Gone With the Wind: Butterfly McQueen

A departmental friend came over for “Dinner and an Old School Movie” last night. We dined on Enchiladas from a Betty Crocker recipe that I highly recommend. There was a time when I used the Old El Paso enchilada kit, but then they began reducing the included ingredients until the box only included a seasoning pack and some tortillas. It was eventually removed from the shelves. Anyway, the Betty Crocker book provided a recipe that exceeded my expectations! The meal was so good that my friend even requested to take home the leftovers.

We watched Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. As modern viewers, I think we were more interested in seeing the birds attack than anything else. Shouting “Get ‘em” at the screen even became a viewing pastime for us. Although some online critics argue that the story was more about the relationships between the characters as opposed to the crazed birds, I don’t know if I’m necessarily buying that. Not to mention, by the film’s end I still wasn’t certain why the birds attacked in the first place. My friend and I decided that maybe we should consider reading the original short story by Daphne du Maurier, but it’s probably all talk.

After much chatter, we decided to watch the first half of Gone with the Wind. I’m familiar with the parodies, the characters, and the famous shots and quotes, but I’ve never seen the full movie, believe it or not. Again, I stress that we’ve only seen the first half, but I thought Butterfly McQueen (Prissy) played a stronger role that Hattie McDaniel (Mammy). In Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks, Donald Bogle writes that “Gone with the Wind was often criticized because the slaves were not shown taking up rifles against their former masters. But the really beautiful aspect of this film was not what was omitted but what was ultimately accomplished by the black actors who transformed their slaves into complex human beings” (88). So, how complex was the character of Prissy—best known for her high-pitched yells and over-dramatised deliveries in general? While the slaves featured in the film do appear overly happy and eager to please, so far Prissy seems to serve a different purpose. Her lie about knowing “all ’bout birthin’ babies” can be considered as more of a way for her to escape the usual plantation tasks, as noted by her wandering around outside singing as Scarlett peers out of a window. And like Scarlett, Prissy seems to know how to shed a few tears in an attempt for sympathy, although it appears to work for her more often than Scarlett.

Anyway, that was no film review. Just a few initial thoughts on a specific character from the film. Me being a research nerd, I had to look up some information on Butterfly McQueen, and fortunately I found some interesting stuff. So interesting that I decided to copy and paste the whole thing here.

It was on this date, January 8, 1911, that actress Thelma “Butterfly” McQueen was born in Tampa, Florida, the daughter of a stevedore and a domestic worker. Although she was raised a Christian, she began to question the value of organized religion as a child. She gave up her study of nursing to become an actress and dancer in New York and achieved some measure of success. She won her nickname, “Butterfly,” in the Butterfly Ballet sequence of Harlem Theater group’s 1935 Midsummer Night’s Dream, perhaps as a tribute to her fluttering hands.

McQueen’s stage and screen career tracks the way many blacks were treated in Hollywood and elsewhere in America from the 1920s through the 1950s. Few screen roles for black actresses were available and, when they were, the characters were invariably personifications of how racist white society saw Americans of African descent. McQueen’s first film role was uncredited: she played Lulu, the cosmetics counter maid in the 1939 film The Women.

She auditioned for David Selznick’s Gone With The Wind, but was initially rejected for the role of Prissy as too old (at age 28), too heavy and too dignified. Yet as the whiny, incompetent house slave, McQueen stole every scene she was in, and immortalized the line, “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies!”

“It was not a pleasant part to play,” McQueen said. “I didn’t want to be that little slave. But I did my best, my very best.” Although her performance was well noted, McQueen didn’t become a hot property in Hollywood. She was offered more maid roles, including Lottie in Mildred Pierce (1945) — but the role was uncredited. The Prissy role did little to further equal participation in society for black people, yet the available roles in film, and later on TV, rarely broke through the stereotype.

McQueen left the screen in 1950, working variously as a real-life maid, a waitress, a receptionist, a dance instructor, and a taxi dispatcher, with only occasional acting jobs. She returned briefly in 1974 and thereafter in TV roles, received a political science degree in 1975 (at age 64), and played Ma Kennywick in the 1986 film Mosquito Coast. She died of injuries suffered in a kerosene-heater accident at her Augusta, Georgia, home on 22 December 1995.

It is little known that Butterfly McQueen was a life-long Atheist. “As my ancestors are free from slavery,” she said, “I am free from the slavery of religion.”* The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) honored her as a “Freethought Heroine” in 1989 — the same year in which she was recognized during the 50th anniversary of Gone With the Wind. She had been an FFRF member since 1981 and remembered the organization in her will.

In remarks at the FFRF Convention in Atlanta, McQueen said, “If we had put the energy on earth and on people that we put on mythology and on Jesus Christ, we wouldn’t have any hunger or homelessness.” Christianity and studying the bible has, she said, “sapped our minds so we don’t know anything else.” She said she tithed not to religion but “to my friends,” spending her energy cleaning up the slums.

After her death, a Christian neighbor inconsiderately mused, “I believe she made it into heaven. She threw up both her hands as she was coming out of that burning house, and made it in with Jesus.” But it was Butterfly McQueen who said:

They say the streets are going to be beautiful in heaven. I’m trying to make the streets beautiful here. At least, in Georgia and in New York, I live on beautiful streets. … When it’s clean and beautiful, I think America is heaven. And some people are hell. (Source)

In conclusion, I’d like to make reference to Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone, a book that parodies Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. I read it several years ago, but didn’t really get what the big deal was at the time. Unfortunately, the book also received  quite a few bad reviews (the members of my former book group included). If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a bit of knowledge dated July 2001:

In the four months since the Mitchell estate first contended that ”The Wind Done Gone” is ”a blatant and wholesale theft of ‘Gone With the Wind,”’ Alice Randall has become the most famous first-time novelist in the world. Her status as a First Amendment cause célèbre — with novelists, scholars, and media corporations supporting her right to parody ”GWTW” — has proven instantly convertible to actual celebrity. Before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a lower court’s preliminary injunction against its publication, advance copies of ”The Wind Done Gone” were garnering $400 bids on eBay. Officially released on June 28, it’s a best-seller — No. 11 this week on The New York Times’ list. (Read more . . .)

Once I finish the movie, I believe I’ll move this book to the top of the re-read list. Happy reading, ya’ll.

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2 thoughts on “Gone With the Wind: Butterfly McQueen

  1. First of all – my roommate & I made some enchiladas the other day.I was so hesitant to try it because I am not a big fan of rice and beans – but – to my surprise it was very good.

    Also — I read Tom, Coons, and Mammies a couple of years back in a Black Women’s History Class. It was a good text.

    Like

  2. Miss McQueen failed to realize that she was brought into existence and resided on this planet for a time not through her own power and will, but that of her Creator’s, and that she had an obligation to worship and praise Him that she failed to do.

    Like

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