Five Classic Films that Southerners Should Explore
It’s no secret that Hollywood over the past three decades has not been kind to the South or to the Confederacy. The last major films that have in any way been fair or which attempted to be objective about the Confederacy were, probably, “Gettysburg” (in 1993) and “Gods and Generals” (in 2003). But despite general audience approval, the negative reaction to these block-busters by supposedly sophisticated “critics,” and the evaporation of funding for a third film (no doubt affected by the changing cultural climate), Hollywood in recent years has considered the South, and in particular, the Confederacy, toxic, racist, and a cesspool of “white supremacy.”
But it was not always that way. Indeed, during the mid-twentieth century Hollywood directors and producers released literally dozens of films which reflected the continuation of a cultural trend that began a few decades after Appomattox. That trend was one of national unity—unification—of recognizing the nobility, sacrifices and honor of those hundreds of thousands of men who wore the gray, and welcoming them back into the union. Certainly, slavery was condemned, but as most historians and political leaders of the period recognized, that issue was in the past. Indeed, former Confederate officers of higher rank served in the Spanish-American War, under the Stars and Stripes, including notably “Fightin’ Joe” Wheeler, Fitzhugh Lee, Matthew Butler, and Thomas Rosser.
This emphasis on unification and the recognition that Confederate veterans were honorable and deserving of respect produced the widespread movement in the early twentieth century to erect monuments in their memory all through the Southland, most notably and impressively the Arlington Monument, sculpted by the internationally-famous sculptor, Moses Ezekiel, and strongly supported by four American presidents.
Likewise, in the relatively young cinema industry, centered by the 1920s in Hollywood, California, the unification theme and the nobility of the Confederate soldier appeared on the big screen, with such films as “So Red the Rose” (1935), starring North Carolinian Randolph Scott and based on a novel by Southern Agrarian Stark Young. But in was later in the ‘30s and 1940s that the Confederate theme became a dominant emphasis in films coming out of Hollywood. And, indeed, not just movies about the Confederacy and the Confederate soldier and his experiences, but the production of a number of superb productions which were frankly quite favorable to the South, its history and its culture.
Most filmgoers are familiar with “Gone With the Wind” (1939), still considered one of the greatest films ever produced, despite the contemporary swirling controversy over its “racist” and “white supremacist” elements. Anyone who tunes into the Encore Westerns Channel is liable to catch such major productions as “Jesse James” (1939, with Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, and Randolph Scott) and “The Return of Frank James (1940, with Fonda). And there are others, which I reviewed in June 2014, March 2021, and February 2022.
In particular, it is the period between 1938 and 1946 that I would consider “the golden age” of positive, Southern-themed movies. Not only films about the war, especially the “border war” out in Missouri and Kansas, but also very sympathetic portrayals of traditional Southern domestic life and concerns drew thousands to the box office.
I’d like to consider five such films, each one excellent and worthy of viewing, yet mostly unknown to Southerners. And these are in addition to the earlier films I discussed, which mainly deal with the War and its aftermath.
First, and the earliest of the group is “The Toy Wife” (1938), set in antebellum Cajun Louisiana and lavishly produced by MGM. The film heralded the studio’s newest starlet, German actress Luise Rainer, who had already won two Oscars for her work in “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936) and “The Good Earth” (1937). In some ways it was MGM’s answer to Warner Brothers’ hit, “Jezebel” (1938), starring Bette Davis.
Rainer is the lead female character, Gilberte “Frou Frou” Brigard, who has returned from strict convent school in France to her father’s immense plantation in Louisiana. Just as in “Gone with the Wind,” released a year later, Frou Frou is flighty and has a “devil may care” attitude towards practical things, including a possible future husband. While infatuated with the debonair and undisciplined Andre Vallaire (Robert Young, best remembered for the long-running TV sitcom “Father Knows Best”), she ends up in a loveless marriage with the far more practical and worldly George Sartoris (Melvyn Douglas). Her downfall occurs as she and Vallaire escape to New York, only to suffer from a fatal case of pneumonia. Her sister, Louise (played by Barbara O’Neill), finally persuades George to allow a repentant Frou Frou to return home to see her young son and to die.
Parallels with “Gone with the Wind” abound. Indeed, Rainer was considered for the role of Scarlet O’Hara, a role which eventually went to Vivien Leigh. Both films concern the domestic lives of large Southern Catholic planters—the O’Haras in Georgia, the Brigards and Vallaires in Louisiana. Both feature large casts of black actors who live and work on the respective plantations. And in both households the extended families are called together for regular evening prayers.
In “The Toy Wife” the relationships between the Brigard slaves and Frou Frou are close and familial. When she first arrives back from France, Frou Frou is introduced to all the house servants. As she asks their names, she spies a young woman partially hiding under the circular stairway. She asks: “And what is your name?” The young slave responds: “Ma’am, I ain’t got no name.” Frou Frou responds tenderly, “I will call you ‘Pick,’ because you are the smallest pickaninny on the plantation, and you will be with me from now on!”
“The Toy Wife” is available in an inexpensive, three-DVD set in the Warner Archive Collection, including two other Rainer films, “The Emperor’s Candlesticks” (with William Powell) and “Big City” (with Spencer Tracy). It’s in black and white, but in every way a stand-out production and a fascinating window on antebellum life in Cajun Louisiana.
The remaining films in my review are all set in the first third or so of the twentieth century, and each in its own manner offers an endearing account of the survival of Southern traditions and heritage, and how diverse families meet challenges confronting them.
The film “Maryland” was a big budget Twentieth Century-Fox color production, released in 1940, with deluxe casting of Walter Brennan, John Payne, Fay Bainter, Charlie Ruggles, and Hattie McDaniel, who had already established herself as a major player in “Gone with the Wind” (for which she was to win an Academy Award).
In contemporary America we are too apt to think of Maryland as one big suburb of Washington, DC. But Maryland was traditionally a Southern state, and this film reflects the long and honorable Southern tradition of fox hunting and racing champion horses. Charlotte Danfield (Bainter), the owner of a large estate, once the center of aristocratic horse breeding, has gotten rid of her stables because her husband was killed in a fall during a hunt. And she has forbidden her son Lee (John Payne) from riding in an upcoming competition. Unknown to her, her former horse trainer William Stewart (three-time Academy Award winner Walter Brennan) has continued to train horses, including the offspring of the horse that Charlotte’s ill-fated husband had ridden the day of his death. The film has an exciting and heart-warming conclusion.
The character of the gambling-prone servant Shadrach (played by Ben Carter) serves as the film’s comedic centerpiece. As Hattie McDaniel’s husband, Shadrach can’t resist wagering away any money confided to him. Finally, he is persuaded to attend a revival where he “gets religion.” The scene must be viewed, as it is one of the funniest on film (I am surprised that Fox released this commercially, given the climate we live in).
On DVD it is available on Twentieth Century-Fox Cinema Archives Collection.
Next is MGM’s black and white “The Vanishing Virginian,” released in 1942, directed by Frank Borzage, and starring Frank Morgan (remember him as the Wizard in “The Wizard of Oz”), Spring Byington, and North Carolinian Kathryn Grayson, whose exquisite soprano voice in heard during the movie. The story is based on the memoirs of Rebecca Yancey Williams and is an affectionate chronicling of the life of the Yancey family of Lynchburg, Virginia. Beginning in pre-World War I times, “The Vanishing Virginian” traces the history of the Yancey family and its head, Robert, who was prominent in Virginia politics for several decades. But it is also the recounting of how Southern and Virginia traditions survived and met the headwinds of the twentieth century, including women’s suffrage. In the film’s prologue, the voice-over announces: “This is the story of a vanishing era when simple men so loved their country, their families and their friends that America became a better place in which to live. Such a man was Cap’n Bob Yancey.” The proud heritage of the “Old Dominion State” is never far from center stage in this heartwarming production.
Then there is “Colonel Effingham’s Raid” (1946), another Twentieth Century-Fox production, a relatively short, black and white film, of 70 minutes, but a true gem just the same. It stars Charles Coburn as Colonel Will Seaborn Effingham, who returns home to Fredericksville, Georgia, after years in the US Army, there to be received by his young second cousin Albert Marbury (William Eythe) and by his older cousin Emma (the versatile actress Elizabeth Patterson). Effingham is full of spit-and-polish and begins to write a column for the local newspaper. Suddenly he stumbles upon the plans of the town fathers, who are mostly Yankee transplants only concerned about the almighty dollar. They intend to tear down the historic courthouse which dates from the antebellum period and perhaps remove the giant Confederate monument commemorating Fredericksville’s honored dead. Effingham launches his final “raid,” organizing the citizens and the UDC in a campaign to save the historic courthouse. He even demands that thirteen live oaks be planted around the Confederate war memorial to honor the thirteen states of the Confederacy.
Effingham finally convinces the town officials that the courthouse should remain and be appropriately repaired, not torn down. In the final scene, we see Effingham in his military uniform reviewing members of the Georgia National Guard as they march off to muster (the film is set in 1940). As they pass in review, the band strikes up the sound of “Dixie” to an enthusiastic crowd.
“Colonel Effingham’s Raid” is also available on DVD in the Twentieth Century-Fox Cinema Archives collection.
The final film under review is perhaps the best, and certainly the most openly pro-Southern. It is “Virginia” (1941), a lavishly-produced, Technicolor Paramount feature, in a sense that studio’s answer to the major films from Fox and MGM celebrating the South. And what a film! Starring a young Fred MacMurray (yes, he of “My Three Sons” and several Disney outings), Madeleine Carroll, Sterling Hayden, and Louise Beavers, the movie recounts the return of Charlotte Dunterry (Carroll), heiress to the old Dunterry family plantation in northern Virginia. The plantation house, reportedly designed by Thomas Jefferson, has fallen into disrepair, and Charlotte who has spent much of her life in New York, intends to sell. MacMurray, whose name in the film is Stonewall after the great general, is a neighbor and fierce defender of Southern heritage and tradition. He tries to convince Charlotte to stay on, not to sell. The return of an ancient black retainer, Ezechiel, home to Dunterry house to die persuades Charlotte that she, too, should stay faithful to her family and her traditions. And she orders that the giant portrait of her Confederate officer grandfather be hung once again in the central hall.
One rewarding scene occurs when Charlotte suggests that Southerners should just get over the war which was, she asserts, about slavery. Stonewall, or Stony as his friends call him, quickly corrects her and explains that Yankee overreach and aggression were responsible for the war, and, indeed, for much of the resulting poverty that has afflicted the Southland.
Of all these films, the most difficult to find on DVD in decent quality has been “Viriginia.” The reason may be obvious: it is avowedly pro-Southern and pro-Confederate heritage, and Yankees come in for a cinematic drubbing. After sampling several releases, all of them in horrid quality, I finally discovered a copy available via eCrater, sold privately by the seller filmfan502. Despite being most likely a third generation copy of a VHS tape, the somewhat faded color film is watchable without distortions and reasonably priced. No, it’s not state-of-the-art Technicolor, but it’s acceptable until our culture changes and some enterprising company issues a superior reproduction. “Virginia” is worth searching out and is recommended to any Southerner interested in a favorable view of our traditions and heritage.
Interestingly, each of these five films boasts actors who were staunch conservatives and traditionalists. Charles Coburn, with his distinguishable monocle, was from Georgia and never forgot his roots; John Payne was from Arkansas. Both men were involved in conservative causes. Frank Morgan and Walter Brennan were also noted for their very conservative politics, as was Fred MacMurray. Brennan was a strong traditionalist Catholic, stating in 1964, “I’m too old not to be a religious fella…. It appears we are losing something a lot of people made a lot of sacrifices for.” And in 1968 he endorsed George Wallace for president.
In those days it was not a sin to be a conservative and traditionalist in Hollywood, and the South and its history were seen as excellent subjects for positive moviemaking. The result was a number of superior films which should be better known. Moreover, given the present vicious anti-Southern and anti-Confederate bias vomited out of Southern California, serious Southerners could do well to acquire these films. They will guarantee hours of grand entertainment, but also tell engrossing stories on screen about our ancestors and their history.