Our One Degree of Separation

A second look at the Tennessee's summer-movie lineup

Sometimes you can tell when an idea falls through or I get preoccupied and have a hard time filling this space. A couple of weeks ago must have been such a week, because I took a few paragraphs to grouse about the Summer Movie Magic lineup at the Tennessee Theatre, which commences with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in about two weeks. How mean, or how bored, do you have to be to criticize a classic theater's vintage-movie series?

My complaint was that the theater has settled into a pattern of showing only movies that a majority of American adults have seen many times before, some of them recently and in the same big room. I wish them success, always, and if there's really anybody out there who hasn't seen any of the six movies on the Tennessee's summer lineup, you do need to without further delay. You don't have admit it's your first time. Just slip in quietly and get it over with.

But there are lots and lots of great old movies. And though it may seem odd at first, sometimes you'll find it's kind of thrilling to see movies when you don't even know what the next line is. I've long suspected that we laugh aloud at familiar jokes in old movies just to be agreeable, as a sort of shared ritual. But the first time, we laugh because it's actually funny.

A reader wrote in amplifying my complaint, suggesting the Tennessee should play more movies with Knoxville connections. I've suggested that before. I'd especially like to see more Clarence Brown movies; the prolific MGM director's 120th birthday passed last month without notice here. He was a Knoxville High grad, and a University of Tennessee grad, and he's been the subject of a lot of recent scholarly interest both here and abroad. But I don't know that any of his many films, even the popular and well-known ones like The Yearling, National Velvet, Ah, Wilderness, and Anna Karenina, have been shown in public in his hometown in the last 25 years.

To the complaint that the Tennessee doesn't play enough Knoxville-connected movies, I was all ready to pile on. Then I thought about it. As it happens, four of these six classic movies I was complaining about do have intimate Knoxville connections. You might even make an argument about the other two.

Take Breakfast at Tiffany's. In an appealingly wicked supporting role is our city's movie diva, Patricia Neal, who grew up mostly in East Knoxville and began her career at Knoxville High. In 1961 she was then making the most of her big-screen comeback, shortly before Hud, her ride to a Best Actress Oscar.

In To Kill a Mockingbird—a book and movie I've suspected might have been influenced by Clarence Brown's greatest movie, Intruder In the Dust—the emotionally demanding role of the deceitful, alleged rape victim is played by Colin Wilcox (Paxton). A West High alum and a standout actor in Carousel Theater productions in the 1950s, she died this past October. Watching that scene, it's interesting to remember that she was, herself, a civil-rights activist.

The African Queen is famous for Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, and also for its director, John Huston, but you can't talk about the dialogue-driven movie without mentioning the main screenwriter, who was nominated for an Oscar for the adapted screenplay. His name was James Agee, and he was born on West Clinch Avenue. At his death in 1955, that movie was probably what Agee was most popularly known for.

The summer series' strangest Knoxville association concerns a character. Appearing early in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a scary outlaw named Harvey Logan. He's played as if he were an angry desert-dwelling giant. By most accounts Logan was indeed the most violent member of the Wild Bunch in terms of his personal murder rate, but he could wear a suit when required, and had some personal charm, as he proved here in Knoxville. You may know that in 1901 Mr. Logan shot two Knoxville cops in a saloon on Central Street, barely two blocks downhill from the Tennessee Theatre's address. Later captured, he was held in the Knox County Jail on Hill Avenue for a year and a half. While he was there, some Knoxville ladies considered this killer quite a catch. Women would line up outside the jailhouse every Sunday to bring him sweets.

Several critics have noted that the real Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were not as good-looking as Paul Newman and Robert Redford. However, the real Harvey Logan was better looking than Ted Cassidy.

Of course, in June, 1903, he choked a guard, stole some keys, and escaped. The second showing of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, on June 27, will occur on the 107th anniversary of the day Harvey Logan, aka Kid Curry, rode a stolen horse across the Gay Street Bridge. Later he either died in a shoot-out in Colorado or rejoined Butch and Sundance in South America, depending on what sources you prefer to believe.

A maybe fifth connection is The Music Man, which stars Robert Preston, who just months after shooting that brassy musical spent a lot of time in Knoxville shooting a darker, quieter movie called All the Way Home. In which he played James Agee's father, the one who dies. For the big premiere in 1963, Robert Preston came into this very theater to watch it. He never lived in Knoxville, like the aforementioned actors and character, but someone watching The Music Man will be sitting in Robert Preston's seat.

The Wizard of Oz is the one that stumps me. Billie Burke, who played the Good Witch, did perform in Gay Street's vaudeville theaters early in her career, but she played in a lot of other places, too. Maybe Toto has some connections here. A second cousin, perhaps.

Knoxville is not quite as remote from Tinseltown as we like to pretend. Let's do lunch, by the way.