Cast & Crew
As Carolyn Crawford, a five-year-old African-American girl, skips through a vacant field on her way to school, she slips and falls into a well. Her mother Martha and grandfather give her description to Sheriff Ben Kellog, who then learns that three classmates saw a man speaking with her in front of Woody's flower shop. Woody tells of a white man who bought flowers for the girl, whom he had never seen before. Word soon spreads in the black community that a white man abducted Carolyn. A crowd of blacks and whites gathers at the police station, where Gaines, Carolyn's uncle, accuses Ben of not doing everything he can because the suspect is white. Ben indignantly says that color has nothing to do with it. Ben learns that the suspect, Claude Packard, is the nephew of construction company owner Sam Packard, an influential man in town. When Claude is found at the bus station and questioned, he admits that he bought Carolyn flowers, but says he then sent her off to school. He explains that he was passing through town on his way to a new mining project where he hoped to get a job, and thought he would visit his uncle. Worried that the scandal could ruin him, Sam tries to coerce Claude into saying they were together all morning. Ben had been about to book Claude, but he now hesitates and keeps the search open. Word spreads among blacks that Sam is going to get his nephew freed. As he leaves the police station, Sam is questioned by Gaines and Carolyn's father Ralph, and when Sam falls and the two black men run, a rumor circulates among the whites that Sam has been beaten up by blacks. Incidents of racial fighting begin to occur in the town. Ben and his deputy Mickey search in the vacant field where Carolyn fell, but are interrupted when an officer informs them of the fighting. Ben sends Mickey to take Claude to the county seat until things cool off. At a citizen's committee meeting, Ben requests that the mayor get the state militia, but both black and white citizens think that is extreme. When Ben warns that they will soon have a race riot, a black man describes a riot he experienced in which his father's body was dragged through the streets and a white child was beaten to death. Upset at the description, the mayor goes to see the governor. As violence continues unabated, Sam's assistant Wylie and other whites beat up Gaines. Mobs race through streets, as groups gather weapons. A Packard warehouse is burned down, and talk spreads of running "these niggers" out of town. At a gathering at Sam's, he vows to drive out the blacks even if he has to kill every one of them. Ben warns that he will shoot anyone who tries to kill a black. In the field, a dog barks at the hole into which Carolyn fell. The dog's owner, a boy, finds Carolyn's school book and jacket and runs off. During a meeting of blacks, Gaines advocates killing two "ofays" for every black killed, and Crawford agrees. Mickey brings Claude back to town after being attacked at a roadblock. The boy brings Carolyn's things to Martha, and as word spreads that the girl has been found, tensions are eased. At the well, Gleason, a white racist who owns a radio and electronics service, lowers a microphone into the hole and hears Carolyn's voice. Ben lowers a rope, but when Carolyn does not tie it around her waist, Martha explodes in tears. After township records are examined, it is decided to dig sixty-three feet, then cut a tunnel across to Carolyn. A white-owned company offers lumber to shore up the tunnel as they go. When Sam arrives, he realizes they will never get to Carolyn in time by digging and suggests they sink a shaft using his company's crane. As the townspeople shine their car headlights into the field for light, the men begin to work. Sam asks Claude, who has worked in mines, to tunnel across once they reach Carolyn's depth, but Claude, hating the town, leaves. As they pump water out of the hole, a cave-in occurs, trapping Wylie. Gaines rescues him, but then another wall caves in. Finally, Claude, who has returned, pulls Carolyn out, with Gaines's help. An African-American doctor takes her to an ambulance, as the crowd anxiously awaits word on her condition. Ben comes out and tells Martha that Carolyn is going to be all right, then Gleason announces the news to the assembled group, who rejoice. Sam winks at Ralph as the ambulance pulls out.
Mary Ellen Kay
George C. Emick
Joseph H. Nadel
Ralph G. Pollock
Harry M. Popkin
Harry M. Popkin
Best Writing, Screenplay
The Well - THE WELL - Oscar Nominated 1951 Drama on DVD
Look at the box and you'll see a garishly colored shot of a bare-chested man holding a half-swooning woman in his arms, gazing rapturously into her face as she looks away with an undefined emotion-longing? temptation? fear?-in her sparkling blue eyes. If you like passionate romances, this is clearly the movie for you.
Not! If ever a Hollywood drama steered totally away from passion and romance, The Well is that picture. The things it's actually about are a lot more somber: the evils of racial bigotry, the dangers of police power, the dark side of small-town innocence, and the ability of ordinary people to band together for both constructive and destructive purposes. The hero never takes off his shirt. And those sparkling blue eyes--who knows? The movie is in black and white.
All this aside, The Well, originally released in 1951, is an engrossing picture that deserves to be better known. While the acting and dialogue are shaky at times, the issues it raises are as relevant today as when the film was new.
The story starts quietly. A little African-American girl is walking through a field, and in an eyeblink she drops abruptly out of sight. The camera moves in and we see that she's fallen into a hole half-hidden by grass and brush. We have no way of knowing how deep the hole is, whether the girl survived her plunge, or how anyone could ever find her.
Back home, her parents are less worried than angry, because this isn't the first time she's wandered away without telling anyone. They grow increasingly concerned as the hours pass, though, finally contacting the police to search for her. Questioning people in the town, the sheriff and his deputies learn she was last seen in the company of a white stranger who held her hand and bought her flowers.
The cops eventually find the stranger, who's the visiting nephew of a local businessman. He claims he bought the flowers on a kindly whim, held the girl's hand to help her cross the street, and knows nothing of her whereabouts after that. None of this convinces the lawmen, who keep up a relentless interrogation in hopes of wrenching a confession out of him.
And still the tale is just beginning. Rumors circulate: a black girl has been kidnapped, or molested, or even killed by a white man. Tempers rise, along with a strange sort of confusion, since the racially mixed town hasn't experienced serious tensions in the past and people aren't quite sure how to react. Soon black folks are wondering if a cover-up is taking place-if the "culprit" has been caught, why hasn't the missing girl been found?-and white folks are all too eager to "protect themselves" from hostile blacks. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to mob hysteria and vigilante violence.
You'll have to see the movie to learn the outcome of this, but the plot still has a long way to go. The missing girl is finally found-alive or dead, we still can't tell-and the town rallies around in sympathy, or at least curiosity, as rescuers try to reach her in the well. This makes for harrowing suspense and surprisingly visceral cinema. (It's not very true to the real-life 1949 case of little Kathy Fiscus, though, which inspired this portion of the film; the same incident plays a part in Woody Allen's nostalgic 1987 comedy-drama Radio Days.)
The Well was codirected by Leo C. Popkin and Russell Rouse, who made a good team. It was the first directorial effort for Rouse, who was primarily a screenwriter and penned The Well with Clarence Greene, his frequent partner. It was the last directorial effort for Popkin, who had produced a handful of films with African-American subjects in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Popkin is best known for producing D.O.A., the respected Rudolph Maté noir of 1950; it's an interesting footnote that Rouse and Greene got story credit (with a third writer) for that movie's 1988 remake.
The Well is efficiently directed almost all the way through--in terms of action and suspense, if not casting and acting-but it really comes alive in the last half hour, as experts work to retrieve the trapped little girl. We see this entirely from above the ground, watching a hard-working crew punch a new hole deep into the earth, send rescuers to its depths through a narrow pipe, and hear their agonizingly slow progress reports on a hastily assembled sound system.
While the decision not to show any of the below-ground activity was surely dictated by budget and logistics, it pays terrific dividends by forcing the viewer's imagination to work overtime. At its best, this lengthy scene recalls Jacques Becker's excellent 1960 prison-break picture Le Trou, which also finds enormous drama in people digging a hole. Like that picture, it's first-rate filmmaking.
The strongest performance in The Well comes from Henry Morgan, aka Harry Morgan, best known for MASH on television but a hugely prolific movie actor from the early 1940s through the late 1990s. He plays the little girl's alleged kidnapper/abuser/killer, and his outrage at the cops is almost palpable. Everyone else in the cast-well, almost everyone else-is adequate. Ditto for Dimitri Tiomkin's music. The movie received two Academy Award nominations, well deserved, for film editing and screenwriting.
In its racial-tension scenes, The Well is a respectable entry in the cycle of "problem pictures" made by Hollywood in the post-World War II years; in its rescue scenes, it's genuinely gripping. Its appearance on DVD is a welcome event. And the box is fun to look at, even if it doesn't tell you a single thing about the movie inside.
For more information about The Well, visit Image Entertainment. To order The Well, go to TCM Shopping.
by Mikita Brottman and David Sterritt
The Well - THE WELL - Oscar Nominated 1951 Drama on DVD
The working title of this film was Deep Is the Well. Actor John Phillips' surname was misspelled "Philips" in the onscreen credits. Harry and Leo Popkin, Clarence Greene and Russell Rouse of Cardinal Productions had previously made the film D.O.A.. The filmmakers acknowledged that they were influenced in making The Well by the 1949 tragedy of Kathy Fiscus, a child from Pasadena, CA, who fell into a pipe sunk into an abandoned oil field and died before help could reach her. Her plight was broadcast on live television, marking the first time a news event became a dramatic national focal point through the fledgling medium of television. In May 1950, a Los Angeles Examiner news item stated that Harry Popkin "almost popped when he read...that Billy Wilder had an idea for a picture based on the tragic Kathy Fiscus rescue....[Popkin] does not intend for anyone to beat him to the screen with the picture." Wilder's film Ace in the Hole (also known as The Big Carnival) was, in fact, released before The Well in July 1951 (as was the Warner Bros., Robert Wise-directed film The Three Secrets, which was released in October 1950 and inspired by the Fiscus tragedy.) Los Angeles Examiner, in their review, stated, "The final sequence of The Well is reminiscent in many ways of the tragic Kathy Fiscus case, and as the desperate operations continue through the night, the heartbreaking suspense (remembering little Kathy's fate) becomes almost unbearable."
In a October 1, 1950 New York Times article, Greene stated that the filmmakers used "authentic, factual material drawn from actual race-riots in American cities, notably one in Detroit on June 20, 1943, in which thirty-four persons died." Location work was done in the northern California towns of Marysville and Grass Valley, and the film was completed at the Motion Picture Center Studio in Hollywood on a $450,000 budget. According to a February 19, 1952 Daily Variety news item, a week before the film was to open in Cincinnati in October 1951, the Ohio Film Censor Board notified the distributor, United Artists, that they needed more time to deliberate. The censor board did not grant the film a seal of approval until February 1952. The Daily Variety item stated that "the presence of Negro characters in the plot" had been of concern to the board.
The Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American newspaper, chose the film as the best picture of the year, and the Foreign Language Press Film Critics Circle awarded the filmmakers a special mid-season citation. Some reviewers criticized the film's dramatic handling of the story. New York Times criticized the first part of the film as a "presumptuous concoction of suddenly inspired race hate and wildly explosive race rioting that is easier to rue than to believe." New Yorker complained that in the denouement, "the transformation of the rioters from hoodlums into upstanding, cooperative, and ingenious citizens, all united to save a child, is effected so suddenly that the spectator has quite a time reorienting his ideas about the virtuous and the wicked." Variety, however, lauded the film's "frank and ofttimes brutal approach" to race relations. The film received Academy Award nominations in the Film Editing and Writing (Story and Screenplay) categories.