fredi says.. By FREDI WASHINGTON PV's Theatrical Editor June 15, 1946 p. 22
EVER SINCE THE ANNOUNCEMENT that Twentieth Century-Fox paid the reputed handsome sum of $250,000 for the screen rights to Frank Yerby's best selling historical novel, The Foxes of Harrow, a lively speculation has been going on as to the treatment Hollywood will give this excellent account of a vastly interesting and intriguing era of colorful New Orleans.
For those who have not read the book, it ought to be noted that Frank Yerby is a 30-year-old Augusta, Ga., born Negro who has an amazing and varied background for one so young. The speculation, of course, stems first from this fact, and secondly because Yerby has not only written with complete authority about an odd assortment of whites but he has factually set down the miscegenation which flourished that colorful but degrading era of the early 1800s through the Civil War.
The question which is uppermost in our minds is just how does Fox propose to handle the role of "Desiree," the quadroon who becomes the mistress of Stephen Fox, wealthy and fascinating plantation owner? This character is interwoven into more than half of the story. The author describes her as having a clear light golden coloring, a tawny mane of chestnut hair, lightening to pure gold in the highlights with overtones of auburn that run like flame through the waves at the tilt of her head--with heavy lids that widen over eyes as cool and green as the sea and a voice deep and rich that sounded like tones of a soft, golden gong. Her mouth, says the author, is full, with red-wine lips that widen slowly in to a smile. Of her waist, the author says it is "incredibly slim." This, then, is the character who went willingly as a virgin to the arms of Stephen Fox with the consent of her mother (the tradition in that era), who was unwillingly seduced by Fox's son, "Tienne," admired and lusted after by all men who saw her and finally after the Civil War who marries "Inch," the former slave manservant of young Fox, who adopts the son she bore for her lover, Stephen Fox.
Desiree's insistent loveliness reaches deep into the lives of both Stephen Fox and his son, and while this lovely creature does not have the benefit of marriage due to the customs and traditions of that era and locale, she is always the lady, outranking in quality most of her white associates.
What will happen with this character in transferal from book to screen? We know of course that the novel medium has much wider scope for complete development of character and story, and of necessity the screen has to prune and edit out much that has made a novel a best seller; but here is a character which is a vital part of the development of the story behind the story. It boils down to whether or not Fox has the courage to present on the screen the fascinating history which Yerby has written so descriptively. After reading the book, I venture to say that by no stress of the imagination can I conceive of Fox using a Negro girl in the role, though she can be duplicated many times among us. A Negro girl will not be used because the motion picture industry is a far greater respecter of box office than of factual history. And if a white girl is used, it is safe to assume that the role will be so watered that the evil producing conditions which set aside a group of people who are hated and despised by white women, lusted after an opened by white men and held in utter contempt by Negroes of a darker hue, will be lessened.
The role of Desiree is, of course, part and parcel, though physically removed, of slavery and its conditions. There is very real doubt in my mind too as to whether or not Yerby's handling of his slave characters and his deductions about that disgraceful period in our history will be screened with the directness and open mindedness with which the author has written.
For instance, what kind of screen interpretation will be given "Sauvage," the girl just out of Africa, whose beauty of face and form is a jet black symphony, and who has the spirit and litheness of a panther of the jungle? Or her son, "Inch," whom she attempted to destroy at birth rather than have him grow up as a slave? What about "Inch" as a young man who travels to Paris with his young master as servant but who at the same time availed himself of the opportunities afforded by the best universities in Paris? "Inch" embodies the super intelligence, freedom-loving Negro who in that age was living proof of the fallacy of the slogan: "Negroes were like children and needed the care of their slave owners."
Yerby has fashioned character after character, situation after situation in his complex story which always drives into the consciousness the fear and stupidity of the ruling class. He has shown how clever and cunning the old slave woman, "Caleen," can be in taking complete charge of a situation. Will, for example, the screen story show those capable Negroes holding position after the Civil War, or will they show only those field hands who were without the necessary education to prepare them for their new found freedom? In other words, will Twentieth Century-Fox make of "The Foxes of Harrow" a significant documentary film which will enlighten the movie going public on the subject of slavery and all its evils, or will they extract its lusty passion and make of it a sensational nonentity which may or may not turn out to be an insult to Negroes?
It would seem to me that Fox has the most splendid opportunity yet acquired by a movie studio not only to make a super production of The Foxes of Harrow, but to lead this great industry into a formidable educational channel on the badly muddled subject of slavery. Here is a magnificent story, written by a Negro, which lends itself completely to the medium of the screen. Most of the present-day prejudices and injustices heaped on the Negro in America can be traced directly to ignorance. How much longer are we going to cater to that ignorance? Always in each century there comes a radical who will brave the displeasure of his bigoted brothers by striking out against a vicious, rotten system. The movie industry has become so highly commercialized that it has that kind of a system. Somewhere, somehow, a radical of some importance must rise amid the ranks who will disregard fabulous box office returns in lieu of integrity and responsibility to the public.
Twentieth Century-Fox is headed by Darryl Zanuck who, in a sort of negative way, has a good record. It is not yet known which producer on the lot will have charge of the actual production, but certainly this is going to be one of the major productions of the studio and as such, Zanuck will have some say as to its handling. Here is the chance for Zanuck to become that radical and make a lasting contribution to the American people and to the industry of which he is a part.
Unless "The Foxes of Harrow" is done as a documentary film with pride and dignity, a great and exciting story will be reduced to just another superficial, gaudy Hollywood special.