Most film historians point to 1939 as a landmark year in the history of the Academy Awards for good reason. It was a year in which there was an unusual abundance of high quality motion pictures that were both box office hits AND critically acclaimed – too many, in fact, to compete with each other for the coveted awards.
Remember, this was when the Best Picture race was open to ten contenders, not five – a practice the Academy has since embraced again. The Best Picture nominees for 1939 included Dark Victory; Gone with the Wind; Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Love Affair; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Ninotchka; Of Mice and Men; Stagecoach; The Wizard of Oz and Wuthering Heights. In retrospect, almost all of the nominees have gone on to become enduring film classics. But consider some of the other timeless favorites that couldn’t even get on the Best Picture ballot that year – The Lady Vanishes, The Women, Gunga Din, Only Angels Have Wings, Young Mr. Lincoln, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame to name just a few.
The landslide Best Picture winner of course was Gone with the Wind which earned a total of thirteen nominations (an industry record at that time) and won eight of them, not including the Special Award it received for William Cameron Menzies’s outstanding achievement in the use of color for the film. The 1939 awards ceremony, held at the Coconut Grove nightclub in the Ambassador Hotel on February 29, 1940, was historic for many reasons, not the least of which was Hattie McDaniel’s nomination for Best Supporting Actress in Gone with the Wind. Not only was she the first African-American to win an Oscar but she was also the first of her race to attend an Academy banquet as a guest and not as a maid.
Initially the movie's producer David O. Selznick received some negative press over his decision to film the Margaret Mitchell novel. The American Labor Party offered the opinion that the book and movie was “an insult to President Lincoln and the Negro people” while some African-American newspapers objected to the depiction of Mammy and other perceived racial stereotypes.
McDaniel, in an interview with gossip columnist Louella Parsons, said, “I love Mammy. I think I understood her because my own grandmother worked on a plantation not unlike Tara.” McDaniel would also make the famous statement, “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.”
On the big night, McDaniel deservedly won the statuette, beating out fellow contenders Geraldine Fitzgerald (Dark Victory), Edna May Oliver (Drums Along the Mohawk), Maria Ouspenskaya (Love Affair) and Olivia de Havilland (Gone with the Wind).