Tuesday, December 27, 2005

"It's Hard To Please Both Sides When You Have To Eat"

Hello from Michigan - where I am visiting The Family for the holidays. My fears of falling into a snow bank and freezing to death might have been exaggeration on my part (Me? Exaggerate? Never!) The weather has been downright mild. Temps in the 40s with most of the snow melting to the point of extinction.

My reading time here as been largely nil, but I did wrap up one book on the flight out - The Charade by Laura Lee Guhrke. I normally enjoy Guhrke's work (Breathless and To Dream Again were both keepers), but this one fell flat. I suspect because it is set in colonial America, which is a "hard sell" for me and the fact that both characters were spies. Spies have a tendency to lie - a lot. And frankly with a heroine torn by both sides (spy for the British or for the hero), it's hard to see a love match. But it's well written (typical of Guhrke), so if you go for spies and colonial settings this one is worth a look.

I'm taking a break from fiction at the moment and am working on a biography - Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood by Jill Watts. I saw a review for this somewhere, and having loved McDaniel as "Mammy" in Gone With The Wind, I thought I'd give this one a go. While it's a bit dry in parts, it's interesting reading.

As one would suspect, McDaniel took a lot of heat for her roles in white Hollywood. What Watts points out is how McDaniel took those stereotypical mammy/maid/servant roles in early Hollywood and transformed them into quiet social commentary. What I always liked about McDaniel's work (she also did a fun movie called China Seas with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow that is work catching), is that this is a woman with a lot of pride. She exudes it. It pours off the screen. And in fact, the way she portrayed Mammy in GWTW is truly exceptional. Mammy is the only character in that movie who has got everybody's number. She sees through Scarlett's manipulations. She knows Rhett is a rogue. In fact, Rhett strives to earn Mammy's respect - even stating, "She is one of the few people I know whose respect I'd like to have." In real life Clark Gable and McDaniel were good friends.

Especially enlightening is the life of McDaniel's father - a former Tennessee slave who fought for the Union cause and spent the rest of his life with debilitating war injuries. The treatment he received from the US government (he fought for years to get a meager veteran's pension) was deplorable, but sadly all too typical. How Hattie, her father, and her family didn't turn completely bitter is beyond me - instead the family believed in hard work and sacrifice. In fact, Hattie got into the entertainment industry (she was also a blues singer) largely because of the Depression. Domestic work dried up, and the family had to eat.

One suspects the author had to really scrounge for her research. McDaniel probably never figured on anyone being interested in her life, and given the amount of heat she took from the black community, it's amazing that Watts was able to dig up what she did. It's been a thought provoking read so far - especially when one considers the question - could the black stars of that era done more to change white Hollywood?

No comments: