Intruder in the Dust: racial prejudice and liberal ideals

intruder in the dust

Often, it’s the quietest movies that make the most impact, and resonate with the viewer for days – even weeks – after watching. Clarence Brown’s stirring drama Intruder in the Dust, is one such film. Based on a novel of the same by William Faulkner, it tells of a crisis averted but not solved. African-American landowner Lucas Beauchamp (Juano Hernandez) is found standing over the dead body of lumberman Vinson Gowrie, with a recently-fired pistol hidden in his pocket. Presumed guilty, Lucas is marched off to the local jail, through an angry mob of local white folk who are desperate for what they call ‘justice’, but probably runs closer to revenge.

Intruder in the Dust 1949

Intruder in the Dust 1949

Lucas asks for an attorney, appealing to Chick (Claude Jarman Jnr.), a young face in the crowd to fetch his uncle, John Gavin Stevens (David Brian). Initially reluctant to take the case – regarding it as a script that’s already been written – John is persuaded to stand on Lucas’ side by Chick, who feels a strange mix of hatred and respect for the landowner, who once rescued him from drowning in an ice-cold river. Stevens’ job is complicated by the threat of the lynch mob, public interest in a murder case that involves an already-resented suspect, and Lucas’ refusal to name the man he suspects to be the killer.

The naturalist and realistic style invites the viewer to participate in the action and to solve the crime. The ending of Intruder in the Dust may be inevitable, but this film isn’t really about the plot, or even the characters, rather the attitudes and emotions of a small Southern town. If that sounds progressive for 1949, that’s because it was – despite critical approval, the film was a box office flop. Perhaps, in the years after WWII, American moviegoers weren’t ready to sympathise with a complex, unapologetic black character or acknowledge the racial prejudice that lay closer to home.

Intruder in the Dust 1949Although Brown instigated the project, the fact that the film was made at all was really the result of producer Dore Schary, who favoured ‘message pictures’ over splashy entertainment. When he tool over as head of production at MGM in 1948, he persuaded studio chief Louis B. Mayer to purchase the rights from Faulkner. Mayer’s initial reservations were well founded, but it’s unlikely that he could’ve predicted the film’s longevity and eventual appreciation.

Set, and filmed, on location in Faulkner’s hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, explores racial resentments and social divisions within the region, in a subtle but thought-provoking way. Local actors and extras were used at Brown’s insistence – their weathered, cynical faces add to the film’s authenticity. Intruder in the Dust is particularly notable for it’s presentation of an African American character – Lucas Beauchamp is complex, and rounded, a successful black man living in a white world. His contradiction of expectation and his inability to fit into the box he’s meant to ‘belong’ leads to a wariness. In the segregated South, he is a deviation from the norm. The popular reaction to the unknown? Distrust.

Intruder in the Dust 1949

Intruder in the Dust 1949

John Stevens’ decision to represent Lucas is driven by Chick, who wants – once and for all – to prove to Lucas that the landowner is ‘black’, and that he is ‘white’. His willingness to help Lucas stems not from guilt, but from a desire to respect the ‘natural’ order. Chick isn’t a Good Samaritan; he’s the unfortunate product of his environment, willing to do embrace the ‘right’ to further the ‘wrong’. In contrast, John’s preconceptions cloud his actions – although he refuses to believe that a black man could be innocent he attempts to help Lucas by arranging for the trial to be heard in another town. He wants to think he’s better than the rest of the town, in reality he’s just the same. By the end of the film, Lucas has the upper hand. His ‘innocent’ verdict renders the entire town helpless – shamed as the judgemental guilty party – a guilt that weighs heavily on the collective conscience. Lucas refuses to let them off the hook, maintaining a presence in the town and challenging locals to look him in he eye. They want him to let go and forgive their guilt, but he remains firm.

Intruder in the Dust 1949

The film’s final scene, shot in the attorneys’ office that overlook the main street, sums up the tension. Lucas arrives to pay the attorney his fee, which John refuses. Lucas won’t feign gratitude, and insists on paying, knowing that the ‘freebie’ is another guilt bargain, He can – and will – pay his way. He doesn’t want or need self-serving favours from white folk.

The film ends on a liberal and moral high note, as John tells Chick that ‘Lucas wasn’t in trouble – we were’. Although he’s finally recognised his flaws, it remains unclear whether his experience with Lucas’ case will impact how he perceives and interacts with other blacks in the future. The line too came to represent more than Intruder in the Dust, and evolved onto a mantra that came to define liberal filmmaking – but that’s undermining Clarence Brown’s real achievement, which was to create an identifiable and powerful character that lasts much longer than the closing credits.

This post is part of the Argumentative August blogathon, hosted by Movie Rob and Ten Stars or Less. Check back during the month for the full roster of courtroom dramas!

June Mathis: the name behind the idol

June Mathis

Responsible for writing and co-writing at least 114 feature films, June Mathis is today almost solely remembered in connection with one of the silver screen’s most popular idols: Rudolph Valentino. Mathis cast the then-unknown actor in the lead role in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in 1921, propelling him to stardom and creating a new archetype of masculinity. But before Valentino, Mathis was one of the most powerful (and prolific) screenwriters in the silent era, working with many female contemporaries, including Anita Loos and Frances Marion.

It’s likely that so many names of the day have faded into obscurity in part due to how the system functioned – the ‘star’ writer/director/producer was irrelevant. Most writers worked in tandem with others. Many screenplays were adapted from or built upon previous plays, novels or scripts. Provenance and ownership was a considerably more relaxed affair. Whilst the public may not have been aware of who was pulling the strings, Mathis’ contemporaries didn’t overlook her talent – in 1926, she was voted the third most important woman in the film industry by WAMPAS. She was there for the beginning of the Academy too, although she died too young (in 1927, at the age of 40) to become a founding member.

June mathis Valentino

Mathis’s reputation was built on an acclaimed stage career. Her first star billing came in 1907 in The Girl Patsy, written by Jane Mauldin Feigl. But Broadway (and beyond) wasn’t enough for Mathis – she had other ambitions. Reports suggest that in 1915 she entered a film story-writing contest. Although her entry didn’t win, it attracted the attention of film studios, and she was offered a position at Metro Pictures, where her first film was House of Tears. Just two years later, she was made head of the Scenario department, making her the first female film executive in history. 1917 saw her make several important films, including The Millionaire’s Double, Somewhere in America and The Jury of Fate.

But those influential films are almost insignificant when compared to the cultural impact of Valentino. As Thomas Slater observes, in the early 1920s, Hollywood was attempting to understand and negotiate the massive gender upheavals that WWI had initiated. Women – who had entered the workplace in greater numbers than ever before – had found a new, more confident voice, and were clamouring for matinee idols that better represented them. Mathis’s script for The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse presented Valentino as a new, sensitive hero, one tuned to appeal to these new female sensibilities. His character, Julio Desnoyers, isn’t the film’s hero. Suffering and struggle mark his path. Romantic and melodramatic? Maybe. But Valentino’s first break depicted a ‘damaged’ character that was much more relatable in the more cynical post-war landscape.

June Mathis

As Valentino himself observed:

“For seven long years, working hard, playing small parts in sometime atrocious pictures I laboured to be ‘found’. But it was June Mathis who opened the door of opportunity for me. It was she who saw me for the part in the Four Horsemen.”

and

“She discovered me, anything I have accomplished I owe to her, to her judgment, to her advice and to her unfailing patience and confidence in me.”

The follow up vehicles that Mathis penned for Valentino (Camille, 1921; The Conquering Power, 1921; Blood and Sand, 1922) cemented the actor’s appeal but were also instrumental in creating –and then maintaining – his star persona. His exotic good looks positioned him as a sexually-charged being who could have his way with women, but his sexuality was always supported by a safety net – loneliness and loss that appeal to female viewer’s maternal instincts. It’s too obvious to say that Mathis could create a character that appealed to women just because she was a woman herself, but her own desires, supplanted by her real understanding of the complexities of the female psyche surely influenced the characters she constructed. It’s worth noting that many of Mathis’s Valentino scripts were adaptations – she took pre-existing characters, broke them down and fitted them into a new mould.

June Mathis Rudolph Valentino

Many of Mathis’s screenplays for Valentino explored emptiness; what happens when a generation of lost youths try to redefine what masculinity means and there place in it. As Slater observes (and it’s well worth reading his essay Images of Male ‘becoming” after the Great War), the ‘destructive influences of patriarchy and violence are the primary concerns of her Valentino scripts’. Mathis herself might not have appeared in the final vehicle, or even been in the public eye, but her thinking – and that of many other woman working in the silent era – prove that there was a ‘feminist’ voice attempting to challenge the natural gender order – or at least presenting an alternative. Many of these ideas, including Mathis’s construct of a damaged soul, remain relevant and indeed are still being explored today.

Reducing Mathis’s legacy to a sole actor seems to underplay her achievements. After all, 114 feature films is no small feat. Yet the fact remains: she was as a powerful force behind one of cinema’s biggest – and most popular – matinee idols. Considering this, she deserves a bigger place in film history books. But she doesn’t deserve it on Valentino’s merit. She deserves it on her own.

This post is part of the Anti Damsel blogathon hosted by the very empowered Movies Silently and The Last Drive In. read all the entries here (day 1) and here (day 2).

Riding in Cars with Boys: celebrating a flawed heroine

Riding_in_cars_with_boys_Barrymore

Hollywood has a problem with women. The lack of strong female leads is well documented, less so the issues with the leads that do make it to the screen. After all, criticising what gets to the screen feels counter-intuitive. Beverly D’Onofrio, the flawed lead in Penny Marshall’s Riding in Cars with Boys (2001), manages to find a middle ground: she’s just likeable enough to solicit sympathy rather than alienation, real enough to be relatable. In short, she’s not a ‘Hollywood-ised’ idea of what a woman should be.

Riding_in_cars_with_boys_Barrymore

Based on Beverly D’Onofrio‘s autobiography, the film’s heroine (played by Drew Barrymore) finds herself pregnant at 15, kicked out of home and married to the local dropout Ray Hasek (Steve Zahn). Determined to live out her childhood dreams and make a better life, Bev tries to continue her studies and win a college scholarship. She’s smart. But she’s just not smart enough to realise that she blames everyone else – her father, her drug-addicted husband and most of all, her young son – for all her problems.

Riding_in_cars_with_boys_Barrymore

Riding_in_cars_with_boys_Barrymore

Bev isn’t a particularly admirable character but she’s real and complex. Her inability to recognise her own shortcomings is a very human trait, so to her transition from naïve bobby soxer to trailer park mom, which is told sentimentally but without too much schmaltz. Most importantly, she doesn’t fit her gender ‘role’. She’s a woman with ambitions, ones that didn’t include a white gown and a hanger-on husband. She’s a far-from-perfect parent, who puts herself first, makes it clear that her son’s birth didn’t complete her or her life. Of course, it’s these universally recognisable failings, surprisingly absent in so many movies, that make her character so believable. By failing to oversimplify life, Marshall shaped a film that exists much closer to ‘real life’ – so often confusing, disordered… complicated.

Riding_in_cars_with_boys_Barrymore

Problems with parents extend across the generations. Bev’s father gives up on her, she too gives up on her son. But while her father cares about what is right, how the family are perceived within the community, Bev focuses on what’s right for her. In truth, it’s love that’s absent. It culminates in a scene when Jason tells his grandfather Bev is drying weed inside the house. She’s doing it to raise funds for their new life in California, and is furious with Jason for ruining her chances once again.

Riding_in_cars_with_boys_Barrymore

Conformity – and what happens when you choose to shirk it – are the themes of Bev’s life. Her only true allay is her best friend Fay Forrester (Brittany Murphy) who announces, at Bev’s wedding, that she is pregnant too. The two girls, ostracised by their families and friends for their refusal to act as society wishes, form an even stronger bond and seek solace in each other’s failings. Their solidarity and friendship is a shared backbone. Despite the number of men in Bev’s life (her husband, her father, her son) she makes her own decisions, and Fay (and occasionally, her own mother) are the first port of call for advice or reassurance. Yet the female solidarity sub-plot is never fully developed. We feel Bev’s pain when Fay moves to a different city, but it’s impossible to identify with the spun-out storyline that sees Jason and Fay’s daughter Amelia fall in love.

Riding_in_cars_with_boys_Barrymore

Riding_in_cars_with_boys_Barrymore

In Bev’s head, she lives true to her heart. In reality, that means living for herself and her dreams, despite the negative implications that it has on her son. But what is a mother’s role? Is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mothering really defined by the minutes you unselfishly give to your child? In the film’s closing scenes, where Bev and a grown-up Jason track Ray down, it’s obvious that all her cleverness and ambition didn’t make her a wise mother. In fact, it’s Jason that fulfils the parenting role, forced to sacrifice his own dreams and ambitions to ensure her happiness and wellbeing. He gives everything she couldn’t – or wouldn’t.

Riding_in_cars_with_boys_Barrymore

In Riding in Cars with Boys, events that usually mark a conclusion (births and weddings for example) are actually the starting point. Bev’s refusal to accept what marriage and motherhood ‘traditionally’ means is depressingly remarkable. Yet to laud the film as a success simply because it deals with life events in a more nuanced and realistic way makes light of its shortcomings.

Riding_in_cars_with_boys_Barrymore

It’s impossible to truly engage with Bev as this doesn’t really feel like her film. She’s the central character but Jason narrates her story. Whilst the ending might tie everything up neatly, it’s not a truly satisfying conclusion for Bev – not aided by the fact that the young Drew Barrymore struggles to convey the nuances of the ‘older’ mother. Most of the movie avoids sentimentality, simplification and cliché (the expected transformation never happens) in favour of truth… the final few minutes undo this spectacularly, trading realism for the warm, fuzzy glow of happiness. Perhaps audiences like to believe in happy endings. But this just might’ve been a stronger film if Bev had kept her bold, uncompromising stance up to the very end.

This post is part of my Female Filmaker series and the Barrymore Trilogy blogathon hosted by Crystal over at The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Be sure to check out all the posts for a full overview of Barrymore history!

Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon at the National Portrait Gallery

Audrey Hepburn - portraits of an icon 1

Left: at a dance recital in 1942, aged 13. Right: on location in Africa filming The Nun’s Story, photographed by Leo Fuchs.

The second most famous ‘face’ of classic movies is currently the subject of an exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery. Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon includes over 80 photographs of the actress, spanning intimate dancing shots from her formative years to fashion editorials and studio stills taken by photographers including Cecil Beaton and Angus McBean. The exhibition is, like the actress herself, tasteful, and elegant, an on-the-surface snapshot into one of the silver screen’s most enduring icons.

Arranged chronologically, it offers an overview of the actresses’ career, from aspiring ballerina to Oscar winner and finally, UNICEF ambassador. These milestones reveal something about Hepburn the woman, yet throughout the exhibition, her essence remains elusive. The exhibition never ventures very far from the accepted ‘image’ of Hepburn – not unsurprising considering that most attendees are likely to visit because they are fans of the star and what she represents. But who was the ‘real’ Audrey? She was certainly talented and beautiful… but what else? Her gamine, elfin beauty placed her on a pedestal, separating her from ‘us’. She was – and remains – and untouchable, aloof and pure.

Audrey Hepburn - portraits of an icon

Left: in Richmond Park, taken by Bert Hardy, 1950. Right: wearing a headpiece designed by Erwin Blumenfeld and made by milliner Mister Fred.

It’s impossible to view Hepburn ‘the actress’ without thinking about Marilyn Monroe and comparing their public personalities. Whatever your opinion of Monroe (and I err on the side of positive) it’s impossible not to feel like you ‘know’ her on some level. Her (assumed) warmth and vulnerability are in stark contrast to Hepburn’s aloof distance. Although, as Sarah Churchwell observes, we all find the Marilyn we need, she comes with personable characteristics, flaws and quirks. Hepburn, on the other hand, is pure. She wasn’t enigmatic like Dietrich or alluring like Garbo. She was – and remains – a look-don’t-touch icon who inspires worship and acclaim but rarely relatability.

Maybe Hepburn was the icon Hollywood needed in the mid-1950s. Independent but sweet of temper, successful but sincere and authentic. In the post-war era, when women’s roles were in flux, she was just enough of an inspiration but not too much of a threat. The exhibition notes hint at this context, but don’t really explore the issues. Hepburn, it seems to suggest, exists solely for our admiration. Absent too is any discussion of her pairing with older men – from Cary Grant to Fred Astaire and Rex Harrison. These are key and interesting components in the construction of the Hepburn persona. Her most famous role – that of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s – is sexually ambiguous, played in only the way that Hepburn could. Yet, in both the exhibition and in popular consciousness, Hepburn ‘the actress’ remains obscured by the image of Hepburn, the LBD-wearing fashion icon.

Audrey Hepburn - portraits of an icon

Left: promotional photo for Sabrina, taken by Bud Fraker in 1954. Right: in Rome, photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1960.

Today, Hepburn’s legacy plays out most obviously in fashion editorials and advertising. It’s a fitting epithet for an actress most obviously associated with ‘timeless beauty and elegance’. It’s not clear exactly how much control she had over her imagery, but she certainly knew how to play the camera. Most of the shots in the exhibition follow a similar formula: shot showing her left side, evading the camera with a half-smile. Of course, each photographer put their stamp on the image but, strolling through the exhibition rooms, there’s little sense of development – either visually or emotionally. Hepburn found what worked for her, and stuck to it. Not a fault, but to be truly relevant, this exhibition needed to peer beyond the pose to grasp Hepburn the woman. Sadly, but perhaps understandably, convention – and profits – won the vote. Go see if you want to revel in the legend, avoid if you crave what the camera doesn’t see.

Audrey Hepburn - portraits of an icon

Left: wearing Givenchy, photographed by Douglas Kirkland. Right: in Italy for LIFE magazine, photographed by Philippe Halsman.

Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon is at the National Portrait Gallery until 18 October 2015

Further reading: Fashion Abecedaire: exhibition review / Interview with Luca Dotti