By James Colt Harrison
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the David O. Selznick production of Gone With the Wind. In all that time, millions of people around the globe have seen the film, often more than once. The film was a grand adaptation of author Margaret Mitchell’s hit novel about the Old South and the Civil War. And, again, millions of people read the book before seeing the movie. The book is still a bestseller to this day. The movie adaptation was literally crammed with interesting characters such as Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), Melanie (Olivia de Havilland), Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), and the O’Hara sisters Suellen (Evelyn Keyes), Careen (Ann Rutherford) and of course, Scarlett (Vivien Leigh).
However, in a cast of brilliant supporting actors, one actress has stood out from all the rest because she was unique. The actress also had an unusual name that made her stand out from the crowd. She was Butterfly McQueen who played the house servant Prissy. Who can forget that high, squeaky voice of hers? One critic described it as “the itsy-little voice faded over the horizon of comprehension.”
She was born Thelma McQueen January 7, 1911 in Tampa, Florida. Ironically, her mother was a maid and her father worked as a stevedore. She had always wanted to study nursing and have that be her profession, but a sharp-eyed teacher suggested she try acting because she had that “something special.” Although McQueen went to public grade school in Augusta, Georgia, she graduated from a Long Island high school.
At this time she took an interest in dance. She studied with Janet Collins and later with Geoffrey Holder. Years later in 1974, Holder cast her in the original Broadway musical The Wiz as the Queen of the Field Mice. She was cut from that role before the show hit New York, but she was re-cast for the Broadway run as Addaperle. Starring in that show were Hinton Battle, Stephanie Mills, and Andre DeShields, all relative unknowns at the time. McQueen continued with her dance studies in her early years and danced for a time with the Venezuela Jones Negro Youth Group. This led to her joining the famed Katherine Dunham Dancers for a time.
Her unusual name was earned when she appeared in a Butterfly Ballet production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Fellow dancers teased her about her flowing arm movements and hand flutters and nicknamed her “Butterfly.” She liked the name so much (and she hated her own name of Thelma) she had it legally changed. Little did she know it would put her on the show business map of recognition.
Legendary producer/director George Abbott cast McQueen in Brown Sugar, her first Broadway show. The show had an all black cast of performers in which Butterfly stood out. Rumor has it she appeared in several other Abbott shows, but there doesn’t seem to be a record of them.
Inexplicably, McQueen made the huge leap from Broadway to Hollywood around 1938-39. Somehow she landed at MGM and appeared in two successful films. Although The Women, starring Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer, was filmed after Gone With the Wind, it was released to theaters first. McQueen had a small part of a sales assistant to Joan Crawford.
McQueen’s actual first role in Hollywood was that of dithering, irresponsible Prissy, a young maid in Selznick’s Gone With the Wind. She made a huge impression on audiences because of her high-pitched voice. And, she entered Hollywood history by speaking the line remembered by everyone when she excitedly said, “I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ babies!” Although movie-goers loved her, she did not like the role as she felt it demeaning to African Americans. It was a different time and attitudes were the opposite of what they are today. She herself said in later years that, “Now I am happy I did Gone With the Wind. I wasn’t when I was 28, but it’s a part of black history. You have no idea how hard it is for black actors, but things change, things blossom in time.”
In the early 1940s she began appearing on comedian Jack Benny’s popular radio show as Eddie “Rochester” Anderson’s niece and as a maid to Jack’s wife, Mary Livingstone. Also during World War II she parlayed her Benny radio experience to gain work on the Armed Forces Radio Network’s broadcast of Jubilee in many comic parts. She entertained the troops overseas with her screamingly funny portrayals.
In 1943 she was cast in the all-Black musical Cabin In The Sky, as directed by Vincente Minnelli at MGM. It was a ground-breaking film as adapted from the hit stage show. Starring was the gorgeous singer Lena Horne, Eddie Anderson, Ethel Waters and Louis Armstrong. Later that year she went to another sound stage on the MGM lot and worked with Red Skelton and dancer Eleanor Powell in the musical comedy I Dood It (1943).
Republic Studios called her for a part in 1945’s Flame of the Barbary Coast, a John Wayne action film with Virginia Gray and Ann Dvorak. It was the first film in which Wayne used the name “Duke,” later his trademark.
She continued in films and appeared with Joan Crawford for a second time in Crawford’s Oscar®-winning role in Mildred Pierce at Warner Bros. in 1945. McQueen seemed to be fortunate in being cast in major films, albeit in small parts. Her resume also includes the blockbuster Duel in the Sun (1946), once again for producer David O. Selznick, which starred Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotton and Lionel Barrymore. Miss Jones and Lillian Gish both received Academy Award® nominations.
In 1947 she decided to leave films because she was tired of playing stereotypes. So, what does she do? She signed a contract to appear in the Beulah television series from 1950 to 1953 playing Oriole—a maid!
Television seemed to have room for McQueen, and she appeared on many of the top shows such as Lux Video Theatre and Hallmark Hall of Fame in the 1950s.
She took time out from acting to attend college and got a Bachelor’s degree in political science at City College of New York in 1975 at age 64.
Returning to television, she played a significant part on ABC’s Weekend Special program in 1978. When she was invited to play a character named Aunt Thelma on the ABC Afterschool Special in 1979, she won a Daytime Emmy Award statuette for her acting. She was finally recognized for her acting abilities at age 68. After winning her Emmy, she appeared in two television movie versions of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in 1981 and 1985.
Miss McQueen never married and never had any children. She would divide her time between her home in New York for the summers and a little cottage in Augusta, Georgia during the winters.
One more major film was on her agenda. She appeared in Mosquito Coast in 1986 with Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren, and River Phoenix. Her final television movie was Polly, completed in 1989.
On December 22, 1995, a fire broke out in her small cottage when she attempted to light a kerosene heater. The house caught fire and McQueen was badly burned. After being taken to the Augusta Regional Medical Center, she died of her burns at age 84. She will always be remembered for her bubbly personality and her lovable comic manner.
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