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Childless & Childfree Black History: Louise Beavers & Hattie McDaniel

If you have any interest at all in classic movies, you know these actresses' faces, if not their names. Hollywood contemporaries during the Depression and World War II years, they appeared in more than 200 films, often with the top stars of the day. In almost every instance, they played the only roles offered to them: maids, cooks, mammies or slaves. In real life, neither woman had children, though they frequently cared for children on screen.

Louise Beavers

Louise appeared in dozens of films that were popular then and now. It's a long list, including:

  • Holiday Inn (with Bing Crosby,(1942)

  • Bombshell (with Jean Harlow, 1933)

  • DuBarry Was a Lady (with Gene Kelly, 1943)

  • Made for Each Other (with Carole Lombard, 1939

  • Shadow of the Thin Man (with William Powell and Myrna Loy. 1941).

If you're a Dita Von Teese Glamour Girl, surely you've seen Mae West in She Done Him Wrong (with Louise Beavers, 1933). But, it was Louise's 1934 performance as "Delilah" in Imitation of Life that will be remembered, watched, and analyzed for many years to come for its story of a widowed, dark-skinned maid and her daughter, who is light enough to pass for White in an openly racist America.

For me, the subplot is the tale of how her impossibly empathetic employer (played by Claudette Colbert) makes millions by packaging Delilah's pancake mix. Time magazine placed this film in the top five of its "Top 25 Movies on Race."

As a kid, I watched this movie many times with my grandmother. It was one of her favorites, especially the tear-jerking ending tracked with the powerful gospel voice of Mahalia Jackson. As an adult, I have varied issues with it, but if it's on, I watch.

Louise's career thrived through 1960 and television. She was one of three actresses (including Hattie McDaniel and Ethel Waters) to portray housekeeper Beulah on the Beulah television show. That show was the first television sitcom to star a black person. She also played a maid, Louise, for the first two seasons of The Danny Thomas Show (1953–1955).

Louise Beavers died of a heart attack at 60 in 1962. She famously once said, "I am only playing the parts. I don't live them.”

Hattie McDaniel

I know Hattie McDaniel from two of my favorite Bette Davis movies: The Great Lie (1941) and In This Our Life (1942). And that's Hattie with Shirley Temple and Bill (Bojangles) Robinson in The Little Colonel (1935). Of course, I'm also familiar with Hattie's most famous role as "Mammy" in Gone With the Wind (1939).

The GWTW Civil War-era storyline and characterizations of Scarlett O'Hara's slaves as beloved family friends continues to be reviewed and criticized to this day. "Mammy" earned Hattie a place in movie history as the first Black woman to be nominated for an Academy Award and the first one to win it. Nothing about that feat was easy.

When the movie held its star-studded premiere in 1939 in Atlanta, Georgia, Jim Crow laws kept Hattie from attending: Negroes weren't allowed in the theater. At the 12th Academy Awards dinner, and even though she was a nominee, she and her date were seated alone, far from the table with Clark Gable and her other co-stars. It's said that David O. Selznick had to call in special favors to have Hattie allowed into the building at all. Meanwhile, the NAACP wanted nothing to do with her for excelling at a career of happy-servant roles. Her response: “I’d rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be a maid and make $7.

Trivia Factoid: the daughter of two former slaves, Hattie McDaniel was also the first Black woman to sing on radio in the United States, the first black Oscar winner honored with a US postage stamp (2006). Hattie was married four times, the first time at 15.

Hattie died of breast cancer at age 59 in 1962. Her request to be buried in Hollywood Cemetery was ignored: no Blacks, even dead ones, were allowed. Instead, she was laid to rest at Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery, the first L.A. cemetery open to all races. In 1996, Hollywood Cemetery (now known as Hollywood Forever) placed a marble plaque in Hattie's memory.

Hattie's Oscar, bequeathed to Howard University, was lost years ago and is still missing.

In January 2018, we learned that a biopic about Hattie is being made from the biography Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood There's also a good 2001 documentary narrated by Whoopi Goldberg. That's meaningful because when Hattie accepted the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, it was 50 years before another African American actress was so honored -- Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost.

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