A Patch Of Blue (1965): Overcoming Adversity And Despair

by Paul Batters

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Selina D’Arcy: I said what I did because I love you so much.
Gordon Ralfe: I know why you said it. I’m glad you said it. You brought me back to Earth.
Selina D’Arcy: I didn’t want you to come back to Earth. I wanted you to make love with me.

Hollywood is often accused (and not without good reason) of focusing on the glamorous and dealing in illusion. At the risk of stating the obvious, the very nature of art is illusion and any attempt to portray reality is going to be limited by or affected by the perception of the artist and the creative elements at their disposal. Yet within those bounds is a near infinite array of methods in portraying a narrative. Even the attempt to portray the harsher realities of the life experience are fraught with difficulty and the aim of the film-maker is to present a story that the audience perceives as real, feeling the reality and experiencing the journey of the characters on the screen. Of the many challenges in expanding the audience’s understanding of the human journey, one is presenting the experience of human disability and giving it authenticity as well as dignity. The opportunity for exploitation, cliché and stereotype, as well as an uniformed narrative, is always present and it takes great sensitivity and understanding on all the key stakeholders in a film production to assure that the story remains genuine.

A Patch Of Blue (1965) is a film, which initially seems in danger of falling into cornball cliché and syrupy storyline. The plot seems simple enough – a young, blind woman who lives a sad, cruel and lonely life befriends a kind, black man and they eventually fall in love. However, the convictions of the performances and the development of the story take our experience far beyond the usual themes and tropes that one may expect. Indeed, the director Guy Green is said to have called the initial premise of the story ‘corny’ but credited the writing of the original novel by Elizabeth Kata as giving it the depth, sensitivity and quality that made it work.

Selina D’Arcey (Elizabeth Hartman) is a young girl living with her abusive mother, Rose-Ann who works as a prostitute, and her alcoholic grandfather. Her existence is one of loneliness and neglect, exacerbated by her lack of education and most of all, her blindness. However, her world begins to change when she befriends Gordon, a young African-American man, who is kind, patient and values her humanity. Gordon feels for her situation and their relationship forms not out of pity but from true friendship.

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Gordon meets her regularly in the park where they first met, where he guides her in developing self-confidence and independence. Selina tells Gordon how she came to be blind; a story so cruel and tragic that the audience cannot help but be as moved as Gordon is. Gordon and Selina become closer and the discovery of their friendship brings things to a head when Rose-Ann finds them in the park where they meet, unleashing an ugly scene. But it also reveals Gordon’s strength of character as he defends and protects Selina, who is unable to defend herself.

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However, friendship has blossomed into something more and Selina declares her love for Gordon. Gordon seems unsure and does not want to take advantage of Selina’s love and innocence, especially since he is a good and decent man. But this reviewer believes that there is love in Gordon’s heart, assured by his willingness to see her chance to grow as an individual and give time for her to find herself.

The film’s ending holds a gentle power that transcends all clichés and leaves the audience with a sense of hope for humanity.

The context of the film cannot be overlooked and allows for greater insights into the film than one may initially perceive. Filmed and released at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, it also reflects the artistic shift, as well as the political and social shift, that was occurring in the U.S. True, a key theme is the ugliness and cancerous nature of racism and the film challenges many of the precepts of hatred that racism aims to perpetuate. It also brings to light the power of love to conquer division and whilst we may smirk at, sniff at and inflict a sarcastic smugness toward this theme, there is nothing clichéd about the deepest human experience of love nor the political realities of such a theme.

The original story gave a very different and sadly pessimistic twist to the film regarding the girl’s blindness and her discovery that her friend is actually black. Yet Sydney Poitier’s personal commitment to the film saw him involved in the script and its’ development into a more hopeful and uplifting story. The film certainly reflects the idealism of the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement in challenging long-established norms and values, as well as the hope that love and righteousness would overcome the bitterness, hatred and division that had underscored American society for so long.

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Yet the key characters are more than just symbolic devices for a message. Selina’s journey and the overcoming of her own adversity is a poignant and powerful story. She is not a figure to be pitied and Hartman’s portrayal does not seek to evoke pity or any superficial pathos. Selina’s blindness is a harsh reality brought about by the cruelty of her circumstances. Additionally, the terrible treatment she receives at the hands of her abusive mother and lack of support from her alcoholic grandfather is not meant as a ploy to elicit simpering melodrama or tears from the audience. Her life is what it is and indeed further exemplifies the exploitive nature that some will go to with someone who has a disability – even if that person is a member of their own family. Incredibly, there does not seem to exist within Selina any bitterness or anger, perhaps because her world is so limited and she knows no other life but moreso because her innate spirit is whole and unbroken, even if her physical self lacks sight. The biblical evocation of being blind yet being able to see certainly comes to mind.

If pity is drawn from the audience, it is not simply because Selina is blind but for other tragic reasons. The constant abuse and lack of any comfort, support or love in her life brings angers as much as pity. Her disability is ultimately only one of the factors that have limited her life and within this framework lies the tragedy of Selina’s life. The crippling effects of neglect and cruelty perhaps even outweigh her disability but one of Gordon’s greatest gifts, other than his friendship and love, is that he helps Selina to find her way to develop and grow. Ultimately, as the film beautifully conveys, her disability is not what truly isolates her and once Gordon guides her, Selina begins to grow and seek out more.

Again, there are complexities to Selina’s self-discovery and her pronounced love for Gordon is not mere infatuation or misplaced gratitude for his friendship. Her heart and soul are immersed in the love she feels for Gordon. It must be remembered that she is young and her sudden newfound freedom and sense of discovery finds her elated. To Gordon’s credit and a strong show of his own love for her, he encourages and explains to Selina that she needs to go to school and discover more about herself – to gain an education, find her independence and sense of identity before any commitments can be made. What is beautiful about their relationship is that it far from a one-sided one; Gordon has also grown and learned from her and found a new self-awareness through her honesty, her responsiveness to him and especially her love of and for him. Despite her ‘blindness’, she sees Gordon’s goodness and kindness, in spite of his own self-doubts. It is this interaction that lifts the film from the superficial into something far deeper.

Director Guy Green shows great sensitivity in showing how Selina experiences the world through her senses. From the joys of beautiful sounds to the terror of being alone and sadly the horrific experiences of rape, Green allows the audience to step into Selina’s world and share these sensory moments from her point of view, giving us a powerful and emotional experience. The film’s soundtrack scored by Jerry Goldsmith offers a beautiful layer of beautiful melodies that underscores the story and lifts it into a stronger emotional experience.

The brilliance of Sydney Poitier is evident in his Golden Globe nominated portrayal. Wesley Lovell in Cinema Sight stated that Poitier is strong and stoic, conveying the confidence all great actors possess. These qualities come to the fore in his defense of Selina against Rose-Ann, her cruel and racist mother but also through his kindness and patience. It is the perfect accompaniment to the sensitive qualities of Elizabeth Hartman, whose innocence and limited screen experience certainly does not suggest lack of talent. On the contrary, Hartman’s performance deservedly saw her nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Again, Lovell suggests that her haphazard naiveté helps give the character an add dimension. Hartman comes across as a beautiful spirit aching to soar, trapped in the circumstances of her family and her blindness. Gordon gives her the opportunity to fly.

 

 

Shelly Winters portrays the repulsive and deplorable Rose-Ann beyond the reaches of the superficial, indicating a woman broken by life. Whilst it is easy to despise the woman who has made Selina’s life a misery, Rose-Ann is a woman also trapped by her circumstances, her lack of education and blinded by her own racism. For Rose-Ann, Selina represents her own failing as a mother and her disappointments as a woman. In many ways, Rose-Ann is also disabled and does not have the strength or fortitude to break from it; so imprisoned by her hatred and bigotry. It is a performance which Roger Fristoe on the TCM Website correctly describes as ‘shrewish’ and would garner Winters the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

It is important to remove the easy-to-fall-for jaded cynicism in which we view such stories. The New Yorker would call the film ‘forgettable’, which is unfair from this reviewer’s point of view. A Patch Of Blue is far from forgettable and challenges us to see our fellow humans who have a disability to not necessarily look beyond it but embrace it as part of their humanity and value the whole of the individual. Indeed, the character in the film with the greatest insights and understanding is the one who is physically blind yet whose heart has not been blinded by hatred nor twisted into bitterness by life’s cruelties. Selina shows us the simple beauties of life and thus the significance of the title comes into play; the sole visual memory of that she holds of the blue sky before she became tragically blind.

A Patch Of Blue is a film that still holds its’ simple beauty and its’ subtle and gentle power through the performances of Hartman and Poitier and the sensitivity of director Guy Green.

This article has been submitted for the 2018 Disability In Film Blogathon, hosted by In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood at https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com.  Please click on the  link for access to more articles for this blogathon. 

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

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The Inspirational Hero: Frank Capra’s ‘Meet John Doe’ (1941)

by Paul Batters

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‘Why, your types as old as history! If you cant lay your dirty fingers on a decent idea and twist it and squeeze it and stuff it into your own pocket, you slap it down! Like dogs, if you cant eat something – you bury it!’ John Doe (Gary Cooper)

Cinema has provided heroes and heroines since its’ inception. If recent films are anything to go by (quality and depth notwithstanding), the audience interest in heroes has certainly not waned. Humans need heroes – they fill a deep need for inspiration, hope and the often a powerful desire for heroic qualities to be found within ourselves. That unfulfilled self-identification is transferred onto the screen, where we imagine ourselves to always have the right words, the right reaction and certainly the uncanny ability to successfully deal with a sworn enemy.

But the traditional journey of the hero is almost always a difficult one; a trope that can be traced all the way back to tales of Greek mythology. One of the most potent aspects of the hero’s make-up in literature and film is that of the reluctant hero. Cinema is rich with this particular figure, where the hero is plagued with nagging self-doubt and initially may hold no heroic qualities that we can easily identify. Yet what makes such a hero so compelling is that they are made from the same clay we are all made from – they are just like us and yet rise above their supposed station to make changes, save the day and stand up for what is right.

Frank Capra has made some of Hollywood’s greatest and most memorable films, focusing at times on such heroes and drawing on the literary and cinematic figure of ‘the everyman’. Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939) and It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) are perhaps two of Capra’s most celebrated films, whose central character is the ‘everyman’ hero with Jimmy Stewart starring in both films. Stewart’s performance in both films has long resonated with audiences for obvious reasons and though they are different characters with vastly different storylines, Stewart personifies Capra’s everyman in both of these classic films.

However, another Capra film, which perhaps does not receive the accolades that the aforementioned films do, was his first with Warner Bros. after leaving Columbia. 1941’s Meet John Doe starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck is also a story of the ‘everyman’ and more to the point, the reluctant hero. Whilst not as explicit in its’ celebration of individualism as It’s A Wonderful Life, with greater focus on community, Meet John Doe nevertheless hails the role of the everyman hero and the impact that the individual can have in his or her world.

Capra was a complex individual and whilst not a focus of this article, it is important to note that Capra was a Republican despite his progressive outlook and the heroes of his films would obviously reflect his worldview. Those he collaborated with, particularly Robert Riskin, who co-wrote many of Capra’s best-known films, often swayed him towards realism, liberal ideas and progressive politics. Conservative right-wing writer Myles Connolly, who would contribute to the script of Meet John Doe, would steer Capra towards rediscovering his Catholicism, as well as feed Capra’s dislike of President Roosevelt. The Christ-like figure holding high value tenets of humility, innocence and sacrifice is at the core of Capra’s heroes and was certainly influenced by Connolly’s 1928 book Mr Blue – a book greatly admired by Capra.

Meet John Doe is the story of ex-baseball drifter ‘Long’ John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) who becomes part of a publicity stunt for a newspaper. Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is a tough, sassy reporter just fired by Henry Connell (James Gleason), the new managing editor for the newspaper just purchased by publisher D.B Norton (Edward Arnold). Her last article for the paper features a ‘letter from a John Doe’ who threatens to jump from City Hall on Christmas Eve at midnight, to protest civilization ‘going to pot’ and the ‘slimy politics’ present in the current world. The letter stirs up a hornet’s nest and Ann (eventually supported by Connell) sees the opportunity to save her job and save her own career by exploiting the situation. John is hired to claim her wrote the letter and will become the face of a ‘I Protest’ column for the newspaper, ghost-written by Ann. However, John’s companion and anti-society conscience ‘The Colonel’ (Walter Brennan) continuously speaks out against the whole situation, acting as a brake on John’s journey, which John often ignores.

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Stylistically, Meet John Doe initially displays all the hallmarks of the screwball comedy and this appears to be the template, which Capra works with. However, the turning point of the film arrives with Norton meeting with Ann and Connell. Norton has greater designs other than being a media baron and Capra lays the foundations for his key theme – the dangers of fascism and dictatorship. John is to make a radio speech (written by Ann, who draws inspiration from her late father) and at first he is nervous, unsure and even considering taking a payment not to make the speech by a rival newspaper. At first John’s concerns are selfish, especially when it is made clear to him that his plan to use the money to fix his arm will be thwarted by the truth getting out. But when he starts delivering the speech, encouraged by Ann’s idealism, he starts to become animated and his delivery arouses the audience. Norton realises something is happening, as does Connell, whose bitter cynicism from years in the newspaper game, has hardened him. Ann is moved to tears by the end of the speech but John feels like a cheat and runs off with his friend and fellow hobo ‘The Colonel’.

Here, we see the essence of the reluctant hero. Yes, he is a fake at first but he is deeply conflicted by his fakery whilst delivering what is ostensibly truth and hope in the message. John runs not because he doesn’t want to be found out to be a paid player in a publicity stunt but because he feels that he is cheating the people listening and committing a desecration of the message he is giving them. Yes he later laments his decision, telling The Colonel ‘I had the money in my hand’ but it is not delivered with real conviction and it appears that his motivation is the inspiration from Ann. On a side note, despite Ann’s telling Norton that what she wants is money, her emotional response when John finishes his speech, reveals she too believes in the message, seeing her father’s words alive in John.

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Meanwhile, a grassroots movement starts, inspired by John’s speech, and John Doe clubs begin to spring up. Ann, along with Norton track John down and they convince John to come back and help build the movement. Finally convinced, the movement begins to spread ‘like a prairie fire’ with Capra using an effective montage to show its’ growth and the energy John brings to his role.

Yet John will discover how naïve he has been and a showdown with Norton reveals his motivation – to use the John Doe Movement as a political tool for his own device to become President. Norton’s mask drops and the fascist overtones are final revealed – contempt for the masses as a ‘rabble’ and the need to rule the nation ‘with an iron hand’. At a large conference where John is supposed to endorse Norton for President, he instead states that he will reveal Norton’s scheme. John’s impassioned rebuttal fully illustrates John’s deepest feelings and his belief in the movement. But Norton makes the point that he is the ‘fake’ and that he and his retinue of industrialists and power brokers ‘believe in what we’re doing’.

But John has transcended this and goes to the conference, only to be undone by Norton being prepared and the revelation that John was and always had been a paid actor in a publicity stunt. The Christ-like element in Capra’s hero comes to the fore, with the crowd that primarily ‘worshipped’ him now turning on him and calling for his head. Begging to the crowd to ‘stick to your clubs’ and that ‘the idea is still good’ proves futile. Police get John out but his reputation is destroyed. A tearful Ann, who has lost John’s trust, despite a love growing between them, tearfully mourns how events have unfolded. Connell cynically offers a brilliant epitaph – ‘chalk another one up to the Pontius Pilates’. His comment more than cements the Christ-like persona of Capra’s hero – a (not so) innocent victim crucified by evil men for political purposes.

The following montage shows a dejected figure in John Doe, all washed up and mocked by the public, finally heading towards the City Hall to redeem not so much himself but the John Doe movement and the message that he had given for so long. As tempting as it is to discuss the ending at length, I will refrain from spoilers but needless to say John Doe’s reluctance as hero has been left far behind and the power of ‘the people’ is a strong statement against the dangers of fascism and that ultimately the ‘John Does’ of the world will overcome the dictators of the world – quite a statement in 1941 with the world (and soon the U.S) in the throes of World War Two.

Capra and Riskin wrote the script and obviously drew on the formula previously used to shape their hero. John Willoughby is laconic, naïve though not stupid and a man of ‘the people’ (and a baseball player no less). But there was a problem with Capra’s hero – John Willoughby is initially a ‘fake’ and ‘imposter’. Yet whilst some critics (even Capra himself who flip-flopped on the issue) have seen this as a major flaw in the film, it actually offers a powerful dimension to the concept of the hero, and the ebb and flow of the hero’s journey becomes evident from the moment John takes on the persona of ‘John Doe’ till the climax of the film.

There are contradictions in Capra’s hero and a number of critics have made some fair comments. Critic Andrew Sarris charged that in some ways John Doe is himself a demagogue with fascist overtones yet is speaking out against fascism and demagoguery, and embracing a populist approach to galvanising people into the John Doe movement. There is constant tension between the best and worst of individualism, and the reality of political corruption. Yet what makes Meet John Doe work and thus Gary Cooper’s portrayal an inspirational one is illustrated by Jeffrey Anderson’s review in Combustible Celluloid where he states that the film is not condescending or angry, nor does it seek reward or the audience’s affirmation that John is a hero but offers hope as its’ message. By extension, Sean Axmaker in Parallax View makes an astute point:

‘Capra’s idea of a populist movement is not political anger but social connection, transcending politics with neighborly concern and patriotic benevolence, and he makes a point of stating that these common folk are outside of politics, but nonetheless it is hard not to make a connection. It’s still salt of the earth citizens trying to make their voices heard…’

Certainly a different approach to movements today and their appropriation by others!

John’s inspiration and authenticity is measured by his growth as a hero and acceptance of his responsibility in the role. In the end, John rejects those close to him because he can only carry out the solution he feels is necessary alone. As an audience, it is impossible not to be touched by John Doe and the hero that emerges from his earlier reluctance and even later inner conflict. It is this factor that makes John Doe even more authentic and real for all of us, as we too find ourselves struggling with the obstacles of life that seem insurmountable and too crippling to deal with. Meet John Doe has its’ flaws but to focus on them is to miss the beauty of Capra’s hero and thus the inspiration of the most simple rule – ‘love thy neighbour’.

For a viewing of the film, please click on the link below:

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history