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Intruder in the Dust

Intruder in the Dust(1950)

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teaser Intruder in the Dust (1950)

It's remarkable that a film like Intruder in the Dust (1949) could have been made by a major Hollywood studio of that era. Based on the 1948 novel by William Faulkner, it's the story of a dignified black man, Lucas Beauchamp (Juano Hernandez), in the South who refuses to be deferential to the community's whites. When he is falsely accused of murdering a white man, he is too proud to make any attempt to prove his innocence when he knows he won't be believed. Chick Mallison (Claude Jarman, Jr.), a white teenager whom Lucas once helped, sets out to prove that Lucas is not the murderer, with the help of his lawyer uncle (David Brian) and a feisty old woman (Elizabeth Patterson).

The driving force behind Intruder in the Dust was Clarence Brown, who had been one of MGM's top directors since the mid-1920s. In the 1930s, he had become acquainted with Faulkner, who worked briefly as a screenwriter at MGM. Although born in Massachusetts, Brown had grown up in Tennessee, and considered himself a Southerner. As a teenager, he had witnessed the bloody 1906 race riots in Atlanta, and had never forgotten them. Brown was an admirer of Faulkner's books, and when he read Intruder in the Dust before it was published, it resonated for him. He asked MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer to buy it. Mayer was convinced it would be a failure and refused. But when the liberal producer Dore Schary, who had made several "message" pictures, took over as head of production at MGM in 1948, he persuaded Mayer to approve the project. MGM bought the rights for $50,000, to the delight of the perennially cash-strapped Faulkner.

To play Chick, Brown chose Claude Jarman, Jr., whom he had discovered and cast in The Yearling (1946) when Jarman was a 12 year-old Nashville schoolboy. Following the success of that film, Jarman moved to Hollywood and attended the MGM studio school. His performance in Intruder in the Dust was one of his best, and one of his personal favorites.

Intruder in the Dust was also a milestone in the film career of Juano Hernandez. A black man of Puerto Rican and Brazilian parentage, he had been a boxer, a vaudevillian, a radio scriptwriter, and a radio and stage actor in New York. His first film role was as a drug lord in The Girl from Chicago (1932), directed by black independent producer Oscar Micheaux. After several small parts in Micheaux films, Intruder in the Dust was Hernandez's first film for a major Hollywood studio, and the beginning of a distinguished mainstream film career. The film earned him a Golden Globe nomination as "Most Promising Newcomer" in 1950.

MGM agreed to Brown's request to shoot much of Intruder in the Dust on location in Faulkner's home town of Oxford, Mississippi, provided that lodging could be found for a company of 100 people. The University of Mississippi agreed to house and feed the white cast and crew, but what about the black actors? The Chamber of Commerce said lodgings would be provided "in the homes of Oxford's colored leaders." Juano Hernandez would stay at the home of a prominent black undertaker.

Some members of the community objected to the story, and Faulkner helped to smooth things over with them. He also helped find locations, and discussed the script with Brown, but because he was under contract to Warner Bros., he could not contribute to it. However, according to Faulkner's biographer Joseph Blotner, he approved most of the scenes, made suggestions for changes to others, and revised the last scene "considerably in an effort to make it less sentimental." Faulkner even coached Hernandez in the local dialect, feeling that Hernandez's "clear and precise enunciation made him sound like a Shakespearean" rather than a Mississippi black man. (from Faulkner: A Biography by Joseph Blotner)

Oxford enthusiastically embraced the film company. Many of the townsfolk appeared as extras in Intruder in the Dust, and even those who didn't turned out at the Lyric Theatre every night to join the film crew watching dailies. The film had its world premiere at the Lyric in October of 1949, with Jarman riding one of Faulkner's own horses in a parade. Although Faulkner hated the hoopla surrounding the premiere, and attended only grudgingly, he liked the final film. "I don't know much about movies, but I thought it was one of the best I've ever seen," he said. "Mr. Brown knows his medium, and he's made a fine picture. I wish I had made it." And proving that he had the observational abilities to make a fine movie critic, Faulkner added, "I like the way Mr. Brown used bird calls and saddle squeaks and footsteps in place of a lot of loud music telling you what emotion you should be experiencing."

As Mayer had predicted, Intruder in the Dust was a box-office failure. Although the film was a critical success, 1949 audiences were not ready for a nuanced portrayal of a complex and unapologetic black man. Dore Schary writes in his autobiography, "I predicted it would be viewed in years to come as one of our best. We were both proven right."

In his essay about the "problem pictures" of 1949, novelist Richard Wright wrote, "Intruder in the Dust is the only film that could be shown in Harlem without arousing unintended laughter. For it is the only one which Negroes can make complete identification with their screen image. Interestingly, the factors that make this identification possible lie in its depiction not of racial but of human quality."

Producer/Director: Clarence Brown
Screenplay: Ben Maddow, William Faulkner (novel)
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Film Editing: Robert Kern
Art Direction: Randall Duell, Cedric Gibbons
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: David Brian (John Gavin Stevens), Claude Jarman, Jr. (Chick Mallison), Juano Hernandez (Lucas Beauchamp), Porter Hall (Nub Gowrie), Elizabeth Patterson (Eunice Habersham), Charles Kemper (Crawford Gowrie).

by Margarita Landazuri

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