James Agee Film Festival Uncovers Obscure Titles

The complete James Agee film oeuvre includes Mongols, Harlem street kids, and drunken cowboys—and TAMIS has tracked them all down for the James Agee Centennial Celebration

Deep beneath the gray edifice of the East Tennessee History Center, on a quiet subterranean floor, the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound is sequestered in a small windowless room dominated by record players, film projectors, and reel-to-reels. And it is here that Co-Director Brad Reeves is politely stressing out as much as any archivist can.

He is surrounded by the detritus of Knoxville's recorded media from the past 80 years or so: a collection of Fountain City home movies made in 1928; a big stack of transcription discs from forgotten radio station WIBK, defunct for some 50 years; a scrapbook of racy photos of 1950s dancing girls from the Doggie Patch nightclub out on Alcoa Highway; hundreds of records, thousands of photos, uncountable reels of film and video, all of them containing stories from East Tennessee's hidden past, each one worthy of preservation. They arrive on an almost daily basis. But the artifacts Reeves most wants to save today are the ones that have suddenly left his reach.

A year ago, a kindly gentleman dropped off a box of acetate home-demo recordings made by one Bert Hodgson, a would-be songwriter of the '20s and '30s who lived in Island Home (and who was possibly nephew to Frances Hodgson Burnett). Hodgson was not exactly a first-rate talent himself, but interspersed with his records were other bits of Knoxville history—radio station commercials, the Dixieland Swingsters, and even some demos from Arthur Q. Smith, the mysterious Knoxville architect of mid-20th-century country music who sold his songs for the price of a good lunch.

But now, the donor unexpectedly returned this morning and took his records back.

"I had a year to copy them—I didn't get a chance to do it," Reeves laments. "So it's my loss. But they're his and he can do whatever he wants."

With a staff of two—Reeves and his wife, Co-Director Louisa Trott—TAMIS must often choose what material to spend its limited time on (and which material must wait). And one of its biggest projects for the past year has been assembling the James Agee Film Festival, part of the month-long James Agee Centennial Celebration. Unspooling this weekend, it's probably the widest-ranging Agee retrospective ever screened, representing all aspects of his career in film: screenwriter, filmmaker, movie critic, and even actor. And in the course of tracking down every scrap of film or video with an Agee connection, Reeves and Trott have managed to uncover some nearly unseen (or unheard) rarities.

It began when Steve Cotham, director of the McClung Collection, suggested they screen a restored print of The Night of the Hunter, the 1955 Charles Laughton-directed thriller starring Robert Mitchum and written by Agee, for the 2009 Agee festival. Then, as Reeves and Trott consulted with Agee festival organizers Michael Lofaro at the University of Tennessee and Nelda Hill at the Lawson McGhee Library, the list of possible films grew.

"One thing led to another, and it evolved into this huge festival," says Reeves. "You couldn't do something like this halfway; you might as well go for broke. We uncovered some real rare films. But it's been one miracle after another. I've spent so much time, an ungodly amount of time, on the phone and the Internet, asking, finding, locating."

One of the most unusual finds is Genghis Khan, a 1950 costume epic from the Philippines about the Mongol warrior turned emperor—with English narration written and voiced by James Agee. How did a Filipino production manage to enlist the author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men? For the answer, we must turn to a researcher of arcane Agee lore, in this case John Wranovics, author of Chaplin and Agee: The Untold Story of the Tramp, the Writer, and the Lost Screenplay.

"In 1950, Manual Conde, an energetic, entrepreneurial actor/filmmaker in the Philippines, won a newspaper popularity contest. The prize was a trip to Hollywood," Wranovics writes in an e-mail. "Conde brought with him his Tagalog-based epic version of the life of the young Genghis Khan. He shopped it around various studios. Carl Foreman, the screenwriter of High Noon and Bridge on the River Kwai, who had recently refused to name names to HUAC and was ‘pink-listed,' saw the film, and suggested that Conde contact Agee to see if he could help him with an English translation.

"Agee spent a month or two writing the English commentary and advised Conde on editing the film and how to submit it to the Venice Film Festival in Italy. In Italy, the film was received as the first internationally important film from the Philippines. Afterwards, the promise of new projects with Conde, none of which came to fruition, were instrumental in Agee passing up the opportunity to write the screenplay for John Huston's Moby Dick, a job that went instead to Ray Bradbury."

Agee narrating the tale of Filipino Mongols is, to say the least, an odd combination—one that hasn't been publicly screened since the late '50s on New York late-night television. But TAMIS was able to secure permission from both the owner of the physical film and the owner of the screening rights to show this forgotten bit of global cinema. ("It's a real scream," promises Reeves.) Notably, it's not a DVD copy, but a 50-year-old 16mm print—an important point of pride for TAMIS, which made a priority of gathering film copies for the festival rather than video.

"In my opinion, film and video are totally different—the experience is totally different," Reeves says. "There is something so unique about watching film—it brings you into what's going on a little bit more, there's something real about it. It makes all the difference. And that's something I'm glad to do, because in 10 years you won't have film, it'll be something hidden away."

But one obscure video program that TAMIS did dig up for the festival was part of ABC's Omnibus anthology TV series—"The Blue Hotel," from 1956. Again, another Agee mystery: How did he manage to author a TV show episode a year after his death? Wranovics has the story: "Huntington Hartford, the playboy millionaire heir to the A&P grocery store chain, fancied himself a benefactor of the arts. One of Agee's first screenwriting jobs came when Hartford hired him to write a script based on Stephen Crane's story ‘The Blue Hotel.' While never made into a feature film, a performance of the script (was) produced for the Omnibus TV show, starring a very young Rip Torn."

Reeves didn't expect to find a copy of this little-known bit of Agee adaptation—"It's never been re-released. It's not been made available. I thought there's no way in hell," he says—but a month after he gave up his fruitless search, he got a call out of the blue: "I understand you're looking for ‘Blue Motel.'" It was from a company called Broad Reach Enterprises, Inc., the latest copyright holder of the material.

Another Agee adaptation of a Stephen Crane story, "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky," resulted in an actual Agee movie performance. (It was combined with another short film based on Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Sharer," and distributed as Face to Face.) In it, Agee plays the role of town drunk. "He's good," attests Reeves. "He looks like he could've been a handsome movie star—there's really something cool about him."

Agee's role as a documentary filmmaker is represented by In the Street, a 1945 short co-shot and co-directed with Helen Levitt and Janice Loeb, depicting life on Harlem's streets with evocative imagery. Even more notable is The Quiet One, a quasi-documentary scripted by Agee about an emotionally disturbed young man (and how he became that way) at the Wiltwyck School for Boys at Esopus, N.Y. It was a multi-nominee at the Academy Awards for both 1948 and '49: Best Documentary Feature, Best Story, and Best Screenplay. Agee also recorded his own narration for the original soundtrack—but the distributor insisted it be replaced by a more straightforward Hollywood emoter, Gary Merrill, which is what audiences heard.

Remarkably, TAMIS was able to track down the lost Agee version intact at UT Special Collections—but hasn't yet been able to secure permission from all its rights holders to screen it. This didn't prevent Reeves from taking a look at it, though.

"Sure enough, it's pretty different—it's a one-of-a-kind known composite 16mm print that's viewable and still in great shape," he says. "And I thought it was a bit hipper than the one everyone else has seen. I like Agee's narration—it's very low-key, it's kind of cool."

Agee's efforts as a film critic were arguably even more influential than his screenwriting, and Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux will open the festival. The controversial "comeback" vehicle for the former silent star was a dark comedy about a suave con artist who marries (and murders) rich women.

"While attending a press conference in April 1947 in New York, immediately following the premiere of Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux, Agee bravely stood up to defend the comedian after he'd suffered an organized barrage of political and personal attack questions from right-wing journalists in attendance," says Wranovics. "Verdoux was a shock to much of Chaplin's audience. It was his first film in seven years, since The Great Dictator. In the intervening years Chaplin's star had been tarnished both by personal scandal and by right-wing attacks on his politics in the years of red-baiting and the HUAC investigations into Communist leanings in Hollywood."

Agee followed up by writing a three-part review of Verdoux in The Nation, further championing the controversial black comedy. "For Agee, Chaplin was the greatest artist of his time," says Wranovics. "Verdoux, while admittedly flawed, encouraged Agee's view of Chaplin as a cultural figure who was willing and able to tackle the big issues facing the world, such as poverty, war, economic systems, and mass killing." He later developed a working relationship with the star, developing a screenplay for him.

"If he had lived longer, I think he could have become a director and then we could have really seen the sort of work he could do," says Ross Spears, director of the Oscar-nomincated bio-doc, Agee, which was first shown almost 30 years ago at the Bijou Theatre and will be re-premiered there. "Agee had all the talents to have been a superb complete filmmaker."

In 1955, James Agee died at age 45 from a heart attack while on his way to a doctor's appointment.