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Sidney Poitier made an impact in his very first film, No Way Out (1950), as a doctor who is the victim of racism, and over the next few years had several impressive film performances under his belt. But his breakthrough didn't come until Blackboard Jungle (1955), in which he played an incorrigible student in an inner-city high school. It was that performance that brought him to the attention of John Wayne, who was producing films through his company, Batjac Productions, and director William Wellman, the director for Batjac's Good-bye, My Lady (1956).
According to Poitier's autobiography, actress Lauren Bacall, who had co-starred with Wayne in Batjac's Wellman-directed Blood Alley (1955), knew Wayne and Wellman were looking for an African-American actor for an important role in Good-bye, My Lady, and suggested that they take a look at Poitier's performance in Blackboard Jungle. They did, and were equally impressed.
Based on a novel by James H. Street, Good-bye, My Lady is a coming of age story about an adolescent orphan (Brandon De Wilde), nicknamed Skeeter, growing up in the Mississippi swamp with an elderly, uneducated uncle (Walter Brennan). Skeeter finds a strange dog which doesn't bark, but makes a noise which sounds like a laugh, and even cries real tears. Naming the dog Lady, Skeeter trains her with the help of his neighbor, Gates, played by Poitier. The dog turns out to be a basenji, a rare African hunting dog, which had been lost in the area by her owner, and Skeeter must make his first grown-up decision - whether to return the dog which has become his pet and constant companion, or keep her.
The basenji was played by a puppy named "My Lady of the Congo," raised by a breeder in England and imported for the film, along with four others to serve as doubles, including her brother, My Lord of the Congo, although Lady ended up doing most of her own stunts. Before production began, Lady and De Wilde had time to bond, and became so close that her owner agreed to let De Wilde keep her as a pet.
Unusual for the segregationist era and the Deep South setting of the film, Poitier's character in Good-bye, My Lady is educated, dignified, and a wise big brother figure to the 14-year old Skeeter. Wellman, whose gruff, macho manner hid his "sensitive, artistic inclinations" according to Poitier, allowed those inclinations to be seen not only on film, but off-screen as well. The film was shot on location near Albany, Georgia, where the company took over a local hotel. In his memoirs, Wellman recalled that on their first night there, he looked around at dinner and didn't see Poitier. When he inquired about the actor's whereabouts, he was told that Poitier was forced to eat in the kitchen. Wellman writes that he went back to the kitchen and ate with Poitier, and that he complained to the management and threatened to take his business elsewhere. In his own memoirs, Poitier does not mention the incident, but writes, "I found William Wellman to be a truly wonderful man. In later years, when I began directing films myself, I would come to fully appreciate his remarkable talents."
Wellman called Good-bye, My Lady "one of the best I ever made," but added that it was "a financial fiasco. I don't know why. The story was beautiful, the performances were superb. How could you miss? But I did." It was Wellman's final film for Batjac. He made only two more films, Darby's Rangers and Lafayette Escadrille, both released in 1958.
Producer: John Wayne
Director: William A. Wellman
Screenplay: James H. Street (novel); Albert Sidney Fleischman
Cinematography: William H. Clothier
Art Direction: Don Peters
Music: Laurindo Almeida, George Fields
Film Editing: Fred MacDowell
Cast: Walter Brennan (Uncle Jesse Jackson), Brandon De Wilde (Skeeter, Claude), William Hopper (Walden Grover), Phil Harris (Mr. Cash), Sidney Poitier (Gates), Louise Beavers (Bonnie Drew).
by Margarita Landazuri