Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Birthday Girl: a Little Song and Dance

Miss Hattie McDaniel would have been 119 today.  In her honor, let's give ourselves a little present.

Here she is doing something she too rarely got the chance to do:  cut loose.  She presides over this number in a way that nicely shows off the years of touring she did between the First World War and her first brush with Hollywood in the early '30s.  "Ice Cold Katie," from the 1942 Warners all-star revue Thank Your Lucky Stars, may not be a deathless moment in the Hollywood musical, but what fun it is to see McDaniel for once out of maid drag and having a good time.

McDaniel shares her birthday with a woman just a little more associated with gala musical moments - Judy Garland.  In a better world, they might have made pictures together - how amazing it could have been to have them in one place, trading double-takes and plotting some mischief guaranteed to garner one or both a fella and the starring spot in the big finale.  File it under might-have-been...

Even after a century, the movie camera remains a mystery:  what is that makes it so adore some people?  Both our birthday girls are perfect examples: in many ways so unpromising and yet, the moment either is in front of the lens - who else matters?  Garland was small and odd of figure, saucer-eyed from some angles and all nose and sloping chin from another; McDaniel was essentially spherical. What they lacked in conventional appeal, though, was immaterial in the face of the kind of charisma that reads today as vibrantly, as immediately as it first did 75 years ago. Garland's reputation needs little defending, but who, given so little, did as much as Hattie McDaniel?  In Gone With the Wind, I'm especially fond of her bits with Clark Gable, little moments that make it clear that they may be the only two people in the whole saga who truly have each other's measure.

"Katie" wasn't her first on-screen musical outing; she held her own with Paul Robeson in Show Boat and served as a dutiful audience to Mae West in I'm No Angel.   Here, though, she's center stage and quite entirely at home.  Think (and rue) what might have been, but still - enjoy.

1 comment:

  1. Quite marvelous, I just coincidentally watched this a few weeks ago and the movie, a fun but patchy affair, came alive during her number.

    That's an interesting point too about how the camera loves some people. It brought to mind a little B movie called Private Detective. It was one of Jane Wyman's first leads and she was co-starred with Gloria Dickson, a pretty blonde that Warners tried hard to make a star. In their scenes the blush of stardom is all over Jane, not only is she far more animated than Gloria but she registers on screen in a way that Dickson does not and never would. Dickson died in a house fire a few years on but by then her big chance had passed and she had fallen far down on the cast list. But the camera found some internal connection with Jane, something innate that she shared with Hattie & Judy, perhaps not even visible in person that jumped through the lens and made them magnetic.