A powerful look at childhood and the loss of innocence
Profound themes, emotional truths, performances that disappear into the story, music that lifts and envelops, and an idealized world so real it feels like one could step into it, all make “To Kill a Mockingbird” about as perfect a film as one can find. Though set in the rural Deep South of the US during the Great Depression, its displays of humanity, childhood, prejudice, and coming to terms with the world are universal. Winner of three Academy Awards (nominated for eight inducing Best Picture), “To Kill a Mockingbird” is highly regarded as a masterpiece, and has been ranked by the American Film Institute (AFI) as the 2nd Most Inspiring, and the 25th Greatest American Film of All-Time. This evocative film is also one of my favorites.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is a slice of life as remembered by “Scout”, a tomboy from the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. It focuses on her and her slightly older brother, “Jem”, being raised by their widowed father, a small-town layer named “Atticus Finch”, and their Black housekeeper named “Calpurnia”. The Black characters are portrayed as equal to the white, something not often seen in films at this time. It covers about a year in their lives, focusing on an obsession with their scary, reclusive neighbor “Boo Radley”, and a court case in which their father defends a Black man. What makes “To Kill a Mockingbird” stand out is how hauntingly it captures the innocence of childhood. The opening credits magnificently set the tone, beginning with a cigar box opened by a child’s tiny hands. As we peer inside, the child hums, the credits appear, and we see an array of trinkets such as crayons, a broken watch, marbles, a penny, and two carved figures. The child takes out a crayon and begins to color. After the credits, the adult “Scout” begins to narrate (supremely voiced by actress Kim Stanley), reflecting on her childhood: "Maycomb was a tired old town even in 1932 when I first knew it. That summer I was six years old...".
“Scout” and “Jem” have never seen their neighbor “Boo Radley”, and he exists in their minds as a Boogeyman. As “Jem” tells their new friend “Dill”, “'Boo' only comes out at night when you’re asleep and it’s pitch dark… There’s a long jagged scar that runs all the way across his face. His teeth are yellow and rotten. His eyes are popped, and he drools most of the time”. It’s a delicious way of evoking the wild imagination of childhood and the thrill of being scared. They enthusiastically frighten themselves daring one another to touch “Boo’s” screen door or peer in his window. I’ll talk more about "Boo" in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section so I don’t reveal any spoilers before you watch it.
Also crucial to the film is the court case in which “Atticus” defends “Tom Robinson”, a Black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. Through it the children’s youthful innocence begins to crumble with observations of prejudice and evil (be forewarned, the “N” word is used in this film). The morally virtuous “Atticus" does his best to help his kids understand the imperfect world and guide them to do what’s right. Even with themes of racial injustice, poverty, hate, kindness, compassion, and morality mustering about, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is never heavy-handed or labored. Devoid of pretense and melodrama, there's an intangible cinematic magic to this entire film. By use of impeccable moviemaking, this film unveils a simple, straightforward, depiction of life’s happenings seen through a child’s innocent eyes. It is quite amazing.
Loosely based on her childhood growing up in Monroeville, Alabama, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was based on a 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name by Harper Lee. It became a classic of modern American literature, and this film is a rare example of a screen adaptation successfully capturing the the warmth, humor, and soul of its source material. The film came about because film producer Alan J. Pakula wanted to turn the book into a film. He bought the film rights from Lee, teamed with film director Robert Mulligan, and hired playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote to adapt the novel.
Being from a small town in Texas, Foote was able to maintain the feel of the rural American South, and Lee reportedly loved his screenplay (a rare thing for an adapted book’s author). For "To Kill a Mockingbird", Foote earned the first of his two Best Screenplay Academy Awards (his second win was for his original screenplay of “Tender Mercies” in 1984, followed by an additional nomination for the adaptation of his original play, “The Trip to Bountiful” in 1985). As producer, Pakula earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination (this film lost to the highly awarded “Lawrence of Arabia”).
Originally, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was to be filmed in Lee’s Monroeville hometown, but when Pakula and Mulligan visited, it had become too busy and modern to pass for Depression-era. Luckily, twelve cottages in Los Angeles that evoked a 1930’s small-town look were about to be torn down to make way for a freeway and Dodger Stadium. Art directors, Alexander Golitzen, Henry Bumstead, and Oliver Emert bought the bungalows, moved them to Universal Studios' backlot, made alterations, and created the neighborhood seen in the film, along with a full-scale recreation of Alabama’s Monroe County Courthouse. The entire film was shot on the backlot. The three won that year’s Best Art Direction Academy Award for their impeccable work.
Key to the film's magnificence is the work of its director, Robert Mulligan. He does a brilliant job keeping the film’s style, performances, and pace simple and there’s a purity that shines through, making it feel like a slice of life. He even uses an unconventional approach with star Gregory Peck (who plays “Atticus”), playing down his good looks and often filming him from behind during emotional moments, enhancing the feel that “Atticus” is unbreakably strong. Close-ups are reserved for the most dramatic moments, realizations, or reactions. Wanting to capture innocence, Mulligan refused to use Hollywood child actors and even cast many adults in their film debuts. He beautifully weaves the camera through windows and curtains as if poetically sorting through memories. His artfully delicate direction earned him a Best Director Academy Award nomination.
Robert Mulligan started his directing career in television, beginning with thirty one episodes of the TV series, "Suspense" starting in 1952. After directing additional TV shows, he directed his first feature film, "Fear Strikes Out" in 1957, which Pakula produced. The two reunited five films later for "To Kill a Mockingbird” and collaborated on five additional films, including "Love With the Proper Stranger“ and "Up the Down Staircase". A director who excelled at presenting intimate, character driven dramas, Mulligan directed twenty films in his career, others of which include "Summer of '42", "Bloodbrothers", "Baby the Rain Must Fall", "Same Time, Next Year", and his final film, "The Man in the Moon" in 1991. In addition to his Oscar nomination for "To Kill a Mockingbird", he won an Emmy Award for directing the 1959 TV movie, "The Moon and Sixpence". He was married twice. Robert Mulligan died in 2008 at the age of 83.
After James Stewart turned it down and the studio’s choice of Rock Hudson was rejected by Pakula, Gregory Peck was offered the role of "Atticus Finch". They sent Peck the book, who immediately accepted the part as he completely identified with “Atticus”. Since the film is essentially a recollection of memories being raised by a firm, gentle, and right-minded father, “Atticus” is the backbone of the film. His love, quiet toughness, and morals pervade, such as when he comforts “Scout” on the swing, or tells “Jem”, “There’s a lot of ugly things in this world son. I wish I could keep them all away from you. That’s never possible”. While keeping a paternal air, Peck’s artfully underplayed dignity and strength are like a rock to which anyone would want to anchor. Even though he played some villains in his career, Peck's strong suit was playing honest, heroic types, and all of this actor's best qualities fit “Atticus” like a glove. As a result, he effortlessly humanizes this almost mythical figure of deep humanity and compassion, making his unyielding life of high virtues seem attainable. "Atticus" symbolizes the perfect father and the idealized values that America strives for and claims to possess, and it’s no wonder AFI voted “Atticus Finch” the #1 Greatest Film Hero of the 20th Century, and that he inspired hundreds, if not thousands of people to become lawyers. Peck won his only Best Actor Academy Award for the role, and those who knew him say he shared many traits with “Atticus”. Lee herself was so taken with Peck that as filming began and her father died, she gave Peck her father’s watch. She also told Peck he reminded her of her dad – little potbelly and all. They remained friends until his death. “Atticus” became Peck's signature role, and he often said it was his career favorite. You can read more about the life and career of Gregory Peck in my previous post on “Roman Holiday”.
As mentioned above, Mulligan refused to hire Hollywood actors for the roles of the children. He wanted kids who acted like kids, and searched for children in the Southern US. After looking at hundreds of children, he saw Alabama born Mary Badham who plays “Scout”. She had zero acting experience but was filled with an energy and imagination which Mulligan was able to maximize in her performance. Badham is so natural and has such a disarming curiosity that much of the film’s honesty and sense of wonder emanates from her. Mulligan did everything he could to put her (and Phillip Alford who plays her brother “Jem”) at ease, using the set as their rehearsal space (which turned into a kind of playground for them) having them become comfortable on the set and in front of a camera. Mulligan never shot more than two or three takes. In addition, they visited Peck at his house on the weekends to bond with him and play with his kids. Badham became so at ease with Peck, she would electively curl up in his lap between takes. You can see their chemistry in one of the film’s most stirring scenes, when “Scout” asks to look at “Atticus’” watch and expresses so many nuances as she plays off Peck it’s astounding. In a 1999 NBC television interview Badham said of the scene, “It was something that I’d always wished that my father would do with me, and so it was sort of like, I get to play that out. And it was a warm, wonderful scene to do”. For her performance, she earned a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination. Being ten years old, Badham became the youngest person nominated in that category at that point (and lost to Patty Duke for “The Miracle Worker”, who was sixteen years old and became the first juvenile star to win a competitive Oscar). "To Kill a Mockingbird" was Badham’s first film, and to date she has acted in four films and three TV shows, including "This Property is Condemned" (as Natalie Wood's sister) and "Let's Kill Uncle". She appeared on the final episode of the classic TV series, "The Twilight Zone", and her last appearance to date was in the 2019 TV movie, "Erasing His Past". She has been married since 1975. Her brother is film director John Badham (director of such films as "WarGames" and "Saturday Night Fever"). She remained close with Peck for the rest of his life, always calling him "Atticus". On October 8, 2021, Mary Badham turned 69 years old.
Though Badham steals much of the spotlight, Phillip Alford, who plays her brother “Jem” is also outstanding. While “Jem” sees and understands a bit more than his slightly younger sister, Alford maintains a genuine childlike naïveté, even when witnessing such horridness as the behavior of the evil “Bob Ewell”. Alford seems like a real kid, and like Badham, evokes the wonder of childhood. Even in his more complex moments, such as subtly trying to coerce “Atticus” to buy him a gun or observing his father defend “Tom Robinson” during the trial, Alford is always truthfully moving. Alabama born Phillip Alford had previously appeared in three plays but had no interest in the film until he was told he could miss a half day of school to audition. "To Kill a Mockingbird" was his film debut. He and Badham did not get along during the shoot, and Alford's sister became Badham's stand-in. Peck taught him to play chess during his weekend visits. Within the next decade Alford appeared in two more films (including "Shenandoah" with James Stewart), and five TV shows (including "The Magical World of Disney"). His final appearance was in the 1971 film "Fairplay", after which he retired from acting. On September 11, 2021, Phillip Alford turned 73 years old.
John Megna plays “Charles Baker ‘Dill’ Harris”, the “going on seven” year old boy staying next-door for two weeks with his aunt, who befriends “Jem” and “Scout”. The precocious, “Dill” has a fun, uppity sense of humor as he says "I'm little, but I'm old" and boasts how his daddy owns the L&N Railroad and is going to let him run the engine to New Orleans. Megna also has a couple of opportunities to show some simple, hard-hitting feeling, such as the brief exchange with “Scout” when she asks about his father. The character of “Dill” was based on Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote. Unlike Badham and Alford, John Megna was already a working actor having previously appeared in two Broadway and several TV shows beginning in 1960. “To Kill a Mockingbird” was his first film. Megna accumulated 32 film and TV credits (primarily TV), and his films include "Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte", "The Godfather: Part II" (though his part was cut from the film), and "The Cannonball Run". His final role was in the TV movie, "The Ratings Game" in 1984. Later in his life he taught English, Spanish, and history in Los Angeles public schools, and was the founding director of the Los Angeles theater group, L.A. Arts. He was the half-brother of actress and singer Connie Stevens, ex-brother-in-law of singer and actor Eddie Fisher, and uncle of actress Joely Fisher. He was reportedly gay and never married. John Megna died from AIDS-related complications in 1995 at the age of 42.
Brock Peters is phenomenal as “Tom Robinson”, the Black man accused of rape. “Tom” is at the center of one of the film’s major themes – prejudice. The poor, uneducated, white, “Mayella Ewell” has accused him of raping her, and it becomes clear that her racist father “Bob” is behind the finger-pointing simply because “Tom” is Black. The trial is a chief part of the film, and it is where we witness "Tom's" heart-wrenching testimony. Peters emits an aura of gentle nobility which wreaks with honesty. He skillfully rides the fine line of playing an innocent Black man trying to find justice from bigoted whites in the middle of the segregated South, and his performance is one of the film’s highlights. He and Peck became friends, and Peters gave the eulogy at Peck’s funeral.
New York City born Brock Peters began his career at the age of ten, singing in a Harlem church choir, taking violin lessons, going to the High School and Music and Art, and performing in musical theater. His film debut came in 1954, with the musical "Carmen Jones". Peters was very selective about the parts he would take, staying clear of exploitative roles, opting instead for roles in Shakespeare and Ibsen. For his Broadway work, he earned a Tony Award nomination for the 1973 musical "Lost in the Stars”. He accrued well over 100 film and (primarily) TV credits, and though best remembered for "To Kill a Mockingbird", his other films include "The L-Shaped Room", "Soylent Green", "Porgy and Bess", "The Pawnbroker", and playing "Admiral Cartwright" in both "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" and "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country”. He also played the recurring role of "Joseph Sisko" on the 1990's TV series, "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine". With his rich, bass voice, he narrated the part of "Darth Vader" in the "Star Wars" radio series. In 1976 he was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, and was awarded the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award in 1990. He was married once, until his wife’s death. Brock Peters died in 2005 at the age of 78.
Estelle Evans is fantastic as “Calpurnia” or “Cal”, the “Finch’s” Black cook and housekeeper. The female pillar of strength in the film, “Cal” runs the household, stepping in for the children’s deceased mother. She teaches them wrong from right and even disciplines them (as in the wonderful scene taking “Scout” aside in the kitchen when “Walter” comes for dinner). Evans is completely believable in her role with absolutely no artifice, and her chemistry with the children and “Atticus” is wonderful to watch. The eldest of eighteen children, Bahamian American Estelle Evans taught in New York City public schools after graduating college before becoming an actor. She made her Broadway debut in 1947's "Our Lan'", and appeared as herself in the 1948 documentary, "The Quiet One". Her film acting debut came in "To Kill a Mockingbird", and she went on to appear in three more films ("The Learning Tree", "A Piece of the Action", and "The Clairvoyant"), and seven television shows (including "The Jeffersons", "Good Times", and her final appearance in 1984's "Tales of the Unknown South”). Two of her sisters were actresses Rosanna Carter and Esther Rolle. She married once. Estelle Evans died in 1985 at the age of 78.
A quick mention of Alice Ghostley who plays “Dill’s” aunt, “Miss Stephanie Crawford”. TV fans will undoubtedly recognize her, as she played major characters in three classic TV series – “Bewitched”, “ Mayberry R.F.D.”, and “Designing Women” (for which she received her only Emmy Award nomination). Missouri born Alice Ghostley began in theater, making her Broadway debut in "Leonard Sillman's New Faces of 1952". Nominated for a Tony Award for the 1963 play, "The Beauty Part", she won a Tony Award for 1964's "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window". She began appearing on television in 1951, and like most of the cast, "To Kill a Mockingbird" was her first film. primarily a television actress, she appeared in under twenty films, including "The Graduate", "Grease", "Addams Family Reunion", and her final appearance in 2006's "Mothers and Daughters". Ghostley's close to 100 additional television appearances include "Passions", "Evening Shade", "Good Times", and "Love, American Style". She married actor Felice Orlandi in 1951, and they remained married until his death in 2003. Alice Ghostley died in 2007 at the age of 84.
A monumental aspect of the film is the breathtaking score by American composer, Elmer Bernstein. Often led by a piano, his emotional score is inseparable from the film, for it adds touches of nostalgia, melancholy, and hope, and reinforces that feeling of childhood innocence. It is deeply affecting, and AFI rated it as the 17th Greatest Film Score of All-Time. For it, he earned a fourth Best Original Score Academy Award nomination (and was also nominated that year for a Best Song Oscar for the title song from "Walk on the Wild Side”). Elmer Bernstein is one of the giants of film composing. He began writing film scores with 1951's "Saturday's Hero", followed by "Boots Malone" and "Sudden Fear” before being called to testify before HUAC during the McCarthy Era (you can read more about HUAC in my "High Noon" post). He refused to name names and found himself blacklisted and regulated to composing for non-studio films. After the end of the McCarty debacle, he was back on track writing scores for films such as "The Man with the Golden Arm" and "The Ten Commandments". He went on to write well over 200 film and TV scores, including "Hud", "True Grit", "The Magnificent Seven", "The Great Escape", "National Lampoon's Animal House", "Ghostbusters", "Far From Heaven", "The Age of Innocence", and "Thoroughly Modern Millie" (for which he won his only Academy Award out of fourteen nominations). In addition to his Oscar, Bernstein won one Emmy Award and two Golden Globes (one for "To Kill a Mockingbird"), and was nominated for five Grammy Awards and three Tony Awards. He was married twice. Elmer Bernstein died in 2004 at the age of 82
In addition to Oscar wins for Best Actor, Adapted Screenplay, and Art Direction, and nominations for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress, and Score, "To Kill a Mockingbird" was also nominated for its striking cinematography by Russell Harlan.
A film that evokes childhood better than any other, this week’s classic stirs up feelings of nostalgia, community, friends, family, and hopes for a world filled with empathy and kindness. I highly recommend keeping a tissue box close by. Enjoy a film I adore, “To Kill a Mockingbird”!
This blog is a weekly series on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications each Tuesday of every subsequently recommended film. At the bottom of the Home page you can also find a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog, and subscribe so you can see which classic films will be revealed each week. Thanks so much for reading!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
Though he has no dialogue, “Boo’s” presence is felt everywhere and he is pivotal to “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Initially representing childhood fears, once “Scout” and “Jem” meet him he becomes the children’s bridge to adulthood as he saves their lives. “Boo” also makes “Atticus” realize there’s a difference between law and justice, and in the end "Atticus" chooses justice over the law in order to save “Boo”.
“Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley” is exquisitely portrayed by Robert Duvall in his film debut. With no lines of dialogue, Duvall manages to create an awkward, shy, misunderstood, flesh and blood person. Even with his uncomfortableness we can see a tenderness and fragility in “Boo” just by the way Duvall looks at “Scout” or touches “Jem’s” hair. It is a very moving performance. To make himself look like he was locked in a house for years, Duvall stayed out of the sun for six weeks and dyed his hair white. He went on to becoming one of cinema's highest regarded actors, as well as a director, producer, and writer.
A Navy brat born to a Naval officer and an amateur actress, Robert Duvall grew up primarily in Maryland, went to college earning a degree in drama, and while serving the military, began to appear in theater productions. Under the G.I. Bill he studied acting in New York City with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre (studying alongside and rooming with Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman). After his time in the Army, Duvall began regularly appearing in theater in 1955, and in 1960 began to appear on television. An appearance in a stage production of the Horton Foote play "The Midnight Caller" caught the eye of Horton’s wife and she suggested him for the role of “Boo” in “To Kill a Mockingbird”. He worked mostly on television with an occasional film through the 1960s, and in the 1970’s became one of Hollywood's top character film actors, starting with the film "MASH" in 1970, followed by "The Godfather", "The Godfather II" (for which he earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination), and "Apocalypse Now" in 1979 (earning him a second Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination). To date, Duvall has earned eight Oscar nominations, winning a Best Actor Academy Award for the 1983 film, "Tender Mercies" (written by Foote, who also won an Oscar for the film). Duvall has close to 150 film and TV credits, and some of his other films include "The Great Santini", "The Detective", "Bullitt", "True Grit”, “Network", "Crazy Heart”, and "THX 1138". To date he has directed five films including "The Apostle" and "Wild Horses”, both of which he also wrote. For his television work, Duvall has earned five Emmy Award nominations, winning two (as actor and producer) for the miniseries "Broken Trail". He has also won four Golden Globes (out of seven nominations) and was nominated for a Tony Award for the original Broadway production of "American Buffalo" in 1977. He’s been married four times. As of the writing of this post, Robert Duvall is 90 years old.