Thursday, December 27, 2012

Good-bye, My Lady

Good-bye, My Lady (dir. William A. Weltman, 1956) follows up on the formula of The Yearling (1946)—a boy moving towards adolescence bonds with an unusual pet, in this case a dog, a rare African Basenji that laughs, weeps, cleans itself like a cat, and hunts with unusual skill.  This film lacks the lyricism and subtlety of The Yearling.  It announces its themes ahead of time, through a deep-voiced singer announcing through song that it’s sad and hard when a boy grows up to be a man--with a harmonica wistfully making wistful music in the background.  (Both the man’s voice and the song are, for lack of a better word, creepy).  The twelve-year-old Skeeter (Brandon deWilde) and his Uncle Jesse Jackson (Walter Brennan) are the primary characters. I liked Brennan in Swamp Water (1941), but here he plays a bumbling, fairly inept, lazy, but kind old man we later came to know as Gramps in the TV series “The Real McCoys.”  One scene in particular is worth the entire film—Brennan’s character stopping and starting, trying to decide what to do, his feet dancing this way and that, as if he’s deep into some sort of country jig, except that he’s just supposed to be bumbling around in a comical way.  We typically see him dozing on the front porch of his shack when he is supposed to be cutting firewood.  His major virtue is his love for his nephew, entrusted to his care after his mother’s death.  (The father is nowhere to be seen, and Uncle Jesse refuses to talk about him, as if to suggest he was some sort of scoundrel who deserted mother and child).

The film purports to show us what life in the Southern backwoods swamps was like for people in the mid-20th century and earlier.  Skeeter and his uncle live in a ramshackle one-room shack, deep in the woods at the end of a long dirt road.  They eke out an existence selling firewood, mainly to their friend Cash Evans, who owns a store in the nearby town and is something of a friend and rival to Uncle Jesse.  Jesse is illiterate, though the boy is learning to read.  In fact, the stylized depictions of the cabin and its inhabitants probably have a limited basis in reality.  Poverty and good-heartedness are the main qualities of the poor in this film, while the more affluent Cash lives in town (Phil Harris plays this role in a peculiarly loud and wooden way).

Suffice it to state that the film revolves around how Skeeter finds the Basenji dog, names it Lady, loves it and trains it to hunt, and then gives it up when Cash shows him a newspaper ad placed by the owner, looking for the lost dog.  Skeeter decides he must give up Lady, and this is supposed to mark his coming manhood, his recognition that he must give up the dog that isn’t his.  Unfortunately, this message, fairly blunt to begin with, is blunted even more when Skeeter takes great pleasure in $100 reward money the dog’s owner gives him.  The loss of the dog hardly seems to matter.

The boy and his uncle are friends with a kind, hardworking black man who lives nearby, Gates, played by Sidney Poitier.  His wife is played by Louise Beavers, who starred for two years in the first TV show centered on black characters. It aired in the early1950s.  Gates and his wife are good-hearted, hard-working, extremely blessed with progeny.  Although both Gates and his wife are portrayed in a positive way, the film can’t quite escape the stereotype of the wise and kindhearted black folks who give advice to the whites.

The film makes a few jokes, mainly through Uncle Jesse, about the character of Yankees.  He tells a tale about how after a visiting Yankee got snake-bit the snake died.  The kindness of the man sent by the dog’s owner convinces Jesse and his nephew that all Yankees might not be so bad after all.

A few scenes of Good-bye, My Lady seem to have been shot on location, but most of the film looks like it was shot on a set, in black and white, on a small budget.

If this film aspired to be another The Yearling, it didn’t succeed.


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