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Southern Movies, Actual and Fanciful:
A Personal Survey

Highlights from Issue 31: Ode to the South

Director Luis Bu˝uel on the set of The Young One

Courtesy of Photofest

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

The following piece is from Issue 31: Ode to the South. For more on this issue, click here

SOUTHERN MOVIES, ACTUAL AND FANCIFUL:
A PERSONAL SURVEY


BY JONATHAN ROSENBAUM

For a born Southerner such as myself, hailing from northwest Alabama, there are basically two kinds of movies set in the Deep South: authentic and inauthentic ones. The former are those done by filmmakers who consider it worth the trouble to film in the right locations, with the right actors, using the right accents while giving some attention to the local folkways. The latter are basically those who don’t know or don’t care about such distinctions.

The most obvious example of the first kind of filmmaker is Elia Kazan, who even went to the trouble of hiring a “speech consultant,” Margaret Lamkin, for his celebrated stage production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and then used her again on his film Baby Doll, to ensure that all the accents were letter-perfect. It’s too bad that Richard Brooks didn’t hire Lamkin when he made his 1958 film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. An even greater lack of Southern verisimilitude hampers the second Richard Brooks film of a Tennessee Williams play directed on the stage by Kazan, Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), even though no less than four of the same original actors were used — Paul Newman, Geraldine Page (admittedly, in the part of a non-Southerner), Madeleine Sherwood and Rip Torn. Having seen this Kazan production, I can attest to the profound differences in overall feel and flavor between the play and the movie, especially when it came to handling locale.

Kazan, who’d spent some time in the Deep South as part of his leftist activities during the Depression, was partly reacting against the artificiality of Pinky, a 1949 studio-bound effort at Twentieth Century-Fox he’d been assigned to take over from John Ford. He vowed to do a better job on his subsequent films with Southern settings, and he was true to his word on Panic in the Streets (1950), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Baby Doll (1956), A Face in the Crowd (1957) and Wild River (1960). The first two were set in New Orleans (though Streetcar was filmed exclusively in studio sets); Baby Doll in rural Mississippi; A Face in the Crowd in Arkansas and Tennessee; and Wild River in the same general area where I grew up, the Tennessee Valley (which extends from Tennessee into northern Alabama).

In all these movies, the local shadings are very conscientiously and meticulously rendered, even when the performances are highly stylized in other respects. In Baby Doll, for instance, the black characters, all minor figures in the story, comprise a kind of amused Greek chorus to the foolish goings-on of the white principals. One could theoretically object to the way such stylization conflicts with the naturalism of the on-location shooting, but the way the characters sound is as letter-perfect as Williams’s dialogue. So when Baby Doll, played by Carroll Baker, delightfully defends her small-town sophistication by declaring herself with pride “a magazine reader,” a whole tradition of strained Southern gentility gets pinned into place, and the way Baker pronounces it (roughly, “uh mygahzine reah-duh”) makes it even more spot-on.

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