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26 February 2016

Frank Morgan in The Vanishing Virginian: A Fable Agreed Upon

Spring Byington and Frank Morgan
The Vanishing Virginian is currently available via Warner Archive, and it's well worth seeing not just for the marvelous performances, but because it raises so many questions about the past -- far more questions than it can answer. This was produced as a semi-comic biopic and vehicle for the great Frank Morgan, adapted from a popular book. The cast and credits are a bit unusual; Morgan is the star, with fine performances by Spring Byington and Louise Beavers, and a very charming debut by Katharine Grayson (as the middle teenage daughter who later grew up to write the book), and direction by the great (again) Frank Borzage.  
Spring Byington, Louise Beavers, and Leigh Whipper

Seen with modern eyes, though, this is an amazing movie, though it was apparently not thought much of when it opened in 1942. It's based on a daughter's memoir about a real-life Virginia politician, beloved by his constituents, Robert Yancey, who was always called Cap'n Bob. The whole family was somewhat eccentric; his wife Rosa always called him Mr.Yancey, even in private. The story begins in 1914, and is rather episodic, with a humorous appreciation of the family's oddities. The oldest daughter firmly declares her wish to become a lawyer. Mrs Yancy is a died-in-the-wool traditionalist, but spends about eight hours a day immersed in researching the family genealogy (this lady would obviously have become a professional historian if she were here today). One of the most charming things about the film is the continuing love affair between Mr. and Mrs. Yancey, despite their family of growing children, and Frank Morgan and Spring Byington make it very believable in two lovely performances.
Rosa and Bob Yancey

But what is really startling and initially rather difficult to take on its own terms is the family's relationship with their servants, who are, naturally, at that time and place, all black. Wonderful Louise Beavers plays the cook and housekeeper, known as Aunt Emmaline, and Leigh Whipper plays the majordomo, for want of a better word, of their country estate, called Uncle Josh. He is responsible for maintaining the property, procuring supplies, and both working in the field and acting as valet to Mr. Yancey. The black and white members of the household interact on terms of the greatest affection; the adult black people are regarded as authority figures by both black and white children, and no one would dream of using derogatory racial language. I don't know what to say -- or believe -- about this. The story is one woman's reminiscence and this is how she saw things.

Another episode also arouses conflicting feelings -- Uncle Josh alerts Mr. Yancey that Jefferson Brown, the son of another elderly servant, has been arrested for murder after a fight with another man. Mr Yancey agrees to do all he can for him, but he is the County Prosecutor. He arranges a capable lawyer for Jeff. But when the trial starts experience tells him that the jury is hostile to the defendant, so he deliberately angers the judge to purposely cause a mistrial. This actually causes him to be jailed for contempt of court overnight, but when a new trial is held everyone has calmed down and Jeff is convicted of manslaughter, not murder, and sentenced to five years, which Yancey induces the Governor to suspend.  
Cap'n Bob and Uncle Josh

Now, that's a lot of trouble for a privileged white man to go to for the sake of a black man in trouble with the law in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1914. The trouble with it is, the good outcome relies on a close relationship -- what might have happened to another black defendant who didn't have a personal tie to a powerful white man
Josh's funeral
Most striking is the family's reaction when Josh, who has grown quite infirm, dies suddenly. They are overwhelmed with sorrow, especially Mr. Yancey, who regarded his servant as his oldest and closest friend. When he finds Josh, who has succumbed to a sudden heart attack, lying dead, every line of his body expresses desolation. In Frank Morgan's hands, this emotion is entirely sincere; the whole family solemnly attend Josh's funeral in the black Baptist church. Mr. Yancey escorts Josh's wife, Emmaline, to the front pew, and the white family, all weeping visibly, take their place in the back row. When he is asked by the minister to speak, Mr. Yancey replies, "It will be my great honor." His words from the pulpit express humility and love, and it seems that even he is shocked by the depth of his loss.
Another episode involves the visit of Mr. Yancey's childhood sweetheart, now divorced, the mother of a grown son, and a tireless campaigner for Women's Suffrage. This was pretty radical for 1914, and although it was strongly disapproved of by Rosa (and Aunt Emmaline), it is presented as positive and admirable, which isn't surprising because the authoress grew up to marry the grown son!
The story also follows the girls' romantic entanglements, and Mrs. Yancey's attempts to keep her husband from running for office for yet another term; but frankly it is the racial interactions that make this movie so absorbing -- and perplexing. Because of course, everything you see here was created by the white people in the story; there's no way of knowing, now, how the black people involved felt about it. On the other hand, they might have felt they were lucky to have a friend like Yancey -- which is not what modern people wish to hear, but it might be the truth, nevertheless. 
I love this movie first for Frank Morgan, who must be one of the finest actors who ever lived. There was just nothing this man couldn't do, from very broad comedy, like his most famous role as the Wizard of Oz, to actual tragedy, like his portrayal of Professor Roth in The Mortal Storm. Every character is fully imagined, vital, deep, full of inner life. But it is fascinating, too, as a glimpse at long-vanished and almost incomprehensible values our ancestors lived by; throughout history, there have been some people who have tried to do the right thing, however falteringly. 
This poem by Emily Dickenson seems apropos; it also provides the title for my genealogy blog, and it's very true; none of us knows what we'll find in our own past.

The Past is such a curious Creature
To look her in the Face
A Transport may receipt us
Or a Disgrace—

Unarmed if any meet her
I charge him fly
Her faded Ammunition
Might yet reply.

And the title quotes an offhand remark by Napoleon Bonaparte: "What is history but a fable agreed upon."

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