Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Bright Road (MGM, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Bright Road was a quirky movie, a 1953 film that started as a short story called “See How They Run” by Mary Elizabeth Vroman in the Ladies’ Home Journal. It’s an (almost) all-Black film in which Dorothy Dandridge plays Jane Richards, a newly arrived teacher at an all-Black school in a mill town. Harry Belafonte (in his film debut) plays the school principal, but the real interest in the film is the performance of Philip Hepburn as C. T. Young, one of nine kids whose parents are still together but whose dad works only part-time and as a result he’s chronically hungry. He’s also a classic “bad boy,” antisocial and doing poorly at school (he’s had to do virtually every grade twice, which accounts for his looking visibly older than his classmates) despite his basic intelligence. In his introductory scene he carefully watches a caterpillar on a tree branch, and as the story progresses we see the caterpillar spin its cocoon and come out as a butterfly (a pretty obvious symbol of C. T.’s own development). It’s one of those movies in which the situations are generally clichéd but they’re deployed in quite unusual ways.

C. T. (that’s his only name — like Johnny Cash’s real-life parents, his fictional ones gave him only initials, not an actual name) has one characteristic which softens his overall persona and gives Jane a chance to reach him — he’s got a crush on a girl in the class, Tanya (Barbara Ann Sanders). As usual in these sorts of stories, Jane works harder to reach C. T. than she does any of her other students — who include some pretty grandiloquently named people (there are namesakes of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Booker T. Washington in her class) — and it looks like she’s breaking through when tragedy strikes: Tanya gets viral pneumonia and dies, despite the ministrations of Dr. Mitchell (Robert Horton), the only white person in the dramatis personae. Meanwhile, it’s been established that C. T. raises bees on his family’s property and sells their honey — which itself becomes a source of trauma for him when his dad seizes a jar of his honey and presents it to the rest of the family as a Christmas present “from the bees” — horrifying Jane, who realized the beehive was C. T.’s only source of money in his own right. The sequence showing the Young family seems so much like a blackface version of the Cratchits’ home in A Christmas Carol we practically expect to see a cripple with a crutch sitting in a corner saying, “God bless us, every one.”

Speaking of God, it’s really interesting to see the strong religious streak in this film — though (praise be!) the Pledge of Allegiance was still the original version before it was disfigured with the words “under God” (which for my entire life has sent me the official message that I cannot be a true American since I don’t believe in God), there’s a surprising degree of intermingling of church and state in this movie, from the Nativity crèche in the classroom just before the Christmas break to Jane’s doing double duty as Sunday school teacher (and piano player!) in the same classroom in which she teaches her secular lessons. She leads the class in a singularly dull hymn, “Church in the Wildwood,” the sort of thing you’d expect to hear from white people but not Black ones, and later on she sings a vocalise in class to keep her students asleep during “rest period.” Even Harry Belafonte gets to sing; staying at the school after hours, Jane hears a guitar and a light baritone voice coming from his office and it turns out he’s in there singing the song “Suzanne” (he’s also visibly playing guitar and looks like he knows what he’s doing even though it was my understanding that Belafonte was strictly a singer and it was his musical partner, Millard Thomas, who actually played the guitar parts on his records), which he recorded on his second RCA Victor album more soulfully than he does it here but which is still nice to hear (and see!) despite its utter incongruity to the plot — one half-expects Belafonte’s character to say, “I don’t have to be a high-school principal in an all-Black school. I can make more money playing nightclubs.”

Bright Road is a surprisingly sweet and moving film even though C. T. spends most of the last two reels in isolation — he freaked out at Tanya’s death and broke up the students’ playground rendition of “Three Blind Mice” (which seems to be the only song they ever sing on the playground!), upbraiding them for singing such a mean song about cutting off mice’s tails and stealing one of the kids’ jump ropes and whipping another kid with it, starting a fight. Jane’s idea of punishing him was putting his desk cross-ways to hers and telling her class that he would be doing his work in isolation and none of them were to speak to him on pain of suffering the same fate — an odd reflection of the infamous case of African-American Oklahoma law student George McLaurin, who was admitted to the University of Oklahoma law school but only “on a segregated basis” within the university — meaning he was taught in a tiny office rather than a classroom, his professors were to grade him separately and he was even to eat his lunch at a different hour and in a different room from the white students. (To their credit, some of the white students protested his treatment by taking their lunch breaks at McLaurin’s reserved hour and sitting with him at his table.)

Eventually, C. T. is redeemed when the school is inundated by an attack of bees — the queen bee has somehow got into the classroom and all the other bees have followed her — and C. T., the only person at the school (student, faculty or administrator) who has any clue how to take care of bees, captures the queen, leads her out of the classroom and gets all the other bees to follow, though it’s a bit grim watching Philip Hepburn, his arm covered with bees whom he’s working with without the protective gloves and headgear worn by professional apiarists, carefully pushing the bees back into their home hive and somehow avoiding getting stung. Bright Road is a minor film but a touching one, whose didactic message in 1953 was aimed at white audiences to tell them, “Black people are just the same as you are” — but, aside from being an interesting snapshot of American public education in the pre-Sputnik era (in addition to the subject grades there’s also a space on the report card called “Desire to Learn,” in which Jane gives C. T. a C — his first passing grade in anything, ever), it’s a quite moving story in its own right, eloquently directed by Gerald Mayer from a script by Emmet Lavery. The most surprising thing about this movie is that Philip Hepburn, born in 1941 in New York City (and therefore 12 at the time this was filmed, though he looks like a young teenager) never acted again — at least his imdb.com page doesn’t list any other credits — a real pity, since he seemed to be a movie “natural” and would have reached adulthood in the 1960’s, precisely when the victories of the civil rights movement started opening up more and better parts for African-American actors.