JACKSON – Oxford’s Lyric Theater on October 2 will again be the site of an historic event: a special screening of “Intruder in the Dust,” based on William Faulkner’s novel which 60 years ago had its world premiere in the same movie house after being filmed in the quaint college town. The commemoration is the highlight of the Oxford Film Festival.
What, of course, makes this nostalgic to me is that I was there 60 years ago and covered the premiere and allied events for my paper, The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune. The cast party was put on by filmmaker MGM, who sprung for the booze and good eats.
Necessarily, I must inject here that it was at the cast party I had my first opportunity to meet Faulkner. That was a trip, as I will explain.
Being Mississippi, there has to be a story connected with the event: namely why my paper sent me to cover the 1949 movie premiere based on the Faulkner novel. My editor in New Orleans, George Healy, was an Ole Miss grad. Further, he also had been Faulkner’s bridge partner when the writer notoriously ran a bridge game in the back room of the university’s U.S. Post Office instead of minding the counter.
The MGM people were frantic to know if Faulkner would show up for the party – and the movie screening – as he had not been seen in three days. We were all well into imbibing and eating at the party when Faulkner slips in, typically wearing his battered tweed jacket with the leather elbow patches – and a tree-day growth of beard.
After all the ooing and aahing had subsided, I introduced myself to Faulkner, and immediately the mention of The Times-Picayune brought the inevitable question: “How’s George Healy?” That out of the way, I started a little chat with Faulkner, learning that he had taken up sailing on the lake at Sardis Dam. He was interested in getting some nylon sails for his little sailboat.
I knew someone in New Orleans who might help him, and he was grateful for the information. Soon afterward, Faulkner was spirited away, probably by the movie people and the mayor, who were anxious to get him to the theater on time.
Claude Jarman, Jr., the teenage star of the movie, and some of the actors in “Intruder in the Dust” were visibly mingling at the party, but I don’t recall seeing any of the black actors, especially Juano Hernandez who played Lucas Beauchamp the prominent figure in the Faulkner story. Remember, this is 1949, and racial mixing at a social event was still taboo.
But as I would realize in later years, Faulkner’s “Intruder” was in reality a forerunner in portraying the Deep South’s (i.e. Mississippi) complex system of racial justice later made famous by “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In both a wrongly accused black man would gain his freedom with the help of a sensitive white youngster.
Jarman, as Chick, the 12-year-old son of a respected white family, while hunting rabbits with his black pal, Alex Sander, on a very cold December morning, falls into an ice-encrusted pond. Struggling for his life, Chick is pulled to safety by a strong black man named Lucas Beauchamp who appears from nowhere.
Without looking back, Lucas, in a worn felt hat and an axe on his shoulder, strides off and barely looking, tells the shivering Chick, “come on to my house.” No appeal or debate – the white boy follows the tall, erect black man to an unpainted cabin where the welcoming smell of food cooking greets them. Wrapped in a blanket near the roaring fire hearth while his clothes dry, Chick is fed the collard greens and side meat that he knows was intended for Lucas.
An offer of coins in Chick’s pocket is silently rejected by Lucas, but the bond sealed that day between the white youth and the black man, whose parents had been plantation slaves, would never be broken. Sometime later the proud Beauchamp – made a frequent harassment target by taunting rednecks – is falsely arrested for murder of a roguish white man. Chick comes to Lucas’ rescue by persuading his lawyer uncle to represent him.
“Intruder” never became a box office hit, but it was nominated for three awards, including two Golden Globes. Poetically, Claude Jarman will be back in Oxford for the October commemoration of the film’s premiere.
Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. His address is Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215. Send e-mails to Minor through firstname.lastname@example.org.