Friday, January 7, 2011

A Tribute to Butterfly McQueen

Since tomorrow is the centenary of Butterfly McQueen's birthday (it is tomorrow, even though the whole internet seems to think it's today), we're going to honor her by having two posts discussing her life and career before and after Gone with the Wind. The first is this one you're reading right now and the second will be up tomorrow. To this end, we relied on Butterfly McQueen Remembered, a biography of the actress written by Stephen Bourne. It's a book we heartily recommend you to buy, both for the details on Butterfly herself and for the wealth of information concerning the trajectory of other black actors in movies and plays  of the time. So, let's proceed.

Before Gone with the Wind

Butterfly’s real name was Thelma MacQueen. She was born in Tampa, Florida, on January 8* 1911, the sole daughter of Wallace MacQueen, a stevedore on the Tampa docks, and Mary, a domestic servant. Her parents divorced in 1916 and 5-year-old Thelma was sent to live with her uncle and aunt, James and Ida Richardson, in Augusta, Georgia, while Mary MacQueen took on a variety of full-time jobs all along the East Coast in order to be able to support both herself and her daughter. She eventually found a stable job as a cook in Harlem, New York City and sent for Thelma to join her.

Thelma attended Public School 9 on West Eighty-third Street and high school in Babylon, Long Island, New York (where her mother had found work as a servant to a white family). After she graduated from high school, she attended the Lincoln Training School for Nursing in the Bronx, that she was soon to quit, distressed by the particulars of the nursing profession and having flunked her chemistry course. She then worked as a children’s nurse and briefly in a factory, before taking on acting, at the advice of one of her old teachers.

In 1934, Thelma joined Venezuela Jones’ Negro Youth Theatre Group in Harlem,  functioning under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, and was cast in an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to be staged at the New York City College. According to one source, in this period Thelma studied dancing with Janet Collins, Katherine Dunham and Geoffrey Holder, and canto with Adelaide Hall, all of them pioneers of African American stage performance.

It was during the rehearsals for this play that Thelma acquired the nickname Butterfly, though the accounts for how she did so differ significantly. One version of the story is that she danced in the “Butterfly Ballet” in A Midsummer’s Night Dream and the nickname stuck. According to another, more credible version, the “Butterfly Ballet” was actually part of a school “playlet” called Aunt Sophronia at College that Thelma had participated in as a little girl and of which she had very fond memories: “We had on beautiful gold tights—and wings with spangles! Oh, it was the loveliest ballet you ever did see.” When she joined the New York dramatic group, the members of which had more theatrical experience than she did, she would say, “I was in the Butterfly Ballet,” to be on par with their stories of Broadway performances and nightclubs gigs. Her friend Ruth Moore, also a member of the group, suggested she adopted Butterfly as her professional name. And so Thelma MacQueen easily became Butterfly McQueen, both on and off stage.

Butterfly’s debut on Broadway was in the all-black melodrama Brown Sugar, which opened at the Biltmore Theatre on December 2, 1937. The story goes that Butterfly (or rather her distinctive voice) made such an impression on Broadway producer George Abbott during her audition for this play that the latter created the role of parlor maid Lucille especially for her. Brown Sugar was unsuccessful and closed after only four performances, but critics agreed on the potential of young Butterfly. New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson went as far as to say that Abbott should be credited for nothing more than “appreciating the extraordinary artistry of a high-stepping, little dusky creature who describes herself as Butterfly McQueen. Butterfly has something on the ball." Abbott himself was also pleased with her performance and distributed her in his next play, What a Life in 1938.

It was her success in this play that would ultimately bring her to David O. Selznick’s attention. Butterfly had tried to approach one of Selznick’s representatives in New York before, at the advice of her friend Ruth Moore, but to no avail. Ruth had read Gone with the Wind, and recognized the career-making opportunity for her friend: “She ran up to me and said that in today’s news was a story about Gone With the Wind and David O. Selznick is going to make it into a movie and you go down to his Park Avenue office and tell them you are Prissy,” the actress later recalled.

However, Mr. Bundamann, Selznick’s representative and the man Butterfly introduced herself to as Prissy, considered her wholly unsuitable for the role: “You’re too old—too fat—and too dignified for the part. You could never be Prissy.” Luckily, David O. Selznick himself would have a different opinion. Following her breakthrough in George Abbott’s plays, Butterfly was approached by Selznick’s agents, and by the end of 1938 her screen tests were over and her contract was signed. No other contenders seem to have been seriously considered for the part, though Butterfly McQueen does mention that the wife of Oscar Polk (Pork) was up for the part as well, only that “she was much too pretty” to get it. 

Filming Gone with the Wind

Butterfly travelled from New York to Hollywood on January 15, 1939. Her first scenes in Gone with the Wind were filmed under George Cukor, but her relationship with the director didn’t run too smoothly. In the 1988 documentary The Making of a Legend, Butterfly remembers how she bargained with Cukor so that Vivien Leigh wouldn’t slap her for real in the famous “I don't know nothin' 'bout birthing babies!"” sequence. Leigh would pretend to hit her, Butterfly would scream in pain and the noise of the blow would be dubbed over the shot. In the same documentary, cameraman Harry Wolf remembers the preliminaries to this bargain somewhat differently: “In the middle of the shot Butterfly McQueen broke out in tears and she says, ‘I can’t do it! She’s hurting me!’ And Cukor got very incensed and he said, ‘I’m the director and I’ll tell you when to cut the shot.’”

Susan Myrick described Cukor’s behavior towards Butterfly as just light teasing. In her Southern Macon Telegraph column, where she gave reports of the filming of Gone with Wind, she wrote that “Cukor has gone Southern with a vengeance and quotes from the book constantly, threatening to sell Butterfly down the river if she doesn’t get the action just right or calling a prop man to get the Simon Legree whip. It is all in good fun, of course, and Prissy enjoys the joke as much as any of us.” The dubious taste of racist jokes aside, “Prissy” didn’t seem to interpret Cukor’s attitude towards her as part of “good fun.” When Cukor left Gone with the Wind and went on to direct The Women, he offered Butterfly McQueen a small uncredited role as Lulu, the maid on the cosmetics counter. Here’s what Butterfly had to say about working with him for that film:
"Gone With the Wind suspended operations temporarily, and Mr. Cukor asked me to be in The Women during this interim. The hurt I felt in having Mr. Cukor scream at me for some mistake I made, I remember vividly and will take with me to my grave. I believe his sole purpose in giving me the small part in The Women was to have the opportunity to vent his frustrations on me. In the employ of a David O. Selznick, he could not have done such a thing. I remember the look of co-operation (in his hatred) on the face of Anita Loos when he unleashed his fury upon me. Mr. Selznick soon had us again on the set of Gone With the Wind."
--In Murray Summers, “Butterfly McQueen Was One of The Women Too,” Filmograph 3, no. 4 (1973), 7–8. 
Excepting Cukor, Butterfly had nice things to say about her fellow actors involved in the Melanie giving birth & leaving Atlanta scene: “Olivia made us laugh and laugh. There she’d be, lying on her bed in labor, screaming ‘Scarlett! Scarlett!’ and as soon as the scene was over, she’d jump up and start telling us all jokes. And Clark Gable was such a considerate gentleman. Did you know that he was a boy scout leader?” (in Guy Flatley, “Butterfly’s Back in Town,” The New York Times, July 21, 1968, 18.) 

In later interviews, she recalls standing up to Sam Woods in a scene at Tara immediately after the war, when she was supposed to eat watermelon ("I’d do anything they asked, but I wouldn’t let Scarlett slap me, and I wouldn’t eat watermelon. I was very sensitive about that. Of course, thinking about it now, I probably could have had fun just eating that watermelon and spitting out the pips while everyone went by.”) and being disappointed with the silly part she had to play. This 1974 interview sums up her experience, with its ups and downs:
"I was the only unhappy one in that film because I didn’t know they were going to be so authentic. And Mr. Selznick understood. He was a very understanding man. He knew it was a stupid part and I was an intelligent person and he thoroughly agreed with me that it wasn’t a very pleasant part to play. However, I did my best. My very best. And Mammy said, 'You’ll never come to Hollywood again. You complain too much.' One day Clark Gable said to me, 'What’s the matter, Prissy?' As if to say, 'If they’re not nice to you around here, I have some pull.' But I was just generally unhappy. I didn’t want to be that little slave. I didn’t want to play that stupid part. I was just whining and crying. I was a stupid girl. That’s what Prissy was. Hahahahahaha. . . . But now I get more for a one-night stand on a college campus, twice as much as I did for a full week then. One never knows what the agent received under the table but I received only $200 a week. And Selznick kept me on the payroll longer than anyone because he appreciated my efforts. My contract was for only six weeks, but I was there for almost a full year, just to speak a wild line like 'Miss Scarlett! Miss Scarlett!' Clark Gable was a perfect gentleman. And Vivien Leigh worked so hard."
--In Tinkerbelle, “McQueen for a Day,” Andy Warhol’s Interview 4, no. 11, November 1974, 18–19
To read more about what other people thought of Butterfly's performance as Prissy and what her career was like after Gone with Wind join us tomorrow!

* Most internet sources give January 7 as Butterfly McQueen's birth date. Though her birth certificate will technically only be accessible starting with tomorrow (because Florida has a hundred-year rule to releasing official records), according to Stephen Bourne, a copy of a Social Security application Thelma filled in in 1937 was located by genealogist Deborah Montgomorie and in it she writes her date of birth as January 8. The large majority of printed encyclopedias that include McQueen also list January 8 as her birthday, so there is plenty of reason to consider it valid, even though the combined authority of IMDB and wikipedia disagrees.


  1. Great job! The combination of wiki and imdb don't really mean much. Looking forward to more!

  2. Very nice job on this! I would consider you a more reliable source than wikipedia and imdb. Thanks for sharing! I really do enjoy this, even if I don't always comment.


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