On screen, she was sweet, daffy and slightly incompetent with a high-pitched, little-girl voice that set her apart—what a lamb might sound like if lambs could talk instead of bleat. Born Thelma McQueen, she was dubbed “Butterfly” after dancing the butterfly ballet in a 1935 stage production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The moniker stuck, and Thelma, who had always disliked her first name, eventually had it legally changed. She appeared in movies primarily from 1939 to 1947, at which point she retired, weary of playing stereotypes. A series of maids, servants and other small roles defined the career. A memorable turn in a monumental film immortalized the actress.
The Women (1939)
Movie audiences saw McQueen for the first time as Lulu, a department store sales assistant, in George Cukor’s opus about the modern female. She has little to do besides trade a few lines with Joan Crawford and Virginia Grey, and Grey’s character mouths a rather unfortunate remark based on Lulu’s race.
Gone With the Wind (1939)
Of all the secondary characters in this Civil War epic, the silly, thoughtless Prissy (McQueen) might be the most often quoted, simply for the line, “I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies.” Said McQueen decades after the film was released, “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.”
Flame of Barbary Coast (1945)
Montana cowboy Duke Fergus (John Wayne) uses his poker winnings to buy a San Francisco casino and woo entertainer Ann “Flaxen” Tarry (Ann Dvorak). McQueen plays Beulah, Flaxen’s maid, in the first of two such roles she performed in 1945.
Mildred Pierce (1945)
Michael Curtiz’s meaty, irresistible film noir sees the title character (Joan Crawford) climbing the ladder from waitress to restaurant owner while dealing with her spectacularly spoiled daughter Veda (Ann Blythe). As Mildred’s success grows, she hires a maid named Lottie (McQueen), a role that was nothing new to McQueen or her fans. Nevertheless, it was a class production all the way and the actress brought her usual charm to the proceedings. Outside of Gone With the Wind, this is McQueen’s most critically acclaimed picture.
The Mosquito Coast (1986)
Peter Weir directed the film version of Paul Theroux’s novel about an obsessed inventor named Allie Fox (Harrison Ford) determined to build a new life in the Central American rainforest with his wife (Helen Mirren) and son (River Phoenix). McQueen plays Ma Kennywick, an eccentric lady living on Fox’s property. It would be her final screen appearance.