Friday, February 1, 2013

"Hillbillyland": where D.W. Griffith meets Andy Griffith (and the Coen brothers)

"A dimwitted hillbilly gets involved in an armored-car robbery."
--TV Guide description of an episode of "Sheriff Lobo", Dec. 19 1983, page A54

What is it about "the South" -- quotation marks included -- that continues to appeal to script writers, directors and audiences this late in movie history? 

No other area of the country seems to conjure up such a strange mix of honor and family, humor, money -- or the lack of it -- and the pure romanticism of some long-gone past, with an ever-present threat of mayhem or violence. A southern setting (even in a work of fiction or film as broad in its setting as a John Grisham adaptation) is more likely to turn on a long-buried family secret as it is to feature an afternoon of iron-willed ladies drinking sweet tea served on a sheltering porch; make no mistake about a southern drama, there's always a gun somewhere in the house. Hollywood has always believed that alcohol, tobacco and firearms make a perfect Saturday night south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Hillbillyland explores Hollywood's never-ending fascination with moonshine, country bumpkins, and what goes on up there in the hills beyond Beverly. In the early 1920s as more people moved to the cities, Hollywood found it could make money telling audiences about the places they'd left behind. The South has long been a source of conflicting impulses in Hollywood; the region was mined for its "colorful" characters, mostly humorous, as well as its darker impulses. The sex and violence in 1950's Tobacco Road undercut the good-hearted goofiness of the Ma and Pa Kettle series of the 1940s, and this seesaw play of opposites and cultural attitudes has been a movie convention long unmatched by any other region in the country.

Williamson shows how Hollywood has gotten a lot of mileage out of these stereotypes. The Coen brothers' Raising Arizona was a hit on the strength of Nicolas Cage's ironic portrayal of a hillbilly fool trying to achieve "the basic family unit" by stealing a baby, and then continuously compounding his mistakes. (An updated edition of this book would have to include the TV show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, proving this funny-yokel archetype isn't dead by a long shot.) 

There was also Martin Scorsese's 1991 violent remake of Cape Fear, in which Robert DeNiro is a convicted rapist who terrorizes the family of the attorney who put him in jail, which takes place in a desolate Florida backwater town. In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter challenges FBI agent Jodie Foster's cool by noting her "cheap shoes": "You're not more than one generation removed from poor white trash, are you? And that accent you've so desperately tried to hide -- pure West Virginia. What does your father do? Is he a coal miner? Does he stink of the land?" It's an unnerving moment
                                                                                                                               The early motion picture industry enticed audiences into movie palaces with spectacle, sex, and increasingly lurid tales of sin and seduction. Many of these movies used Southern settings, featuring taboo subjects. This combination proved so successful that, by the early 1930s, a conservative religious movement emerged with an aim to "clean up" Hollywood's excesses, led by the Catholic Church but supported by preachers, ministers, and spiritual spokesmen nationwide. The Catholic Church's League of Decency became the first cultural crusade against what was perceived as a threat to the national character. Wielding an authority of equal parts religion and politics, the League saw to it that movies were banned outright, content was snipped and clipped, and production scripts were combed over for hints of immorality. Classic novels were re-written for the screen to pass the scrutiny of the hastily-created, reactionary Hays Office.

There was a backlash among Hollywood writers as stories set in the South became a target. William Faulkner himself created the story of Sanctuary in three weeks ("the most horrific tale" Faukner could imagine, "a morbid tale of rape, murder, sexual impotence and perversion" -- he was broke, and decided to go for broke in his paid-for Hollywood bungalow) which certainly seems like an outright challenge to the Paramount studio censors. The studio made the film anyway. The rewritten, completed film (The Story of Temple Drake1933) abandons Faulkner's story for a much less-scandalous ending -- and a moral that the author never intended. Pre-code films (made before 1934) are being released on DVD, but Temple Drake is still unavailable. As World War II brought more sophisticated audiences to the movies censorship taboos began to fall, but Southern locales were still used to dramatize "taboo" subjects like miscegenation and incest. 

Williamson covers a lot of ground here, from D.W. Griffith'sTol'able David to John Boorman's DeliveranceThe Dukes of Hazzard to The Andy Griffith Show, and his conclusions are necessarily broad ones. His best writing narrows focus on a specific film or theme: the on-location making of the log-cabin potboiler Stark Love (1926), by the director Karl Brown, is wildly detailed, with newspaper reporting and interviews with local extras who made appearances in the film as members of an "authentic" mountain family.

To find hillbillies, he incongruously went first to New Orleans, the most interior southern city he could think of, and there he asked a journalist friend if he knew where there were any benighted mountain people. His friend had vaguely heard of a Berea College in Kentucky that was supposedly civilizing such types ... So Brown took the hint and got himself by train to Berea, where he got the none-too-surprising official cold shoulder from college people eager not to be associated by such "truth." Next Brown bounced to Nashville where he asked hotel desk clerks if they knew where any real isolated mountaineers lived. They didn't, but they pointed him in the direction of Knoxville, Tennessee, where someone else told him that those kinds of hillbillies were all over the line -- in North Carolina ...It was December 1925 when Brown staked his location. He went back to Robbinsville in the summer of 1926 with $50,000 and went to work on his movie, the first task being to acquire a "native" cast. But Brown had a major problem. He wanted to hire local people for parts in a movie that was guaranteed to insult them. He got around much of the problem by keeping the storyline to himself and by shooting out of sequence ... He hired many people to pantomime disconnected actions that told no narrative they could rightly follow. ... For the two fathers, Brown eventually cast two perfect country men, Reb Grogan and Silas Miracle, who were placated into acting as mountain monsters by being told they were impersonating North Carolina monsters, not Kentuckians. 
Williamson writes with an eye for history and, as someone who is upfront about his own "hillbilly bona-fides," a good deal of humor. He has also seen a lot of truly awful films and two-reelers, some archived in the Library of Congress -- more than 800 movies. Lots of movie stills, contemporary cartoons, and detailed captions accompany the text. At times the book reads like a college course -- Williamson is a professor at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, and acknowledges the input of several students -- but Hillbillyland is an entertaining look at how the film industry exploits this facet of American culture.

J.W. Williamson's website is Wataugawatch, a daily blog about North Carolina politics and culture. 

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