Kristen of Journeys in Classic Film has created a splendid blogathon concept: write upon a film or topic surrounding the Universal Studios films created on the infamous Hollywood backlot. Considering the enormous variety of films produced across the decades, it was a tough call. But one film that is arguably one of the most well-known films ever made at Universal stands out for me…Robert Mulligan’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962).
Before I address this popular film based on Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, I must share my experiences with Universal Studios. Kristen chose this blogathon concept because she loves Universal Studios Hollywood and the backlot tours. I must confess I have never been to Hollywood. But, you can bet your last dollar that a trip to Hollywood and the Universal Studios backlot tours is definitely on my bucket list. A few years ago, I was in Orlando, FL where my husband joined me as I finished up a business trip. We had a day to kill so we decided to go to the Universal Studios theme park.
One of the first things we did was take a photo at one of those shops where they put your head shot digitally into the backdrop of a movie poster. As tacky and touristy as that sounds, it was a blast. And we lucked out in that we chose a movie poster backdrop of a favorite film of ours, Steven Spielberg’s RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK(1981) where our skin tones matched the actors so well that no adjustments needed to be made. The shop clerk said they’ve never had that happen before. We later used that photo in our movie themed wedding. After picture time, we excitedly got in a long line for THE MUMMY ride, a roller coaster ride based on one of my favorite adventure films- the 1999 film and subsequent film sequels. However, I must admit that ride scared me SO incredibly much that I honestly thought I was going to leave via an ambulance. No, seriously. I was so rattled by the flames and speed of that ride that I insisted we next only take on the most lame rides imaginable.
After walking for awhile and taking in the views of the fun park, we turned a corner then noticed an E.T. themed ride. As approaching the long line, I flagged down a park staffer and asked, “is this ride scary?” She looked at me with a blank stare. I went on, “you see, I REALLY couldn’t handle that Mummy ride and…” but before I could finish my rantings, I needed to step aside for the folks coming through from behind me trying to get in the E.T. line. There was a mini parade of elderly folks in motorized scooters, one with an oxygen tank. After they passed me, I looked up at the park staffer who responded, “Um… NO Ma’am- I think you’ll be fine.” My husband never laughed so hard as I awkwardly stepped in line behind the rascal parade. Something tells me I should be able handle the Universal backlot tour in Hollywood just fine.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was filmed on the Universal Studios Hollywood backlot for all of its exterior shots. For the residential streets, located on what is now the 747 stage and King Kong attraction, real houses were purchased for a $1 a piece from the developers of Dodgers Stadium then arranged by art director Henry Bumstead. Only one house still remains, the Boo Radley house, now located on Elm Street. It’s undergone only minor changes over the years but is not available to the regular tram tour. The Courthouse Square, just north of the original residential row of houses, is now better known for it’s part in Robert Zemeckis’ BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985) yet was known as Mockingbird Square back in 1964 when the Universal tour first began.
Based on the highly acclaimed novel, the film version of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was anticipated to be as controversial as it was popular. This was a challenge to bring paralleled authenticity to this personal triumph of Harper Lee’s and to come to fruition on the big screen. Set in a racially segregated small town in 1930’s Alabama, Lee based this story on her real-life father Amasa Lee and his experience as an attorney defending a black client in 1923 in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. In the film, our lead character is Atticus Finch, portrayed by Gregory Peck. The role was originally offered to Rock Hudson then later to James Stewart, who turned it down stating he thought the subject matter was too liberal to be successful. When the lead offer then turned to Gregory Peck, he read the novel within a single sitting and accepted the role immediately. Amasa Lee, then 82, became friends with Peck throughout his preparation for his role. Sadly, he died before filming completed. Harper Lee was so impressed by Peck’s performance and homage to her father, she gave him her father’s actual pocket watch and chain which he carried with him to the Academy Awards and as he accepted his Best Actor Oscar.
The story centers on Atticus Finch, defense attorney in the “tired old town” of Maycomb, Alabama and widowed father of 2 children- Jem and Scout. The story is narrated by Scout as a grown adult, as she looks back upon the details of those memorable days when she was six years old. She recounts a time when her father Atticus takes on a highly controversial case, in defense of a black man who is falsely charged with the rape of a white woman. Many in this racially divided town try to persuade Atticus from taking the case. But he is an intelligent man of great integrity and unyielding principles with an ever calm and resolute disposition. He takes on the case despite the many obstacles presented by these narrow-minded, uneducated and simple town folk. The jury’s mindset reflects a guilty verdict before the trial even begins. Through the eyes of curious tomboy Scout, we grow to know her father’s character not only as a truly fair and unbiased man but as a deeply loving father. Atticus’s character places him in an unique role that stands out from any other citizen in town. While his intelligence and education is vastly higher than any of his fellow neighbors, his deeply principled and fair stance on any issue also places him as the most respected man in town, by both the black community and the white. He is never patronizing as he grapples to educate them and reveal the injustices of their intolerance and prejudices. He unwaveringly stands firm as a genuinely kind and balanced man.
The characters of Jem (portrayed by Philip Altman) and Scout (portrayed by Mary Badham) Finch reflect the love and good parenting from which they were raised. Like their father, they are intelligent, curious and kind without bias or prejudice. Atticus never talks down to his children; only communicating openly, honestly and with respect. But they are still young and often display baffled confusion as to ongoing displays of bigotry and hatred they see expressed in their community. Another key figure in this story is “Boo” Radley, a mysterious shut-in, portrayed by Robert Duvall. Duvall spent 6 weeks avoiding the sun and dyed his hair blond to reflect the physical nature of this reclusive albino man, who only dared to traverse outdoors at night to protect his sensitive eyes. The character of Arthur “Boo” Radley is partially based on Alfred “Son” Bouleware, who lived with his parents in a run-down, boarded-up house near Lee’s childhood home. Similar to “Boo”, “Son” Bouleware was also an albino held as a shut-in by his father, following a vandalism incident. In the story, we see several instances of gossip as a result of wild rumors spread across the years as to the character of “Boo” Radley.
The defendant, Tom Robinson, as portrayed by Brock Peters, is falsely accused of raping Mayella Ewell (portrayed by Collin Wilcox), daughter to Bob Ewell (portrayed by James Anderson). Through courtroom drama, it becomes apparent that Tom’s only crime is being a black man who rejected a white woman’s forced affections then bravely expresses pity upon her. The very idea is incredulous to the racist faction of the room. Mayella knows the truth yet remains in passionate denial for fear of the horrors of her bigoted community’s shunning. Her own father Bob Ewell is the actual guilty man in this crime of abusing Mayella. Yet she is so affected by the torture of his abuse and the societal-imposed shame of tempting a black man, she chooses to blame an innocent man in fear and denial.
The cast and direction of this film felt deep affection for this story and remained committed to keeping the integrity of Harper Lee’s original vision. While this movie marked the debut film for several actors and was a highlight in Gregory Peck’s long and successful career, bonds formed as the result of this film that remained throughout their lives. Brock Peters gave such a stirring performance in his courtroom scene that he started crying, something that was not as rehearsed, which forced Peck to look just above his face to avoid becoming overwhelmed in emotion himself. Year later, Peters gave the eulogy at Gregory Peck’s funeral. Gregory Peck also formed a close friendship with Mary Badham and they remained friends until his death. He always called her, “Scout.”
I too have always felt a deep affection for this film. I find Atticus Finch to be one of the most admirable and likable screen characters in film history. It helps that Gregory Peck was the perfect actor to play this role and performed with such beautiful authenticity. Perhaps I’m especially drawn to this character because my father was mostly absent from my childhood and I quietly wished for a man like Atticus to be my father. And perhaps it is the bigger story of racial injustice that I find to be the most compelling. Like Jem and Scout, I was raised by a single parent who believed in absolute tolerance. My mother taught me that bigotry was gravely wrong and that one must actively stand up against social injustice. To this day, this remains of vital importance to me and is evident in the way I raise my own children. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is simply a masterpiece. This film shall endure as a timeless classic and its life’s lessons should be shared with your family, for generations to come.