Saturday, March 1, 2014

FEBRUARY 29 = "Leap Day" & Hattie Wins Oscar

"It is... slightly inac- curate to calculate an additional 6 hours each year. A better approx- imation, derived from the Alfonsine tables, is that the Earth makes a complete revolution around the sun in 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes, and 16 seconds. To compensate for the difference, an end-of-century year is not a leap year unless it is also exactly divisible by 400. This means that the years 1600 and 2000 were leap years, as will be 2400 and 2800, but the years 1700, 1800 and 1900 were not, nor will 2100, 2200 and 2300."

"Wikipedia" on "Leap Day"

OK.... normally I just try to absorb information into (what passes for) my brain, and then write it out in my own words. But this little bit was just too eh... scientific sounding for me to put into my own words so I just quote "Wikipedia" (an excellent on-line resource, by the way, which I use quite frequently) directly. What they are basically saying there is that it takes the earth 365 days plus six hours (and change) to make a full revolution around the sun. So in order to make up for the extra time, we add this one day - February 29 - once every four years so we have a FULL revolution. The "leap day" was brought into the calender in the Julian reform. This was the revision of the calender by our old friend Julius Caesar (the first Emperor of Rome) in 46 BC. It took effect the following year, 45 BC . "Terminalia" (February 23) was doubled, and this formed the "bis sextum" — literally 'double sixth'. February 29 eventually got picked as the "leap day" when the Roman system of numbering days was replaced by sequential numbering by time of the the later Middle Ages. The picture is of the "Roman Missal" ( a book showing texts for the Catholic Mass) showing how the Leap Day shifts commemorations in 1962.

SO!! With all of that understood (I HOPE!!) let us get along to something that happened on this Leap Day in 1940 to wind up "Black History Month":

On today's date in 1940, the African American Actress Hattie McDaniel (right) became the first black performer ever to be awarded an Academy Award, for her portrayal of the character of "Mammy" in the 1939 MGM movie "Gone With the Wind". While this was most certainly a signal honor for Miss McDaniel, many African Americans have over the years expressed discomfort and in many cases outright hostility towards the role for what many see as it's stereotypical portrayal of a black character.

Hattie Begins in Radio, and Moves to Pictures

Hattie McDaniel was born on June 10, 1895, the youngest of thirteen children of former slaves, Henry McDaniel, a civil War veteran, and Susan Holbert, a singer of religious music. Clearly, Hattie inherited her mother's flair for music -- she soon began a career which took her onto the comparatively new medium of radio, becoming the first black woman to sing on radio in America. Soon she made it to Hollywood and began appearing in films such as "I'm No Angel" (1932, opposite Mae West), and "Judge Priest" (1934) in which she sang along and became friends with the famed humorist Will Rogers. More often than not playing the role of a maid, she continued to have roles in movies such as "The Shopworn Angel" (1938) in which she starred with Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, with whom she became good friends.

"Gone With the Wind" - Her Most Famous Role

But it was with her portrayal of  "Mammy"  the strong and irreverent maid to the O'Hara family in the 1939 epic ,"Gone With the Wind" that McDaniel had her most famous role, and the one which won her an Oscar. Black roles were hard to come by in Hollywood in these days of segregated America, let alone an important central role such as the character of Mammy in an important movie, surely THE most important movie of it's era. One could hardly fault a character actress such as McDaniel for snapping it up when it came her way (in MY humble opinion). The role is of a very strong woman who never hesitates for a moment to speak her mind to any other character in the film. She also frequently serves as the conscience to the lead character of "Scarlett O'Hara" played by Vivien Leigh, with whom she is pictured above. Nevertheless, the role is one of several in this film which cast an almost nostalgic look upon the days of slavery in America. This idea that the old south was populated by slaves who had an almost fond and affectionate attitude towards their largely benevolent masters, was of course a myth to say the least. And many African Americans then and since have come to look upon the role played by McDaniel and other roles in the film as perpetuating a damaging stereotype of members of their race. McDaniel herself dismissed these charges as class-based biases against domestics, a claim with which many of the white newspaper columnists seemed to sympathize. And she reportedly said,"Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn't, I'd be making $7 a week being one."

Hattie Wins the Oscar for "GWTW"!!

At the film's premiere in Atlanta, McDaniel was not permitted into the audience in the strictly segregated south. Her friend Clark Gable had angrily threatened to boycott the Atlanta premiere in protest, but McDaniel talked him out of this. At the Hollywood premiere, she was allowed to attend, and the film went on to huge success. McDaniel was awarded the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress of 1939 at the Twelfth Academy Awards which were held on this date in 1940 at the Coconut Grove of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Even here, there was strict segregation with McDaniel being relegated to a table with her escort by itself, away from her "Gone With the Wind" co-stars. Her acceptance speech which is said to have been written for her was brief but eloquent:

"Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you."

She then left the podium before dissolving into tears.


Directed by Victor Fleming, MGM, 1939


Leap Day =

Hattie McDaniel =

Hattie with Vivien Leigh =

+ 100.
+ 64.

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