17 Apr

“Southern Gothic” Expanded

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SNSN---car-modSpring Night, Summer Night

The latest issue of Sight & Sound offers a cover story on “Southern Gothic” movies, which coincides with a May BFI film series showcasing a dozen classic examples. I suppose such an abbreviated series will have obvious shortcomings, but the feature article has a few omissions on my recent radar that highlight recent film restorations and our evolving grasp of film history.

In Sight & Sound’s historical summary, Nick Pinkerton writes about the machinations of the Production Code Administration:

“Henceforth, if a film were to address the issue of lynch law — still taking lives both white and (disproportionately) black and, after 1930, doing so exclusively in the South — it would have to steer clear of the race issue, as in Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936), which had consummate everyman Spencer Tracy as a victim of vigilantism. This PCA edict was challenged by a handful of postwar social problem films, a category to which Clarence Brown’s 1949 adaptation of Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust  firmly belongs. The film’s screenplay was written by Ben Maddow, who shortly thereafter would land on the Hollywood blacklist — another of the periodic retractions of freedom of speech that mark studio-era American movies — and it was not until the PCA and blacklist both began to lose their authority that the spectre of the rude ‘justice’ of the lynch mob, usually riled up by wrongful accusation, would return to the screen in such films as To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and The Chase (1965).”

In my previous blog post, I highlighted blacklisted Cy Endfield’s remarkable two-punch films from 1950, The Underworld Story and The Sound of Fury; the former is a notable exception to the idea that Hollywood avoided the idea of racially motivated lynch mobs from 1936 to 1962 — and it’s much better than a “postwar social problem film.”  (And who can forget the climax of Jacques Tourneur’s Stars in My Crown, also from 1950?) Though a physical lynching doesn’t occur in The Underworld Story, and it’s set in New England, the film showcases a black maid unjustly accused of murder and the way the media enflames the public against her, provoking an attack on a newspaper office. Endfield’s The Sound of Fury (restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive in 2013) is based on the same true life lynching incident as Lang’s film, so while it’s equally a critique of vigilantism rather than racism, it’s a remarkably powerful indictment of mob violence.

Earlier in the article, Pinkerton classifies Night of the Hunter (1955) as “Appalachian Gothic,” and later alludes to the “regional independent filmmaking boom” that followed the collapse of the studio system, first citingThe Whole Shootin’ Match from 1978 and jumping to Nineties-era indie figures such as Richard Linklater, Robert Duvall and Billy Bob Thornton. But just a couple of weeks ago, as part of its latest Festival of Preservation, UCLA Film & Television Archive screened what may be the definitive independent Appalachian film, rarely seen by anyone, Spring Night, Summer Night (1967), in a beautiful print preserved by Ross Lipman, who himself wrote an article about the film for Sight & Sound a couple of years ago.

Spring Night, Summer Night is of dual importance for cinephiles. Not only is it a neorealist, acutely observed and provocatively ambiguous portrayal of a sexual scandal in rural Ohio (initially produced for a film production class, but later modified and released on the exploitation circuit as Miss Jessica is Pregnant), it’s also the only feature directed by J.L. Anderson, otherwise known for co-writing the ubiquitous textbook, The Japanese Film: Art and Industry (1982) with Donald Richie.

Anderson and actor Franklin Miller, both of whom seemed astonished to be watching a pristine print of their indie film on the big screen after nearly 50 years, attended the UCLA event and participated in a Q/A discussion with Lipman. As nice as it is to see such a forgotten and distinctive work finally receiving its due, Lipman made it clear that an ideal restoration of the film would include the original cut, plus additional footage later shot by Anderson for Miss Jessica is Pregnant minus its distributor-enforced, gratuitous nude scenes. Until that happens, we should simply be glad such cinematic treasures exist at all for our continued enjoyment and the invaluable historical perspective they provide.

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