In 1949, Twentieth Century-Fox released Pinky, a film that would have a lasting impact on the American film industry. The movie was based on Quality, a novel by Jackson native Cid Ricketts Sumner.
Ricketts grew up on North State at a time when Woodrow Wilson wasn’t even a president, much less a street. She taught at both Jackson High School and her alma mater Millsaps College (where she graduated summa cum laude at the age of 16) before attending medical school at Cornell University. There she took classes under James B. Sumner, who shared the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1946. They were married in 1915 and divorced in 1930. They had four children. Sumner’s first novel was published in 1938. Her second, Quality, was published in 1946; her third, Tammy Out of Time, was published in 1948.
Writer, director and film scholar Melanie Addington says, “Sumner’s childhood is much more similar to her lighter fare (the “Tammy” series), than it is from her most important work, Quality, where she got to the heart of Southern life.” Filmmaker and attorney Anita Modak-Truran explains, “Pinky tells the story of a light-skinned black woman who passed as a white and trained as a nurse up North, where she became involved in a romantic relationship with a white doctor. When she returns to the South, her grandmother tries to help her figure out where she belongs in society as she nurses the dying white domestic tyrant Miss Em.”
“Pinky premiered in the same year (1949) as Intruder in the Dust,” Addington says. “Both films and novels explore legal and societal racism. Mississippi novelists at that time were helping to create some of the earliest arguments against racism and Hollywood was enamored with the idea. While Pinky may have its controversy that could limit its effectiveness, like casting a white actress (Jeanne Crain) as the lead instead of a black star like Lena Horne, the film reaches into the center of American sentiment and finds a way to move us,” Addington says. Variety reported that Pinky was one the top-grossing films of 1949 and observed that though the story “may leave questions unanswered and in spots be naive, the mature treatment of a significant theme in a manner that promises broad public acceptance and box office success truly moves the American film medium a desirable notch forward in stature and importance.”
Addington says that though an aristocratic white woman helps Pinky move towards pride in being a black female, “This leads to a more interesting conclusion for the film, given the patronizing attitude that she would listen to a white woman and not her own grandmother. Ethel Barrymore’s character (Miss Em) notes, ‘Nobody deserves respect as long as she pretends to be something she isn’t,’ and the line resonates with Pinky. Hearing the truth about ourselves from strangers often helps us stop perpetuating our own myths.” When she dies, the enlightened despot Miss Em leaves her estate to Pinky, and rumors swirl that Pinky may have killed her. Accused, she stands trial. “Much like Lucas Beauchamp in Intruder in the Dust,despite her innocence, society still finds a way to shun Pinky for ‘causing trouble’,” Addington says. “This is evident in the hushed courtroom as she slowly makes her way to freedom. Pinky, in love with a white man from the North, must choose to leave but instead realizes that she must remain in the South to claim her identity.”
Pinky stays and turns the estate into a nursing school for black women. “The film falters in the final scene, which shows Pinky standing alone and misty-eyed,” Addington says. “The adaptation avoided the ending that made Quality such an interesting original story. In the book, the home is burned to the ground by the Klan, a much stronger and more dramatic ending. The studio scrapped that outcome to provide a ‘tragic heroine’ ending that left audiences feeling good about racial issues in the South. Ricketts, not Hollywood, actually got it right with a much darker truth to an ending that sadly was too real for too many.”
“Pinky is Tammy hopped up on the steroids of social injustice,” Modak-Truran says. “Producer Darryl F. Zanuck was progressive; he believed that audiences accepted social issues that were swept neatly into a love story. By today’s standards, the movie and its plot seem like ancient history, but it wasn’t so long ago that I overheard people discussing the mixed race of President Obama. Pinky was the first big studio picture to tromp into the race issues, and for that alone, it was groundbreaking.” The movie garnered Academy Award nominations for the three female leads, Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore and Ethel Waters, who played “Pinky’s Granny”. “It also led to an appeal before the United States Supreme Court in Gelling v. Texas,” Modak-Truran says, “and a victory for the local movie theater owner who screened the film over a local decree censoring it from public viewing.” The June 3, 1952 edition of The New York Times reported, “The Supreme Court today struck down a motion picture censor ordinance by which the city of Marshall, Texas, disapproved the showing of the film Pinky.”
Sumner’s third novel, Tammy Out of Time (1948) , an unabashedly romantic tale of a Mississippi girl, was a significant departure from the tense realism of Quality, but doubtless due to the success of Pinky, the studios took a look, and between its pages found an iconic figure for mid-century America. “The first thing that comes to mind when I think of movies adapted from novels by Cid Ricketts Sumner is a romantic comedy featuring a cuddly Mississippi-bred cutie-pie who is head over heels in love with the perfect bachelor,” Modak-Truran says. “I wonder if the Tammy novels were Sumner’s way of placating Southerners from the sting of Quality. Or maybe Sumner simply wanted to return to simpler roots after the audacious and gut-wrenching Quality.” In either case, the heroine of Sumner’s third novel, Tammy Tyree, provided a generation of young ladies with a smart, charming role model. One critic described Tammy and the Bachelor as a “whimsical romance for middle America, which started Hollywood’s last series of proletarian family appeal before the family was entirely forsaken for four-letter words.”
Sumner wrote three “Tammy” novels, which provided fodder for four films as well as a television series over a ten year period. Tammy was played by both Debbie Reynolds and Sandra Dee, and the supporting casts of the films included Leslie Nielsen, Walter Brennan, Fay Wray, Adam West, Macdonald Carey and (in his first feature role) Peter Fonda. Denver Pyle, who played Uncle Jesse in “The Dukes of Hazard”, portrayed Grandpa Tarleton in the television series (1965-66). Writer Jill Conner Browne says, “As I was writing the first book (The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love), we decided that a modicum of anonymity regarding some of the tales might be in order, so we decided to select stage names for ourselves. As it turned out, since we are all Of A Certain Age and grew up watching and loving all of Tammy’s exploits (she was way better than Cinderella and seemed much more attainable to our young minds) we ALL wanted to be “Tammy.” Believing that it was unfair for one to be allowed to use the name that ALL wanted, we simply decided that we would ALL be ‘Tammy.’”
The movie also spawned an eponymous Top 40 hit in 1957. Music historian Brian Hargett says, “The song, which Reynolds herself describes as a “sweet, simple ballad”, went to #1 for three weeks beginning August 26, 1957. The #2 song that week was ‘Teddy Bear’, by a young man from Tupelo named Elvis Presley. At the onset of the youth revolution, it was possible for a 25-year old like Reynolds to have a hit record sung rather simply without studio gimmickry,” Hargett says. “Until the Beatles came along, record companies happily recorded talent like Debbie Reynolds. After 1964, ‘older’ acts like Reynolds were quickly dropped off record company artists rosters. The studio first recorded ‘Tammy’ with just piano backing, but Henry Mancini sweetened it with strings, and Hollywood liked it enough to put it in the movie,” Hargett says. “The Ames Brothers sang it as the thematic introduction to the film, and they had a fair hit with it, too.” The song was also nominated for an Oscar.
Though the movies based on the works of Cid Ricketts Sumner are noteworthy, Sumner’s literary achievements seem more than modest by Mississippi standards; she garnered no literary laurels, and she is largely forgotten, even in her hometown. Still, she was a remarkable woman. She married a Nobel laureate, wrote 13 books, toured Europe on horseback, and when she was 64 she was the only woman in a group of eight who made a 31-day rafting trip down the Colorado River. Sumners was bludgeoned to death at the age of 80 in her home in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Her 16-year old grandson, John R. Cutler, was charged with her murder. A hammer ended the life of Cid, short for “placid”, a family nickname for being a contented child.
The Last House on the Left (1972) Directed by Wes Craven
Yes, penectomies can be fatal, especially when they’re done by teeth in the woods. Having said that, there are many other lessons to be learned from this film, like telling your teenage daughter that it’s not a good idea to score dope in a bad part of town. This is Craven’s first feature film, and it’s better than any of his “Nightmare on Elm Street” series. For one thing, it’s real; the villains aren’t some indestructible dream figure. They’re people, they’re remorseless, and you believe this could have, might have happened, which makes it even worse, of course.
Carrie (1976) Directed by Brian DePalma
The first and best film made from a Stephen King novel, probably because it’s King’s best novel (yes, it is, as A Time to Kill is Grisham’s) and because DePalma was in his prime when he directed it. Not only that, but the performances are first-rate, especially Piper Laurie as Carrie’s psychotic bitch of a mother. What makes this film especially horrific is that you can see what’s coming, you know it’s not going to be good at all and it damn sure isn’t: for anybody. Even the good guys get snuffed: crushed, electrocuted, incinerated and impaled, the ending is a gruesome house of cards collapsing. If the last minute of this film doesn’t make you scream, you’re a soul-less freak.
The Haunting (1963) Directed by Robert Wise
A group of psychics are recruited by a paranormal investigator to stay in a haunted mansion for several nights, and their stay is productive, disturbing and inhospitable, to say the very least. Eerie, atmospheric and scary as hell, this movie is based on Shirley Jackson’s astounding “The Haunting of Hill House” (you’ll remember her story “The Lottery”; if you don’t, read it so you will) and the film delivers every bit as much a sense of the eerie, brooding sinister evil as the book does. Don’t watch this film alone in a darkened room; you won’t sleep for days afterwards. You may never hang your hand over the edge of the bed in your sleep ever again anyway.
In the Mouth of Madness (1994) Directed by John Carpenter
This movie raises more ontological questions than a freshman philosophy course, and without a lecture, at least in the conventional sense. The film was written by Michael De Luca, but it has H.P. Lovecraft stamped all over it: a small, creepy New England coastal village, mysterious disappearances and hallucinations, not to mention mutated townspeople. As the plot unfolds in surreal and surprising twists, you begin to get the feeling that things just aren’t quite right in this movie. As the film moves toward its stunning ending, you discover that indeed, they are not. Classic Carpenter.
Freaks (1932) Directed by Todd Browning
Here you have a midget with a tall, beautiful evil wife and a very loyal, very special bunch of friends. You can see the possibilities right off the bat, and the way Browning draws out the story is like watching a kitten being lowered into a running blender set on “purée“. Okay, maybe it’s not quite as much fun, but it’s almost every bit as spellbinding. It’s a sure bet that some grad student somewhere has written a paper on this film’s message about the relativity of beauty. Still and all, a human chicken is hard to love.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) Directed by Tobe Hooper
It’s gross, it’s disgusting, it’s terrifying, it’s great; a movie about rural psychos that puts “Deliverance” to shame. Forget sodomy; chain saws are worse, especially if you’re in a wheelchair. It’s really not that gory when it comes down to it, but when the gore comes, it comes fast. As a matter of fact, what’s best about this film is its pacing, how a drive in the country to see an old family home can turn into a living nightmare. Hooper must have read O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. The barbecue angle is a perfect touch for a film made by a Texan.
The Wicker Man (1973) Directed by Robin Hardy
This film, along with “The Haunting” is one that qualifies as a genuine work of cinematic art as well as one of those “you should have seen it coming” movies. You’ll find yourself drawn into the setting (a remote British island), the quirky characters and the detective’s search for a missing girl. In short, you’ll find yourself pretty much in the place of the detective, which puts you in a very awkward spot indeed. It’ll make you wonder about that big hippie event in Nevada.
Horror of Dracula (1958) Directed by Terence Fisher
No Halloween horror flick list would be complete without a Hammer movie, and this is a great one, the first really well-done “Dracula” movie in vivid, living (well, undead) color, with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. An international smash hit in its day, the special effects are primitive by our digital standards and might seem almost campy to some in comparison, but they are still spectacular. Christopher Lee is outstanding as the bloodthirsty Count.
The Exorcist (1973) Directed by William Friedkin
Today’s jaded movie-going public will find the buzz surrounding the release of this motion picture difficult to believe. The film delivered on its threat of utter and unrelieved horror then, and still does. An innocent young girl living with her single mom in a fashionable Georgetown townhouse inexplicably falls prey to Pazuzu, an ancient demon out for revenge, and what he does to this little girl is beyond any stretch of belief. This is a must-see film on many levels. While there is a minimum of blood and gore, “The Exorcist” is not for the squeamish. The soundtrack, “Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield, is a work of genius.
House on Haunted Hill (1959) Directed by William Castle
Castle was the king of movie gimmickry, but his films stand on their own as horror classics without the flying skeletons, seat cushion buzzers and life insurance policies. In this movie, eccentric millionaire Frank Loren (Vincent Price) invites five guests to stay in a locked haunted house for one night; whoever lasts the night will received $10,000. Loren has plans of his own for the party, and things go horribly, horribly wrong for everybody in this plane of existence. Like most Castle films, “House” is a bit on the campy side, but a great scary movie. (Note: I’m the only person in the universe who thinks the remake was good.)
I began working at the Hoka in the summer of 1977. The theater opened in 1974 and was was housed in a long corrugated building with a walkway that extended perhaps 2/3 its length on the west to street level north. A single door was at that end; midway was a short roofed porch with a paned double doorway. To the left of those doors was the Hoka logo, a winged Chickasaw princess.
The auditorium seated perhaps 150-200 people (usually much less). The projection booth was up a short flight of stairs from a tiny, spectacularly untidy office. The concession stand sold candy, popcorn and soft drinks. A bare concrete floor sloped up to the ticket stand, which was nothing more than a rough-hewn pulpit with a top shelf that held a cash box and a roll of tickets. The projectors were twin 1936 carbon arc machines, which took a lot of practice with levers and foot pedals to run a seamless show.
Typically, in the early days, we’d have two showings, an early movie that started around 6 or 7, and a later feature beginning at 8 or 9, depending on the duration of the first. Later on we started showing X-rated flicks at midnight, which caused quite a stir at the time, but were quite profitable. Films were rented for three to four days, shipped in bulky hexagonal aluminum containers holding anywhere from one to three spools of 35mm film. Most often they were shipped by bus, and we’d pick them up at the Greyhound station on the corner of 10th and Van Buren, but at times we’d drive to Memphis.
Once in the theater, the film had to be checked for tears, mended if needed, and then loaded on our projector reels. These movies were hardly ever first-run, of course. Ron showed a lot of great movies, including ones by John Waters, Russ Meyers and William Castle along with hundreds and hundreds of cinema classics. The Hoka reintroduced film as an art form to Oxford.
Ron was a good boss; pay could be erratic, but if I needed money, he’d give me enough to get what I needed or do what I wanted. When my friend and fellow projectionist Joe Cupstid and I took an impulsive road trip to the Smokies late one summer, he gave us both a hundred bucks and told us to have a good time. We did, and I’ll never forget that kindness.
A decade after the trauma of the Sixties, Oxford had become a laid-back, picturesque Southern academic backwater, full of good people with great ideas. The art scene was strong, and the town was full of bright, ambitious young businessmen. Oxford’s flowering of culture in the 80s was seeded in that time. Those years were halcyon days for me, as they were for many, many other people, and the Hoka was very much a part of it for us all.