Viewer Guide: Raintree County and Get Low with Richard Peña

March 9, 2018 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.


Raintree County (1957)

This week’s REEL 13 classic is Raintree County (1957), a romantic Civil War drama adapted from the novel by Ross Lockridge Jr., directed by Edward Dmytryk.

Montgomery Clift stars as John Shawnessy, valedictorian of the 1859 high school graduating class in Freehaven, Raintree County, Indiana. As a minister’s son with idealistic aspirations of leading a life in pursuit of truth and justice, John is encouraged in his dreams of becoming a great man “by doing good for others” by his high school sweetheart Nell Gaither, played by Eva Marie Saint. Fascinated by his schoolmaster’s tale of the county’s namesake, a legendary “Rain Tree” supposedly planted by Johnny Appleseed somewhere in an Indiana swamp, John sets off on an impulsive private pilgrimage to find this “tree of fulfillment, whose fruit is love”—only to return decidedly unfulfilled and covered in mud.

John soon discovers the fruit of love from another source in the form of Elizabeth Taylor as Susanna Drake, a visiting southern belle from New Orleans. John finds himself captivated—and then captured—by the beautiful Susanna, but their chance at happiness together is abruptly disrupted with the outbreak of the Civil War, with John discovering his abolitionist opinions are completely out of step with the increasingly unstable Susanna’s traditional ways, especially after the country erupts into armed combat. Rounding out the cast of the opulent MGM production are Nigel Patrick, Lee Marvin, Rod Taylor as well as Agnes Moorehead and Walter Abel as John’s parents.

Some movies are born under dark stars, and Raintree County is certainly one of them.  MGM had originally optioned the movie rights to Ross Lockridge Jr.’s best-selling novel in 1947, but Indiana-native Lockridge was so traumatized by being forced to cut his 2,000 page manuscript in half that he sank into a severe depression and committed suicide in 1948 at the age of 33—making the novel the only book he ever published. MGM was hoping for another Gone With The Wind, but the sharp reduction in US movie audiences in the early Fifties cooled their enthusiasm for what the studio knew would be an expensive project—until Hollywood decided that lavish color productions were what could give the movies an advantage over black and white TV. MGM studio chief Dore Schary decided to restart the project in the mid-50s, casting the film with many of the era’s brightest young stars.

Raintree co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift had become close friends while working together in A Place in the Sun in 1951, and Lockridge’s Civil War epic seemed to offer a perfect vehicle for their screen reunion. For director Edward Dmytryk, the film offered a plum assignment to continue rebuilding his career after spending a year in jail as one of the original “Hollywood Ten” for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Dmytryk had in fact already reversed himself and in “named names” of suspected Communist Party members, which allowed to him to work for the studios once again.

Interior shooting on the massive production had just been completed when Montgomery Clift wrecked his car after leaving a dinner party at Elizabeth Taylor’s house on the night of May 12, 1956. Clift had apparently fallen asleep at the wheel, suffering a broken jaw and nose, as well as losing some teeth and experiencing a severe concussion. Elizabeth Taylor was one of the first on the scene of the accident, cradling Clift’s bloodied body until an ambulance arrived, and lashing out at the paparazzi photographers who began to assemble.

Production was suspended for two months, but Hollywood’s best plastic surgeons simply could not fully restore Clift to his original beauty, with the left side of his face almost immobile, creating his haggard, mask-like appearance in several sections of the film. Moreover, after shooting resumed, Clift’s reliance on painkillers coupled with his already serious drinking problem resulted in wild and unpredictable behavior.

Somehow, Raintree was finally completed and released in late 1957, and while greeted with mixed reviews it still managed to snag three Academy Award nominations, including a Best Actress nod for Elizabeth Taylor. However, the movie’s numerous delays and massive budget over-runs dwarfed the respectable box office, falling far short of Gone with the Wind’s stratospheric success.


Get Low (2009)

This week’s indie is Get Low (2009), a drama starring Robert Duvall and Bill Murray, directed by Aaron Schneider.

Get Low opens with the startling image of a house completely engulfed in fire in the dead of night. Soon we see the small silhouetted figure of a man ablaze running out of the house and toward the camera. After this brief disturbing sequence, the film transitions to sometime in the 1930s and the Tennessee back-woods cabin of Felix Bush, an ornery old man who’s lived as a hermit for 40 years. Scaring away a trio of rock-throwing boys, Felix nails up an even sterner “No Trespassing” sign, but soon receives another visitor in the form of Reverend Gus Horton, played by Gerald McCraney. The Reverend informs Felix of the death of an acquaintance from Felix’s past; at first, he doesn’t show much of a reaction, but the news clearly sets something off in Felix’s mind.

We won’t learn the connection between these seemingly unrelated events until the end of the film, but Felix’s next move is to hitch up his wagon and visit Reverend Horton with the unusual request of helping him to “get low,” that is, to hold a funeral for himself—before he has died. Reverend Horton balks at the outlandish request, but asks if Felix has made his peace with God. Overhearing their conversation is Buddy, the junior undertaker at the town funeral home, played by Lucas Black. Buddy reports the conversation to his boss Frank Quinn, played by Bill Murray, a former Chicago salesman who’s gotten himself into a business “that everybody on earth needs.” And soon the pair set off to solicit Felix’s business for a funeral that will truly be like no other. Also starring is Sissy Spacek as Felix’s former romantic flame, and Bill Cobbs as an Illinois preacher who knows the real story of Felix’s troubled past.

Get Low was inspired by the story of Felix Bushaloo Breazeale in Roane County, Tennessee. In the fall of 1937, Breazeale remarked to a friend that he planned to build his own coffin from the large black walnut tree growing near his house. One thing led to another, with “Uncle Bush” ultimately deciding it was a shame not to be able to attend your own funeral, and he began to work in earnest on making his coffin. The news eventually made its way into the local papers, and was then picked up by Associated Press and LIFE magazine. Ultimately, an estimated crowd of 12,000 people gathered for Uncle Bush’s “pre-funeral” in the spring of 1938, despite the fact he was still at the relatively spry age of 74. He would live another five years, finally passing away “for real” in February of 1943.

Working well with cinematographer David Boyd, director Aaron Schneider creates a somewhat dark, saturated look that gives the film a gravity that at times seems juxtaposed to the almost absurd positions of some of its characters. The challenge here was to keep the action just on the edge, making it problematic to know if we’re supposed to be laughing at anything that’s happening. In the end, the film shows how the keeping of long-held secrets can wind up ruining several lives.

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