Copyright © Laurence Lockridge, 1994 All rights reserved

From Shade of the Raintree

By Larry Lockridge


The Movie

From Chapter One, Epilogue

Bloomington, Indiana, 1948--1993

Selection, pp. 15-19

Then there was the MGM movie that appeared in 1957 with the billing that here was an epic to out do Gone with the Wind. The novel had won an enormous prize given by Loew's Incorporated in 1947 but was shelved in 1949. With the advent of TV and other problems, the company went into a disastrous slump in 1947-48. They were also having trouble coming up with a script, and the young author's suicide may have been a damper of sorts. In 1954 it was dusted off and the task of writing the script was given to Millard Kaufman, creator of the cartoon character Mr. Magoo.

In late August of 1956 my mother invited herself and the kids down to Danville, Kentucky, where an army of movie staffers was encamped for a summer of shooting. Indiana no longer looked enough like itself and to its dismay had been passed over in the location search. Montgomery Clift was still recovering from an automobile accident in May that interrupted shooting for six weeks. Leaving a party at Elizabeth Taylor's home in the Benedict Canyon hills, he had driven into a telephone pole, losing two front teeth, cutting a hole through his upper lip, and breaking his nose and jaw. He refused to drop out of the film, and, in constant pain, kept a gray satchel full of pills by his side. He stumbled through the rest of the film mostly in right profile; the left was lumpy and inert. In his off-camera life in recent weeks he had faked his own bloody death, run naked into the streets of Danville after a nightmare, broken a toe, and badly burned two fingers with a cigarette while out cold from an accidental overdose of sleeping pills.

Enter the Lockridge family hopeful of finding in Clift someone capable of playing John Shawnessy, who in many ways resembles his creator. I shook the hand of someone bent over, fidgety, gaunt, bloodshot, and much older than his thirty-five years. His efforts were heroic, but still the great actor mumbled, moved his wired jaw with difficulty, forgot his lines, and seemed by turns manic and drugged. The crew was shooting a scene that featured Shawnessy and Susanna Drake, the neurotic heroine played by Elizabeth Taylor. Both were lying drunk on the banks of the Shawmucky River following Shawnessy's great victory in the Raintree County footrace.

Taylor: "Let's go swimming." Clift: "In that thing? You'll sink." Taylor: "Then you can save me!" She grabs the oak leaf garland from his head and shrieks as Clift takes off in klutzy pursuit. Ten-year-old Terry Ross Lockridge, collecting tadpoles upstream, screams:


For the remainder of our stay we overheard staff muttering, "Mom, is that acting?" while director Edward Dmytryk called for take after take from his stuttering, shrieking leads. But in one scene of sentimental leave taking, Eva Marie Saint, playing the character Nell Gaither, wept excellently and later told my mother that her presence had helped. She knew that Nell was partly based on Vernice Lockridge.

A publicity campaign was supposed to include locally organized Raintree hunts and Raintree plantings, as well as nationally merchandised Raintree cufflinks, shoes, guns, luggage, good luck coins, hats, hairstyles, gloves, and petticoats. THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL OF THE CIVIL WAR BECOMES THE MOST IMPORTANT SCREEN EVENT IN TWO DECADES!" It was to be a movie of firsts: the most expensive ever filmed by MGM in the U.S.A., the first use of a 65 mm camera, the longest screenplay, the first movie to have an entire book about its making on sale simultaneously with its release, and the first Hollywood movie to be premiered in Louisville. Little mention was made of Ross Lockridge, Jr. in the vast promotional material, and certainly no mention of his suicide.

We waited in vain for invitations to the great premiere. Finally my mother once again invited us down herself--but no, she wasn't requesting five tickets, she wanted enough for all members of the collective family, which on her more prolific side included a miscellany of Bakers, Chitwoods, Mumbys, Nicholsons, and Kranstivers. MGM obliged.

Our hopes were raised by John Green's fine score, which arrived a week before the premiere. We hummed it as we drove down to Louisville in our secondhand oil-leaking Chevrolet. I was introduced to Van Johnson, imported as a friendly accessory star. "Gee, you look like me when I was a kid," he said. I almost asked him about the metal plate in his head. My mother was handsomely photographed with Eva Marie Saint. At the screening we sat behind Taylor and Mike Todd, who introduced himself as Mister Elizabeth Taylor. We breathed deeply as the overture began.

Critics agree that the movie we then watched is among the world's worst. "Raintree County begins in tedium and ends, 185 leaden minutes later, in apathy. Montgomery Clift, talking through his nose and expressing sensitivity of soul by seldom looking other cast members in the eye, jitters through the role of John Shawnessy," said the critic for Time. The film "is certainly not helped by a lot of symbolical gobbledegook about a tree called the raintree," said Hollis Alpert. "To say that it moves at a snail's pace is to insult the snail," said William Zinsser. "Millard Kaufman's screenplay is a formless amoeba of a thing, and therein lies the fatal weakness of this costly, ambitious film," said Bosley Crowther.

During the screening, one Hollywood interpolation caused my mother to lunge forward, her hands over her face, crying "Oh my God!," with Millard Kaufman sitting directly behind her. There was no applause in Louisville's Brown Theatre. Finding something positive to say, Todd whispered to Taylor, "It's your film, it's your film." Her portrayal of a tormented southern belle would get her an Oscar nomination, for in this film she learned, as she said, "to climb up the walls and chew a lot of scenery." MGM studio head Dore Schary was canned shortly after the fiasco.

How had it happened? The director, Dmytryk, speaks of the novel as a "long, rambling, involved story of small-town life in Indiana." It was "assigned to a fine writer, Millard Kaufman, as a do-or-die project. He did pretty well, mostly by ignoring a good deal of the novel and striking off in new directions." Dmytryk would later tell a Canadian television producer that he himself never read the novel.

In newspaper interviews Mr. Magoo's creator said he thought Raintree County a magnificent novel but there were certain "confusions" in it. He outlined the novel on 1,791 separate pieces of note paper, dropped the flashback structure, and focused on six years of the novel's fifty-three, the years 1859 through 1865 featuring the Susanna figure. As one critic would point out, the novel is constructed as if it were a film, but Kaufman wrote a film constructed as if it were a novel.

He confronted a novel in which the two principal heroines, as well as the hero's first son, die. With Hollywood at his back, he elected to preserve Nell's life and her virginity, which in the novel is lost to Shawnessy's rival. In the end Susanna conveniently drowns in swampmuck, the son is rescued, and Nell, a patient Griselda, is ready to forgive and forget.

Beyond such clarifications, the new direction in which Kaufman struck off was to supplant the novel's dialogue with his own. The moral of the piece is expressed this way by Kaufman's Shawnessy: "I've learned that to see the Raintree is not nearly as important as what you find looking for it, and I'm happy with what I've found--you."

Monty Clift agreed to do the film after three years of turning down better scripts. Elizabeth Taylor urged him to make the movie with her, and besides he was broke. He accepted only $250,000 of the offered $300,000 fee, though, asking that MGM make a better movie with the difference, because he felt the script read like "a soap opera with elephantiasis." Robert LaGuardia writes that Clift "sprawled the 1,066 page Ross Lockridge novel and two copies of Millard Kaufman's screenplay on his desk, and like a devoted Bob Cratchit, with meticulous glare and tensely held pencil, he went from one to the other, taking dialogue from the book and enlarging or substituting for Kaufman's dialogue."

His efforts went unheeded. Though Clift is in virtually every scene, he doesn't speak a memorable or reflective line, leaving viewers to wonder why other characters think him some sort of literary world-beater.

Whatever the interventions of Hollywood, I still have to ask what there is about my father's novel that could yield such dubious spawn. That "gobbledegook" about the raintree, for instance. In the novel, the raintree is a symbol grounded in local legend and occasioned by the human need for myth-making, a symbol skeptically undercut by the "Perfessor." It is later authenticated in an indirect sort of way, rather like a Hawthorne story. In the movie it is improbably the skeptical Perfessor himself who introduces the raintree legend to the local aspiring bard, Shawnessy--who ought to have heard of it already--and sends him packing. For his troubles he would discover the secret of life and be proclaimed a hero. The distance between a compelling and a thick symbolism isn't very great. If it collapses, we gag.

Another problem of adaptation is that John Shawnessy of the novel sees lots of life but in a strictly dramatic sense doesn't do much of anything. He is merely a writer, which isn't fun to watch, and he doesn't manage even to write. Any adaptor would have a real challenge here.

The author feared what Hollywood would make of his novel. His cousin Mary Jane Ward, author of the 1946 novel The Snake Pit, would later say she became reconciled to his death only when she saw the movie--at least he had been spared this! Some friends in the film world tell me that I'm too hard on the movie, that some of the novel comes through, that Lee Marvin turned in his first superb character performance, that Taylor too comes of age here, that Green's score is one of the finest. The film has a cult following because of a ghoulish pleasure in spotting when Clift is pre-accident and when post. Patricia Bosworth thinks Clift's professional death occurred in his near-fatal accident, which lends the movie the dignity of a mausoleum. But I remember what my father brashly wrote to Louis B. Mayer in 1947: "I could sit down and write in one week-end the kind of corny scenario that Raintree County could be turned into."


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Raintree County

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