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‘Mockingbird’ On The Big Screen

‘Mockingbird’ On The Big Screen

By Shannon Hicks

Calling To Kill A Mockingbird “one of the greatest books in terms of sales and the impact on our children and ourselves,” professor emeritus Jack Leopold welcomed about 125 people to a special screening of To Kill a Mockingbird last week.

On March 29, Edmond Town Hall hosted two screenings of the 1962 film. The screenings were part of the two-month NewtownREADS series of special programs focused on Harper Lee’s monumental novel of the same name. The evening screening was introduced by film historian Jack Leopold, who also led a short discussion after the show.

The film is an American film classic, still shown in schools across the country usually as part of a middle school curriculum that teaches American history and tolerance. Loosely, the story follows two children, Scout (played in the film by Mary Badham) and Jem (Phillip Alford), as they watch their principled father, Atticus (Gregory Peck), defend a black man on trial, charged with raping a white woman. The setting is rural southern America during the Depression.

The casting is perfect, from Gregory Peck in a role that he often called his all-time favorite, to Mary Badham and Phillip Alford – who many people felt looked enough alike to truly be brother and sister. Robert Duvall puts in a wordless, yet spooky and emotion-filled performance (his first in a feature film) as Boo Radley, and James Anderson looks mean as Robert E. Lee (“Bob”) Ewell even before he starts spouting the N-word.

Even the Elmer Bernstein’s soundtrack was intelligent, written primarily from the point of view of a child. Songs like “Remember Mama,” “Atticus Accepts The Case/Roll In The Tire,” “Creepy Caper/Peek-A-Boo,” “Jem’s Discovery,” and “Tree Treasure”… they all recall things that were happening on screen to and by the children of the film, not the adults, who seem to carry much of the backstory.

In 1963 the film won three of the eight Academy Awards it had been nominated for – Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Black and White) and Best Writing-Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. Before the film began rolling Thursday evening, Mr Leopold reminded those in attendance of these wins, and encouraged them to look at the film with those awards in mind.

Horton Foote’s award for Best Writing was one topic that was quickly touched upon prior to the screening.

“He was dealing with so many different ideas and themes when he sat down to write that screenplay,” Mr Leopold said before the film rolled Thursday night. “When he started writing he had to decide what to include and what to exclude from the film.

“Did he do a good job?” he challenged. “Well yes, of course he did – he won an Academy Award for that work. But what would you have liked to see from the book in the film?”

The Oscar Awards were far from the only ones the film earned, of course. It received three Golden Globes, and one award each during the 1963 award season at Cannes Film Festival, David di Donatello Awards, Laurel Awards, and Writers Guild of America. The movie continued to bring notice to itself more than three decades after its release, as it was placed on the National Film Registry by the National Film Preservation Board USA in 1995, and put into the Producers Guild of America Hall of Fame in 1999.

Mr Leopold called the film “a beautiful look at a young girl growing up in an idealistic family,” but cautioned that it was certainly about much more than that once a viewer looks below the surface.

“Is it proto-feminist? Some women have looked at it that way,” he pointed out. “It’s told from the point of view of Scout, a heroine dealing with racism in the United States.”

The Civil Rights movement started right after the war, said Mr Leopold, who also said that Harper Lee used her story line to compare the way Jews were treated during the war with the way blacks were treated in Monroeville (her hometown) and elsewhere cross the south. Monroeville was used loosely as the setting for Lee’s book, which takes place in the fictitious town of Maycomb, Ala. He recalled the scene in Lee’s book (which was not written into the movie) when the schoolteacher was challenged on why it was OK for white people to treat blacks differently than they treated each other.

“That was a parallel, certainly,” Mr Leopold said.

He also pointed out that by 1961, when the film was being made, color films were being produced.

“Look at the lighting,” he said. “How did it affect the story? Why did they choose to shoot this in black and white?”

Mockingbird was nominated for, but didn’t win, Best Picture.

“It lost to Lawrence of Arabia, a brilliant Technicolor film,” Mr Leopold said.  “Did the choice to shoot in black and white have anything to do with that?”

In less than five minutes, Mr Leopold gave the audience much to think about as the lights dimmed and the familiar opening credits began rolling. The tinkle-tinkle of piano keys and a young girl’s humming as she alternately drew with crayons and explored through a box of treasures were familiar for some in the theater last Thursday, but also new to others.

CarolLee Berlin and Carole Angus had decided to attend the film together, and it was the first time either woman had seen the film.

“This was just wonderful,” Ms Berlin said. “Of course this was different from the book, and the book is best, of course, but this is a great movie.”

Ms Angus agreed with her friend’s assessment of the movie, and planned on watching it again soon. She couldn’t wait, she said, to watch a DVD of the film “and look for the nuances that had been discussed earlier.”

Kim Weber, a librarian with C.H. Booth Library, has seen the movie a number of times.

“Before tonight, the most recent time was probably last summer,” she said Thursday night. “We see it frequently but it’s funny how many times you can see it and still not pick up all the subtleties. Even tonight, I had an ‘aha!’ moment.”

Mr Leopold had alluded to that idea a minutes few earlier, during his post-screening discussion.

“When you think of a movie and all the people involved, it’s genius how everything comes together,” he said. “When you watch a movie like this, you need to see it two or three times to catch everything. It’s all so carefully planned out.”

Others who turned up for the screening also seemed happy with their decision.

John Manoni had last seen the film “probably in the 60s,” he said, but had also recently read the book while on a trip in Italy.

“I found a copy of the book in a thrift shop, and kept waiting to see the movie again,” he said. “This was a thrill.”

Town Hall administrator Tom Mahoney was able to locate one of the few remaining prints of To Kill a Mockingbird for last week’s event. It was charming to watch that film on the big screen, with its occasional pops and skips. The sound was far from today’s digital surround sound, but again – the event was a throwback to a much earlier time, long before digital files and synchronized sound effects.

“The film was in mono, not digital,” he said. “When you’re using mono, the only speaker being utilized is the center speaker behind the screen. There’s no surround information, which is how it was done in the 1960s when this film was put together.”

The tough part of finding a copy of the film was finding a decent version.

“This was a standard 35 mm print, and this print, from the looks of it, was probably at least from the 1980s, but we did the best we could with it,” said Mr Mahoney, who was able to catch Thursday’s matinee.

“The injustice of that film still resonates,” he said.

Remaining NewtownREADS 2007 events include a book discussion led by Gordon Williams on Tuesday, April 10, at 1 pm, at the senior center, 14 Riverside Road; a book discussion led by Joanne Rochman on Tuesday, April 24, at 7:30 pm, at C.H. Booth Library; a program by Charles Shields, the author of Mockingbird: A portrait of Harper Lee, on Thursday, April 26, at 7:30, in the lecture hall at Newtown High School; and a mock trial theatrical performance produced and directed by Doug MacHugh at Newtown Meeting House, suitable for ages 12 and up, on Saturday, April 28.

The mock trial performances will be at 2 and 7 pm, with tickets priced at $5 for the matinee and $10 for the evening performance (which will include a reception). Advance ticket purchase is required; call or visit the library for details.