Saturday, January 8, 2011

A Tribute to Butterfly McQueen (Part 2)

So what happened to Butterfly once Gone with the Wind was over (you can read about her time on the GWTW set here)? She returned to New York to star as Puck in a very unconventional adaptation of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream called Swingin' the Dream. Described by one reviewer as a "lavish jitterbug extravaganza," Swinging' the Dream was based on a choreography by Agnes de Mille and opened at Center Theatre on November 29, 1939.  It transferred Shakespeare's tale to late 19th century New Orleans, during "The Birth of Swing," with a black and white cast, including among others Benny Goodman, Dorothy McGuire, Louis Armstrong, Maxine Sullivan, Juano Hernandez and Oscar Polk.

Unfortunately, this ambitious project that sounded very good in theory was a resounding failure. Critics unanimously bashed it and it closed after only one performance. It also put an end to  Butterfly's theatrical career. She returned to Hollywood where between 1941 and 1947 she was typecast as a maid in a host of films: Affectionately Yours in 1941 with Hattie McDaniel, I Dood It in 1943, Flame of the Barbary Coast and Mildred Pierce in 1945 and Duel in the Sun in 1946. (Her appearance in Selznick's Since You Went Away in 1944 did not survive editing.)

One exception in this succession is the musical Cabin in the Sky from 1942, where Butterfly played a friend to Ethel Waters' Petunia. Cabin in the Sky had started as a very successful  all-black Broadway musical, but MGM's decision to turn it into a movie and its black cast raised concerns both from studio executives that were afraid the movie would fail to make money (especially in the South) and from the black press that feared the cliche depiction of black characters Hollywood had accustomed them to expect. But director Vincente Minnelli that had set out to "never knowingly offend blacks... or anyone else for that matter" managed to create a balanced film for the standard of the time. It should be noted, however, that Butterfly was not very happy on the set of this film, where she felt everyone and especially Lena Horne treated her with contempt.

In 1946, following her appearance in Duel in the Sun, Butterfly McQueen issued a statement that she wouldn't appear in any more comic maid roles, the kind of roles that were almost exclusively available to black actresses in the 1940s. She found herself unemployable in show business and took on a variety of jobs in factories, shops and restaurants. She also attended a number of courses at five different colleges over the years and in 1975, aged sixty-four, graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in political science from New York’s City College.

In 1948, she appeared in Killer Dealer, a movie produced independently, outside of Hollywood and directed mostly at black audiences. And somewhat contrary to her resolution, in 1950 she starred as a scatterbrained maid in the ABC show Beulah, along with Ethel Waters. Her one-woman show at Carnegie Recital Hall in New York in 1951 (in which she invested her life savings) was unsuccessful. During the 1950s and later, she  only occasionally appeared in minor shows and spectacles, but continued to be remembered fondly for her role in Gone with the Wind.

So what is the legacy of Butterfly McQueen in the world of Gone with the Wind? Her portrayal of Prissy was disliked by Margaret Mitchell and a few other reviewers, but acclaimed by the majority. For the black community, it was iconic of the degrading manner in which African Americans were presented in popular culture at the time and many remembered the moment Scarlett slaps her, as well as Prissy's antics in themselves, as things that were deeply embarrassing to watch. (We will perhaps have a post exploring the black community's reaction to Gone with the Wind.) The depiction of the Prissy character in itself, both in the book and in the movie, is one of the most controversial and most widely condemned aspects of Gone with the Wind and rightly so. 

Donald Bogle in Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films gives another, more forgiving interpretation to Prissy's part in Gone with the Wind as played by Butterfly McQueen:
"Some observers saw Butterfly as the stock darky figure. But there was much more to her performance. Had she been a mere pickaninny, she might have engendered hostility or embarrassed audiences. Instead she seemed to provide an outlet for the repressed fears of the audience. That perhaps explains why everyone laughed hysterically at her hysterics. For during the crisis sequences, the film built beautifully, and there was a need for release. Mere comic relief of the old type would have been vulgar. But because of her artistic mayhem, her controlled fright, and her heightened awareness and articulation of the emotions of the audiences, Butterfly McQueen seemed to flow wonderfully with the rest of the film. She had a pleasant waiflike quality, too, not in the patronizing style of The Green Pastures, in which the grown-up people behaved like rambunctious idiot children, but in a special, purely personal way. Tiny and delicate, Butterfly McQueen seemed to ask for protection and was a unique combination of the comic and the pathetic."
And to end this on a high note, here's a very touching moment recounted by David Thompson who interviewed Butterfly while researching for the documentary The Making of a Legend: “Gone With the Wind” "some time in the late ’80s":
"So we moved to a kind of island in the middle of the street, sat down there on a stone wall and did the interview. I suppose she was shy or afraid of going anywhere else. Well, considering the circumstances, it was a good interview— and later on, Butterfly was properly filmed for the documentary. But the most beautiful thing happened. Because of where we were, many people were passing close by all the time we were talking. But the crowd was often too dense to see anything clearly. Well, all of a sudden a young white woman crossing the street cried out, “Gone With the Wind!” She had heard Butterfly’s voice, without seeing her, and made the connection. And this young woman went down on her knees before Butterfly to thank her for the film. It was very touching and entirely natural."

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