Ever have a dream like this? You’re on Market Square. You see a woman who looks a whole lot like Ingrid Bergman, just older. She’s carrying a shovel.
If that’s not weird enough, she’s with a bald man with horn-rimmed glasses who looks like the late Mayor Leonard Rogers. She’s planting a dogwood tree.
Don’t demand adjustments to your medication, at least not yet. You may just be watching the archival local-news footage accompanying the screening of A Walk In the Spring Rain at the History Center this weekend.
Bergman’s first trip to Knoxville was 40 years ago this week, when they began shooting that film, about which I’ll offer no critical assessment. She and co-stars Anthony Quinn and Fritz Weaver spent most of their four-week shoot in Gatlinburg and on various locations in the Smokies, Wears Valley and Cades Cove and, briefly in Knoxville, on UT’s Hill.
Swarmed with photographers and reporters from the glossy magazines, the film project got more national attention than an ordinary location shoot might have. One of Hollywood’s biggest draws of the 1940s, Bergman had been absent from American film projects for almost 20 years, living outside of Paris and making films only in Europe. In 1950, American politicians across the country condemned her affair with director Roberto Rossellini. Politicians threatened to have her deported for “moral turpitude.” Georgia banned her films because she “glamorized free love.”
East Tennessee might have seemed a surprising place to spend so much of her return trip to the states. But Knoxville was, by all accounts, starry-eyed. In the ’60s, Knoxville led itself to believe that the city, much maligned in the national media for the last 30 years or so, might have motion-picture limelight in its future. Two feature films—All the Way Home starring the famous Robert Preston and The Fool Killer starring the famous Tony Perkins—had been shot in Knoxville, with glamorous “world premieres” at the Tennessee Theater.
But both were cinematic oddities, black and white in the vivid ’60s, like low-budget art films. Both quickly evaporated from the national spotlight. A Walk In the Spring Rain promised to be different: two big stars and director Guy Green, the British cinematographer, plus screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, who’d recently won the Oscar for In the Heat of the Night. Columbia Pictures was in charge.
It was the big story of spring, 1969. Newspapers covered it almost daily, hardly mentioning the unpleasantness of two decades earlier.
Bergman once remarked that an actress can’t play a romantic lead after 45. After that, they have to wait until they’re 55, when they start playing grandmothers. But she was 53 when she was here, and her role in A Walk In the Spring Rain was a romantic lead, a wife bored with her professor husband, who takes a chance with a mysteriously appealing hillbilly.
Some reviewers thought she wasn’t altogether credible. Not that she didn’t look better at 53 than most people do at 23. She just looked a little too wise to fall for Anthony Quinn, or, for that matter, anybody. She doesn’t have that desperate faith you can see in the eyes of people the age she was when she made Casablanca or For Whom the Bell Tolls. Romantic roles require a reckless intensity and a conviction of self-importance that it’s hard for sane people over 45 to fake.
She came back almost exactly a year later, for the world premiere. The previous three or four world premieres the city had hosted had been at the Tennessee. But it was 1970, downtown was over, pal, so they had it at a modern suburban theater. Even though it was a fraction of the downtown theaters’ size, the Capri-70 on Kingston Pike was modern; if you didn’t believe it, just check the name.
At the Capri-70, Ingrid Bergman wrote her name in concrete—she’d never been asked to do so at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, she said.
But the Dogwood Arts Festival was going on, and it was still mostly held on Market Square, known in the modern ’70s as “Market Square Mall.” Somebody persuaded her to help plant a small dogwood there, on the southwestern corner, in front of the White Stores grocery. She thought it “a lovely idea.”
That’s how Ingrid Bergman got to be on Market Square on a Thursday morning, with Mayor Leonard Rogers, planting a dogwood tree with a silver shovel, with about 400 people watching.
Wallace Baumann, who was then proprietor of Woodruff’s Furniture, a block away, was there.
“She was most attractive, by the way,” he says. He overheard two women examining her closely. “Look, she doesn’t have any makeup,” one said. The other responded, “If you look that good, you don’t need any makeup.”
Baumann thinks the Square looked better in the ’60s than it does now. Some surprising postcards from that era do make it look like a lush garden spot, when the modernist concrete umbrellas still looked modern. I think the Mall’s Belle Epoch was over by 1980, when I started spending a lot of time there.
Of course, the question is, what happened to the Bergman Dogwood? Dogwoods tend to live more than 39 years, but it’s not there today. The arrangement of trees on Market Square changes now and then, as the uses and architectural ideals of the Square have changed.
Early in this decade, there was some controversy about saving some trees on the Square, but the Bergman Dogwood was apparently already gone before that.
News-Sentinel columnist Carson Brewer, who’s identifiable in the 1970 news footage, surveyed the proceedings with some skepticism. His report the next day may offer a clue.
“It was an event that will not last long in horticultural history,” he wrote. “In fact, the small dogwood won’t last long, either, unless somebody replants it in a larger hole.”
The Knoxville Journal heralded the concrete signature as her “indelible mark on Knoxville.” It’s since been moved several hundred feet from the long-gone Capri-70 and is now beside Fairbanks’ dance club in Homberg Place, alongside several others. It’s looking pretty delible.