Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Raintree County

The decade of the 1950s marks Raintree County (1957; dir. Edward Dmytryk) in numerous ways. The title song by Johnny Mathis, Johnny Greene’s sappy score, the concerns with madness, the blandly sanitized themes of race, the contrived and banal sentimentality, Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. Taylor and Clift were fine actors, but Raintree County is not high on their lists of achievements.

Much of this film takes place in Indiana, where the eponymous county supposedly exists. The title refers to a mythical tree that grows somewhere in the swamp near Raintree. Early in the film, John Wickliff Shawnessey (Clift), just out of high school, stumbles into the swamp in search of the tree. He falls in the water and gets soaked. His friends make fun of him. The tree symbolizes his youthful idealism, the ideals and goals that he never quite achieves in his life.

There is so much about this film that is bad that I could waste pages on it. It’s a turgid, sloppy, illogical mess. The plot is shapeless. The film seems to have been shot largely on a set, with some exceptions, and it lacks the attention to authentic detail that gave Gone with the Wind and Jezebel whatever realism they may have had. But I am interested primarily in how the film portrays the Civil War, and in the character of Susanna Drake (Elizabeth Taylor).

The film is set just before the Civil War, towards which occasional faint allusions lead us. The war becomes an overt issue after John marries Susanna, a Southerner from New Orleans, and brings her back to Raintree to live with him. He announces to Susanna his sympathies with abolitionism (this never came up before the marriage) by asking if she has ever heard of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as if that novel neatly encapsulates the issue. After listening to campaign speeches by supporters of Lincoln, John decides that Susanna must free her two house slaves. He tells her that if she does not do so he will not return to the house. (This conflict between them is introduced rather suddenly, as if nothing led up to it or prepared us for it. The relationship between John and Susanna waxes hot and cold throughout the film, and there are often no reasons for the shifts in mood). Susanna does free the slaves, but at a party she is giving for John several of her Southern friends humiliate her by drunkenly mocking slaves. One of them blackens his face with ashes from the fireplace and in a racist and demeaning way ridicules black people.

The film presents the fraught relationship of Susanna and John as representative of the larger national conflict between North and South. But Susanna is full of dark passions, madness, and a mysterious past, while John behaves as if he is a kind of half-wit. He’s a moon-eyed aspiring poet. The equation doesn’t work. John somehow overlooks the beautiful and adoring Nell Gaither (Eva Marie Saint) and is seduced (willingly) by Susanna in a forest glade. She then leaves for New Orleans. But she later returns claiming to be pregnant, and John marries her. Throughout the long (it seemed long to me—everything in the film seems long) marriage, John is frequently tempted with Nell, who still loves him, but he remains faithful to Susanna. Nell is the saintly angel who remains chaste and faithful to John, even through his marriage to Susanna, while Susanna plays the whore. She is not literally a whore, but she is cursed with madness, a family inheritance, as well as with darker secrets. She deceives John into marrying her because she says she loves him too much to risk losing him. She at least on one occasion spends the entire day in a nearby town for suspicious reasons, and ultimately, at the height of the War, runs away to Louisiana with their son.

Susanna, whose parents died mysteriously in a plantation house fire, suffers from madness that is said to run in her family. But madness may actually be a metaphor that hides the possible secret that her mother may have been a black woman. One of the first pronouncements that Susanna makes in the film, an especially harsh one, is that anyone with a drop of black blood is by definition a black person. Yet she also speaks with extreme fondness of the woman who raised her, the woman with whom she often shared a bedroom and whom she describes as “a great lady.” This woman was black. She seems awfully confused about this great lady. We later learn that her father had fallen in love with this woman in the Caribbean, and that he had brought her back to Louisiana. It is implied that he was with her the night of the fire, and Susanna explains to John that she heard firecrackers going off in their bedroom. The implication is that Susanna’s mother killed her husband and the woman and then burned down the house. The larger implication is that Susanna is the product of her father’s love for the woman, and that her madness is the result of guilt, anguish, confusion, who knows what, over the questions of her paternity, of the possibility that she is part black, of the cause of the fire.

The curse that Susanna suffers, then (if I am right in these assumptions), is the curse of slavery, of racism, the selfsame curse that marks and condemns the South. Unfortunately, the film hints at Susanna’s parentage so faintly and euphemistically that it can do little to explore these possibilities.

In an odd scene early in the film, when John has gone South with Susanna to visit members of her family, the young couple stands on the porch of a ruined plantation house. The porch and columns are all that remain. This is the house where Susanna lived with her parents before they died in the fire. She at first tells John that she can’t remember anything about the fire because she was only three years old when it happened, but he later learns that she was actually nine and ultimately discovers that she knows more than she has been willing to reveal. In fact, the ruined plantation porch with columns closely resembles a photograph made by Eudora Welty in 1935 of the ruined Windsor Plantation. I wonder whether the filmmakers were aware of the ruins or of Welty’s photograph.

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