BY VANCE GARNETT
Harper Lee's 1960 book, which has never been out of print, marked its 50th anniversary in 2010. The motion picture was released to resounding acclamation two years after the book.
I well-remember the debut of "To Kill A Mockingbird." And I still feel privileged to have enjoyed some small involvement in its Washington, D.C. debut.
In 1962, after receiving my discharge papers from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, I quickly landed my first civilian job as co-manager of the Town Theatre in downtown Washington, D. C. The Town, a first-run movie house, was located in the Masonic Building at New York Avenue and 13th Street Northwest. Since 1987, that building is known as the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
A few months after my being there, the Town Theatre owners learned that this best-selling American novel, which had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was in production as a motion picture. The beloved Gregory Peck was playing Atticus Finch, a perfect casting if there ever was one.
In those days, theater owners would bid for first-run rights to a major motion picture, which meant that the film could not be shown at any other area theatre until the first-run was exhausted. In exchange, the theater guaranteed payment of a certain sum of money regardless of the picture's success or failure or length of run.
Town Theatre ownership submitted its bid and patiently waited. Finally, the decision arrived. The Town had won the bid for this highly anticipated motion picture.
A few weeks before the picture's opening, the Town Theatre owners and management sponsored an invitation-only private screening of the film at the Motion Picture Academy of Washington. Guests included political figures, both federal and local as well as movie critics.
To represent the film, Universal Studios sent a young cast member. Although he had delivered impressive performances in television dramas such as “Outer Limits” and “Naked City,” this was his first movie role. When this powerful motion picture ended, many viewers and critics converged on the young actor, praising his performance as the reclusive Arthur “Boo” Radley, and assuring him that he had a bright future in Hollywood. The actor’s name, Robert Duvall.
At that screening, I saw this powerful motion picture for the first time. It was, in a word, riveting. I would see it countless times after that, for it played at the Town Theatre for 16 weeks. Lines would queue up from the front doors on New York Avenue and run west to 13th Street, around the corner to H Street and circle the corner again. The ticket-holders line extended east, from the front doors to the Rocket Room at the corner of 12th Street.
The central figure of the story is, of course, Atticus Finch. Attorney Finch is a wise, principled and courageous man, who dares to defend a black man accused falsely of rape. Finch suffers the indignities of name-calling, rejection, and spit-in-the-face contempt for taking on the case. Through all this, he remains a good neighbor, unwilling to cast execrable judgment upon those who lacked his own insight and sensitivity regarding matters of race.
In addition, the widower is a loving father of son Jem and daughter "Scout." He patiently tries to explain the abuses, injustices, and inequities that the children would witness in their small town community of Maycomb, Alabama.
Gregory Peck had wanted this role of Atticus so much that he originally tried to buy the film rights himself. When Universal offered him the part, he eagerly said, “I’m your boy.”
Harper Lee based the character of Mr. Finch on her own father, Amasa Coleman Lee, a small-town lawyer. The “tomboy” daughter, Scout, she patterned after herself. The friend, Dill, Ms. Lee based on her real-life childhood friend, Truman Capote. The city itself was patterned on the author's own hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.
The oppressive heat of the summertime South, where "men's stiff collars wilted by 9 o'clock in the morning and ladies bathed before noon," could almost be felt by movie audiences. Yet the film was shot entirely in a Uninversal back lot. The courthouse was created to replicate the one in Monroeville.
In Peck's first eloquent summation to the jury, director Robert Mulligan stopped the actor midway through. "Bring it down a little," he cautioned. When action resumed, Peck performed the nine-minute scene in one uninterrupted take after which the mock courtroom, jurors, and crew broke out in applause. The resounding applause was the first of many. Gregory Peck and young Mary Badham, who turned 60 this year, received Oscar nominations for their performances.
The Academy Awards ceremony took place on April 8, 1963, in the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, hosted by Mr. Peck’s long-time friend, Frank Sinatra. While Peck was the sentimental favorite for his portrayal of Atticus Finch, he could not have had more formidable competition than Burt Lancaster for “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Jack Lemmon for “Days of Wine and Roses,” Marcello Mastroianni for “Divorce-Italian Style,” and Peter O’Toole for “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Without question, Peck wanted the prized statue for this performance. He had been nominated four times before and yet had not taken an Oscar home. For good luck, he wore the gold pocket watch and chain, which had belonged to Harper Lee’s late father who died before the movie opened. It was a long evening, but at the end of it, lovely Sophia Loren placed the Oscar for Best Actor in the hands of Gregory Peck.
The film's voice-over narration of the adult Scout was performed, without screen credit, by actress Kim Stanley. Her tone was perfect and seemed an accompaniment to Elmer Bernstein’s splendid soundtrack as she read the tastefully adapted screenplay by Horton Foote. The movie concludes with the narrative voice representing the adult Scout remembering.
"Atticus once said, 'You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.' Just standing on the Radley porch was enough. The summer that had begun so long ago had ended, and another summer had taken its place....I was to think of these days many times...."
In 2007, the 84-year-old Harper Lee agreed to “think of these days” one more time. She made a significant last journey. First Lady, and former librarian, Laura Bush excitedly welcomed Harper Lee to the White House. George W. Bush presented Ms. Lee with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her book’s phenomenal contribution to the American culture.
The American Film Institute had named Atticus Finch the number one movie hero of the 20th century. It rated the movie itself second in its "100 Years...100 Cheers" of the most inspirational movies. And it listed the film as #25 of the all-time greatest movies ever made.
Americans are indebted to author Harper Lee and all of the cast, production staff and crew who teamed to create this 50-year-old film classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”