THERE WAS NOTHING PRISSY
ABOUT BUTTERFLY McQUEEN
in Atlanta to the war in Vietnam, Butterfly McQueen didn't hesitate
to express her opinion when I interviewed her for The New York Times
in 1968. --GUY FLATLEY
could ever forget Prissy, that sweet, simpering servant girl who
caused Scarlett OHara to lose her cool and Melanie to nearly
lose her baby? Well, Prissy or Butterfly McQueen, as she
is properly known has alighted again. You can catch her in
the movies in the current revival of "Gone With the Wind,"
or you can catch her on the stage at the Bert Wheeler Theater in
"Curley McDimple," a mash note to the Hollywood musicals
of the thirties. In the role of a lovable but lamebrained cook,
a role that has recently and shrewdly been written
into that show, Miss McQueen more than justifies the star billing
the producers have given her. She sings a bit, shuffles a bit, brags
a bit, bows a bit, and, finally, faints a bit. In short, she does
the Prissy bit. And she does it with apologies to no one.
Many people today view the Prissy character as an offensive stereotype,
an invention of the white man designed to keep the black man "in
his place." But Miss McQueen, who was born poor 57 years ago
in the Deep South, doesnt see it that way. After a recent
performance, the actress sat primly in a drab Hotel Dixie room and
defended her most famous role as an all-too-valid picture of a particular
type of Negro one for whom she feels a certain pity.
"There are plenty of Prissys in the world today. You can see
them standing in the doorways down South. They dont even want
to be educated. In the South, the Negroes have been beasts of burden.
Our heads are made of cotton in the South. We work all week and
get dressed up on Sunday in pretty dresses to go to church."
Miss McQueen, however, has never been a Prissy kind of Negro. She
has always been determined to beat the system that inflicted such
great pain upon her people.
"In Atlanta, they can say the words black nigger
so that it cuts you across here," she said, putting her hand
to her heart. "Of course, there is just as much prejudice in
the North, but it is hidden."
She clasped her hands together and reflected for a moment. When
she spoke, it was in her familiar high-pitched, childlike voice,
recalling her departure from the South, her Broadway debut in "Brown
Sugar," a 1937 George Abbott show, and her arrival in Hollywood
to play Prissy.
"I found it disappointing when I began working with white people,"
she said. "There was no hunger for perfection, no hunger for
elegance that you find in so many Negroes. And I discovered that
white people had what I call their three Bs: the bar, the
bed, and the battlefield. You can sum up the war in Vietnam in two
words: white supremacy. But, of course, everyone in Gone with
the Wind was wonderful. Olivia made us laugh and laugh. There
shed be, lying on her bed in labor, screaming Scarlett!
Scarlett! and as soon as the scene was over, shed jump
up and start telling us all jokes. And Clark Gable was such a considerate
gentleman. Did you know that he was a boy scout leader?"
Despite good reviews for her performance in the 1939 epic, meaty
roles were as rare as boy scout leaders and Miss McQueens
Hollywood career never rose above the level of "Who dat say
who dat when you say dat," a line which, to her lasting humiliation,
she was reduced to uttering in "Affectionately Yours,"
an otherwise forgettable 1941 movie in which she played Merle Oberon's
"I never thought I would have to say a line like that. I had
imagined that since I was an intelligent woman, I could play any
kind of role."
But when even the "who dat" roles gave out in the mid-forties,
she returned to the stage, where the parts turned out to be no better
than the bits that had been doled out in Hollywood. There were occasional
gigs on television, followed, in 1957, by a traumatic return to
the South, where she looked around and "made a study of my
And then came the leanest years of all, back in New York, struggling
as a factory worker, a waitress, and a dishwasher. "I wont
even say the name of the restaurant I worked in in Harlem,"
she said, shaking her head. "It was so dirty."
Suddenly the picture has brightened with "Curley McDimple,"
and with her career on the mend, Miss McQueen is now considering
a giant step in her personal life. Maybe for the first time
"I will probably marry in Africa," she said in her little-girl
voice. "I like my own men. But Ill always return to America.
Theres so much to be done here. And so much is being done.
Already theres going to be a Harlem supermarket owned and
operated by Negroes. Then maybe we can have our own houses and factories.
After all," she added with a wry smile, "we dont
want to be the white mans burden all our lives."