The late 1940s was an unstable period for The Samuel Goldwyn Company, which produced Roseanna McCoy. Director William Wyler, responsible for many hit films for Goldwyn including Wuthering Heights (1939) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), had recently left the company to strike out on his own. In addition, accomplished Goldwyn cinematographer Gregg Toland died in 1948. Both Wyler and Toland had contributed to the style known as "The Goldwyn Touch" and their departures were a major blow to Goldwyn.
For actor Farley Granger, who was under contract to Goldwyn at the time, it was an unhappy period in his career. While he had received excellent notices for his work in Nicholas Ray's They Live by Night and Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (both 1948), he sensed that The Goldwyn Company was on the decline. "Goldwyn was suddenly making movies that could have been done by anyone," said Granger according to A. Scott Berg's 1989 book Goldwyn: A Biography. "The other studios were developing their new young stars-Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, and the MGM kids...I begged him to split my contract with Fox, because doing one film every year or two for him made me dependent on loan-outs for my career."
In 1948 Goldwyn announced to Granger that his next project would be Roseanna McCoy based on the novel of the same name by Alberta Hannum. Goldwyn had commissioned a screenplay by writer John Collier as a vehicle for Granger and actress Cathy O'Donnell, Granger's co-star in They Live by Night.
Through a friend, Farley Granger was able to obtain an early draft of Collier's screenplay. "It was Romeo and Juliet as Southern hill folk, and it was flat-out wonderful," said Granger in his 2007 autobiography Include Me Out. "Collier, best known as a writer of fantasy fiction, was an inspired choice. He had enriched the tale with undercurrents of superstition and witchcraft. He set most of the tale at night, with coyotes howling in the hills and owls capturing helpless creatures by shadowy moonlight. I loved it and could not wait for work to begin."
Just before rehearsals were set to start on Roseanna McCoy, however, a problem arose concerning actress Cathy O'Donnell who was set to play the title role. It had to do more with former Goldwyn director William Wyler than her. Back when Wyler had left Samuel Goldwyn's fold, Goldwyn had not reacted well. "Goldwyn, who wanted everyone who worked for him to treat him like a benevolent patriarch instead of the wily dictator he really was," said Granger, "took his departure as a personal betrayal and never forgave him." Cathy O'Donnell had recently married William Wyler's brother Robert in a quiet ceremony, and when Goldwyn found out, he exploded. Goldwyn told O'Donnell that she better have the marriage annulled or she would be fired. Not only would she be fired, he added, but he would see to it that she would never work in Hollywood again. When O'Donnell refused, she was fired, leaving Farley Granger upset and Roseanna McCoy without a leading lady. "I was hurt by what Goldwyn had done to Cathy," said Granger, "and deeply disappointed that I'd be doing the movie without her. She would have made an enchanting Juliet."
With O'Donnell gone, Granger was told by the studio that production would still move forward on Roseanna McCoy. "I asked who was playing Roseanna; no one knew," said Granger. "I asked who the director was; no one knew. They did tell me that the rest of the cast was terrific and included Richard Basehart, Charles Bickford, Raymond Massey, Aline MacMahon, and Hope Emerson. That was an impressive group of actors. With Collier's script and the right girl, I felt this could be a very special movie."
Meanwhile, Sam Goldwyn had conducted a nationwide talent search to look for a fresh new face to cast in the title role. Goldwyn found a girl named Joan Eunson, the 15-year-old daughter of two Hollywood screenwriters and goddaughter to actress Joan Crawford. Goldwyn changed Eunson's name to Joan Evans and decided to build her up as a new Goldwyn find for her debut in Roseanna McCoy.
Farley Granger tried to remain optimistic about the project he had initially been so enthusiastic about, but when he finally met with his new co-star Evans, he was less than impressed. He found Evans "sweet" and "pretty" but was disheartened to learn that she had no real acting experience. When he found out years later that Evans had lied about her age and had only been 14 at the time, he wasn't surprised. "Perhaps that has something to do with the complete lack of sexual tension between our Romeo and Juliet," he said. "Her parents had added two years to her age in order to be able to say she was sixteen when the film was released. Unfortunately, a star was not born."
Granger was also alarmed to learn that the director Goldwyn had chosen was Irving Reis. Granger had worked with Reis before on a film called Enchantment (1948) which had been a bad experience for him. He described Reis as a "highly neurotic and lackluster director" and did not look forward to working with him again.
When the cast and crew was sent to the Sierra Madre Mountains to do some location shooting for the film, Granger and his fellow actors still hadn't been given a script. They questioned Irving Reis about it. "He told us that Mr. Goldwyn had not been happy with the script and had thrown the whole thing out," said Granger. "He assured us that rewrites were already under way, and we could expect the first of them tomorrow after he had done some establishing shots. Irving's ability to lie convincingly was pretty much on a par with his ability to direct imaginatively. No one believed him. The empty feeling in the pit of my stomach spread. I could not tell anyone that I had read a bootlegged copy of the script, that it was wonderful, and that it had probably been thrown out because Goldwyn didn't understand it."
When they got to their location, everyone crossed their fingers and hoped that the situation would improve. "The mountains were very beautiful," described Farley Granger. "The town consisted of a hotel glued onto a small movie house, a post office, a bar, and a drugstore/general store/gas station. There were some wonderful ramshackle houses, and two sets built on opposite mountain ridges outside of town as the homes of the Hatfields and the McCoys. We all stayed in that one hotel. The rooms were clean and claustrophobic. We all ate at that one hotel. The food was all fried all the time. Everyone kept very much to him or herself. No friendships were forged, no sense of camaraderie surfaced at any time during the lengthy shoot of a film that should have been wonderful."
Director Reis spent the first two weeks on location getting every shot he possibly could without dialogue while everyone waited on the script to be delivered. "He shot people standing outside the houses," said Granger, "entering the houses, and exiting the houses...He shot me on a horse going from camera left to camera right, from camera right to camera left, up the hill, down the hill, on the ridge in the distance, on the ridge nearby, mounting the horse, dismounting the horse, with Joan on the horse with me, at a walk, at a canter, at a gallop, and just about anything you could imagine doing with a horse. Then he shot me walking with Joan, holding hands with Joan, chasing Joan through a field, and so on...We were all beginning to feel a little crazed. Even the poor director was looking crazed. Suddenly we packed everything up and went back to Hollywood, where we were laid off for a week."
In the meantime Goldwyn had hired writer Phil Yordan to "fix" the screenplay. Soon, pages of the new script began to emerge and the cast was re-assembled to shoot more scenes on the studio soundstages. "On some days we got a whole scene to shoot," said Granger, "on others we just got a page or two. Other times we would get different pages of the same scene. It was all very confusing. It's a testimonial to the professionalism of the cast that everyone worked hard and stayed cool."
There was one scene in which Farley Granger was supposed to sing Joan Evans a song written by Frank Loesser for the film called "More I Cannot Wish You." It was a song that Granger found "lovely", but that Goldwyn "hated." Goldwyn scrapped the song and had Loesser write another tune - one that Granger felt was far inferior-called "Roseanna" which ended up playing over the opening credits. Loesser ended up putting "More I Cannot Wish You" into his acclaimed Broadway musical Guys and Dolls a few years later.
Several weeks later the cast and crew were sent once again up into the mountains for more location shooting. When they got there, however, they soon discovered that director Irving Reis had been removed from the picture. No one ever learned the details of Reis' departure. Instead, they found director Nicholas Ray ready to shoot the few remaining new scenes. Granger was delighted. He had worked with Ray on They Live by Night and found him to be "one of the best and most sensitive directors I've ever worked with." Granger thought that maybe in Ray's hands, Roseanna McCoy could still become something special. "When I saw Nick," said Granger, "I had a momentary surge of hope, but then I realized that it was too late for him to make any significant improvement. Nick must have realized it, too, because after a warm hello, he refused to talk about Roseanna." Granger thought that Ray was probably embarrassed at being hired to do the cleanup work of another director.
If things weren't chaotic enough on location for Roseanna McCoy, the weather also decided to disrupt the shooting schedule. "It started raining and didn't stop for two weeks," said Farley Granger. "Every morning at 4:00 A.M. we got into makeup and costume, and drove up to the location. There we sat in our cars all day, waiting for the rain to stop. Then, every afternoon at 5:00 P.M., the cars would turn around and take us back to the hotel for a fried dinner." After a week of this, the cast and crew were sent back to Hollywood to wait out the weather. Another week later, they were back in the mountains filming.
During their final stint at their mountain location, there was an accident on set. In one scene Granger's character Johnse Hatfield was supposed to shoot a gun at Roseanna McCoy's brother played by Richard Basehart. The constant rain had made the ground wet and unstable. As the scene was being shot, the ground gave way and Granger fell down the hill. His gun, loaded with blanks, went off. "After a second or so, when I was able to look up," said Granger, "I was horrified. Jean was squirming in the grass like a snake, covered in blood, her hands over her face. She must have been screaming, but I couldn't hear anything. It was a terrible slow-motion moment during which I thought, 'Oh my God, I've shot Roseanna!'" It turned out that the blank charge had hit Joan Evans in the wrist. She was not seriously injured, but the blank had penetrated the skin and caused a lot of bleeding. "She was justifiably hysterical and needed to be taken to a hospital," said Granger.
While Evans turned out to be alright, the incident expedited the production's moving once again back to Hollywood. "On the train back," said Granger, "one wag accused me of doing it on purpose to get us all out of the mountains. Another one said, 'We don't know how we'll ever be able to repay you.' Nick did his best to improve the quality of what was left of Roseanna McCoy, but too much damage had already been done. At least John Collier, Frank Loesser, and I knew what might have been. I wish Mr. Goldwyn did."
With all of Farley Granger's negative experiences while making the film, Roseanna McCoy still managed to receive generally positive notices from the critics. "A chapter out of American folklore comes to fitful life on the screen in Roseanna McCoy," proclaimed the New York Times. "...There is much feudin', fussin' and lovin' in this pictorially handsome recreation of the fabulous enmity between the Hatfields and the McCoys...Mr. Goldwyn appears to have a rich find in the fledgling Miss Evans, and Irving Reis has directed her in a performance that demands considerable emotional display...Farley Granger's acting is forceful and fiery as Johnse and Aline MacMahon gives another fine portrayal as the mother of the McCoy brood..." Time magazine said, "Hollywood has somehow never hit on the famous feud of the West Virginia Hatfields and the Kentucky McCoys. With Roseanna McCoy, Producer Sam Goldwyn and Director Irving (Enchantment, 1948) Reis have made good the oversight. The result is primarily a story of young love, more pastoral than pugnacious...It successfully avoids the bearded clichés of most hillbilly fiction and sticks to a safe middle road between authenticated history and conservative Hollywood tradition. Highlight of the picture is Miss Evans, Sam Goldwyn's latest personal find, whose natural, unadorned charm gives an appealing homespun finish to the slick production. To back her up, Goldwyn also contributed the talents of some distinguished veterans, notably Raymond Massey and Aline MacMahon as the elder McCoys, and Charles Bickford and Hope Emerson as Anse and Levisa Hatfield. Their performances, together with that of Miss Evans, give the picture a sober solidity which, in the end, carries more genuine dramatic punch than its brawling romanticism."
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Director: Irving Reis, Nicholas Ray (uncredited)
Screenplay: John Collier; Alberta Hannum (novel); Ben Hecht (uncredited)
Cinematography: Lee Garmes, Floyd Crosby (uncredited)
Art Direction: George Jenkins
Music: David Buttolph
Film Editing: Daniel Mandell
Cast: Farley Granger (Johnse Hatfield), Joan Evans (Roseanna McCoy), Charles Bickford (Devil Anse Hatfield), Raymond Massey (Old Randall McCoy), Richard Basehart (Mounts Hatfield), Gigi Perreau (Allifair McCoy), Aline MacMahon (Sarie McCoy), Marshall Thompson (Tolbert McCoy), Lloyd Gough (Phamer McCoy), Peter Miles (Little Randall McCoy), Arthur Franz (Thad Wilkins), Frank Ferguson (Ellison Hatfield), Elisabeth Fraser (Bess McCoy), Hope Emerson (Levisa Hatfield), Dan White (Abel Hatfield), Mabel Paige (Grandma Sykes), Almira Sessions (Cousin Zinny), William Mauch (Cap Hatfield).
by Andrea Passafiume