Sunday, June 12, 2016

Screening: To Kill a Mockingbird at the Million Dollar Theater

As part of this year's Last Remaining Seats program, The Los Angeles Conservancy presented the classic To Kill a Mockingbird at the historic Million Dollar Theater last Wednesday.

To Kill a Mockingbird  (Universal-International Pictures, 1961)
Starring Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Philip Alford, Brock Peters, Collin Wilcox, James Anderson, Frank Overton, Estelle Evans, William Windom, Alice Ghostley and Robert Duvall
Directed by Robert Mulligan
Screenplay by Horton Foote, based on the novel by Harper Lee
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor (Peck), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Set Decoration/Art Direction (Black & White)
Also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Badham), Best Cinematography (Black & White) and Best Music Score

Jean Louise Finch (Badham) - a young tomboy better known by her nickname of Scout - looks back on a formative period of her childhood in the Depression-era South in this film adaptation of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

Scout and her older brother Jem (Alford) live with their widowed father, lawyer Atticus Finch (Peck) in a small Alabama town. Scout experiences a number of normal childhood bumps in the road - first day of school, conflicts with other kids - until Atticus is asked to defend Tom Robinson (Peters), a black man accused of beating and raping Mayella Ewell (Wilcox), a local white girl. As the case progresses, Atticus is increasingly unable to shield his children from the cold realities of prejudice and poverty.

The film is pretty much flawless, but it's in the court scenes where it really shines. Director Mulligan takes his time presenting testimony from both Robinson and his accusers. Atticus's summation alone runs almost ten minutes. But predictably, the all white, all male jury (hardly a jury of Tom Robinson's peers) convicts him despite the overwhelming evidence produced by Atticus that Mayella's abuse most likely came from her alcoholic father (Anderson).

Another source of interest in Scout and Jem's otherwise idyllic world are their reclusive neighbors, the Radley's. They develop a bit of an obsession with Boo Radley (Duvall), the family's adult son who is kept locked up in the house due to having once attacked his mother with scissors. They will finally meet Boo (who the unfailingly decent Atticus introduces as Mr. Arthur Radley) when he comes to their aid when they're menaced by an angry and intoxicated Bob Ewell, still stinging from being made to look bad by Atticus during the trial.

Some To Kill a Mockingbird  facts and trivia:
  • Other actors considered for Atticus Finch: Rock Hudson, Spencer Tracy and James Stewart.
  • The narration by the adult Scout was provided by legendary (and uncredited) actress Kim Stanley.
  • Boo Radley was Robert Duvall's film debut. He had no dialogue.
  • Despite their stunning debut performances, neither Mary Badham nor Phillip Alford pursued acting careers into adulthood. Badham became a wife and mother, while Alford became a successful businessman.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird  was largely drawn from Lee's childhood. She based the character of Atticus Finch on her father, Amasa Lee, who was a widower with children and also a lawyer who was always ready to offer legal defense to blacks who he felt had been unfairly accused. Harper Lee was so moved and impressed by Peck's performance that she gave him her father's watch. It did not appear in the film, but Peck did wear it to the Academy Awards ceremony.
  • For his portrayal of Atticus Finch, Peck received his fifth Best Actor nomination and his first win.
  • The film was both a critical and financial success. It earned back ten times its cost at the box office.
  • Of all the films he made in a career that spanned fifty years, Peck identified To Kill a Mockingbird  as his favorite.
  • The film could not be shot on location in Lee's small Alabama hometown because by the early 1960's it had become quite modernized. The entire town seen in the film was built on the Universal backlot.
  • The character of Scout and Jem's precocious friend Dill was based on Lee's childhood friend, author Truman Capote.
  • The film has an impressive 91% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
  • Brock Peters gave the eulogy at Peck's funeral. 

The view from my nosebleed seat.

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