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April 12, 2011

Good-bye, My Lady

GOODBYE MYLADY poster.JPG

William Wellman - 1956
Warner Archive DVD

I've been gradually watching several of William Wellman earlier films from the Thirties, over the past couple of years. As might be noticed by those who follow my Coffee Break series, there's quite a bit of coffee drinking in Wellman's films. In several films, coffee is part of scenes establishing friendship between two characters. Bonding over a cup of joe is a recurring event in Good-bye, My Lady. A cup of coffee provides the rite of passage for Brandon De Wilde in this film, an informal, down home, coming of age ceremony.

In some ways Good-bye, My Lady seems even more remarkable when so many contemporary movies are about adults desperately clinging on to their last shreds of adolescence. The theme of the film is announced in the song, "When Your Boy Becomes a Man", played during the opening credits. And yes, some aspects of the film may strike some as obvious or corny, but there is also something to be said in favor of a movie in which the whole point of childhood is to eventually grow up.

good-bye, my lady.jpg

A relatively simple, though not simplistic, story, the film marks, if not William Wellman's last personal film, his last film that was probably closest to his original vision. After this, Wellman caved to Jack Warner's demand to direct Darby's Rangers in order to make his dream film, Lafayette Escadrille, only to see Jack Warner order new scenes and new cuts, causing Wellman to finally walk away from Hollywood. Good-bye, My Lady was also the last or Wellman's films to be produced by John Wayne, significant as it was Wayne who also produced Track of the Cat, Wellman's experiment with color, which has grown in critical esteem, although it was a box office failure at the time of release.

A boy, Claude, nicknamed Skeeter by his uncle, Jesse, lives in a shack in a remote, swampy part of Mississippi. Hearing strange sounds in the night, he discovers the source of the unnerving laughs in the night belong to a dog. Eventually catching the dog, he teaches her how to hunt birds. An unusual breed, a basenji, Skeeter also is aware that he might not be able to keep the dog, that she might be legally claimed by someone else.

Even though this is a movie about a boy and a dog, it is also unlike the kind of story that was a staple for Walt Disney. As word gets around about Skeeter's unusual and talented dog, tourists show up at the shack to hear stories from Uncle Jesse. Wellman makes a little dig at Disney with a shot of a couple of slack jawed boys in Davy Crockett hats staring awestruck at Walter Brennan. Much of the dialogue emphasizes the regionalism of the story with jokes about Yankees, as well as the sense of physical isolation with wide swaths of swamp and fields, and very few people living in houses miles apart from each other.

One other note about Brennan - there is a scene where Uncle Jesse discusses a possible name for the dog, eventually dubbed Lady, with Skeeter. Jesse suggests naming the dog Gertrude. When asked why, Wellman cuts to a close-up of Brennan. Jesse talks about a woman he knew, that he was in love with when much younger. Having seen Brennan in one of his earlier performances, Howard Hawks' Barbary Coast, I could tell you that Brennan could never have been described as handsome. Yet, unlike most performances I've seen by Walter Brennan, he was able to convince me that once upon a time, he was a young man in love, wistfully looking back on a past long gone.

My own curiosity about the film came about from watching a Turner Classics Movie documentary on Wellman. Sidney Poitier talked about filming on location in Georgia. No Hollywood money could budge the institutional racism of the day when it came to providing Poitier with the same accommodations as the rest of the cast and crew. Wellman reportedly went to bat for Poitier without success. Poitier plays the part of a nearby neighbor and farmer. Nothing is said, and nothing needs to be said, as the character of Gates also provides Skeeter with another positive example of what it means to be a man. Unintentionally at the time, Wellman documents the change of how race would be presented in Hollywood with Louise Beavers, most often seen as a maid, seen in one scene as the matriarch of a nearby farm where Skeeter picks up buttermilk. Wellman films Poitier in such a way that, with his wide brimmed hat, he could have well become another Wellman hero with John Wayne or Clark Gable, which to some extent happened almost ten years later. Beavers' one scene is filmed with warmth and humor, her presence also bringing Wellman's career to something of a full circle almost twenty-five years after What Price Hollywood? and Midnight Mary.

The novel that provided the basis of the film was by James H. Street. The writer's entry into Hollywood was a short story that Wellman filmed as Nothing Sacred. As the screenplay was written by Sid Fleischman, who previously wrote the screenplays for Wellman's earlier Blood Alley as well as Lafayette Escadrille, and also was photographed by William Clothier, another collaborator on those two films, again indicates for me that this could well have been as personal a project as any of Wellman's better known films. The understated score was composed by Laurindo Almeida on guitar with George Fields on harmonica. While it might be impossible to make a movie about a boy and a dog without any sentimentality, Willlam Wellman allows both his film and his characters to exist in quiet dignity.

Posted by peter at April 12, 2011 08:42 AM