Friday, September 28, 2018

Movies with Alabama Connections: Faithless

Despite her talents and wide success as an actress in live theater, her outrageous behavior and rapier wit, Alabama native Tallulah Bankhead never made much impact in the movies. She easily conquered stages in New York and London, and also appeared on radio and television before her death in 1968, but Alfred Hitchcock's 1944 film Lifeboat is considered her only real success on the silver screen. 

Previously on this blog I've written about that appearance in the Hitchcock film, which also included a performance by another Alabama native, Mary Anderson. I've also discussed Talluah's appearances with Lucille Ball--one as herself and another as interpreted by Lucy. I recently watched Bankhead in the 1932 pre-Code movie, Faithless. I enjoyed it very much and thought I would discuss it here. 

The years from 1929 until mid-1934 are known as the "pre-Code" era in Hollywood. In 1930 the studios agreed to adopt the Motion Picture Production Code  that outlined topics forbidden in their films. The subjects ranged from drug use, prostitution and homosexuality to adultery and excessive violence. Strict enforcement did not begin until mid-1934, so many early sound films made during that brief period cover behaviors that would largely disappear from most American studio films until the Code was abandoned in 1968. Faithless includes such uncomfortable topics for the prudish as wild parties among the wealthy and the widespread deprivations of the Great Depression that lead Tallulah's character into promiscuity and then prostitution. And things end happily for Tallulah, which the Code did not toperate.

Bankhead's co-star is Robert Montgomery, a very successful actor and the father of actress Elizabeth Montgomery, who also had a long career in film and television. More comments are below.  

Faithless was released on October 15, 1932, by MGM; running time is a brisk 77 minutes. Beaumont directed a number of films between 1915 and 1948, including some with other stars such as John Barrymore and Joan Crawford. This film is based on Mildred Cram's story "Tinfoil".

Tallulah plays Carol Morgan, a rich New York socialite in love with advertising executive Bill Wade [Montgomery]. The film opens with Carol on the phone talking to Bill as they plan their evening. Clever repartee follows. 

Carol is very good at lounging around until late morning.

Bill Wade is an advertising executive pulling down $20,000 a year, which was a fabulous amount in 1932 America. We never do learn how these lovebirds met.

Being a spoiled socialite, Carol knows how to pout when needed, even if it is over the telephone.

Carol and Bill return from their date to her upscale apartment  

This film is worth watching just for the fabulous furniture, lighting and costumes filling the screen in the first half.

Bill and Carol seem headed for marriage. Based on their exchange here, they will do well in the conversation department:

Carol: I've nice feet, haven't I? Hmmm?

Bill: Can't expect a man to write poetry about feet at five o'clock in the morning.

You can find other great quotes from the film here. Especially hilarious is the long case Carol makes to Bill concerning her suitability as a wife.  

Bill and Carol make plans to marry, even launching the announcement at a large party of her friends. But roadblocks quickly pop up. Bill wants to live off his salary, not her inheritance. Carol, who seems to be very wealthy, is not impressed with his job or his income. The two break up.

Carol continues to party and blow through her inheritance until one day her bankers tell her she's broke. As in she-doesn't-have-one-thin-dime broke. 

How could this have happened? she wants to know. You spent all your money, they say.

Carol goes to see Bill and confesses her newly-acquired poverty. Problem is, Bill has lost his job that very day and is headed to Chicago to see what kind of job he can find. Carol doesn't want to do that and their possible reconciliation doesn't happen. Bill's younger brother Tony is on hand to offer his negative opinion of Carol. Before all this happens, though, Carol and Tony have the kind of barely veiled sex talk that must have driven the prudish in the audience right out of the theater. 

Now broke, Carol makes the rounds of friends she can bunk with and borrow money from until her welcome wears out. A wealthy cad finds her at the gaming tables of Monte Carlo [where Carol had suggested she and Bill go on their honeymoon] and makes her his mistress.

Bill tracks down a very drunken Carol at her benefactor's apartment, and after he leaves Carol is so humiliated she leaves her lover.

Now Carol is near rock bottom, waiting in a breadline. Naturally they run out of bread just as she reaches the window. She is forced to give her landlady her shoes to pay something toward rent.

Carol scrapes together enough money to buy a bowl of soup and runs into Bill in the restaurant. He has a job as a truck driver and asks her to marry him, saying the past is past. 

Bill loses that job, and is injured on his new one as a truck driving strikebreaker or scab. He  needs medicine that neither of them can afford. 

Carol is briefly forced into prostitution to buy the medicine. A policeman confronts her, but instead of arresting Carol he gets her a job at the very cafe where she had tried and failed earlier to get work.  

Bill finally recovers, and they get married and hopefully, after all their ups and downs, live happily ever after.

This film's story is hardly original, and cliches abound, but the two stars and the supporting actors make it work. In its review the New York Times declared Faithless to be a "lumbering species of drama" but did acknowledge the "capable portrayals" of the leads. 

The first half is full of crisp, often funny dialog, great sets and costumes. The second half pours on the pathos but manages to keep it from being too cloying. Bankhead's legendary theatrical performances were not preserved on film, but we get some idea of her range here in a role that displays her talents for both  wit and drama. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Many Versions of "The Bad Seed"

The Bad Seed was Alabama author William March's final novel, published about two months before his death on May 15, 1954, in New Orleans. Thus this prolific novelist and short story writer never saw any of the long, strange afterlife of his book. The Lifetime cable network debuted a new version of the novel on September 9, so let's take a look at March and his last work. 

He was born William Edward Campbell into a poor family in Mobile in September 1893. He left school at 14 to work in a lumber mill office in Covington County, then at 16 moved to a law office in Mobile. March managed to obtain a high school diploma and then spent a year studying law at the University of Alabama. By 1916 he was clerking for a law office in New York City.

March enlisted in the Marine Corps in June 1917 and arrived in France in February 1918. He saw intense action in several battles, suffering wounds and received the French Croix de Guerre and the Distinguished Service Cross and Navy Cross for his bravery. Discharged in August 1919, March returned to Mobile and found employment with a new steamship company. He soon ascended to the post of vice-president with assignments in Memphis, New York, Hamburg and London. 

He began writing fiction in the late 1920's and his first published work, a short story, appeared under the pseudonym he would use for all his fiction. His first novel, Company K, came out in 1933 and drew on his wartime experiences. Many of his subsequent novels and short stories are set in Alabama. March spent many years living in New York, but by the late 1940's his physical and mental health had declined to the point where friends persuaded him to return to Mobile. Literary success had not overcome the traumas March suffered from his military service. In 1950 he moved to New Orleans and lived there until his death. 

A much fuller examination of March's life and work can be found in his entry in the Encyclopedia of Alabama and Roy Simmonds' 1984 biography The Two Worlds of William March. 

Much of March's fiction is based on his personal experiences, either in World War I or growing up and living in Alabama. The Bad Seed is something else. The book works the nature versus nurture approach--are killers born or made? The story follows Rhoda, a blonde and precocious child who happens to be a killer. And she has a grandmother who was a serial killer and executed in the electric chair. Her parents simply can't accept her daughter is capable of such acts.

The character is now a common trope in popular culture--the evil child. When March wrote the novel, the very idea was shocking. You can read a detailed summary of the story at the Wikipedia entryMore comments are below.

The Bad Seed was first published in March 1954 and remains in print today. This paperback edition appeared in 2015. Several other paperback editions have been published over the years. 

The edition I own is this one from Dell, a paperback published in February 1972. 

The first edition of the hardback that appeared in 1954 was published by Rinehart and Company. You can currently find a used copy described as "acceptable" for $895 and one as "very good" for $1142 on Amazon. But that's crazy; several copies can be found via for $100 or so. 

This edition appeared in Dell Publishing's Great Mystery Library series. Based on the price, I'd guess it was published in the 1960's. 

This 2005 paperback edition was published by Harper Perennial. 

March's novel appeared in March 1954, and on December 8 the play opened at the 46th Street Theatre on Broadway. The novel was adapted for the stage by Maxwell Anderson, a prolific dramatist. The combination of March and Anderson's reputations and the subject matter drew interest; Life magazine covered the play in its issue published a week before opening. The play ran for 334 performances until September 27, 1955.

Nancy Kelly won a Tony Award as Best Actress for her performance as the mother. Patty McCormack starred as Rhoda her daughter. Eileen Heckert and Henry Jones also acted in the play. All four repeated their roles in the film.  

An Al Hirschfeld drawing of the Broadway play, The Bad Seed, adapted from the William March novel of the same name for the stage by Maxwell Anderson in 1954.
Courtesy of the W.S. Hoole Special Collections Library, The University of Alabama Libraries

Filming was done at Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, California, from May until July 1955. The film was released on September 12, 1956. As noted above, the four main actors in the play appeared in the film. Hollywood veteran Mervin LeRoy served as director. In the novel and play, Rhoda lives to kill another day. In the 1956 film she is struck by lightning and dies. 

Patty McCormack as Rhoda and Henry Jones as the caretaker in the 1956 film

This 1985 television movie was written by George Eckstein and directed by another veteran, Paul Wendkos. The cast included Blair Brown, Lynne Redgrave, David Carradine, Richard Kiley and David Ogden Stiers. Carrie Wells played Rachel (Rhoda). The novel's ending was kept, but other changes were made, including character names. I watched this version when first broadcast on February 7, 1985, on ABC but remember little about it.    

The 2018 version changes names and characters. Now we have Emma (Rhoda) and her widowed father who slowly begins to suspect the worst about his daughter. Rob Lowe plays the father, and also directs, which may account for the changes. Patty McCormack--the original Rhoda in the play and film--plays Emma's psychiatrist Dr. March. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

"Stranded in Downtown Birmingham"

Who invented rock and roll, you ask? Well, there are various candidates with passionate advocates, and Chuck Berry is certainly one of them. His musical career extended from the early 1950's until just before his death in 2017. He had many hits over the years, but three of them have been enshrined among the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's list of "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll": "Johnny B. Goode," "Maybellene" and "Rock and Roll Music." The two Voyager spacecrafts, launched in 1977 and now deep in space beyond our solar system, carry a "Golden Record" of many sounds of human culture. Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" was the only rock and roll song selected.  

I've written a number of posts on this blog about songs related to Alabama [and more are in the pipeline!], including one about some of the songs related to Birmingham"The Promised Land" by Berry would fit that group.

The song first appeared on Berry's 1964 album St. Louis to Liverpool. He used the melody to the folk song "Wabash Cannonball" to go with his lyrics, which you can read below. The singer is headed from Virginia to California when the Greyhound bus breaks down in Birmingham. Luckily he catches a "midnight flyer" train to New Orleans and continues his journey. 

The song has been recorded by numerous other artists, including Elvis Presley, the Grateful Dead, Johnny Rivers, the Band, Meatloaf, Harry Dean Stanton, James Taylor and Jerry Lee Lewis. A version in French by the great Johnny Hallyday was released in 1975. 

Many versions can be found on YouTube

The Promised Land

written by Chuck Berry

I left my home in Norfolk Virginia                   
California on my mind                             
I straddled that Greyhound and                                              
Rode him into Raleigh and on across Caroline 

We had motor trouble it turned into a struggle
Half way across Alabam                                          
And that 'Hound broke down and left us all stranded 
In downtown Birmingham

Right away I bought me a through train ticket 
Riding across Mississippi clean                                          
And I was on that midnight flyer out of Birmingham      
Smoking into New Orleans

Somebody help me get out of Louisiana 
Just help me get to Houston town 
There are people there who care a little about me
And they won't let a poor boy down 

Sure as you're born they bought me a silk suit 
They put luggage in my hands 
And I woke up high over Albuquerque 
On a jet to the promised land

We stopped at Charlotte we by passed Rock Hill 
We never was a minute late
We was ninety miles out of Atlanta by sundown
Rolling out of Georgia state 

Working on a T-bone steak 
I had a party flying over to the golden state 
When the pilot told us that in thirteen minutes 
He would get us to the terminal gate 

Swing Low Chariot come down easy 
Taxi to the terminal door
Cut your engines and cool you wings 
And let me make it to the telephone 

Los Angeles give me Norfolk Virginia 
Tidewater 4-10-0-9 
Tell the folks back home this is the promised land 
Calling and the boy's on the line

The Birmingham Greyhound station, built in 1950, as it appeared in 2010

Source: BhamWiki


Friday, September 14, 2018

A Quick Visit to Eutaw

Back in March Dianne and I made a visit to see our son Amos who lives in New Orleans. I've written a blog post on that portion of our trip and another one on Bellingrath Gardens, which we saw on the way down. On the way back to Pelham we spent the night in Demopolis and toured the fabulous Gaineswood home there. Blog posts on those two places will be coming soon. We also drove through Eutaw in Greene County, and this post explores a few of the sights there. 

Leaving Demopolis on U.S. Highway 43 takes you to Eutaw in about 25 miles. The town is the seat of Greene County, which is named after Revolutionary War hero General Nathaniel Greene. Settled about the time the county was created in December 1819, Eutaw was originally named Mesopotamia. In 1838 the county seat was moved there from Erie, and the town was renamed after Greene's Revolutionary War victory, the Battle of Eutaw Springs in South Carolina. Mesopotamia Street in Eutaw honors the original name. 

Eutaw thrived on the cotton trade during the antebellum era; many buildings from that era survive and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. After the Civil War the economy declined and has never recovered; Greene County has been one of the state's poorest for decades. In 2010 almost 3000 people lived in Eutaw.

Other comments are below some of the photos. 

Driving into Eutaw you immediately spot two American icons. 

There are some nicely restored buildings around the old courthouse square.

This Grand Jury Building stands in the historic Greene County Courthouse Square District and was built in 1842. The two-story structure is also called the Old Sheriff's Office. 

One end of the old Greene County Courthouse constructed in 1869

Some more of the restored buildings around the old courthouse square.

One of the most impressive buildings in Eutaw is the Kirkwood mansion. The Rural Southwest Alabama site has this description:

Kirkwood is a historic antebellum plantation mansion located in Eutaw. It is a Greek Revival style house with Italianate influences. The house has two primary floors and a large cupola crowning the low-pitched hipped roof. The roof eaves are ornamented with wooden brackets. A monumentally scaled portico with Ionic columns wraps around two sides of the house.
Kirkwood was built by Foster M. Kirksey, a cotton planter and cotton broker. Kirksey began building the house in 1857. Construction on the nearly completed house was halted by the Civil War. Kirksey lost a considerable portion of his fortune with the economic collapse of the south. He was able to retain possession of Kirkwood but he was never able to complete the house with the lavish details he had originally planned or to maintain it properly. The house remained in the Kirksey family until 1961. In 1972, Roy and Mary Swayze bought the home and began renovations with Mr. Swayze doing much of the work himself. When the Swayze’s painted the home in 1977, it was its first coat of paint since 1912 and took 200 gallons of paint. The Swayze family spent 15 years restoring Kirkwood. For their efforts, they was awarded a National Trust for Historic Preservation Honor Award in 1982.
Kirkwood was photographed and recorded by the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) in 1934 and the house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) on May 17, 1976.

One small correction--as i note below, Kirkwood was photographed as part of the HABS in 1934 and 1935. 

Unfortunately, we did not have time to take a tour of the mansion. Maybe another day....

Kirkwood on April 4, 1934

This photograph was taken by W.N. Mannning as part of the Historic American Buildings Survey.

A fireplace featuring a brown marble mantel in a southwest rear room of Kirkwood on June 24, 1935.

This photo was taken by Alex Bush as part of the Historic American Buildings Survey.

Across the street from Kirkwood is another pretty spectacular home.