Like every other aspect of Gone with the Wind, Hattie McDaniel is absolutely first-class as Mammy, the loving slave and later servant of Scarlett O’Hara. She may often get pushed in the background but the simple truth is – the character of Mummy is probably just as famous as that of Scarlett O’Hara. And all this is thanks to Hattie McDaniel’s talent to turn a one-dimensional character into a three-dimensional, memorable person.
Gone with the Wind is basically Vivien Leigh’s show but the movie is epic and long enough to let every character shine. And Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy is a lot of things at once: she is the movie’s comic relief, a task that Hattie McDaniel fulfils with utmost ease, she is a loving and loyal slave, a task that she fulfils again with utmost ease thanks to her warm and strong screen presence, but she is also the conscience of Scarlett, a woman who more than once says the things that Scarlett does not want to hear. Hattie McDaniel’s natural performance may often seem rather simple but a look closer at the character of Mammy shows a lot of unexpected and rich work.
Hattie McDaniel also works wonderful with the other cast members, especially Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable. Mammy isn’t afraid to say to Scarlett what she thinks and Rhett Butler describes her as one of the few people whose opinion he values. And Hattie McDaniel’s performance crafts a character that is justified to earn this high opinion. She is able to make you smile and appear very wise at the same time while never betraying the character she plays.
But Hattie McDaniel does not only provide laughs and gives good advice, she is also a wonderful actress, displayed in so many scenes. When she tells Scarlett about her mother and tries to give her courage when things become almost too difficult for Scarlett to handle them. But of course, her great highlight is when she tells Melanie about the death of Bonnie and what has happened between Scarlett and Rhett. In this short scene, she has to make the whole tragedy visible for the audience and succeeds on all levels. A heartbreaking moment because of what Mammy says but even more because of how she says it.
When Scarlett returns home to Tara, Mommy is one of the first person to welcome her – and we realize very quickly that we missed her just as much as she did. Considering the limits of the role and the focus of the movie, this is a grand achievement by a wonderful actress!