15. Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Southerners: Films for the Family
The major movie stars of the 1930s through the 1970s came from the East and Midwest. Nevertheless, there was a strong presence of native Southerners in the top ranks: Oliver Hardy, Ava Gardner, Randolph Scott, Joseph Cotten, Jeffrey Hunter, Miriam Hopkins, John Payne (an almost forgotten Virginian star of film noir and Westerns), Cyd Charrisse, Geraldine Page, Dana Andrews, Johnny Mack Brown, Charles Coburn, John Carradine, Ben Johnson, Elizabeth Patterson, Tex Ritter, Joan Crawford, not to forget Elvis and Gene Autry. And a little later Faye Dunaway, Jaclyn Smith, Robert Duvall, Joanne Woodward and James Garner. A good many Southern writers served in Hollywood as well.
It is interesting how in very recent times, an increasing number of top Hollywood female stars, apart from the overwhelming presence of British and Commonwealth people, come from the Deep South: Julia Roberts, Holly Hunter, Kim Basinger, Andie McDowell. Maybe the Southern charm still works although Hollywood would never admit the truth of what they are exploiting. Or from Texas and the Upper and Border South or with Southern background: Reese Witherspoon, Renee’ Zellweger, Sissy Spacek, Brad Pitt, Kevin Costner, Cybill Shepherd, Will Patton, Tommy Lee Jones, Kathy Bates, Kathleen Turner, Don Johnson, Ned Beatty, George Clooney, Steve Martin, Johnny Depp. I do not claim all of them as Southern, but they have Southern and not traditional Yankee in their backgrounds. The only American rivals of the Southern born these days seem to be Italian Americans and Californians.
It is perhaps relevant in this regard that some of the most authoritative African American stars are Southern-born— Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones, Jamie Foxx.
In portrayals of Southern characters, even if they are favourable we have to always be alert to what I call “the tacky factor.” While good people, these cinema Southerners are often backward, badly-dressed hayseeds without a clue to contemporary manners and fashions. The tacky factor is usually accompanied by an assumption that Southern women are highly desirable but stupid, apparently a long-running sick fantasy north of Mason-Dixon.
The list that follows is intended to point to some good down-time entertainment for Southern people. You may find a few pleasant surprises, and you will usually not have to send the children out of the room.
**Coquette (1929). Mary Pickford, a top star of the time, received an Academy Award for her performance as a Southern girl who clashes with her father over her preference for a poor suitor, Johnny Mack Brown before he moved to Westerns. A box-office success but now hard to obtain.
(T) Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936). Decent treatment of family feuding in Kentucky.
**Kentucky (1938). A Romeo and Juliet story with a happy ending in horse country. Includes Loretta Young. The inimitable Walter Brennan received a Supporting Actor Oscar.
**My Old Kentucky Home (1938). A playboy returns home from the big city blinded by an accident and in the depths of despair. His former sweetheart helps him to find his way.
**Maryland (1940). After his father is killed in a riding accident, his mother forbids John Payne (Virginia born star) to ride. But his new love encourages him to enter the big race.
**Virginia (1941). Fred MacMurray as Stonewall Jackson Elliott confronts wealthy Yankees buying up Southern plantations in the 1930s and teaches them there is more to life than pursuit of the Almighty Dollar.
**The Vanishing Virginian (1942). A nice portrait of a conservative and honourable man adjusting to changing conditions and his liberal (for the time) daughter.
**Two Weeks to Live (1943). Through the 1930s and 40s “Lum and Abner” was a popular radio show. It was about two gentleman from Arkansas (as characters and in actuality) and featured humour that was a little more mature than many similar shows. Several movies were spun off. This one concerns a mistaken diagnosis of terminal illness and pursuant misadventures in New York City.
(T) The Shepherd of the Hills (1945). Family conflict in the Ozarks.
**Colonel Effingham’s Raid (1946). This is an excellent example of the South-friendly phase of Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s. Charles Coburn (Southern born) is a retired army officer in a Georgia town who successfully raises a public campaign to defeat a “progressive “plan to tear down the local Confederate monument. (Remind you of anything more recent?) The film, set on the eve of World War II, with Confederate flags flying and “Dixie” blaring, makes clear the compatibility of Southern tradition with the best of American patriotism.
(T) All the King’s Men (1949, 2006). Robert Penn Warren’s acclaimed novel has been made into two big-screen movies as well as a stage drama, a radio drama, a TV drama, and an opera. Of course the book is a fictional rendering of the Huey Long regime in Louisiana. The (T)1949 version was highly honoured with prizes, the (X) 2006 one was rightly considered a flop. Both versions concentrate on corruption, take many liberty’s with Warren’s work, and lose the deep historical element. (X) The Kingfish (1995), with the comic actor John Goodman as Huey, is unrealistic but amusing, the anti-South unrealism having won it several prizes. (T) Blaze (1989) about the antics of Earl Long, played strictly for comedy, is entertaining with Paul Newman doing some justice to the character.
**Carbine Williams (1952). In this film James Stewart is David Marshall Williams (1900—1975), North Carolina moonshiner, convict, and firearms genius. While a prisoner in the 1920s Williams invented a revolutionary rifle mechanism that became the basis of the M-1 carbine carried by Americans in World War II. After his pardon in 1929, Williams secured more than 20 additional patents. The film is good in portraying Williams’s large Southern family that never gave up on one of its members despite adversity.
**Goodbye, My Lady (1956). A poor Mississippi farm boy finds a dog of a strange breed and trains it up to be a good hunter. Then he has to do the painful right thing and give it back to the well-heeled Yankee owner from whom it has strayed. Walter Brennan is cast as the boy’s grandfather. He has a memorable line: “Met a Yankee once. Snake bit him. The snake died.” Though he was born in Boston, Brennan superbly portrayed many Southern and Confederate characters in the films. He was also for a long time a stalwart conservative voice in leftwing Hollywood.
**The Beverly Hillbillies (TV, 1962-1971). Various collections of TV episodes are now on DVD. Who can resist the Clampetts, simple but honourable country folks dealing with the greedy Yankee banker “Mr. Drysdale” and the Yankee pseudo–intellectual “Miss Jane.” The Clampetts are kind-hearted, honest to a fault. Transported to Beverly Hills, their naïve goodness always triumphs over Yankee greed and pretentiousness. Granny thought that Americans had won the “war between the Americans and the Yankees.” There are plenty of Confederate flags and Southern sharp-shooting and good country music. Near the top of the national TV charts for years. Though cast in comic form, does this have something serious to say about American society of its time?
**The Miracle Worker (1962). Inspiring story of Helen Keller of Alabama, one of the most awesome persons of the 20th century. Inaccurate to a degree in portraying Helen as less lacking in ability to communicate than was the fact before her devoted Northern teacher arrived. Remade in 1979.
**Hellfighters (1968). Texas oilfire fighters doing their thing very well in South America.
**Smokey and the Bandit (1977). Memorable very popular comedy in which Southerners bestowed on the American mainstream some things it sorely lacks—riotous good times and an ability to laugh at yourself. Detroit has banned Burt Reynolds’s iconic car from all auto shows because of its Southern flag.
**The Dollmaker (1984). This is a moving dramatization of Harriette Arnow’s great novel of a Kentucky mountain woman condemned to life in industrial Detroit. Jane Fonda, believe it or not, does well as the title character.
**The River (1984). Mel Gibson and Southern-born Sissy Spacek are a Tennessee farm couple struggling to save their land and survive the ravages of nature, poverty, and developers. The accents are good and there is even a Southern flag.
**Marie (1985). A Tennessee lady courageously fighting political corruption in high places. Based on a true story.
**Murphy’s Romance (1985). The entertaining experiences of an aging man “in love for the last time.”
**The Trip to Bountiful (1985). An old lady, beautifully played by Geraldine Page, lives unhappily in the city with her grown son. She evades supervision and takes a bus trip to the abandoned rural community of Bountiful, Texas, where she grew up and had her happiest days. A moving study of old age and memory. (There is a later remake with African American characters that I have not seen.)
**Hard Promises (1991). Sissy Spacek handles her rambling husband.
**Man in the Moon (1991). Pretty good family drama set in Louisiana. Early Reese Witherspoon.
**Something to Talk About (1995). Well done treatment of traditional values versus contemporary breakdown of morals in Kentucky horse country.
**Stars Fell of Henrietta (1995). An Oklahoma farm family is about to go under in the Great Depression when a washed-up promoter (Robert Duvall) shows up and against all the odds finds oil.
**The Spitfire Grill (1996). A Southern girl coping with life in Maine.
**The Whole Wide World (1996). A portrayal of the tragic life of Robert E. Howard (1906—1936), the Texas writer who created the iconic character of “Conan, the Barbarian” and launched a whole new literary genre of fantasy adventure. The period and regional background are authentic and Vincent D’Onofrio plays Howard with the right accent. The story is told by an aspiring young writer played by Texas-born Renee’ Zellwegger.
**All the Pretty Horses (2000). Young Texans experience the dangerous alien culture of Mexico. Based on a Cormac McCarthy novel.
**Harlan County War (2000). A sympathetic and realistic account of Kentucky coal miners’ struggles. Vastly superior to (X) Norma Rae on a similar theme.
**The Notebook (2000). The people portrayed in this “romantic drama” set on South Carolina in the 1940s, for better or worse, do act like real Southern people.
**Papa’s Angels (2000). An Arkansas craftsman who has lost his wife after a long illness is brought back to life by his five children.
**Crazy Like a Fox (2004). A Virginian resorts to eccentric but effective measures to thwart developers out to destroy his historic Southern “place.”
**Man of the House (2005). Tommy Lee Jones as a gruff Texas Ranger in charge of protecting some lively cheerleaders who have witnessed a murder. Labeled a “crime comedy.”
**Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005). This is based on the 1937 novel by Zora Neale Hurston, the greatest African American writer yet to appear. The sympathetic story of an independent minded black woman in a black community is pretty well adapted for film. The only flaw is typical Hollywood. Hurston and her character were black and proud of it, but the lead is played by a half-white actress.
**A Touch of Fate (2005). Good drama of family life among real North Carolinians.
**A Burning Passion: The Margaret Mitchell Story (2007). This made for TV movie has some soap opera aspects but overall is a well-done biopic of the author of Gone With the Wind. In contrast to many or most films, the accents are good and the Georgia background treated respectfully.
(T) The Wager (2007). Randy Travis as a man at the top in Hollywood struggling with his Christian conscience. Disappointing considering the star and the topic.
**The Last Run (This is the Last Damn Run of Liquor I’ll Ever Make). (2008). This documentary features Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton (1946—2009), who was the last of a long line of high quality whiskey makers in the mountains of Tennessee. He followed a tradition in his family going back to the 18th century and was something of a folk hero. In 2008 he was raided by the BATF, led by James Cavanaugh, the man who conducted the massacre of children at Waco. Though he was in his 60s and suffering from cancer, the U.S. government denied his request to serve his sentence under house arrest. The day before he was to go to the penitentiary “Popcorn” Sutton took his own life.
**A Beautiful Mind (2011). Shows that a highly intelligent man can have a Southern accent. The Aussie Russell Crowe does a good job.
**Duck Dynasty (TV, 2012—2017). The seasons of this Southern story are now on DVD. The real Robertson family of Louisiana became nearly as popular as The Beverly Hillbillies with the national TV audience. Real Southern people with sound values and able to laugh at themselves. There is something in real Southerners that continues to appeal to many Northerners despite the prevalent ethnic cleansing directed against us.
**Wish You Well (2013). An elderly Virginia lady fights to save her beautiful mountain land from coal companies.
**Life on the Line (2015). A pretty good drama about New Orleans in hurricane time.
**Serena (2015). Lumbering, carpetbaggers, and tragedy in the North Carolina Smokies during the Depression. Setting pretty authentic and Brit actors do good accents.
**Chesapeake Shores (TV, 2016–). I am calling this pleasant family series Southern whether they like it or not. Chesapeake people are part of Southern culture. If the characters were real people they would have Confederate ancestors. These even have a Nashville music connection.
**The Choice (2016). Romantic drama in the South Carolina Sea Islands.
**Deepwater Horizon (2016). Good dramatisation of an l offshore oil platform disaster. Kurt Russell does a good job of a Texas persona and accent. John Malkovich is a silly failure trying the same thing.
**The Beach House (2017). Not bad family drama set in contemporary Charleston.**The Leisure Seeker (2017). An aging couple revs up the old RCV and heads out for a last trip—to contemporary Florida. The great Helen Mirren is excellent on the demeanour and accent of a South Carolina lady