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Butterfly McQueen (8 January 1911 – 22 December 1995)

Affectionately Yours

By Rachel RobbinsPublished 2 months ago Updated 2 months ago 6 min read
Top Story - January 2024
26
Affectionately Yours (1941)

During the filming of Affectionately Yours (1941), Merle Oberon told friends that the film was a “dud”. And she wasn’t wrong. It is a mis-step of a comedy, based on the idea that two intelligent and exceptionally beautiful women would care about and compete over a philandering liar. Big names and talents wasted on a silly, pointless script. It is not just my 21st century sensibilities that baulk at the chaotic, broad comedy. It did poorly at the time, finishing 166th at the box office for 1941, despite the three-way draw of Rita Hayworth, Merle Oberon and Dennis Morgan. It also had the talents of Academy award winner Hattie McDaniel in yet another maid role. And the unique voice and spirit of Butterfly McQueen is used merely to punctuate the comedy with shrieks and laughs. (Notice neither of them make it onto the poster…)

This is a trite comedy, that underlines the problem of 1940s Hollywood with women and race. The black women get to play maids with no story-line of their own. Margarita Cansino has had electrolysis on her hairline and the remaining hair dyed red, to camouflage her Spanish heritage before changing her name to Rita Hayworth. And Merle Oberon, the English Rose, is frantically using skin lightening products to hide her South Asian origins. None of the women in the film have interesting back stories. They are simply foil to Dennis Morgan’s double-crossing and physical comedy.

Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen in Affectionately Yours

This month marks Butterfly McQueen’s birthday. She was born Thelma MacQueen on 8 January 1911 and started her performing career as a dancer. It is suggested that she chose the name Butterfly after a ballet performance in Midsummer’s Night Dream.

But it is her voice that distinguishes her on the big screen in the talkies of the 1930s and 1940s – high-pitched, child-like screams and charming chuckles.

Butterfly appeared in a range of high-profile films – some of the biggest of the era. She had her biggest break in the biggest film of them all – Gone with the Wind (1939), where she played Prissy, Scarlett’s enslaved maid - the first of many maid roles. As she said:

"I didn't mind playing a maid the first time, because I thought that was how you got into the business. But after I did the same thing over and over, I resented it. I didn't mind being funny, but I didn't like being stupid."

Butterfly McQueen as Prissy in Gone with the Wind (1939)

Butterfly, along with Hattie McDaniel, was unable to attend the premiere as it played in a whites-only cinema in Atlanta.

It was a problematic role in a problematic film. As Malcolm X wrote in his biography:

“I was the only Negro in the theater, and when Butterfly McQueen went into her act, I felt like crawling under the rug”

Butterfly McQueen and Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945)

She appeared in other big pictures such as The Women (1939) (as an uncredited sales assistant) and as domestic help in Mildred Pierce (1945) (again uncredited, despite scenes of dialogue with the star). However even in those brief appearances, she is easily recognisable by her “on the edge” energy, underpinned by that voice. Despite the obvious stereotyping, Butterfly made a distinct contribution to all the films she appeared in.

Butterfly grew disillusioned with Hollywood and quit to take other jobs in stage, radio and whatever else she could take to pay her way, including sales assistant, a taxi dispatcher and community social work.

Her life was very much that of a jobbing actor. She was resourceful and produced her own cabaret act. Sometimes her career reached heights like appearing in the original Broadway production of The Wiz, or an Emmy for her acting in Children’s TV. But there was also the lows of suing security guards, who having mistaken her as a pickpocket, broke several of her ribs.

And she appeared regularly at showings of Gone with the Wind during it’s 50th anniversary tour, seemingly reconciled with the role she had initially hated, because of it’s depiction of stupidity. By then, of course, she had earned her BA in Political Science and possibly felt more secure in her intelligence:

“Now I am happy I did ‘Gone with the Wind’. I wasn’t when I was 28, but it’s part of black history. You have no idea how hard it is for black actors, but things change, things blossom in time.”

She died in 1995 at the age of 84, after receiving burns from a kerosene heater.

Butterfly McQueen in her Emmy Award winning role in 7 Wishes of a Rich Kid

But as an imaginary 1940’s screen writer, I am left with only traces of Butterfly. In Gone with the Wind, which runs for (sharp intake of breath) 3 hours and 58 minutes, there are no clues to the back stories of the black roles.

As Donald Bogle points out:

“All the black actors worked hard to make the most of their screen time, with indelible sequences that linger in the move-goers minds long after the film has ended.”

But there is no sense of their lives outside the screens, where they live, their relationships, the formation of their characters. Indeed, even the nature of their enslaved existences is camouflaged by calling them ‘house servants’ in casting lists.

And that is the problem I have with writing about Butterfly. I feel like I am groping at fragments. Rather than having a fully-developed human being, I have the remnants of a photographer’s failed dark room. I can see the faint outlines of the limits of what was permissible for African-American artists of her time.

I can see that she has comic timing. I can hear she has a unique voice. But I can’t hold her image down. It floats away like, well, a butterfly.

Butterfly McQueen and Ethel Waters in Cabin in the Sky (1943)

If I had been given the chance to write Butterfly a screen play what could I have given her? How could I have kept her in Hollywood?

I would like to write Butterfly her own version of Mildred Pierce, where she is not the hired help. Instead she is the star of a Woman’s Film, about the economic necessity to be self-sufficient and self-reliant. I would like to showcase her charm and her giggle and how she uses it to forge friendships and manipulate situations to ensure that she can remain independent.

It would be a film about her intelligence, her compassion and her challenge to the order of things. And I’d like to work with the playfulness that dances in her hands and her voice.

She said:

“I had imagined that since I am an intelligent woman, I could play any kind of role.”

What a shame that Hollywood didn’t see it that way.

This is my love letter to those fragments of Butterfly McQueen, signed Affectionately yours…

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About the Creator

Rachel Robbins

Writer-Performer based in the North of England. A joyous, flawed mess.

Please read my stories and enjoy. And if you can, please leave a tip. Money raised will be used towards funding a one-woman story-telling, comedy show.

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Comments (16)

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  • Daphsamabout a month ago

    A wonderful article about this iconic actress. So happy to see she is getting attention to this day. Butterfly McQueen was an amazing actress and always enjoyed watching her in films.

  • Tiffany Gordon about a month ago

    Excellent job Rachel! I always enjoy your biographical pieces! Thx for this one! I learned so much more about her. I would have loved to see her do a romantic comedy in which she and her partner fight social injustices! Fabulous job as always! Congrats on your TOP STORY!

  • Rachel Deeming2 months ago

    It's criminal to not have a credit on a film! It would never have happened to Steve or Lightning. But seriously, I am appalled. How this can ever be accepted is just unbelievable.

  • It is one of the informational story

  • congratulations on your top story keep it up Rachel

  • Phil Flannery2 months ago

    This was a great article. There is so much shame in the treatment of people outside a specific idea. It can be difficult to look back on movies through the years that stand out so poorly under today's gaze. Ironically I suppose, it becomes a history lesson to learn from when you look back and see the blatant racism, misogyny and homophobia that was barely concealed back then, to pump out what the studios thought the public wanted. I know it still happens, but people are more aware now.

  • Cheryl E Preston2 months ago

    I wrote about these women a few years ago. Thank you for keeping their story alive. People need to hear itl.

  • Xine Segalas2 months ago

    Congratulations on your top story! Such an interesting article.

  • Love this

  • Shirley Belk2 months ago

    I think you channeled her essence!

  • Marie Wilson2 months ago

    Another great piece, Rachel! I'd have loved to see the movie you'd have written for Butterfly McQueen!

  • Kendall Defoe 2 months ago

    It is a sad and all-too-familiar story. I really think that we have to reconsider what we call entertainment when it comes to media and Hollywood. There is such a long and ugly history behind the silver screen that we need to read and understand. Thank you for this. I hope that the Top Story means that this is read and reread beyond the Vocal crowd.

  • Naveed 2 months ago

    Admirable job! Keep up the exceptional work—congrats!

  • Erica Wagner2 months ago

    Terrific piece, Rachel. I think you would enjoy Sarah Churchwell's book, The Wrath to Come: Gone with the Wind and the Lies America Tells... https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/jul/10/in-brief-the-wrath-to-come-briefly-a-delicious-life-this-much-is-true-reviews

  • Lana V Lynx2 months ago

    This was both informative and educational, thank you!

  • Kelsey Clarey2 months ago

    This is a great piece! And an interesting woman to read about.

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