Oscar Actors: McDaniel, Hattie–Background, Career; Filmography

May 26, 2020

Hattie McDaniel Career Summary:

Occupational inheritance: Yes. mother singer of gospel; father against her wish

Social Class:


Stage debut:

Broadway debut:

Film debut: The Golden West, 1932; age 37

Oscar awards: 1, Supp. Actress, Gone with the Wind, 1939; age 44

Oscar nominations: No

Other awards: No

Career span: 1932-1949; 18 years; then radio and TV series Beulah

Last film: Family Honeymoon, 1949; age 54


Hattie McDaniel, born June 10, 1893, is best known for her role as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind (1939), for which she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, becoming the first person of color to win an Oscar.

In addition to acting, McDaniel recorded 16 blues sides between 1926–1929, was a radio performer and television star; she was the first black woman to sing on radio in the U.S.  She appeared in over 300 films, although she received screen credits for only 83.

In 1975, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, and in 2006 became the first black Oscar winner honored with a U.S. postage stamp.

McDaniel was born to formerly enslaved parents in Wichita, Kansas. She was the youngest of 13 children. Her mother, Susan Holbert, was a singer of gospel music, and her father, Henry McDaniel, fought in the Civil War with the 122nd United States Colored Troops.

In 1900, the family moved to Colorado, living first in Fort Collins and then in Denver, where Hattie attended Denver East High School (1908-1910).  In 1908, she entered a contest sponsored by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, reciting “Convict Joe,” later claiming she had won first place. Her brother, Sam McDaniel played the butler in the 1948 Three Stooges’ short film Heavenly Daze. Her sister Etta McDaniel was also an actress.

McDaniel was a songwriter as well as a performer. She honed her songwriting skills while working with her brother, Otis McDaniel’s carnival company, a minstrel show. McDaniel and her sister Etta Goff launched an all-female minstrel show in 1914 called the McDaniel Sisters Company.

After the death of her brother Otis in 1916, the troupe began to lose money, and Hattie did not get her next big break until 1920. From 1920 to 1925, she appeared with Professor George Morrison’s Melody Hounds, a black touring ensemble.

In the mid-1920s, she embarked on a radio career, singing with the Melody Hounds on station KOA in Denver. From 1926 to 1929, she recorded many of her songs for Okeh Records and Paramount Records in Chicago. McDaniel recorded seven sessions: one in the summer of 1926 on the rare Kansas City label Meritt; four sessions in Chicago for Okeh from late 1926 to late 1927 (of the 10 sides recorded, only four were issued), and two sessions in Chicago for Paramount in March 1929.

After the stock market crashed in 1929, McDaniel could find work only as a washroom attendant at Sam Pick’s Club Madrid near Milwaukee.  She was eventually allowed to take the stage and soon became a regular performer.

In 1931, McDaniel moved to Los Angeles to join her brother, Sam, and sisters, Etta and Orlena. When she could not get film work, she took jobs as a maid or cook. Sam was working on a KNX radio program, The Optimistic Do-Nut Hour, and was able to get his sister a spot. She performed on radio as “Hi-Hat Hattie”, a bossy maid who often “forgets her place.” Her show became popular, but her salary was so low that she had to continue working as a maid.

First Films as Maid

She made her first film appearance in “The Golden West” (1932), in which she played a maid.  Her second appearance came in the highly successful Mae West film “I’m No Angel” (1933), in which she played one of the black maids with whom West camped it up backstage.

In 1934, McDaniel joined the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and began to land larger film roles. Fox contracted to appear in The Little Colonel (1935), with Shirley Temple, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Lionel Barrymore.

Judge Priest (1934), directed by John Ford and starring Will Rogers, was the first film in which she played a major role, which allowed her to demonstrate her singing talent, including a duet with Rogers.

In 1935, McDaniel had prominent roles, as a slovenly maid in Alice Adams (RKO Pictures); a comic part as Jean Harlow’s maid and traveling companion in China Seas (MGM) (McDaniels’s first film with Clark Gable); and as the maid Isabella in Murder by Television, with Béla Lugosi. She appeared in the 1938 film Vivacious Lady, starring James Stewart and Ginger Rogers.

McDaniel had a featured role as Queenie in the 1936 film Show Boat (Universal), starring Allan Jones and Irene Dunne, in which she sang a verse of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” with Dunne, Helen Morgan, Paul Robeson, and a black chorus. She and Robeson sang “I Still Suits Me,” written for the film by Kern and Hammerstein.

After Show Boat, she had major roles in MGM’s Saratoga (1937), starring Jean Harlow and Clark Gable; The Shopworn Angel (1938), with Margaret Sullavan; and The Mad Miss Manton (1938), starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda.

She had a minor role in the Carole Lombard–Frederic March film Nothing Sacred (1937), in which she played the wife of a shoeshine man (Troy Brown) masquerading as a sultan.

She was criticized by members of the black community for the roles she accepted. For example, in The Little Colonel (1935), she played one of the black servants longing to return to the Old South, but her portrayal of Malena in RKO Pictures’s Alice Adams angered white Southern audiences, because she stole several scenes from the film’s white star, Katharine Hepburn.

Screen Image

McDaniel ultimately became best known for playing a sassy and opinionated maid.

She made her last film appearances in Mickey (1948) and Family Honeymoon (1949), where that same year, she appeared on the live CBS TV program The Ed Wynn Show.

Beulah: Controversial TV Show

She remained active on radio and television in her final years, becoming the first black actor to star in her own radio show with the comedy series “Beulah.” She also starred in the ABC TV version of the show, replacing Ethel Waters after the first season. Beulah was a hit, and earned McDaniel $2,000 a week.

But the show was controversial. In 1951, the U.S. Army ceased broadcasting “Beulah” in Asia because troops complained that the show perpetuated negative stereotypes of black men as shiftless and lazy and interfered with the ability of black troops to perform their mission.

Meanwhile, after filming some episodes, McDaniel learned that she had breast cancer. By the spring of 1952, she was too ill to work and was replaced by Louise Beavers.