Monday, February 10, 2020

Little Girl Lost

Five-year old Carolyn Crawford (Gwendolyn Laster) loves flowers. On her way to school one morning, she wanders into a field in search of some blossoms, and plunges into The Well (1951). Her mother, Martha (Maidie Norman) becomes concerned when Carolyn does not return home from school; she calls the local sheriff Ben Kellog (Richard Rober), who begins searching for the child. Some local people saw little Carolyn talking to a stranger, Claude Packard (Harry Morgan), and are convinced the man kidnapped her. Adding to the problem - Carolyn is African-American, Claude is white.

This film was part of the Noir City DC at AFI Silver. Our presentation featured an introduction by film historian Foster Hirsch.

Dr. Hirsch acknowledged that The Well is not really a film noir, though it has noir moments (A recent Facebook video by Eddie Muller also discusses the film's noir potential). Rather, The Well is two films in a brief 86 minutes. The first section focuses on how gossip and here-say in the small town results in an upsurge in racism and race riot, as the  citizens of the town - white and black - become incensed at what they see as injustices surrounding  little Carolyn's disappearance. The fury is so intense that Sam Packard (Barry Kelly), one of the chief instigators of the riot (it's his nephew who has been arrested) forgets why all the trouble started in the first place!  The second section of the film shows us the the town reuniting as they race the clock to rescue Carolyn before her fall is fatal.
This is clearly a B film, using actors most of us only see in supporting roles.  Maidie Norman, who spent her career playing maids, finally gets a role she can sink her teeth into as the distraught mother who only wants to find her little girl. Ms. Norman was born in Georgia but raised in Ohio (Profiles of Ohio Women, 1803-2003 by Jacqueline Jones Royster). She received a Master's Degree in drama from Columbia University in 1937; that same year, she married her first husband (they were together until his death). In 1946, she started performing on radio; the following year, she made her first film The Peanut Man (a film about George Washington Carver). It was difficult to find roles that truly used her talents - more often than not, she played domestics. However, she refused to speak in what she called "old-slavery time talk" (Jet Magazine obituary).  She went to television to find more challenging roles; she also became an instructor in drama at UCLA, where she introduced a course on Black Theatre history.  She died in 1998, at the age of 85, of lung cancer.
Harry Morgan, is - as always, excellent as the suspected kidnapper.  Claude is in town for a few hours, and attempts to visit his uncle. He's a kind man; he sees the child staring at some violets in a flower shop window, and buys them for her. That simple act of kindness opens up a maelstrom of trouble for him. Mr. Morgan began his career on Broadway (using his birth name, Harry Bratsburg); between 1937 and 1941, he appeared in 8 plays. In 1933, he appeared in a small role in The Kennel Murder Case; his screen career really started in 1942 in To the Shores of Tripoli (using the name Henry Morgan; he'd later be listed as Henry "Harry" Morgan. Around 1962, he was billed as Harry). Always a supporting player, he played a variety of "types" - good guy and villain alike. Radio and television, however, moved him into more prominent roles, such as Bill Gannon in Dragnet. But, the best was yet to come - after playing a psychotic general in M*A*S*H, he was offered the role of Colonel Sherman T. Potter, the new commander of the 4077th. He eventually was awarded an Emmy for the part. He married twice (the second marriage was after the death of his wife Ellen - they were together for 45 years). He died in 2011 at the age of 96.
The story was loosely based on the story of Kathy Ficus, a three-year old who fell into a pipe in an abandoned oil field (AFI catalog).The film received two Oscar nominations,  for screenplay and editing. This is not a great film, by any means, but (as Foster Hirsch said in his introduction), it's an important film.  If you can find a copy, we heartily recommend a viewing.  We'll leave you with a trailer:

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