Past Meets Present at TCMFF 2018: Conversations with Claude Jarman Jr. and Nancy Kwan
June 21, 2018
When people ask me why I love old movies, I find it hard to form an acceptable answer. I suspect there are several reasons, but one of them is surely the escapist value - in my opinion, many classic films offer a comforting ambiance and an aura of simpler times.
TCMFF 2018 certainly afforded several chances to sit back in a dark theater and be transported to (what appeared to be) those humbler times. Heck, for three solid days I was basically closed off from the outside world and living life in this gloriously protective cinematic bubble… one that almost burst on several occasions.
A rare calm moment at TCMFF 2018. (Picture by Kim Luperi)
That’s because more so than previous festivals, the past – ugliness and all – came roaring back at TCMFF 2018, particularly during introductions and Q&As with special guests. Naturally, these conversations generally surrounded the history of the presentation at hand, but as the festival marched on, I noticed a common subject popping up in numerous discussions: the present day and, specifically, how many of the issues we are currently dealing with have been battled in the past both on and off camera, from racial tension to harassment to volatile politics to diversity. Not only was this discernible in the pictures screening at the fest, but also the guests who shared their stories, many having faced sexual harassment, racism, or witch hunts throughout their careers. As I marveled at how socially significant and profound some selections were for their day (None Shall Escape, Intruder in the Dust, Outrage), at the same time I found myself lamenting how society still struggles with the same concerns addressed in these pictures. It just goes to show you that history is doomed to repeat itself unless we all take a seat and learn a thing or two from the past.
That said, over the next few weeks I'll share stories from four TCMFF 2018 guests who highlighted their experiences with a variety of subjects that continue to be timely: Claude Jarman Jr. (Intruder in the Dust), Nancy Kwan (The World of Suzie Wong), Marsha Hunt (None Shall Escape), and Cora Sue Collins (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer). This piece focuses on Jarman Jr. and Kwan; part two will cover Hunt and Collins.
Claude Jarman Jr. in conversation with Donald Bogle. (Picture by Kim Luperi)
Claude Jarman Jr., Intruder in the Dust (1949)
Donald Bogle, perhaps the most penetrating, eloquent film historian I’ve ever heard speak, informed the audience before the screening of Intruder in the Dust that this picture was one of four movies released in 1949 that transformed the image of African Americans onscreen, the others being Pinky, Home of the Brave, and Lost Boundaries. Prior to this time, black actors were generally relegated to stereotypical roles and not given the opportunity to expand their range. However, following the end of World War II, that began to change.
In Intruder in the Dust, Lucas Beauchamp (Juano Hernandez) is accused of killing a white neighbor. Though he is proven innocent, angry townspeople still target him because he’s a defiant black man. As Bogle pointed out, the film operates on several different levels: it’s part detective story; part coming of age tale, as a young white boy, Chick (Claude Jarman Jr.), observes his community and how they perceive race; and part character study of a black man living in the south.
Lucas (Juano Hernandez) and Chick (Jarman Jr.) in Intruder in the Dust.
Director Clarence Brown shot the picture on location in Oxford, Mississippi, where writer William Faulkner lived. As Bogle remarked: “This decision gives the movie a certain social realism it might not have had otherwise, and it also gives it a certain emotional texture it might otherwise have lacked.” The story’s hard-hitting honesty may well have been what made MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer and producer Dore Schary hesitant to greenlight the picture when Brown brought it to them. But they did, and for two months, production took place in and around Oxford, utilizing local haunts and residents, who supported the filming as long as Faulkner was on board with it, which he was.
For a movie that painstakingly portrayed racial tension in America while also firmly planted on the side of equality, Intruder in the Dust, and especially its African American cast members, still faced prejudice, both in the south and Hollywood. For instance, there may not have been debilitating racial violence in the area during filming, at least not according to Jarman, but the actor confirmed that Hernandez and Elzie Emanuel (who played Jarman’s sidekick Aleck) stayed in a house as opposed to the hotel the rest of the cast lived in during production. Though the film enjoyed short lived critical acclaim (more on that below), it still receives criticism, albeit slight, for some over-exaggerated reactions from Aleck, which Jarman verified but affirmed: “We got past that.” They certainly did.
Intruder in the Dust is not without its flaws: racial stereotypes, such as select responses from Aleck (Elzie Emanuel), painfully stand out amidst an otherwise sensitive picture. (Warner Archive's Tumblr has a great post featuring cast portraits from the film, which is where this image came from.)
Intruder in the Dust stands as a rousing, powerful indictment against the inhumanity of racism, with countless scenes lauding the universality of the human experience. Bogle brought up one such particular instance, a sequence in which Chick visits Lucas in prison and the camera lingers on a close-up of their hands, Jarman’s white and Hernandez’s black, resting on the bars. It’s a stark, thoughtful shot that unites the two characters in a symbolic manner.
Despite the positive reception, when Mayer watched the film, he reportedly passed out within the first five minutes after hearing the N-word. Consequently, the studio head refused to promote the movie and essentially killed it. Jarman said that rekindled interest in film noir in the 1990s and increased awareness of racial tensions helped resurrect it four decades later. “I’m very proud of the fact that it’s here,” he acknowledged.
Elizabeth Patterson was a fabulous character actress, but I was blown away by her role here. She's such a badass, particularly in the scene in which she stands guard at the town jail to protect Lucas so the raging townspeople won't barge in and set fire to the joint. Knowing that most men wouldn't harm an old lady, she calmly sits and knits, even as Crawford Gowrie (Charles Kemper) pours gasoline at her feet and menacingly lights a match...
As the film highlights the education Chick receives from Lucas, Bogle inquired if Jarman understood the story’s significance when he read the script. “I think so,” was his reply. Having grown up in Nashville, he was cognizant of racial disparity. Jarman said Brown, who was from Massachusetts but spent time in Tennessee and Atlanta, set out to make a statement with this movie; it’s been reported (but not verified) that a lynching occurred while he was in Atlanta, and he never forgot the horrific incident.
A remark made by Mayer when he saw the picture serves as a reminder of how progressive Intruder in the Dust was for its time: during a sequence in which Chick walks among the townspeople, the studio head remarked that he should tip his hat to the white men. With that statement, Dore Schary reported that Mayer really didn’t understand the picture. Jarman agreed. “He was still in Meet Me in St. Louis,” the actor observed, a remark that elicited laughs, though it’s not funny when you think about it. For all the positive Intruder in the Dust contributes to film history, it’s sad that such a legendary studio chief still held such beliefs in 1949. The fact that the picture was produced with its integrity and tolerance intact AND it’s still being celebrated almost 70 years later is a testament to the power of cinema to promote acceptance and compassion through our shared humanity.
Nancy Kwan sits down with Donald Bogle at TCMFF 2018. (Picture by Kim Luperi)
Nancy Kwan, The World of Suzie Wong (1960)
Donald Bogle once again took the stage to speak to actress Nancy Kwan, who made her film debut in The World of Suzie Wong. (Disclaimer: I couldn’t stay to watch the picture, but after sitting in on this discussion, I definitely want to see it.)
The tale of an architect, Robert (William Holden), who journeys to Hong Kong in search of a new life as an artist and ends up meeting and falling for a prostitute, Suzie (Kwan), The World of Suzie Wong heralded in a new perspective on interracial love. Bogle termed Holden and Kwan’s performances “totally convincing” and lauded Kwan for delivering a radically different representation of an Asian prostitute.
Kwan’s road to stardom was the stuff Hollywood dreams are made of. While on holiday from school in the UK, Kwan heard they were searching for an actress to play Suzie. As a fan, she visited the studio to watch the auditions, but wouldn’t you know, she was spotted and offered a screen test! Right before Kwan headed back to school, producer Ray Stark contacted her, saying he’d put her under contract for 6 months if she wanted to come to Hollywood to take acting classes and shoot another test. Kwan acquiesced, but after two more tests in Hollywood, she was edged out by France Nuyen, who starred in the Broadway play. Kwan’s consolation prize from Stark was a role in the touring company so she could test drive the profession. But she wasn’t there for long: a month later, Stark called and asked her to come to London to screen test – for the same role! Her partner for the audition? William Holden. Once she heard that, she didn’t mind leaving the play mid-tour. Oh, and it didn't turn out to be a test, but rather her first day working on the film!
Kwan called Holden a "great teacher," and credited the actor and director Richard Quine for supporting her in her film debut.
After The World of Suzie Wong, Kwan was cast in another classic, Flower Drum Song (1961), but stardom still eluded the actress. Of the approximate 50 films she appeared in, Bogle asked Kwan if she felt she was offered parts that would have led to other opportunities in the business. “No,” she replied, adding that’s “a very good question.” Kwan affirmed that there were no really good roles written for Asian performers back then: “It’s unfortunate, but that was the timing.” The lack of parts made it difficult for her, because in order to sustain a career, actors need roles, ones either offered to or written for them. She did commend Stark as someone who cast her in projects that didn’t specify a nationality, like a circus performer in The Main Attraction (1962), in order to give her options outside Asian-specific characters.
Bringing the conversation up to more recent times, Bogle mentioned that Kwan was approached to appear in The Joy Luck Club (1993), but there was a line of dialogue in the script (not the book) about Suzie Wong that she objected to. When she inquired if the line could be changed, as it didn’t enhance the character or scene, the writer and director both declined. Bogle, who knew what the piece of dialogue was, applauded her decision. (Does anyone know if this line made it into the film?!)
It looks like Kwan utilized some of her dance background in The Main Attraction.
In closing, Bogle inquired whether Kwan believes Hollywood has become more open to Asian actors. “I think it’s getting better,” the actress replied. “The awareness is certainly there… especially the last few years. Television has opened up a lot of good roles for Asians, and so you see them on television today, which is great. Yeah, I think it has," she continued. "I mean, I know that African Americans have really come up, and Hispanics are coming up, and you know, the Asians, hopefully they’ll catch up.” Kwan chuckled after delivering that last line, but I can’t even imagine how profound it must be – especially to someone whose career was limited due to her ethnicity - to witness the evolution of Asian Americans in the industry over the last several years. She certainly sounded proud of the progress being made and optimistic for the future.
Stay tuned for part two of this series, which will highlight TCMFF 2018 conversations with Marsha Hunt and Cora Sue Collins.