Today’s post is for “Order in the Court!” The Classic Courtroom Movies Blogathon. This genius idea for a blogathon was created by wonderful classic film fans Theresa at Cinemaven’s Essays From the Couch and Lesley at Second Sight Cinema. Be sure to visit their blogs to read the great pieces about classic films that involved courtroom scenes, law, justice, etc.
My son’s English teacher told me at Parent-Teacher conferences this year that he was tired of presenting the book To Kill A Mockingbird, and then showing the movie, to some of his English classes. I told the teacher that he should consider having the classes read William Faulkner’s novel Intruder in the Dust and then show them the 1950 film version. I added that it’s a Faulkner novel with a happy ending! This intrigued him, especially to learn that there was a happy Faulkner novel. I also pointed out that the movie was filmed in Faulkner’s hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, and that he helped to write the screenplay. Similar to To Kill A Mockingbird, the setting is a small southern town and while there isn’t an actual courtroom scene, there is the threat of a looming trial, a lawyer agreeing to defend the underdog, and some intrepid teens and one old lady who help to save the day.
MGM paid Faulkner $50,000 for the rights to make a movie from this novel, which was published in 1949. Clarence Brown was chosen to direct. Faulkner helped to write the screenplay along with Ben Maddow. The outstanding cast: Claude Jarman Jr., Juano Hernandez, David Brian, Elizabeth Patterson, Porter Hall, Charles Kemper, Will Geer, and Elzie Emanuel.
There are a good number of characters in this film but here are the main ones: Lucas Beauchamp(Juano Hernandez) is a black man who has made a nice life for he and his wife along the river that runs near the small town of Jefferson, Mississippi. He minds his own business, conducts his life on his terms, and doesn’t want to cause any trouble. Chick Mallison(Claude Jarman Jr.) is a typical teen boy, tallish, thin, gawky, who goes to school, and likes to hunt when he has free time, with his buddy, Aleck(Elzie Emanuel), a black teen, who is also tallish, thin, and gawky. Then there is Miss Eunice Habersham(Elizabeth Patterson) the respected old maid Sunday School teacher, who has a stubborn streak a mile wide. She’s petite, yet a powerful presence against the evil that will appear in this sleepy town. Rounding out the main characters is lawyer John Gavin Stevens(David Brian), who also happens to be Chick’s uncle. He’ll be called upon to take up the defense case for a man the majority of the town thinks is 100% guilty of murder.
The movie opens with Lucas Beauchamp being herded to the County Courthouse and Jail, as he’s been charged for the murder of one Vinson Gowrie(David Clarke), co-owner of the lumberyard. A huge crowd of onlookers presses in around Lucas as Sheriff Hampton(Will Geer) tries to get Lucas into the jail. Chick Mallison happens to be in that part of town and when Lucas sees Chick in the crowd, he tells him to please go and get his uncle, Lawyer Stevens. Chick hustles away and finds his Uncle John, and tells him that Lucas Beauchamp needs his help. With that, a flashback ensues, to explain how Chick came to become friends with Lucas.
It would be an unusual relationship, for a man of 6o to befriend a boy of 15, especially adding into the mix that they are of different races, and live in a time when the races were to be treated in a segregated environment. Faulkner’s telling of this friendship is fairly simple: Chick and Aleck were out rabbit hunting one Saturday morning in November and Chick accidentally fell into the freezing cold river. Aleck knew they were near Lucas Beauchamp’s home, so he ran there for help and Lucas rescued Chick. Lucas then took Chick to his home, put him to bed, made sure he had dry clothes to change into, made sure that the wet clothes were dried, and had his wife give Chick some food and drink after he woke. Chick felt very awkward about thanking this black couple for their kindness, and awkward in telling Lucas thank you for saving his life, so when his clothes were dry, he put them on and just left! Later, he does tell his mom about it and she admonishes him for not thanking the Beauchamps. She insists they buy the couple some gifts and leave them at their doorstep as a way to say thank you. In wanting to thank the Beauchamps anonymously, that action of supposed thanks only helps to illuminate the uncomfortable feelings the two races that make up the demographics of this town are consumed with.
Chick also tells his Uncle John one more anecdote about Lucas. Lucas had been in the local hardware/general store one afternoon and Chick happened to be there too. Some men in the store began taunting Lucas, who decided to stand his ground and ignore them. This angered Vinson Gowrie, and he tried to hit Lucas, but the men in the store stopped him. Some of the townsfolk think that Lucas was mad enough at Vinson to shoot him. Chick tells his Uncle John that he knows Lucas wouldn’t kill anyone, and Uncle John agrees to take on the case. He and Chick walk over to the jail to talk to Lucas.
Lucas is adamant that he didn’t shoot Vinson Gowrie. Lucas admits that he was visited and beaten by another white man, the other lumber yard owner, as he wanted Lucas to reveal who he had seen stealing lumber from the yard: Lucas had seen the murder victim, Vinson, stealing lumber. Lucas won’t talk anymore about the incident, but after Uncle John makes his way out of the cell, Lucas hisses for Chick to come back. He asks Chick and Aleck to go and dig up Vinson’s body, get the bullet out of it, because that bullet isn’t one from Lucas’s gun and will prove he’s not the killer.
Miss Habersham is also adamant that Lucas Beauchamp couldn’t be a killer, and she finds out what Chick and Aleck are planning to do, and with that matter of fact way of hers, she announces to them that she’ll help them in their quest for that bullet! As the trio finally unearth the coffin, they discover that Vinson’s body isn’t in it!
I’m not going to reveal anymore of this murder mystery by one of the South’s finest writers. A kind soul has put the entire film on Youtube. I will add, the scene where Miss Habersham alone defends Lucas from being lynched by a mob, is tense!
Juano Hernandez, listed 4th in the credits(I think he should have been listed 1st) is outstanding as Lucas. He’s a wise man and it shows in his eyes, as do his other emotions. He’s world-weary, and for every question and criticism he receives from Uncle John, his defense lawyer, he has a ready answer that counters the “whites” way of thinking about any sitution. The other character that stands out to me is Elizabeth Patterson’s Miss Habersham. She looks so prim and proper, but she is not one to fit into that cookie-cutter assumption as to how an old white lady from the South should act or think. Carl Jarman Jr. is fine as Chick, at first wary to let anyone in his family know that he’s friends with Lucas, and then rising to his friend’s need in urging his Uncle John to take the man’s case. I am not as familiar with actor David Brian’s other films, but he is good as Uncle John:stoic, practical, and it is he and the Sheriff(Will Geer, a small part but he’s great in it)who come up with the plot to catch the real murderer.
For an alternative to the film To Kill a Mockingbird and it’s book version, treat yourself to William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust and it’s movie version!
Here is the trailer that movie goers in 1950 would have seen in advertising this film.