Silent film actress Mary Pickford (photo courtesy VCU Southern Film Festival)
Mary Pickford played Southern heroines in silent films. She came from Toronto, Canada, was basically raised in the trunk of her show-business family, and got into the
pictures through a 1909 screen test in New York City for D.W. Griffith. She became Griffith’s lucky charm. He put her in 51 films during her first year at Griffith’s Biograph Co., and a number of those were set in the South. But by 1919, she was on to other directors and films, and in 1919 she made the Kentucky-set Heart o’ the Hills.
Sidney A. Franklin shot the picture from a Frances Marion script. You don’t think of “America’s Sweetheart” as a hillbilly tomboy who wields a trick shooting rifle, but, here, as Mavis Hawn, she does just that. This is but one of the offerings for this weekend’s Southern Film Festival, which includes screenings and talks at various venues. (See a schedule here). This year's theme is “Exploring Musical Traditions & Stereotypes in Popular Film” and in the Pickford movie, there’s plenty of the latter, with and live (and lively) music provided by our very own Hot Seats. The film will be shown Friday at 6:30 p.m., a the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, $8.
Emilie Raymond, festival organizer, VCU professor and author on the subject of the South and popular culture, says, “We wanted to explore the traditions. So many have gone national whether folk, country, gospel. Heart o’ the Hills is the perfect combination of what we need. It’s a celebration of Southern living and brings in some resilient stereotypes.”
The Southern Film Festival is already under way, with a 5:30 p.m. reception at The Depot, 814 W. Broad, followed by a lecture by Virginia Wesleyan professor Kathy Merlcok Jackson, “You Can’t Run Away from Trouble,” about the problematic Disney film Song of the South. The film was based on the “Uncle Remus” stories pulled together by Reconstruction-era Georgia journalist and folklorist Joel Chandler Harris. He wanted to preserve the tales, but his approach and method has gotten him labeled as, at best, an apologist for the Old South, and at worst, a thief of African-American cultural heritage.
Jackson will show segments of the film to underscore points in the talk.
Now consider this, closer to home. John Mitchell Jr., fighting editor of the weekly Richmond Planet (from 1884 to 1929) and champion for black civil liberties, was considered a “race man,” which at the time meant someone who stood up to the white establishment for better treatment of blacks. The term provides the title for Ann Field Alexander's 2002 Mitchell biography. Mitchell also headed the state chapter of the Knights of Pythias fraternal organization, which, at its core, provided life insurance because no white companies in that business sought black clients.
During part of Mitchell's tenure as editor, Polk Miller, a white unreconstructed Confederate, operated a drugstore in Richmond. In late middle age, Miller ran away for the stage to front an African-American band organized from musicians he plucked from mostly Jackson Ward as they performed on street corners and in saloons.
There wouldn’t be another musical group like Miller’s Old South Quartette, a black band with a white lead singer and banjo player, for about a half century. Edison’s company recorded them. Mark Twain praised their originality and once stopped his Madison Square Garden presentation to bring Miller – alone – onto the stage for his interpretation of old plantation songs and stories in what we’d view as cringe-worthy dialect. Miller, who was born in 1844, learned to play and sing on his family’s Prince Edward County farm from slaves in the quarter. Miller never labeled his act as a “show,” but, in his way, felt that his work preserved sounds and music of the pre-Civil War past. He considered his music and stories instructional entertainment. And, in an awkward musicological way, he accomplished that end.
Each summer, Mitchell’s Knights held a multi-day conference and a huge gathering descended on Jackson Ward. The festivities entailed entertainment — and for the June 1909 celebration, Mitchell hired the Old South Quartette for a performance at the Fifth Street Baptist Church. Mitchell’s Richmond Planet notes that the introduction of the Polk Miller Quartette drew prolonged applause and the performance caused a “commotion among the listeners.” The old-time melodies generated enthusiastic outbursts to the extent that insistent calls for repeated encores kept the Quartette on the stage.
This is the kind of juxtaposition that his year’s Southern Film Festival takes head on.
On Saturday, at 10 a.m. at Sticky Rice, there’ll be King Creole, considered one of the best Elvis Presley films – and The King’s favorite character. An $8 ticket gets you the film and a breakfast buffet. Though you’ll need cash, says Raymond, for the special Elvis cocktail, perhaps involving coconut and pineapple.
The titles of the movie's director, Michael Curtiz, range from Casablanca, (yup, that one), to Mildred Pierce.
At 2 p.m., the 1959 Porgy and Bess, starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge, will be screened at the Grace Street Theater on the VCU campus, free admission. This is territory Raymond knows quite well. She writes about figures like Poitier, Dandridge and Sammy Davis Jr., in her Stars For Freedom: Hollywood, Black Celebrities, and the Civil Rights Movement.
Porgy and Bess took a long while to get to the screen, starting as a 1925 novel by white Charleston, South Carolina author DuBose Heyward that was in turn adapted by his wife, Dorothy, into a stage play that became an opera by George and Ira Gershwin. “It took Samuel Goldwyn to secure the rights and make the movie,” Raymond says. The sto
ry and script were nettlesome, and Poitier and others sought to finesse them. “Their thinking was: This can go mainstream and we can have a say in how these characters are portrayed. It wasn’t easy for them, but here was an opportunity.”
Raymond and VCU anthropology professor Christopher Brooks will moderate a post-show discussion.
The evening culminates with the 5 p.m. screening of We Shall Overcome, a 1989 documentary about the civil rights anthem, narrated by entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte. The film will receive a proper prologue from civil rights activist Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, followed by a live musical performance by the VCU Black Awakening Choir. The group, founded in 1970, is one of the university's oldest student organizations. “This sends the festival out on an inspirational high note,” Raymond says.
Though perhaps audience members will feel a twinge of wistfulness, which is appropriate. Featured in the film are the late folk artist Pete Seeger; former Atlanta mayor, U.N. ambassador and Martin Luther King Jr. associate Andrew Young, 83, who was injured this spring when a cement truck fell on his car; and Bishop Desmond Tutu, also 83, is ailing.
The late Julian Bond says in the film, “People tell me that you go anywhere in the world today and there's somebody singing this song. There's somebody in some movement singing this song. ... They sing it in all kinds of lands and all kinds of languages. I wouldn't be surprised when we colonize the moon that there'll be these little green people up there joining their antennae together and they'll be singing-or chirping-something. And it will be 'We Shall Overcome.' "