Mockingbird at 50

**This is the 100th post I’ve published since starting this blog in June of 2011.  In honor of that, I decided to look at To Kill A Mockingbird, which just had its 50th anniversary this past November.

To Kill A Mockingbird stands out as one of the best adaptations of a book to the screen.  But it almost never made the transition.  All the major studios passed on the book, even though it had won the Pulitzer Prize.  They couldn’t see how it could be made into a movie, since there was hardly any action in the story, nor a love interest.

Then producer Alan J. Pakula stepped in, who was at the beginning of his distinguished career.  Pakula, the son of a Polish immigrant, was a Yale graduate who found a position in the Leyland Hayward Theatrical Agency.  That fueled his desire to work in the film business.  He headed for Hollywood where he became an assistant at Warner Brothers Animation, then moved MGM.  In the late 1950’s, he formed a partnership with television director Robert Mulligan to do their first movie, Fear Strikes OutTo Kill A Mockingbird was their second collaboration.

They worked together throughout the 1960’s on such films as Inside Daisy Clover and Love With The Proper Stranger.  Then in 1969 Pakula slipped into the directing chair himself for The Sterile Cuckoo, Liza Minnelli’s first movie which brought her an Oscar nomination.  Pakula went on to produce and direct multiple Oscar winners including Klute, All The President’s Men, Sophie’s Choice, and The Pelican Brief.  Sadly, he was killed in a freak car accident in 1998, at age 70.  Mulligan continued directing, doing films such as The Summer Of ’42, Same Time Next Year, and The Man In The Moon, which introduced child actress Reese Witherspoon in 1991 and was his final film.  He passed away at 83 in 2008.

Pakula saw the potential in the book and obtained the movie rights.  He and Mulligan felt Horton Foote would be the writer who could translate the story to the screen.  Foote was born in Wharton, TX, and had first pursued an acting career.  However, choreographer Agnes DeMille, with whom he became life-long friends, suggested he write plays.  That began a long career, first writing for the stage, then television, and finally films.  One of his early television works, in 1953, was “The Trip To Bountiful” which he adapted 32 years later as a movie that won Geraldine Page the Best Actress Oscar.  Foote at first didn’t want to take the assignment because he was afraid he couldn’t do justice to the book, but he eventually gave in to Pakula’s request.  He had a breakthrough with the writing when he decided to keep the story within a period of just over a year.

Pakula convinced Universal to back and release the production.  The studio had some ideas about who should play the lead role.  Their first choice was Rock Hudson, and then James Stewart.  Thankfully they both passed.  Instead, Pakula sent the book to Gregory Peck.  Peck read it in one night, and called Pakula early the next morning.  He said to the producer, “I’m your boy.”

Peck had been a major star ever since his second movie, The Keys of the Kingdom, in 1944.  His résumé leading up to Mockingbird was filled with excellent performances in memorable movies:  Spellbound, The Yearling, Gentleman’s Agreement, Twelve O’clock High, Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N., Roman Holiday, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, On The Beach, The Guns of Navarone, and Cape Fear.  Any actor would be happy with that as a career.  For Gregory Peck, it was all a prelude to the role of a lifetime that remained his personal favorite for the rest of his life.

Early on, the company considered filming on location in Harper Lee’s home town of Monroeville, Alabama.  When they visited there, they found little remained of the town in Lee’s book.  The visit, though, allowed Peck to meet Lee’s father Amasa, the template for Atticus Finch (Finch was Harper’s mother’s maiden name).  Peck noted Mr. Lee had a habit of fiddling with his pocket watch when thinking; the actor used that, particularly in the trial scene in the movie.  Unfortunately Amasa Lee passed away before the movie was released.  As a remembrance, Harper gave Peck her father’s watch.

The decision was made to instead shoot on the Universal lot.  The production designers exactly reproduced the Monroeville courthouse for the trial scenes.  While the set is gone, the actual courthouse is now a museum that you can visit in Monroeville.  The exterior of the courthouse is the “Courthouse Square” that you can see on the Universal Studio Tour (and was later used for Back To The Future.)  They planned to build the town set on the back lot, but the production designers found a number of Southern-style houses in the San Fernando Valley that were scheduled for demolition to make way for a new freeway.  The houses were bought cheap and transferred to the back lot, saving a considerable portion of the budget.

A major hurdle for the production was finding children to play the roles of Scout, Jem and Dil.  The role of Dil is based on Harper Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote, who spent his summers in Monroeville when he was a child.  To play him, they cast John Menga, who had done stage work along with television roles.  After Mockingbird, Menga continued to act on TV shows such as Dr. Kildare and Star Trek and in movies (Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, The Cannonball Run), and he founded L.A. Arts, a non-profit theatrical company.  He was one of the many that the artist community has lost to AIDS, dying in 1995 in his early ‘40s.

Thousands of children were auditioned in the south before they found Mary Badham and Philip Alford in Alabama.  Philip wasn’t interested in auditioning until he found out he’d miss a half-day of school.  Mary Badham had acting in her genes, as her English-born mother Mary Hewitt was an actress before marrying Henry Lee Badham Jr., a military aviator who retired as a Brigadier General.  Mary hadn’t prepared anything for the audition and just got up on the stage and did something she thought was silly.  It worked, for she and Philip were called back to audition once more, this time in New York City.

They are both wonderfully natural in the film.  This was helped by Mulligan, who let the children play together while the crew quietly set up shots.  There were problems, though.  In a scene where they were eating, Mary messed up almost every take, usually by mouthing the other actor’s lines.  (A small example of it is in the film.)  Philip got so tired of eating, when it came time for the scene where Jem pushes Scout in a tire, Philip aimed the tire at a utility truck, hoping to do grievous bodily harm to Mary.  Mary was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, becoming the youngest nominee ever at that time.  Curiously, she lost out to another child actress – Patty Duke for The Miracle Worker.

During the filming, Peck often had Philip and Mary over to his house on off days to play with his own children, who were about the same age.  They formed a close attachment that lasted the rest of Peck’s life.  In a documentary about the making of Mockingbird, Mary slips a couple of times and refers to Peck as Atticus.  Both children continued to act for a while – Philip appeared in Shenandoah – but they gave it up by adulthood.  Philip became a successful businessman in Birmingham.  Mary married a school teacher and did art restoration, though she’ll often do talks about the experience of making Mockingbird.  Her older (by 14 years) brother, though, has had a quite successful career behind the camera: Director John Badham (Saturday Night Fever, War Games, Short Circuit, Stakeout).

The cast included a number of actors making their big screen debuts.  Alice Ghostley became a supporting actress fixture on the small screen for the next four decades, best known as Esmeralda on “Bewitched.”  William Windom had been working in television since the late 1940s.  He remained busy both on the big and little screen into the mid-2000s, and passed away just last August.  There’s one further debut performance, though I’ll mention it later.

As the old, laudanum-addicted Mrs. Dubose from the book, Ruth White endured 4 hours of make-up each day she was filming.  However, most of her scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.  She passed away suddenly from cancer seven years after the film was made, at age 54.

The centerpiece of the book and the movie, the trial of Tom Robinson, was based on Amasa Lee’s defense of a black man in 1923.  The heavy of the piece is Bob Ewell, played by James Anderson.  Anderson performed in over 140 films in his career that spanned from Sergeant York to Little Big Man, even though he was felled by a heart attack when only 48.  His hate-filled performance as the father of Mayella (Collin Wilcox) is indelible, even as you wish you could wash it away.  Wilcox purposely chose the unwashed look of Mayella’s hair, wanting to appear like a woman who didn’t have time to take care of herself.  While Mayella’s physical abuse by Ewell is clearly stated, there’s also a subtext of incest to the story, leading to her attempted seduction of Tom.

As Tom, Brock Peters communicates incredible nobility.  Peck found he couldn’t look directly at Peters when Robinson is on the witness stand for fear of being overcome by the emotion Peters was projecting.  Instead Peck used a stage trick of looking past the actor.  It is telling for those times that Robinson is convicted because he had the temerity to feel pity for a white woman.  In the segregated South, that wouldn’t do.  Mulligan filmed Atticus’s final address to the jury in one single nine-minute take.

But the movie is truly a story of childhood, and the awakening of the children to their father’s identity.  There are moments when they suddenly see him in a new light.  Some are small, such as when Atticus meets with Robinson’s family, treating them with respect.  Others are surprising, as when Atticus shoots the rabid dog.  It leads up to the encounter in the middle of the night at the jail, when the children see Atticus standing up to the mob of men bent on lynching Tom Robinson.  When the children rush forward to stand with Atticus, it is Jem’s first step to adulthood, refusing to obey his father.  But it’s Scout’s guileless conversation with the farmer that breaks the will of the mob.  At the conclusion of the trial, they see their father through the eyes of the black spectators.  It still is the same goosebump moment today as it was in 1962 when the black pastor tells Scout to stand up because her father’s passing.

All children like to be scared, and in Mockingbird they’re scared of Boo Radley.  The character is based on a real person in Monroeville whose name was Alfred “Son” Bouleware.  He did live with his parents in a dilapidated, boarded-up house only a few houses down from the Lees.  It’s likely that he was an albino, which explains his staying out of the sun and working in the garden at night.

Playing the role was Robert Duvall in his big screen debut after six years working in television.  Duvall bleached his hair and stayed out of the sun in preparation for performing Boo.  He has no lines, but his face conveys so much that lines are superfluous.  Duvall’s career has been stellar, with 130 credits, from the original True Grit, The Godfather I & II, The Natural and Apocalypse Now through the recent Jack Reacher, where he was one of the best parts of the movie.  He won his Best Actor Oscar for 1983’s Tender Mercies, which was written by Mockingbird scribe Horton Foote.

The movie was helped by an excellent score by Elmer Bernstein.  In his long career, Bernstein scored over 200 productions, including The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, True Grit, Animal House, and Ghostbusters.  His only Academy Award, though, came for composing the music for Thoroughly Modern Millie.  For Mockingbird, he began the theme with an approximation of how a child will randomly plunk notes on a piano, and went from there.  Actually, the person playing the piano on the score would eclipse Bernstein and become one of the greatest composers the film world has ever seen: John Williams.

The film was a success, making nearly $14 million at a time when it still cost less than a dollar to see a movie, off of a budget of $2 million.  It picked up 8 Oscar nominations, including Picture, Black & White Cinematography (they had a separate award for color at that time), Direction, and Music Score, along with Mary Badham’s Supporting Actress nod.  It won for Art Direction, and for Best Adapted Screenplay.  Gregory Peck assumed that Jack Lemmon would win the Best Actor award that year for The Days Of Wine And Roses, so he was surprised when Sophia Loren called out his name.  Mockingbird lost the Best Picture award to another classic movie, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.

To Kill A Mockingbird occupies a place in the pantheon of movie excellence, up there with Gone With The Wind, Citizen Kane, and other examples of the best of the silver screen.  It’s ranked as the best inspirational movie ever made.

To view the movie in its glory, there’s now a 50th anniversary DVD that includes a beautiful digital restoration of the film.  The two-disc set also has two full-length documentaries: A Conversation With Gregory Peck, which was made by Peck’s daughter Cecilia (Mary Badham’s childhood playmate) and includes footage from Peck’s tour in the late 1990’s where he talked about his career, five years before his death, as well as the 1998 documentary on the making of the movie, Fearful Symmetry, which includes interviews with most of the principal players in the movie’s creation.  It’s a must have for any lover of this movie.

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