hattie McDaniel be permitted to attend, but MGM advised him not to because of Georgia's segregation laws. Clark Gable threatened to boycott the Atlanta premiere unless McDaniel was allowed to attend, but McDaniel convinced him to attend anyway.

Most of Atlanta's 300,000 citizens crowded the route of the seven-mile motorcade that carried the film's other stars and executives from the airport to the Georgian Terrace Hotel, where they stayed. While Jim Crow laws kept McDaniel from the Atlanta premiere, she did attend the film's Hollywood debut on December 28, 1939. Upon Selznick's insistence, her picture was also featured prominently in the program.

It was McDaniel's role as the house slave that repeatedly scolds her owner's daughter, Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh), and scoffs at Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), that won McDaniel the 1939 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, making her the first black American to win an Oscar. She had also been the first black American to be nominated. "I loved Mammy," McDaniel said when speaking to the white press about the character. "I think I understood her because my own grandmother worked on a plantation not unlike Tara." Her role in Gone with the Wind had alarmed some whites in the Southern audience; there were complaints that in the film she had been too "familiar" with her white owners. But at least one author pointed out that McDaniel's character does not significantly depart from Mammy's persona in Margaret Mitchell's book, and that in both the film and the book the much younger Scarlett speaks to Mammy in ways that would be deemed inappropriate for a Southern teen of that era to speak to a much older white person, and that neither the book nor the film hint of the existence of Mammy's own children (dead or alive), her own family (dead or alive), or her desires to have anything other than a life at Tara, serving on a slave plantation. Moreover, while Mammy scolds the younger Scarlett, Mammy never crosses the more senior white female in the household, Mrs. O'Hara. Some critics felt that McDaniel not only accepted the roles but in her press comments acquiesced in Hollywood's stereotypes, providing fuel for critics of those who were fighting for black civil rights. Later, when McDaniel tried to take her "Mammy" character on a road show, black audiences did not prove receptive.

While many blacks were happy over McDaniel's personal victory, they also viewed it as bittersweet. They believed Gone With the Wind celebrated the slave system and condemned the forces that destroyed it. For them, the unique accolade McDaniel had won suggested that only those who did not protest Hollywood's systemic use of racial stereotypes could find work and success there.

1940 Academy Awards

The Twelfth Academy Awards took place at the Cocoanut Grove Restaurant of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. It was preceded by a banquet in the same room. Louella Parsons, an American gossip columnist, wrote about Oscar night, February 29, 1940:

"Hattie McDaniel earned that gold Oscar by her fine performance of "Mammy" in Gone with the Wind. If you had seen her face when she walked up to the platform and took the gold trophy, you would have had the choke in your voice that all of us had when Hattie, hair trimmed with gardenias, face alight, and dress up to the queen's taste, accepted the honor in one of the finest speeches ever given on the Academy floor.

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.
—Hattie McDaniel: Acceptance Speech

(McDaniel received a plaque-style Oscar, approximately 5 1/2 x 6 inches, the type awarded to all Best Supporting Actors and Actresses at that time.) Yet on the night McDaniel became the first African American to be honored by the motion picture industry, she could not escape being reminded of how far the industry and the country had yet to go to overcome racism: McDaniel and her escort were required to sit at a segregated table for two, apart from both her Gone with the Wind colleagues and those in the motion picture industry.
Gone with the Wind was awarded ten Academy Awards, a record that stood for years, and was later named by the American Film Institute (AFI) as number four among the top 100 American films of all time.

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