Hattie McDaniel and Rita Moreno. Both were trailblazing women in onscreen performances that earned them an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. On Tuesday night, October 18th, you can see them work on TCM. Rita Moreno will converse with actress, producer, director, film historian and all-around totally cool dame Illeana Douglas for this month's fascinating look at Trailblazing Women in Film. If you don't get to watch TCM, you can still see these two films as they are available on DVD. Both films have a strong core of racial inequality in their story lines. Let's start with the pair that pairs Hattie McDaniel again with GONE WITH THE WIND co-star, Olivia de Havilland. The movie is called IN THIS OUR LIFE. This 1942 drama starred Bette Davis as a bad sister and de Havilland as her good sister. The bad sister is out to steal her good sister's man. Underneath that relative bitchiness is a modern-day statement on race. The career of Hattie McDaniel was also a modern-day statement on race.
If you've seen GONE WITH THE WIND, remember the heartbreaking staircase scene with Hattie McDaniel and Olivia de Havilland? I'm sure that's the scene that got Hattie the Oscar. It looks simple onscreen, but it's very complicated. It looks to be just two grief-stricken women walking up a long staircase as one woman tells the other of all the recent tragedies that befell the household in which she works. But Hattie has a lot of dialogue in that scene and her character must be emotionally heavy as she delivers it. The two actresses have specific marks to hit as they ascend the staircase, marks to hit for the technical aspects such as lighting and camera angles. Hattie McDaniel deserved that Oscar.
But Hattie McDaniel was black. Would a top Hollywood studio give her a script based on the life of humanitarian, educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune, a woman who was an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt?
The script to that John Huston film brought something new and significant to the black maid role in a 1940s Hollywood movie.
In 1943's THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS, Hattie McDaniel and Olivia de Havilland don't have a scene together but they are both stand-outs in this all-star musical comedy from Warner Brothers. It's a wartime feature meant to showcase the studio's stars appearing as themselves and putting on a show. Olivia de Havilland does a lively jitterbug number with Ida Lupino. Hattie is a hit singing "Ice Cold Katie" in a 1940s swing number with a military angle. It's one of the best numbers in the movie.
The next and last time Hattie got a significant musical assignment in a movie was in a 1946 Disney movie. She was a mammy again. A plantation mammy singing the upbeat tune, "Sooner or Later," as she cooked in the kitchen. In that movie too, she displayed major charisma and a solid screen acting skills.
Rita Moreno proved that she could do more than play fiery Latina roles. We see her in 1952's MGM classic SINGIN' IN THE RAIN and as Tuptin in 1956's THE KING AND I. She does a knock-out send-up of Marilyn Monroe in the 1956 comedy THE LIEUTENANT WORE SKIRTS. Then came the successful movie version of the hit Broadway musical drama, WEST SIDE STORY. She played Anita in this reworking of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet with rival gangs in a racial turf war in urban Manhattan. It's whites versus the Puerto Ricans.
But just like with Hattie McDaniel, other Hollywood scripts with roles for her as good as the one that earned her an Oscar were not plentiful. She turned to television and to Broadway.
You know Dorothy Dandridge was also a trailblazer. She was the first black woman to be nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award. She was up against Judy Garland for 1954's A STAR IS BORN and Grace Kelly in THE COUNTRY GIRL for her performance as CARMEN JONES, an all-black musical update of the opera CARMEN by Bizet. Dorothy Dandridge burns up the screen in CARMEN JONES. Although she slammed across a performance that made Oscar history with her nomination and she was one gorgeous, talented actress, she was black. The next big offer she got, I read, was to play Tuptim in THE KING AND I. Dandridge passed on the supporting role and it went to Rita Moreno. Dandridge's next lead role in a major Hollywood film was also her last film. Again, she displayed solid dramatic skills, glamour and charisma in another musical drama. She had the lead in 1959's PORGY AND BESS. Think about it. A breakthrough performance that made her a Best Actress of 1954 Oscar nominee, then no lead role in another Hollywood film until 1959 because of the color barrier.
Like Hattie McDaniel, Rita won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress -- and it was the only Oscar nomination she and Hattie received. With all that talent. I'd love to see Rita get a really juicy movie script that puts her again in the running for some Hollywood gold.
IN THIS OUR LIFE airs at 8p Eastern on TCM on Tuesday, Oct. 18th followed by WEST SIDE STORY.
Here's to TRAILBLAZING WOMEN IN FILM.
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