We’re starting a new series today about black actors during Hollywood’s Golden age of the 30’s and 40’s.

Naturally, we’ll begin our series with the first African-American performer to be recognized by the Motion Picture Academy, Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel.

Hello everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers back with more chat about movie classics and classic movie stars.

Hattie McDaniel had been in films for a decade when she won the Oscar for best supporting actress in 1939 for her portrayal of Mammy in “Gone With the Wind.” She had made history by even being nominated!  And her win was a complete surprise.

Hattie had had some good parts in the 1930’s including one opposite Paul Robeson when they both supported Irene Dunne and Allan Jones in the first film version of “Show Boat.”

She’d appeared in several films with Clark Gable at MGM and it has been reported that Gable was instrumental in getting her the part of Mammy. (They were close friends.)

But winning the Oscar wasn’t a career changer for McDaniel.  She returned to playing maids in small roles for the rest of her career.

She did do a musical number in “Thank Your Lucky Stars,” in 1943.  She had been a singer all her life, and claimed to be the first black woman to sing on American radio. (No guarantees from the management on that one, although Hattie at one time was considered “the colored Sophie Tucker.”)

Hattie was born according to one source (there remains some confusion about her exact birth date) in the summer of 1892 in Wichita, Kansas. Her father was a freed slave who became a Baptist preacher. Her mother sang spirituals.

As a teenager, McDaniel began singing professionally, and was undoubtedly one of the first women of color at the time to be heard on the radio. (By 1915, she was vocalizing with an outfit called Prof. George Morrison’s Negro Orchestra.)

Anyway, Hattie was popular on the medium of radio, and had her own program originating the part of “Beulah,” about a wise and funny maid. For the first season on the new medium of TV Beulah was portrayed by Ethel Waters, but then Hattie took over the role and kept it until ill health forced her to retire. She was replaced by Louise Beavers.

Hattie is pictured above accepting her award from Fay Bainter, who had won in the same best supporting actress  category the previous year (1938) for her performance as Bette Davis’ aunt in “Jezebel.” It would be 10 years before another African-American actress would be nominated for an Academy Award. Any idea who? or when?

Let us know.

McDaniel had married four times, and had spent most of her money by 1952 when she died of breast cancer in Woodland Hills, California.  (Her estate totaled less than  $10,000 back then, about $80,000 in today’s dollars.) She willed her Oscar to Howard University but somehow the statuette was misplaced in the 1960’s, and has never been recovered.

Five years ago, McDaniel was the face of a commemorative stamp issued by the U.S. Office as part of its Black Heritage series.

Did you like this? Share it: