Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Freedom Riders (American Experience Films, WGBH-TV, PBS, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s library movie was Freedom Riders, a PBS American Experience documentary produced by Boston’s public TV station WGBH — imdb.com dates the film from 2010 but the copyright date on the closing credits was 2011 and obviously the film was being targeted for the 50th anniversary of the actual events. In 1961 James Farmer, director of the African-American civil rights organization Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), decided on a bold gesture to establish the credentials of his group and place it on an equal footing with the NAACP and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He hit on the idea of challenging racial segregation in the Deep South by sending groups of both Black and white people to take bus rides through several Southern states. At the time, Black and white passengers were still separated on Southern buses despite two U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Morgan v. Virginia in 1946 (eight years before Brown v. Board of Education!) and Boynton v. Virginia in 1960, that held that segregation on buses traveling between states (and therefore covered by the federal Constitution’s commerce clause) was unconstitutional. With their typical resourcefulness and sliminess, white Southerners got around this by designating separate waiting rooms in the bus depots and marking them for “intrastate passengers,” but insisting that Black passengers sit in the separate waiting rooms and use the separate water fountains, rest rooms and diners and food counters regardless of whether or not they were traveling between states. The initial Freedom Ride was supposed to start on May 4, 1961 in Washington, D.C. and end in New Orleans on May 17 — a date picked because it was the seventh anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. The riders were expecting resistance from the local authorities — one of the most interesting clips director Stanley Jordan included in his film showed the resistance training the Freedom Rider volunteers went through to learn how to react nonviolently to verbal and physical provocations from racist whites.

What they weren’t expecting was the sort of mass mob violence they got from hundreds of white Southerners anxious to protect “the Southern way of life. There were only isolated attacks on the Freedom Riders in North and South Carolina — notably someone sneaked behind the young Black activist John Lewis in Rock Hill, South Carolina and hit him in the head with a crate (Lewis, now an elder statesman of the civil rights movement as well as a long-time U.S. Congressmember, appears quite a lot in the film; he’s also the sole surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington, though a number of the musical performers at the post-march rally, notably Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, survive) — but all hell broke loose when the buses (there were two, one Greyhound and one Trailways) arrived in Alabama. The violently racist Birmingham, Alabama police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor (who’s shown in this film in archival clips, spouting racist drivel with such venom modern-day viewers would be forgiven if they thought he was an actor playing a caricature of the Southern racist pig) plotted with police sergeant Tom Cook and Cook’s fellow Ku Klux Klan members to launch an initial attack on the buses in Anniston, Alabama and then stage the main event in Birmingham. The “law enforcement” authorities promised the Klansmen that the mob they arranged to attack the buses would have 15 minutes to do whatever they wanted before the police moved in. Gary Thomas Rowe, an informant the FBI had planted in the Alabama Klan, reported this to the FBI’s national headquarters but FBI director J. Edgar Hoover did nothing to stop the attack. The mob in Anniston surrounded the Greyhound bus station to prevent the bus from leaving, and also KKK members slashed its tires, so when it finally did leave Anniston it was stranded along the highway when the tires blew out. Then someone threw a firebomb into the bus, it burned and the Riders were lucky to escape with their lives. (The photo of the burned-out bus was circulated by news media worldwide.) A local civil-rights activist in Anniston, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, organized a rescue to get the injured Freedom Riders out of the hospital before a white mob could attack them there.

The Trailways bus made it to Anniston safely but was attacked there by eight Klansmen who beat up the Freedom Riders. Things got worse in Birmingham, where 400 Klansmen and white rioters attacked 21 Freedom Riders with iron pipes, baseball bats and bicycle chains. James Peck, the white man who was co-leading the action, was beaten so severely he needed more than 50 stitches in his head and the white hospital refused to treat him — so the Black hospital did. The white attackers also set up a line around the Birmingham bus station and did not allow the Freedom Riders to leave — until attorney general Robert Kennedy, realizing that the U.S. was looking bad in the eyes of the world because of the violence being visited on the Freedom Riders just as his brother, President John F. Kennedy, was about to attend his first summit with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, sent an emissary, staff member John Siegenthaler, to try to negotiate a truce between the Alabama state authorities and the federal government to allow the Ride to continue and the buses to leave Alabama. Siegenthaler ran into Alabama’s ferociously racist governor, John Patterson, who had begun as a crusading district attorney closing town the vice dens in Phenix City, an Alabama town across the state line from Fort Benning, Georgia and had been depicted as a decent guy and a friend to Blacks in the 1955 film The Phenix City Story (in which Richard Kiley played him). The real Patterson was a vicious racist, and ironically one of the candidates he beat in the 1958 Alabama gubernatorial election was George Wallace, then a protégé of former Alabama Governor “Big Jim” Folsom and, like Folsom, a relative moderate on racial issues. When Patterson beat him, Wallace told friends, “He out-niggered me, and I’m never going to be out-niggered again,” and four years later Wallace ran to succeed Patterson as an ardent racist … and won. Patterson told Siegenthaler right out that he couldn’t guarantee the safety of the Freedom Riders — only he was double-crossed by the state commissioner of public safety, who flat-out told both Patterson and Siegenthaler that he could protect the Riders if only Patterson would let him. Patterson reluctantly promised protection to the Riders on the route to Alabama’s state capitol, Montgomery, after Greyhound had had to send a replacement driver because the first one had refused to drive a bus containing Freedom Riders for fear of his own safety. (Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa, Robert Kennedy’s arch-foe, at one point intervened on the side of the racists by saying no Teamsters member would drive a bus with Freedom Riders on it.)

There was another savage attack on the Riders at Montgomery, and this time the racists were smarter than they had been before: realizing that media coverage of the event was going worldwide and making them look bad, this time they targeted the journalists and attacked them first, particularly going after people with still cameras and the movie cameras and parabolic microphones TV stations then used to make news footage. Then they attacked the buses and their riders, and that night the Riders retreated to the African-American First Baptist Church pastured by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s right-hand man, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, where 1,500 mostly Black people attended a night event that was a mix of church service and civil-rights rally — while 3,000 whites surrounded the church and threatened to burn it down. King himself spoke at the event and was criticized by some of the younger Black leaders for refusing to join the Freedom Rides himself — which Nelson’s narration suggests was the beginning of the split that tore the civil rights movement apart five years later with the emergence of so-called “Black Power” activism and a younger group of African-Americans who rejected coalitions with liberal whites and insisted that only Blacks themselves should participate in their own liberation struggle. Only by calling in U.S. marshals was Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department able to get the Riders safely out of Alabama and into Mississippi — whose governor, Ross Barnett, was just as racist as Patterson but also a much better strategist. He was able to convince the Mississippi Klan and the sorts of free-lance whites who had attacked the Riders in other states to stand down, avoid attacks on the Riders and let him solve the problem — which he did by having the Riders arrested on whatever charges local authorities could cook up, including violating the segregation laws, and sent to the notorious Parchman state prison, described by Mississippi native William Faulkner and hundreds of blues lyric writers as a hell on earth. James Farmer, back in New York after he’d been forced to leave the Freedom Ride early on because of a death in his family, decided to send more Freedom Riders to Mississippi, get them arrested and pack Parchman until the state authorities couldn’t run it anymore and would have to let the Freedom Riders go. More Freedom Rides were organized and the actions continued until November, 1961 when the U.S. Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) adopted an administrative rule prohibiting segregation on all interstate bus travel — and while the Southerners had ignored or worked around similar rulings, including two U.S. Supreme Court decisions, before, this time, with the whole world watching, they complied.

One of the less well known aspects of the civil rights movement was how its African-American leaders were aware of how much they were embarrassing the U.S. in the eyes of the rest of the world — particularly the Third World countries with populations of color who had just won independence from white colonial overlords — and how much they were giving the Communists of the Soviet Union and China a propaganda point to convince leaders in the newly independent Third World states that they represented freedom and liberation, while the U.S. represented continuing racial oppression. Stanley Jordan makes this point in Freedom Riders via a Czech newsreel of 1961 containing footage of the Freedom Riders being beaten by racist mobs and making it clear — far clearer than any U.S. newscasters would have dared in an era in which “objectivity” ruled the airwaves and the Fairness Doctrine precluded any TV news outlet from being as outright propagandistic for one political point of view as Fox News (or, to a much lesser extent, MS-NBC) is today. Obviously the Communist overlords of the media in Czechoslovakia were using the Freedom Rider footage to tell their people, “You think the U.S. is so great? Here’s what they do to their own Black people — and to white people who stand up for equal rights.” The San Diego Public Library had shown Freedom Riders before at the old Central Library location on 8th and “E” around the time it was made (indeed, they previewed a number of PBS films before they aired locally, and sometimes showed movies the local PBS station, KPBS, had decided not to show at all) and ran it again in part because John Lewis’s memoir had been the 2018 choice for the “One Book, One San Diego” program — a library-sponsored effort to spawn public discussions of an issue by promoting a book about it and getting as many San Diegans as possible to read it — and they brought in a speaker named Rebecca Romani, a film professor at San Diego State and Palomar College and a guest blogger about film for KPBS, to introduce it and lead a question-and-answer session afterwards — and I could probably have monopolized the post-film discussion because though I was only seven years old when the first Freedom Rides happened, my mother was a heavy-duty activist in the civil rights movement and so I was unusually aware of what was going on.

I also have enough of an historical mind to have savored the ironies of much of the situation, including the sequence of the movie in which one of the interviewees is shown saying, “Some day we may even have a Black President” — who knew, in the two-steps-forward-one-step-back way in which history in general and U.S. history in particular moves, that one day we would have a Black president (a half-Black president, anyway — one member of the library audience mentioned that in 1961, both the year the Freedom Rides took place and the year Barack Obama was born, Obama’s parents’ marriage would have been illegal in 16 states), or that when he left office he’d be followed by a white racist whose father was a Ku Klux Klan member. (Fred Trump, Donald’s father, was one of seven Klan members arrested at a New York City rally in 1927; it’s mentioned in several online sources, including https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/charlottesville-latest-donald-trump-father-fred-arrested-ku-klux-klan-kkk-rally-riot-queens-new-york-a7891701.html.) It may seem clear to us watching in relatively liberal California in 2018 that the Freedom Riders were right and the racists who attacked them were wrong — and I would certainly agree that it’s utterly absurd to think that any one race, or for that matter any one gender, has a monopoly on human intelligence, or human stupidity — but in a way the racists had their own twisted brand of idealism and were doing this out of a sincere belief in white superiority and the need to defend it by isolating Blacks into separate waiting rooms, restrooms, public parks, public schools and all other walks of life, “separate but equal” in theory and separate and highly unequal in practice. (This fascinated me when I recently watched another PBS presentation, a 2012 American Masters show about Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell, which mentioned that one of the big things Mitchell did with the money she made from writing the best-selling novel of all time was to endow the historically Black Morehouse College with scholarships, especially for medical students, and also to build a state-of-the-art hospital for Blacks in her home town of Atlanta, Georgia. In a way Mitchell was a racial liberal, but it’s also clear that by giving money to build a Black hospital and to train Black doctors to staff it, she was a “liberal” only in the sense that she wanted to realize the promise of “separate but equal” without actually integrating Blacks with whites.)

Throughout the movie I kept thinking of white Southern writer William Faulkner’s famous quote, “The past isn’t dead — it’s not even past.” We nice white liberals like to think of racial equality in the U.S. as a check mark we’ve ticked off — “been there, done that, move on” — when in fact the spirit of racism rears its ugly head again and again in this country. It did so in 1968, when Richard Nixon and Strom Thurmond cooked up the “Southern Strategy” and essentially flipped the two major U.S. political parties’ positions on civil rights; taking advantage of the fact that the Democrats, once the party of slavery, segregation and the Klan, had pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, so the Republicans could now achieve political dominance by reinventing themselves as the party of racism and cultural repression. Originally worked out merely as an ad hoc response to the threat of George Wallace’s independent U.S. Presidential campaign in 1968, this proved so successful long-term that they not only turned the South in a generation or so from solid Democratic to almost as solid Republican, they also finally broke the New Deal coalition that had kept the Democrats in power from 1932 to 1968 by using the racial and cultural prejudices of white working-class voters in the Northeast and Midwest (and to a slightly lesser extent in the West as well) to move them from Democratic to Republican. I’ve been writing in my analyses of the Trump campaign and presidency on the Zenger’s Newsmagazine blog, http://zengersmag.blogspot.com, that Trump’s victory in 2016 was just the final triumph of a long Right-wing campaign that included not only the Southern Strategy but also the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, which allowed an entire parallel Right-wing media universe to come into existence so people could read, watch and listen to only Right-wing political news and commentary, and therefore be exposed to that world-view and hear no other — or, when they did hear another point of view, they would dismiss it as the work of the “liberal media,” the “dark state” or whatever name by which Right-wing propagandists denote the infernal conspiracy that is keeping them and their vision of truth and right from absolute political, economic and cultural authority.

The nationwide opprobrium that the violence against the Freedom Riders sparked, given the flat, “objective” way the media covered it, would not happen today — devotees of the Right-wing media would watch the footage and say it was either being taken out of context (“Those anti-racist meanies threw the first punches — our guys were just defending themselves!”) or being outright faked in the movie studios of “liberal Hollywood.” Obviously the spirit of the KKK and the other attackers on the Freedom Riders was alive and well in Charlottesville, Virginia over a year ago, and the President sent a nod-and-wink message to them when he said “there were good people on both sides” and added two days later, “You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that. But I’ll say that right now.” Trump is appealing to the same people who watched the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention on TV, in which the Chicago police attacked peaceful protesters and polls showed that 70 percent of Americans supported the police — he has literally said that violence and mass poverty will be the results if the Republicans lose control of the U.S. Congress in this year’s elections — we see the film of the racists in 1961 attacking the Freedom Riders and like to think that history is safely past, when it’s not only not dead, it’s not even past — indeed, it’s running the country right now and it’s only through a lot of effort, quite probably including the same kind of willingness to put people’s lives and bodies on the line the original Freedom Riders of 1961 showed, that we can avoid the wholesale reversal in civil rights and a return to the outright racism (and sexism, homophobia and hatred of non-conformity in general) with which this country was run from the 1880’s to the 1950’s until the Black (and white) activists behind Brown v. Board of Education, the Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins of 1960 and the Freedom Rides rose up and (at least for a time) successfully challenged it.

Monday, September 17, 2018

No One Would Tell (Pink Buffalo Films, Reunion Pacific Entertainment, Lifetime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched last night’s Lifetime “premiere” movie, a not-bad “problem drama” called No One Would Tell about a high-school junior, Sarah Collins (Matryea Scarrwener, the sort of name that in old Hollywood got changed), whose mom Laura has raised her as a single parent — though I don’t recall if writer Caitlin D. Fryers ever provided an explanation for how she became a single parent, whether she divorced Laura’s dad or he died — and since the end of her relationship with Sarah’s father ended (however that was) has been in and out of a series of dysfunctional relationships of her own. Sarah falls head over heels in love with attractive, charismatic, popular senior Rob Tennison (Callan Potter) and the two start to date, only shortly thereafter he reveals his dark side, getting angry with her over something trivial and giving her the same sort of back-handed slap to the face, knocking her over, that Patrick Bergin gave Julia Roberts in the grandmother of all modern-day domestic-abuse movies, Sleeping with the Enemy. Then, like all movie batterers (and all too many of the real-life ones as well!), he immediately proclaims that he’s sorry, he’s really in love with her and he’ll never hit her again or even think of doing so. Of course, that’s so much B.S.; the next altercation between them occurs at a school dance when Rob accuses Sarah of flirting with another guy, and this time it’s witnessed by other students, notably Sarah’s friend Nikki Farrow (Chanelle Peloso), who comes over to the Collins home so often she’s practically a third member of the family. It’s also witnessed by Gus (Ricky He), an Asian-American student who’s on the school’s wrestling team with Rob and Zack Carter (Trezzo Mahoro), a Black kid who’s a good friend of Rob’s.

Sarah breaks it off with Rob and threatens to report him — at one point she’s ready to go with Nikki to tell the coach of the school wrestling team about Rob’s abusive ways, but then gets cold feet after she gets a stare from Rob’s new blonde bimbo girlfriend and realizes that no one at the school would believe the popular Rob is an abuser and she’d be the one who’d get dumped on. It all ends when Rob tricks Sarah into taking one last car ride with him, telling her he’ll take her home, but instead he takes her to a deserted cabin in the mountains (why do so many Lifetime movies these days end at deserted cabins in the mountains?) and Zack, who was there supposedly chaperoning but really had drunk himself into a stupor over his own romantic breakup, was only sporadically conscious and aware of what was going on. Just why Rob took Sarah there and was hoping to accomplish isn’t clear, but he pleads for Sarah to return to him, she says no, and he sneaks up behind her and strangles her with his forearm. The way director Gail Harvey (yet another promising Lifetime director who deserves a shot at better scripts) stages it, we’re obviously supposed to get the idea that Rob didn’t mean to kill her, but he did, and he wraps Sarah’s body in a blue tarp and dumps it in the lake, where police divers find it after the other people in the story piece together what happened and Zack remembers enough of what went on to lead Sarah’s mom, Nikki and the cops to the lakeshore cabin. The film is framed by interrogations of the various survivors about what happened — Sarah is already dead at the start of the film (we don’t know that for sure but we suspect since we don’t see her as one of the people being questioned) — in what I suspect may be a borrowing of the gimmick from Big Little Lies, which is also told in flashbacks from police interrogations, where from the start of the book we know something dire happened but it’s only until the end that we realize what (and since Big Little Lies writer Liane Moriarty made the abuser, not his victim, the one who died her story is a lot more satisfying).

The ending takes place in a courtroom where Rob is being tried for Sarah’s murder — since he’s a juvenile it’s a relatively informal proceeding and there’s only a judge, not a jury — and the judge is Mira Sorvino in a guest turn, first announcing that she’s finding Rob guilty and then delivering a lecture not only to the characters but to the audience as well. She mentions that during the period from 2001 to 2012 twice as many women (nearly 12,000) were killed by their relationship partners as died in the U.S.’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the film ends with a title giving contact numbers for two organizations against domestic violence to which people can report incidents of it involving themselves or others. This is a laudable goal but the film itself is all too didactic, decently acted — Callan Potter is thoroughly believable as Rob, an otherwise decent guy with a mean streak and an ability to keep his sang-froid even when he’s doing despicable things like beating his girlfriend and ultimately killing her. And Matreya Scarrwener, despite that impossible name, is equally good as Sarah even though one could wish Fryers’ script gave her more of a clue as to just what keeps her in thrall to the asshole — the film does suggest that she’s vulnerable to a destructive relationship because her mom hasn’t exactly provided her a role model in her own pathetic flings with one man after another (none of whom do we actually meet) and also that she’s intimidated by Rob’s BMOC popularity (though the film Speak did a much better job of dramatizing the no-one-would-believe-you-about-me dilemma the bad guy puts the good girl in), but Sarah is one of those maddening Lifetime heroines whom it’s hard to maintain sympathy for because she’s just so stupid. When she meekly takes Rob’s first slap, forgives him on the spot and declares her undying love, one can only think, “What’s the matter with you, girl? Apparently you haven’t been watching enough Lifetime movies!”

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Fun Home (live production, San Diego Repertory Theatre, September 15, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Fun Home proved to be a sheer delight — well, maybe not a total delight since it ends with the suicide of the heroine’s father (Bechdel subtitled the original graphic novel A Family Tragicomedy, which about sums it up), but a great show that combined comedy, tragedy, romance, emotion and music in full measure. Musically it’s the best non-Sondheim new musical I’ve heard in decades — though the rapid-fire Sprechstimme of Tesori’s music and Kron’s lyrics is rather Sondheimesque — and dramatically it manages to make a shifting time sense work thanks to the casting of three separate actresses as Alison: one as an eight-year old girl (either Taylor Coleman on the “red team” or Isabella Pruter on the “orange team” — there wasn’t a handout with the program to tell us which one we were seeing in this performance, but the actors playing Alison’s two brothers were similarly dual-cast), one as a college freshman at Oberlin discovering herself, and in particular her sexuality, for the first time (Claire Adams), and one as a middle-aged woman looking back on her past (Amanda Naughton). The adult Alison is shown writing and drawing the graphic novel and trying to make sense of her past so she can communicate it to her readers. Alison Bechdel was born in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania (though she calls it something else in the show), in a large Victorian home her father Bruce Bechdel (Jim Stanek) has restored. Bruce is an English teacher in the local high school — the college-age Alison jokes to her college friend (and first lover) Joan (Alexis Louise Young) that of course she was in her dad’s English class — as was everyone else in town — and he also inherited the Bechdel family business, a funeral parlor. (The title Fun Home is not only a play on “Fun House,” it’s also a pun on the abbreviation “Fun. Home” out of which Alison and her two brothers do a musical number, supposedly a commercial for the establishment, which is done in the style of the Jackson 5.) 

Alison’s mom, long-suffering housewife Helen Bechdel (Bets Malone), is a peripheral part of the story and one wonders about what she was like and how she and her daughter related (a story the real Bechdel addressed in a second graphic novel, Are You My Mother?, published in 2012 and dealing largely with Alison’s therapy sessions over her relationship with mom), just as one wonders what became of the two other Bechdel kids. We’re given the story — or at least the outcome — at the beginning, and the principal action turns on Alison’s coming-out at Oberlin (where there’s even a “Gay Union” — and yes, it’s nice to be flashed back to the days when our community had a name instead of just a preposterous set of initials) and the sheer sense of freedom and liberation she feels. She does make one big mistake, however: rather than come out to her parents in person, she writes a letter home stating that she’s now realized she’s a Lesbian, she’s in love with a woman (she even brings her girlfriend Joan in a set of scenes that mark the show’s adroit mix of comedy and drama) and she feels freer than she ever has now that her girlhood distaste for dresses, her love of male clothes and her tomboy-ish wish to join her dad in male stuff and get him to play “Airplane” with her (reprised at the end — this show is full of reprises and some of the themes in Tesori’s score get repeated so often they practically count as Leitmotifs), as well as her father’s nicknaming her “Al,” all has come clear to her. This letter strikes her family like a bomb: dad is in shock and it’s from her mom that Alison learns that her father has been having affairs with men throughout their marriage. 

It reminded me of Duke Ellington’s portrayal of the Emancipation Proclamation in his Black-history symphony Black, Brown and Beige, with the young slaves (represented by powerful, biting, open trumpets) eager for freedom and desperate to grant its opportunities, while the older ones are fearful that being liberated is just going to deprive them of the meager privileges they’ve worked so long for, including the right to rest and relax once in a while. Alison and her dad both may be Queer in the sense of attractions to their own gender, but what Alison sees as a source of liberation and pride her father sees as deep-seated shame, and it leads him to take his own life by stepping in front of a truck on Highway 150 (where years earlier he’d taken Alison and had her feel the road vibrations as the trucks passed) four months later. Fun Home did hook one of my pet peeves, Bisexual invisibility — Alison clearly regards, and wants us to regard, her father as “Gay” even though he was able to sustain a heterosexual marriage and father three children, and in one college scene she receives a book her dad has mailed her, a novel by Colette, and Joan has a what-was-your-dad-thinking speech referencing Colette’s affairs with women and referring to her as a Lesbian. (It was all I could do to restrain myself from shouting into the theatre, “Colette wasn’t a Lesbian! She was Bi!”) But that was a minor glitch in an incredibly enjoyable show — I loved every minute of it and told Charles after it ended, “This was the birthday date we should have had two weeks ago.”

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel (Georgia Public Television, PBS, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Among the bizarre items on KPBS’s schedule last night (on the 17th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, when I was actually expecting either original programming or reruns about the events) was a six-year-old episode of their long-running American Masters series about great men and women that have shaped American history and culture. This one dealt with a woman whose work is probably far more famous than her name: Margaret Mitchell, born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1900, an aspiring playwright and actress who became a journalist, short-story writer and ultimately author of one of the most incredibly successful novels in history: Gone with the Wind. Though published in 1936, in the middle of the Great Depression, Gone with the Wind became the biggest-selling novel ever written by an American to that point, and three years later it became the basis for a hugely successful movie that was the biggest-grossing hit Hollywood had ever seen. Indeed, if you count the number of times someone has paid admission to see it (a test a number of movie scholars have argued is more accurate than comparing gross incomes on a film, because — especially for a film like Gone with the Wind that was periodically reissued — that eliminates the problem of having to compensate for inflation), it’s still the most popular movie of all time. The American Masters program, called Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel, told Mitchell’s story via direction by Kathy White, writing by Pamela Roberts, a narration delivered by Harry Pritchett, and interview with various authorities including modern-day Southern author Pat Conroy and film historian Molly Haskell. 

The basics of Mitchell’s story are that she was born November 8, 1900 to a couple of attorneys, Eugene Mitchell and his wife Maybelle Stephens Mitchell. Not only had Maybelle cracked the bar at a time when it was difficult for women even to be admitted to law school, much less being licensed to practice, she had also been active in the suffrage movement. When Margaret had a household accident at age three — her dress caught fire and she nearly burned — her mom responded by dressing her in trousers and she went full-out tomboy, calling herself “Jimmy” after the child hero of a then-popular comic strip. She also took up horseback riding and became fascinated by the Civil War by hearing tales of it from older relatives and their friends who had actually fought — but those tales romanticized the war so much it wasn’t until she was 10 that she realized the South had actually lost. Margaret mentioned one carriage ride her mom took her on through Atlanta and its outskirts, in which mom showed her the wreckages of the great pre-war plantations and offered these as an example of the frailty of human accomplishments. As a girl, Margaret also organized her friends into an amateur acting troupe and wrote scripts for them — one of which was based on a novel by Thomas Dixon, one of whose other books, The Clansman, provided the basis for D. W. Griffith’s blockbuster hit film The Birth of a Nation. She also wrote short stories which weren’t published, and went to work for the Atlanta Journal as a reporter and feature writer. As a teenager Margaret directly experienced the buildup to a war when the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, and her first serious boyfriend, fiancé Clifford West Henry, was actually killed in combat in France shortly before the war ended. (In her biography of Margaret Mitchell, Anne Edwards suggests that Henry was really Gay and that’s why, as Margaret’s older brother Stephens Henry recalled, she wrote in a letter to a friend that she had a “memory of a love that had in it no trace of physical passion.”) 

When the war ended and the 1920’s arrived, Margaret enthusiastically embraced the “flapper” movement, in which young women showed their liberation from traditional notions of femininity by wearing bras instead of full corsets, attempted to look as “boyish” as possible, wore short skirts and, in their most important fashion statement, “bobbed” their hair — cut it short to almost men’s length. (When I was in high school in the 1960’s, one of the texts I read in my history of short stories class was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” — and of course even then I had a strong enough sense of irony that in an era in which men were showing their rebellion by growing their hair long, I was reading a story about an era in which women were showing their rebellion by cutting their hair short.) After she returned home from one disastrous year at Smith College, during which she asked to be transferred out of a class because another student was Black, Margaret Mitchell became a well-known figure in Atlanta night life, learning to dance (despite a horseback-riding injury in her childhood that had caused lasting damage to one leg) and attracting a wide variety of suitors even though she was not all that conventionally attractive — a trait she passed on to her heroine Scarlett O’Hara in the opening lines of Gone with the Wind. Margaret Mitchell was courted especially intensely by two roommates, Berrien “Red” Kinnard Upshaw and John Robert Marsh. She first married Upshaw — whom Pamela Roberts’ narration suggests was the model for Rhett Butler — but when he turned out to be a scapegrace with no job and no particular interest in finding one, she divorced him and married Marsh. After another riding accident re-injured her leg, forced her to wear orthopedic shoes and thereby made it impossible for her to dance anymore, Margaret determined to use her time to write a novel. She first tried to write a book about the 1920’s but never finished it, and then she seized on the Civil War as a subject. Margaret apparently wrote Gone with the Wind over a three-year period from 1926 to 1929, and according to her own account she wrote it backwards, starting with the now-famous ending and working her way back to the beginning — which she would rewrite again and again over time and never was quite satisfied with it. (When the film of Gone with the Wind was made, that was the part that most bedeviled its makers, producer David O. Selznick and the various directors and writers he platooned on the project: the very last scene star Vivien Leigh filmed for the movie was yet another retake of the opening sequence.) 

Before I watched this show the story I’d heard of the origin of Gone with the Wind and how this reclusive Southern belle got her novel in print was that John Marsh had a friend, New York literary editor Harold Latham, whom he invited to his home in Atlanta as a house guest. One evening over dinner, Latham was lamenting that he couldn’t find any interesting new books by previously unpublished authors, and asked Marsh if he knew any. “Well, my wife is writing something,” Marsh told Latham. Mitchell herself was uncertain as to whether she should offer the book, regarding it as unfinished and more of a hobby project than a publishable novel. She gave Latham part of her manuscript (famously, she wrote it in envelopes, one envelope per chapter, and she kept the envelopes in a file drawer in sequence and drew out each one as she wanted to revise it) and he left on the train back to New York. She cabled him to return the book, but by then he’d started reading it, was absolutely captivated and decided to publish it. The book was an immediate sensation, not only becoming a huge seller but winning the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and this film suggests that Depression audiences responded more than anything else to Scarlett’s struggle for sheer survival — “As God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again” — as a reflection of what they were going through themselves. 

Margaret Mitchell had the fame she had long said she wanted, but found it was a double-edged sword: innumerable people called her (usually the phone was taken by her faithful Black maid Beulah, the model for Mammy in the book) and asked if Scarlett and Rhett ever got back together. “I don’t know, and she doesn’t know either,” Beulah would tell the various callers. One story about Margaret Mitchell that I particularly love didn’t make it into the documentary but reveals how she thought the book was absolutely complete the way it was and neither had nor needed a sequel: in 1940, after the smash success of his film of Gone with the Wind, David O. Selznick offered her a large sum of money to write a sequel. To sweeten the deal, Selznick said that his payment was only for the movie rights: she could make more money selling it as a novel or for adaptation into any other medium. Mitchell turned down the offer, telling Selznick in her quiet, unassuming way, “I have nothing more to say about those people.” The show mentioned that Margaret Mitchell had recurring bouts of clinical depression — they didn’t mention it, but Vivien Leigh, who played Mitchell’s creation in the famous film, also had that problem — and it also touched on the controversy over the story’s treatment of African-Americans. Mitchell herself was upset at the criticism she got from the Black community, saying that she had created Black characters of real dignity and worth, and she seemed oblivious of the difference between being a servant and being a slave. 

Ironically, in a part of Mitchell’s biography so little known her Wikipedia page doesn’t say a word about it, Margaret Mitchell gave a lot of the income from Gone with the Wind to charity, and particularly to charities benefiting African-Americans — notably Morehouse College in Atlanta, an all-male, historically Black university. Mitchell befriended Benjamin Mays, who had become president of Morehouse in 1940, and she started giving him money to fund scholarships, with particular emphasis on training Black doctors. Mitchell also endowed the largest Black hospital in Atlanta and said she saw giving money to the hospital and funding scholarships to Morehouse’s medical school as two parts of the same program: giving Atlanta’s Black community a state-of-the-art hospital and also training Black doctors to staff it. (In 1948 Morehouse would graduate from its divinity school a young man named Martin Luther King, Jr., who was apparently a personal protégé of Benjamin Mays.) This suggests that Margaret Mitchell was a racial progressive but also a staunch segregationist; she wanted to make good on the promise of “separate but equal” but she didn’t favor integration. 

Mitchell also did more conventional social work during World War II, including working as an American Red Cross volunteer, sending food packages to servicemembers and christening a U.S. Navy anti-aircraft ship called U.S.S. Atlanta — actually two ships called U.S.S. Atlanta, the one that was destroyed in the Battle of Guadalcanal and the second Atlanta that was built to replace it. Margaret Mitchell died in 1949 when she was hit by a car while she and her husband were on their way to see a movie (the driver, off-duty cabbie Hugh Gravitt, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served 18 months in jail), putting an end to an enigmatic life which seems to straddle quite a lot of our racial, sexual and political divide: the young college student who refused to stay in a class with a Black student turned benefactress of a Black university and a Black hospital; the suffragette’s daughter who was a flapper in the 1920’s and eventually settled into a quiet married life; a woman who wrote the most popular novel of 20th Century America at a time when the works of women authors were even more severely ghettoized as “chick lit” than they are today; and a surprisingly progressive figure who also created the most haunting and culturally enduring romanticization of the Civil War, the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy and their struggle to preserve their “right” to own Black people as slaves

Frontline: “Left Behind America” (Dayton, Ohio) (WGBH/PBS, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a couple of TV shows on PBS, including an American Masters episode on Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell that actually dated from 2012 and a new Frontline, “Left Behind America,” about the financial collapse of Dayton, Ohio and how it, like a lot of formerly industrial cities in the Midwest and the Rust Belt, is trying to claw back economically. The story of Dayton is all too familiar: though Dayton’s principal claim to fame to the outside world is as the home of Wilbur and Orville Wright and the place where they build the world’s first successful powered airplane, it was best known to its residents as the founding city of the National Cash Register corporation and also as the site of the General Motors plant that was the largest auto factory in the U.S. outside Detroit. Then, starting in the 1970’s, U.S. corporations came down hard on their workers, breaking unions and moving their production overseas, resulting in those hideous photos of the insides of factories looking as if bombs had been set off. In a country that has no industrial policy and inexplicably prides itself on that — just as we so inexplicably pride ourselves on being the only advanced industrial country in the world that doesn’t guarantee its citizens access to health care as a right — no one thought that even if the people and companies who built those factories no longer felt they could use them profitably, it might be a good idea to save that infrastructure and do something with it. 

The story of Dayton is almost mind-numbingly familiar — globalization led to the shuttering of its industrial capacity and the devastation of its local economy, since too few people were working to sustain the local infrastructure of businesses that had once existed. National Cash Register and GM shut down those big factories and just threw the people who’d been employed there out of work, and though a Chinese company called Fuyao Auto Glass just bought the big GM factory and restored it to produce windshields — and rehired some of the old GM workers — it also paid them considerably less, $12 per hour, rising to $12.84 after you’ve been there six months. (Admittedly $12 goes a lot farther in Ohio than it does in California.) Fuyao founder Cho Tak Wong (speaking in Chinese and translated with subtitles) explains that the reason he relocated in the U.S. is “because the U.S. deindustrialization policy has wiped out my American competitors. Almost all American-owned companies in our industry are gone. There was no way for them to survive.” There are interviews with people who run the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry, including a woman who explains that most of the people who get food aid from there are actually employed — a lot of times, she says, they ask her to give them their food early enough that they can pick it up on their way to work — and also an explanation of how the prescription opiate crisis hit Dayton particularly hard. They were in a big-time target market for the makers of drugs like Oxycontin and Vicodin, largely because those good-paying industrial jobs that used to exist there were also highly stressful physically and a lot of people ended up in chronic long-term pain and eagerly grabbed these drugs from their doctors, who relied on the assurance of the drug companies that made them that they were “non-addictive.” A lot of people in Dayton who started out on prescription opiates for pain ended up addicted to heroin — including a young woman named Ashley Sturgill whose partner Josh Hunter recalls how it started and how it ended: “I knew she was on the pills and, and I thought she got clean. But actually, she would use the bathroom a lot and lock the door and turn the water on. One day I picked the lock on the bathroom door and opened it, and she had a needle stuck in her arm. That’s when I knew for sure.” 

What struck me about this program was how the people in Dayton seem to have accepted that they’re going to get poorer and are coping as best they can with a sullen stoicism; filmmaker Shimon Dotan avoided any discussion of the political impact of the decline in Dayton — if any — and what’s struck me about this as well as similar documentaries I’ve seen in the past is the absence of any sense among the victims that the political system offers them any hope of a solution. Ohio went for Donald Trump in the 2016 election (no Republican has ever been elected President without carrying Ohio) but there’s no discussion from any of the residents that they expect him to make things better or even arrest the decline: they’ve just accepted it the way they might accept a hurricane, as an “act of God” over which they had no control and about which they could do nothing. Partly this is the old American tradition of regarding misfortune as something you don’t cry over or ask for help — you pick yourself up, adjust to the new conditions, and do the best you can in the new environment — and partly, I suspect, it’s also because on at least some level Ohioans, like many other Americans, are aware that both major political parties are in thrall to the 1 percent who bankroll their campaigns and therefore have written off political activism as a potential source of solutions.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Bad Seed (Front Street Pictures, The Wolper Organization, Warner Bros. TV, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched last night’s Lifetime “premiere” movie, a remake of the 1956 classic The Bad Seed with Rob Lowe as executive producer, director and star. The Bad Seed, you’ll probably remember, is about a psychopathic little girl named Rhoda Penmark who’s the granddaughter of a serial killer and who supposedly inherited grandma’s criminal insanity after it skipped a generation and did not afflict her mom. It began life as a novel by William March that got turned into a hit Broadway play by Maxwell Anderson (oddly the imdb.com page for the remake does not credit Anderson, though the final credits of the 2018 film mention both him and John Lee Mahin, who adapted Anderson’s play for the 1956 film version) and was filmed in 1956 by director Mervyn LeRoy — returning to his old stomping grounds at Warner Bros. after nearly two decades at MGM — with the actresses who starred in it on Broadway, Nancy Kelly as Rhoda’s mom Christine Penmark and child actor Patty McCormick as the “bad seed” herself. For this version director/star Lowe and writer Barbara Marshall inexplicably changed Rhoda’s first name to “Emma” and her last name to “Grossman.” Also, where in the original story Rhoda’s dad had been a colonel in the U.S. military and wasn’t around much because he was almost always away on duty (and in the 1956 film he was played by William Hopper, best known as Paul Drake on the original Perry Mason TV series), in this version Rhoda’s — oops, I mean “Emma’s” — mom passed away a year or so after Emma’s birth and dad David Grossman has raised her as a single parent and also built up a thriving business making and selling designer chairs. (I’m not making this up, you know.) Emma is a student at St. Alban’s private school, run by African-American principal Mrs. Ellis (Marci T. House), who predictably becomes yet another one of the Black women who gets “offed” by the villain early on in a Lifetime movie. The action kicks off when Emma is disappointed because she expected to win the school’s annual citizenship medal, presented to the student who most exemplifies the school’s values of honor, fidelity, trust, helpfulness to others and all that other good stuff.

Instead she lost it to Milo Curtis (Luke Roessler, who I suspect is going to be very attractive when he grows up) — in the original it was a penmanship medal, but what school teaches penmanship anymore? — and so Emma responds by taking Milo out to the cliffs overlooking a beach near the school (the locale is never specified in Marshall’s script but at one point there’s a reference to a phone number in the 914 area code, which would indicate Westchester County in upstate New York), snatches the medal from him and pushes him over. The school tries to keep the investigation of Milo’s presumably accidental death in-house instead of involving the police, but of course Emma is just getting started. She kills Mrs. Ellis by putting a whole hive of wasps in her car — the hive was on the Grossmans’ property but just how Emma got it down from the rafters of David’s original work shed (which he’s kept for sentimental reasons because that’s where his chair-making business got started even though he now owns two factories that churn out the things) and into Mrs. Ellis’s car writer Marshall never bothers to explain. Emma’s next victim is her nanny, Chloë (Sarah Dugdale), who took the job with the ambition of seducing the rich and single David and ultimately marrying him (and his money) even though David’s had a succession of casual girlfriends but has had no interest in settling down with one permanently since Emma’s mom died. She “offs” Chloë by locking her into that shed and setting fire to it, knowing that the flammable chemicals inside (we know there are flammable chemicals inside because David has told Chloë that because of them she’s not allowed to smoke in the shed) will cause an explosive fire that will kill her. The sequence is the most chilling scene in the film but would have been even scarier if director Lowe hadn’t been so explicit about it — we actually see Chloë’s body (or a digital simulacrum thereof — in the old days this sort of scene would have been done by a stunt person in an asbestos suit, but this was pretty obviously CGI) aflame — and had gone more Lewtonian and dramatized it only with a long shot of the burning building and Chloë’s screams on the soundtrack.

Ultimately David takes Emma to a deserted mountain cabin — it seems that at least half of all Lifetime movies these days end in deserted mountain cabins, though at least this one has cell-phone reception — where he intends to eliminate Emma’s evil by feeding her hot chocolate laced with a toxic drug, only Emma catches on, switches cups with him and ultimately she survives and he dies, killed by the cabin’s groundskeeper Brian (Lorne Cardinal) as he’s about to shoot his daughter. Emma ends up in the custody of David’s surviving sister Angela, who of course has no idea that cute little girl is really a psychopathic killer. Along the way, in a vain attempt to treat her, David takes Emma to a psychiatrist named Dr. March who’s played by Patty McCormick, the original Rhoda in the 1956 film, who in a bizarre but predictable in-joke from Barbara Marshall tells Emma, “I used to do exactly the same things you do when I was your age.” The 1956 The Bad Seed is a great film — at least if you turn it off at the point where Mahin’s script reached Maxwell Anderson’s original ending (Christine Penmark tries to do a murder-suicide with Rhoda; Christine dies but Rhoda lives, and Rhoda’s dad returns from one of his deployments to face the news that his wife has killed herself, but “at least you still have Rhoda” — and she comes in, all smiles and gooey sweetness, doing the “basket of kisses … basket of hugs” that’s a running bit of business between father and daughter in both versions) and avoid the Production Code-mandated cop-out Mahin had to add after that (Rhoda goes to the creek where the medal recipient drowned to retrieve the penmanship medal, a bolt of lightning strikes her down, while her mom survives after all) and the silly coda LeRoy stuck on after the closing credits with Nancy Kelly spanking Patty McCormick on screen. The 2018 The Bad Seed is hardly the movie its predecessor was, and some of the script changes seem just arbitrary (even the explanation of the title is changed, probably because modern-day psychologists have pretty much debunked the idea that criminal tendencies are heritable), but it’s still a strong enough piece of material that it works, and Lowe’s direction is suitably atmospheric and better than the Lifetime norm.

Schlitz Playhouse: “The Unlighted Road” (Meridian, CBS-TV, aired May 6, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched James Dean’s final TV Mshow, a Schlitz Playhouse of Stars episode called “The Unlighted Road,” first aired May 6, 1955 (a bit under five months before Dean’s death and therefore the last work of his anyone got to see while he was still alive) and which, because it came out after the release of his first starring film, East of Eden, was introduced by Dean himself. Alas, this was not included in the boxed set of Dean’s surviving TV work and my source for it was a YouTube download someone posted in the wrong aspect ratio. Still, “The Unlighted Road” turned out to be good melodrama and a nice showcase for Dean, who plays Jeffrey Latham, a Korean War veteran who’s drifting across the country looking for a place he can settle down. He seems to have found it when he walks into a diner owned by Mike Deegan (Murvyn Vye) and fixes the diner’s broken coffee machine. Mike immediately offers Jeffrey a job and tells him not to worry about the two guys who hang out there regularly, Matt Schreiber (Edgar Stehli) and Roy Montana (Charles Wangenheim). Jeffrey has guessed they’re bookies because Schreiber is always studying a racing form and Montana is passing him envelopes full of cash, but Matt says Schreiber is only a casual horse-player and used-car dealer, and the cash is payment for cars he’s sold through auto garages. Jeffrey’s first instinct that these guys were crooks is, of course, correct: Schreiber is really a dealer in stolen goods and the cash Montana is collecting for him is the proceeds from the sales of those goods. When Schreiber and Montana have a falling-out, Schreiber offers Jeffrey the job of making the cash pickups and, despite his initial misgivings, Jeffrey takes the gig on Matt’s assurance that it’s all perfectly up-and-up. Meanwhile Jeffrey has met a local girl, Ann Burnett (Patricia Hardy), for one of those diffident courtships like the ones Dean’s characters had with Julie Harris in East of Eden and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause; they’ve gone to a square dance in the nearby (about five miles distant) town of Stanton (and the Schlitz commercial is worked into the plot by having it take place at the dance). Only when Jeffrey makes his first run picking up the cash envelopes, he’s chased by a state trooper’s car whose driver not only turns on his siren but starts shooting at him.

This would be odd behavior for a real cop — a real cop would try to pull Jeffrey over instead of just pulling his weapon and shooting — but as a typical James Dean character Jeffrey is too naïve to realize that. Instead he leads the “trooper” on a chase; his car makes a difficult turn in the road but the trooper’s doesn’t, and later Jeffrey finds out that the trooper’s car went down a 42-foot cliff and he was killed. Matt encourages Jeffrey to remain silent about the affair, but the cops (the real ones) figure it out anyway. Jeffrey tells Ann that he’s in trouble and he’s going to turn himself in and take his chances, and by doing so Jeffrey learns the truth: the “trooper” who was chasing him was really Montana, who bought a siren for his car in an attempt to trick Jeffrey into stopping for him so he could rob him of the illicit cash at gunpoint. When that didn’t work, Mike and Schreiber decided to cover up the crime by making it look like Jeffrey had killed the trooper: they shot Montana, who had a broken leg but was still alive after the crash, and pushed his car down the cliff. At the police station, Jeffrey at first tells an incomplete version of the story to shield Mike, who after all was his benefactor, but when he learns that Mike has confessed Jeffrey tells the truth and is told by the lead detective on the investigation that it’s a lucky thing he did because he was able to get free of Schreiber’s criminal scheme instead of having Schreiber hold a dark secret over him for the rest of his life, just as he had something (unspecified) on Mike which he used to force this basically good man to participate in his crimes. What’s fascinating about The Unlighted Road is how it anticipates a lot of Dean’s subsequent work (as little of it as there was); in both The Unlighted Road and Rebel Without a Cause a car goes off the road and down a cliff, and Dean’s character feels responsible (and of course the importance of a car crash in this story can’t help but provide a chilling anticipation of Dean’s real death in a car crash on a winding mountain road!), and there’s something decidedly macabre about the confluence of car crashes as important in both these fictional stories as well as the end of Dean’s actual life.