Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood.

Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood
by Jill Watts
Amistad, 2005
352 Pages
ISBN 10: 0060514906 – ISBN 13: 97800605149074

I was in sixth grade when I was first introduced to racism. I had a black homeroom teacher and as young as I was, I could still see the pain he was in every day simply because of the color of his skin. It did not go unnoticed to me that he could not help or change that. He was the only black person, not just teacher, person, in the entire school district. I watched him deal with hate every day. It was the first time I remember feeling heartbreak. He lasted one year. Watching him, and others, go through the pain and consequences of hate has stayed with me ever since.  As it turns out, his experience is identical to Hattie’s, even though it was two different eras. Hattie and her family suffered from this same hate a hundred years ago. We, as a society, never changed, despite what my other teachers told me. We haven’t changed. We haven’t learned. Not while Hattie’s mother and father were slaves, not when they were emancipated, not in Hattie’s lifetime, not in the 1960s, not in the 1970’s not now. We should be ashamed.

So I write about this fantastic book as a human that is fiercely against racism and who is holding a raging hatred of racists. And I’m doing it in 2020; in the middle of civil rights protests, again. Yep, we’re in a racial uprising, again. I hope we can obliterate it this time.

I wish we could have done it for Hattie’s family. I wish racism had never existed.

Hattie McDaniel with her Oscar for her role as ‘Mammy’ in Gone With The Wind and presenter, Fay Bainter. 1940.

The most wonderful thing about reading Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood is that it shows a determination in Hattie to rise above it all. Watts reminds us a few times that Hattie’s main goal during her career was to “make people happy.” That made HER happy and that’s what she focused on…despite the situation dealt to her through no fault of her own. Not many of us can say we’ve found true happiness like that. The fact that she accomplished it despite being bombarded with ignorant hate throughout her life? That’s inspiring for me to say the least.

This is an excellent Hattie McDaniel biography. It include’s her family’s slave genealogy. It is a black family’s genealogy. It is a history of that so-called “golden age” of Hollywood. And it’s a record of how race pervaded it all.

I first read this excellent book last week, during the current racial uprising. After reading this book, it’s more clear than ever that we have never learned, we never fixed this problem, we never tried to understand why we hate based on the color of one’s skin. If anything, the problem is worse than ever. When you hate someone bad enough to harm them in anyway, over something like their skin color that can’t be controlled or changed by them, you make no sense. None. The very things that Hattie McDaniel was faced with, are the very same things that we hear about, read about, see with our own eyes this very day. It’s insane. It’s ignorant. And it pisses me off. The amazing thing is that she overcame everything to be happy and successful.

Author, Jill Watts has done extensive research to be able to give us such a clear, detailed history of Hattie’s life. That’s no surprise, considering Watts is a Professor of History at California State University and the author of three other books. She knows what she’s doing. If I have any complaint, it would be that I didn’t feel a closeness to Hattie like I did to, say, Myrna after her autobiography. But then, Hattie led a much different life in an entirely different world, even though they were both actresses in Hollywood during its “golden age”. The experiences of the two actresses were much different. Not because of talent or ambition. Only because of their skin color.

Hattie McDaniel was born to former slaves on June 10, 1893 in Wichita, Kansas. She died October 26, 1952.  This is her story, her family’s story….and a history of how racism affected everything they did. The inspiring thing is how Hattie navigated through the hate and ignorance to still find success on her own terms in a vocation she loved. Several of her siblings did it too. That tells me a lot about the character of the slaves that raised them.

This book is a wake up call to me. Reading Hattie’s story makes me a witness to a human soul that’s been able to endure so much toxicity, but still find a way to rise above it and do what they love. I should be so lucky.

I love you Hattie. Thank you for rising above and giving us a lot to be happy about. You succeeded. Black ambition succeeded.

Sources:

JillWatts.com
The Denver Post – Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood
IMDb.com

The Thin Man, 1934

The Thin Man (1934, MGM) is a movie that doesn’t need another review or description written about it. Heck, even here on this blog I’ve already written about it here, and here and the blog is only a few months old.  Classic movie bloggers have read and/or written so many articles about it over the years, and I’ll never get tired of reading them. I just needed to say a little something about it here (again) because it is the one movie, along with its 5 sequels, that I will think about constantly for the rest of my life. Just the thought of these movies overwhelms me with happiness. It’s exactly the kind of thing I need right now. The Thin Man has always had the power to move my mood to a happier place. It never disappoints, always keeps me riveted no matter how many times I’ve seen it and never fails to provide me a happy place to escape to. Right now, it seems I need these things more than ever before, and I can vouch for the fact that Bill and Myrna can provide them.

The Thin Man wasn’t the first “old” movie I ever saw, His Girl Friday was. Hell, it wasn’t even the first Thin Man movie I ever saw, but it was the movie that got me hooked on all six of them for a lifetime. Finding it was a happy accident; I was a teenager and my Grandmother had just introduced me to Jimmy Stewart with Anatomy of a Murder. I loved it, and immediately began a quest to watch every Jimmy Stewart movie I could find because…..Jimmy Stewart! Duh! I checked out several of his movies at the library that same week. The first one I watched? After The Thin Man,1936 – the second movie in the six movie Thin Man series.  At that moment, I totally forgot about the quest to see every Jimmy Stewart movie.

“I’m a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune,” Mr. Charles said.
“I read you were shot 5 times in the tabloids,” Mrs. Charles said.
“That’s not true, he didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.”

That kind of banter continues through the film. It’s fun and funny. Oh yes, there’s a murder investigation going on too, but for my money it’s the chemistry between Myrna Loy and William Powell that is the main attraction. It’s the star of every movie they’ve done together (14 of them total). When I see them together in a movie I ache for more. The love and respect they have for each other is always on display and it feels good to be in the presence of it.

There’s no doubt that the script of The Thin Man is helped by having the married couple Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich adapt Dashiell Hammett’s book to the screen for it, but it seems like so much of the dialogue is naturally Loy and Powell. Great lines in a movie are one thing, but real chemistry between the actors like this is something else altogether. In my opinion, that’s what takes the movie to a higher level. Together, Bill and Myrna put their chemistry to work in creating an environment I crave to be in. The Thin Man still makes me laugh out loud even after seeing it dozens of times. Spending 90 minutes with this movie is the easiest way I can think of to cheer me up,. Today, being able to gain that from something as simple as a 90 minute, 86-year-old movie means more than it ever did before.

While it’s obvious the Loy and Powell friendship off screen (they were never romantically involved according to Myrna Loy’s autobiography) enhanced their ability to create this kind of magic on screen, it is also a testament to the talent they both possess. They play off of each other with an ease that I’ve never seen in any other onscreen couple (sorry Bogey and Bacall, Hepburn and Tracy). It’s effortless every time and a joy to watch.

I always say I was born 50 years too late because it seems like I would feel so much more comfortable back in the day of Loy, Powell and The Thin Man but then I remember that I wouldn’t be able to watch them over and over again as many times as I want to like I can today. Would I really want to give that up? Probably.

“Those were the good old days,” –party guest
“Don’t kid yourself, these are the good old days.” –Nick Charles to his party guests.

I’m writing this in the middle of a long overdue racial uprising and the Covid-19 pandemic, so it’s hard to absorb this line the way I did the first time I heard Nick say it. I remember the hopeful feeling that came over me back then, but it’s hard to let myself feel that right now.  Honestly, I’m currently leading more toward the “those were the good old days” line from the party guest. . At the very least, Nick and Nora will always be here to make it all better for at least an hour or two and don’t think I’m not relying heavily on them for that right now.  So yeah, more posts about The Thin Man are always welcome. Please post a link to yours below.

“How many drinks have you had?” – Nora to Nick
“This will make six Martinis.” – Nick replies.
“Fine”>[to the waiter] All right. Will you bring me five more Martinis, Leo? Line them right up here.

It couldn’t hurt.

Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming by Myrna Loy
iMDB

New To Me This Week, The Petrified Forest, 1936

The Petrified Forest, 1936
Directed by Archie Mayo for Warner Brothers
Based on the play by Robert E. Sherwood
Starring Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart

“I had to come all this way to find a reason,” – Alan Squier (Leslie Howard)

I know, I know. I’m ashamed. Embarrassed. Disgusted with myself that I never saw this movie until last week. I am a failure at classic movies. I must do better! BUT, I found it this week and I can sincerely say The Petrified Forest has leapt to the top of my list of my all-time favorite movies. It’s a special movie and I love it.

Leslie Howard and Bette Davis

I’ve never loved Bette Davis more. Honestly, I’ve never really loved Bette at all, which is probably one of the reasons this movie hasn’t been viewed by me until now. Again. Embarrassing! Pathetic! Bette Davis’s performance in The Petrified Forest has me rethinking my avoidance of her movies. She’s remarkable here as Gabrielle, (Gabby), Maple, the daughter of Jason Maple (Porter Hall), the owner of the diner where the entire movie takes place.  I simply adore her. Gabby is a sweetheart with big dreams and fantasies about going to Paris to find herself. She is so consumed by these dreams that we catch her planning for Gramps (Charley Grapewin) to pass on so she and her father can sell the diner and get her the money she needs to finally go to France. Ok, so not exactly a sweetheart here. The point is she’s is desperate to leave the desert with no real way out.

Leslie Howard as Alan Squier

Alan Squier (Howard) is an intellectual realist that carries the weight of the meaning of the movie on his shoulders. It’s in good hands. (Leslie Howard is just flat out perfect for this role). Alan has hitchhiked his way across the desert after a failed marriage and no career prospects…”looking for something.” He stops at the diner to eat, even though he has no money. He and Gabby immediately ignite sparks. His poetic language melts Gabby.

“What are you looking for?” Gabby asks.

“I don’t know. I suppose I was looking for something to believe in. Worth living for. Worth dying for, “Alan replies.

It doesn’t take long for Gabby to see him as an escape from the life she so desperately wants to put behind her. She’s never met anyone like him and somehow sees a future for the two of them, even though he hints that he’s ready to die. He’s the first person to ever listen to her dreams seriously.

“I know there’s something in you. I’m trying to figure out what it is,” Alan says.

“There’s something in me that wants something different (than the desert). Maybe it’s the French in my blood. You know, sometimes I feel like I was sparkling all over and I want to go out and do something absolutely crazy and marvelous. Then the American part of me speaks up and spoils everything. Then I go back to work and figure out my dull accounts,” Gabby replies.

She’s down, but hopeful, while Alan is depressed with every aspect of his life. It prevents him from mustering the energy to start a relationship with Gabby, though he’d like to. Instead, he heads out the door and back to his journey west. Gabby hitches a ride for him with the Chisolms (Paul Harvey and Genevieve Tobin), customers and the diner, and their chauffeur. She wanted to go with him, but she expected him to go without her. She knew she was tuck in the desert and Alan was just one more chance to change her life and get out of it. Like her other dreams, it wasn’t going to get a chance to work out. It’s clear that she’s used to disappointments like this.

We’re introduced to Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart) not long after Alan and the Chisolms leave the diner. And I mean, yikes! Duke is a guy that’s mad as hell and clearly has some deep problems himself. Duke and his gang are accused of several murders and the law is after them. They’re dangerous and on the lam. Not good. When Duke’s car breaks down on the highway, he and his gang points their guns at the Chishom car when it passes them and forces them out of it so he and his gang can steal it. They quickly head in the direction of the diner. Alan realizes he needs to get back to warn everyone.

Gabby, Mantee’s Tough Guy, Boze, Alan as diner hostages.

Mantee holds them all hostage until his mysterious Doris finds them and helps them escape. The movie starts to feel a lot like Key Largo here and that’s just fine with me. This is where the conversations about their places in life begin. Everyone is conversing with everyone else and it’s intriguing to witness where they think they all stand, and ultimately where that way of thinking has taken them in life.

Humphrey Bogart in his break-out movie role as Duke Mantee.

As Mantee sits around and broods a lot, presumably because he hasn’t heard from Doris (whom we never see). Alan thinks out loud about every human condition evident in the room and beyond. A lot of human psychology is processed and the meaning of idealism is explored in depth. It made me think. It inspired me. It all comes together in a dramatic ending. One of two endings that were shot, but this is the ending Howard wanted, and even had written into his contract to make sure he got it.

The Petrified Forest is based on a Broadway play by Robert E. Sherwood. Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart both starred in the play in the same roles they play here. When it came time to cast the movie, Leslie Howard demanded Bogart be cast too. At that point, Bogie hadn’t made his break in movies yet, so this was a big deal to him. The studio gave Bogart the part at Howard’s request and it turned out to be his break-out role. He and wife Lauren Bacall thanked Leslie Howard later by naming their daughter Leslie after him.

I never spill spoilers and I won’t do it here either, even though I’m probably the last person in classic movie fandom to see this one. I really could go on and on about this movie, but I won’t. Discovering it was a happy surprise to me and it was pure joy to watch. I’m especially pleased to have found a role I like Bette Davis in. I always knew I was supposed to like her and admire her talent, but she just wasn’t an actress that drew me to movies like Myrna or Katharine. This movie has changed that and I will seek her movies out for more “new to me” classic films to watch.

“I had to come all this way to find a reason.”

The Petrified Forest Movie Poster

It Should Happen To You, 1954

“It isn’t just make a name for yourself, it’s making your name stand for something.” – Pete Sheppard (Jack Lemmon) to Gladys (Judy Holliday)

This movie. Oh how I love this movie…

In addition to starring Judy Holliday, It Should Happen To You is Jack Lemmon’s first leading role. Peter Lawford also makes an appearance as Evan Adams III. It’s a romantic comedy that was directed by George Cukor and written by Garson Kanin for Columbia Pictures. I needed this movie this week and wanted to point out that taking an 86-minute break with Judy Holliday and Jack Lemmon can work a little magic on a drained soul.

Gladys Glover (Holliday) wants to be famous. She’s convinced herself that achieving fame is the most important thing in life and will earn her the respect and money she thinks she needs to be happy. When she loses her modeling job, because she was “3/4” to large around the waste for the girdle she was modeling, she realizes that may never happen for her. She gets desperate.

As is her way, Gladys takes her shoes off so she can “think about it” all and heads into Central Park for a walk. After being fired from her modeling job for being too big, she takes joy in walking in the park and feeding the pigeons. But, notices how rude people in New York can be. She feels pretty grim about the future.

Then, she meets Pete Sheppard (Lemmon), a documentary filmmaker working on a project in the park. They instantly hit it off. The chemistry here is obvious right away. As the two talk, we see just how much her quest for fame has taken over Gladys’s mind. Pete listens, but makes it clear that he thinks it’s ridiculous. The spark between the two is evident, even though they have different views about it all.

They have a good talk that first day, then:

“Good luck to you, Gladys. I sure hope you make a name for yourself, if that’s what you want. If that’s what you really want, you’ll get it.” – Pete

How?”- Gladys

“I don’t know. Just a theory of mine: that not only ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’… but, ‘where’s there’s a way, there’s a will’. See?” Pete.

Gladys walks home to her apartment, with her shoes off and this on her mind. It’s when she walks past a blank billboard that what Pete said hits her; “where there’s a will there’s a way.” She decides to rent the billboard and have her name painted on it. Gladys heads to the advertising agency listed on the sign. It’s gonna cost $210 a month, with a three month minimum. We already know she has saved $1000 so she signs a lease on it.

After she has “Gladys Glover” painted in large letters on the once vacant sign for no reason but to see her name there, the Adams Soap Company,  and Evan Adams III (Peter Lawford) enter the picture. Seems that Gladys’s sign is the same billboard the Adams company always uses, only they’d forgotten to renew the lease for it. To get it back, they make Gladys all kinds of offers.

After several days and several offers from the Adams Soap Company, Evan Adams’ attempt to seduce her and a final offer of six other signs for this one, Gladys takes the deal for the six signs. Things start to happen right away for no reason at all, other than people recognize her name from the signs.  All of a sudden, Gladys is offered TV spots, radio spots, and her own Adams soap campaign. Meanwhile, Pete is watching it all, from the apartment he leased down the hall from Gladys’s to be closer to her. He’s not happy about any of her new found “fame:”

“It’s better if your name stands for something on one block than if it stands for nothing over the entire world,” Pete says to her. “What’s the point of being above the crowd and not a part of it.”

I love that.

This movie is a joy to discover. It’s so much fun. Judy Holliday, as always, is pure bliss to watch. She’s amazing. I can never find the right words to capture her….it feels good to watch her in all of her movies. She can and does deliver lines like no one else. She is the perfect Gladys. And Jack Lemmon. Wow. I just can’t find the right words….

The Orpheum Theatre – Madison, Wisconsin – a Rapp and Rapp Movie Palace

Photo via the Wisconsin State Historical Society.

The Orpheum Theatre (I spell it that way because Rapp and Rapp did) in Madison, Wisconsin was designed and built over the course of 1926-1927. It officially opened to the public on March 31, 1927 with a Vaudeville show.  George Rapp and his brother Cornelius Rapp designed the Orpheum in the French Renaissance style for vaudeville shows and movies with their design philosophy in mind:

“Watch the eyes of a child as it enters the portals of our great theatres and treads the pathway into fairyland. Watch the bright light in the eyes of the tired shopgirl who hurries noiselessly over carpets and sighs with satisfaction as she walks amid furnishings that once delighted the hearts of queens. See the toil-worn father whose dreams have never come true, and look inside his heart as he finds strength and rest within the theatre. There you have the answer to why motion picture theatres are so palatial. Here is a shrine to democracy where there are no privileged patrons. The wealthy rub elbows with the poor — and are better for this contact. Do not wonder, then, at the touches of Italian Renaissance, executed in glazed polychrome terra cotta, or at the lobbies and foyers adorned with replicas of precious masterpieces of another world, or at the imported marble wainscoting or the richly ornamented ceilings with motifs copied from master touches of Germany, France, and Italy, or at the carved niches, the cloistered arcades, the depthless mirrors, and the great sweeping staircases. These are not impractical attempts at showing off. These are part of a celestial city — cavern of many-colored jewels, where iridescent lights and luxurious fittings heighten the expectations of pleasure. It is richness unabashed, but richness with a reason.” – Printed design philosophy guiding Rapp and Rapp Architects.

Photo via the Wisconsin State Historical Society.

The Orpheum was, and still is, across the street from another Rapp and Rapp-designed theater in Madison, the Capitol Theatre.  Both theatres are still in business and we’re lucky enough to visit them both often. While the Capitol Theatre has been beautifully restored and is a part of our Overture Center For the Arts, across the street the Orpheum is on a journey, of sorts, to improvement. It keeps getting better every year and provides Madison with a wonderful venue for concerts, movies and public events.

 

 

 

1927 photo by Angus McVicar

“Everyone should see and appreciate this magnificient palace of amusement.” – Mayor Albert G. Schmedeman of Madison, circa 1927.

 

The Orpheum opened on March 31, 1927 and cost close to $750,000 to build. It seated 2,400 people and was the first building in Wisconsin to have air conditioning.

A recent photo from 2019. Photorgapher unknown.

Over the years the Orpheum saw prosperity and downfalls….and prosperity again. In the course of just a couple of months in late 2004 and early 2005, there were two arson attempts, and one more years later. In 2012, the Orpheum got new management who had the will to purchase the theatre and rehab it.  In 2013, the Paras family acquired the building in a foreclosure sale and continues to work on the front facade, marquee, ticket booth, roof, interior ceiling and sidewalls, bathrooms, etc., They’ve also upgraded the heating and cooling systems. It’s nice to be able to walk in there today, and enjoy a show knowing you’re in a space that is so much like it was when it was built in 1927. I am especially thrilled to be in yet another Rapp and Rapp movie palace when I’m there!

The sign has always been an iconic site on State Street. It was changed at least twice over the years, once to remove the word “new” from the top when they replaced it with “RKO” and again in the 1960s when they “dumbed down” the sign. I’m not even gonna bother with a picture of that, yuk. But, in 2015, the owners won approval from the Madison Landmarks Commission (an exhausting feat on its own) to do an historic replication of the old sign. They spent $200,000 to return the sign to its original 1926 Rapp and Rapp design, complete with “new” on top and the racing lights. For a Rapp and Rapp architects fan and a classic movie geek like me, it’s a welcome site that I get to see, in a normal time, just about every day and I can’t tell you how wonderful that is. The Capitol Theatre sign, from the Rapp and Rapp theater across the street, is in storage at the State HIstorical Society, so the Orpheum’s sign is especially important.

Here’s some memories from the early years of the theatre (all photos are from the Wisconsin State Historical Society, except the last one, that one’s mine :):

The stage, set up for an orchestra in 1937. Photo by Angus McVicar.
Orpheum seating, 1942. Photo by George Stein.
1937 photo of the marquee advertising the movie Lost Horizon, starring Ronald Colman. Photo by Elwin Waste.
Orpheum lobby posters, 1945. Photo by Angus McVicar.
Picture of the lobby, 1927. Photo by Angus McVicar.
The projection room at the Orpheum, 1927. Photo by Angus McVicar.
Theatre seating from the stage, 1941. Photo by Elwin Waste.
Lobby posters, June, 1945. Photo by Angus McVicar.
The Bride Wore Red display at Woldenburg’s, an ad for the Orpheum’s showing of the movie in 1937. Joan Crawford’s dress from the movie can be seen in the back. Photo by Elwin Waste.
Stage set up for movies, circa 1954, Photo by Angus McVicar

While movies aren’t the mainstay of the theatre anymore, they do still show them in addition to providing us a wonderful venue for concerts and public events. If you’re ever in Madison, I recommend a visit to The Orpheum and the Capitol Theatres on State St. for a touch of Rapp and Rapp movie palace design.

photo by Sarah Owens

Sources:
The Isthmus – Madison’s Lost Theaters, January 12, 2017
Cinema Treasures
Wisconsin State Historical Society