Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Content of Their Character Actors: Juano Hernandez

By Odienator (click here for all posts)

I knew Juano Hernandez from the small, beautiful and sad role he had in Sidney Lumet’s 1964 film, The Pawnbroker. I’d never seen a Black man talking about Voltaire onscreen, nor had I witnessed a man who would pawn his items not in exchange for money, but for a few minutes of human connection. Hernandez has big, expressive eyes, and even as he rambles on, somewhat incoherently at times, the pleading in those eyes stays with you. Unfortunately for Hernandez’s Mr. Smith, he is attempting this exchange with Rod Steiger’s Sol, a Holocaust survivor who has completely shut down emotionally. Sol is incredibly mean to Mr. Smith, and finally, Hernandez addresses him with devastating dialogue. I never forgot this performance; not even Steiger’s brilliant work in the picture could erase it. Pauline Kael wrote, The great old Juano Hernandez, as the man who wants to talk, gives the single most moving performance I saw in 1965.” Kael and I disagreed quite a bit, but she’s on the money here.

I had only read about Intruder In the Dust, the 1949 Clarence Brown film marking the debut of Juano Hernandez, in Donald Bogle’s book, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks. Bogle writes:

“Hernandez plays his character with skill and insolence. He strode through the film with a haughty arrogance that made him seem like a wise, many-faceted version of Hattie McDaniel.”

Turner Classic Movies ran Intruder in the Dust a few months ago, and I recorded it. As a first, I’m writing about something here at Black History Mumf with which I was not familiar beforehand. I watched the movie for the first time last night.

Running at a short 87 minutes, Intruder is part murder mystery, part coming-of-age story, part slice of Southern life tale, and part lawyer picture. William Faulkner’s book, and the subsequent film adaptation, have some of the same aspects of To Kill a Mockingbird: The pipe-smoking lawyer who takes the important case, the kids who observe, and the Black man who may or may not be wrongfully accused. Both also show a large slice of White Southern life, that is, of the things that concerned citizens in the segregated South. That’s where the similarities end.

I have not read Faulkner’s book, though the movie version has made me invest in a copy. I have read To Kill a Mockingbird, as most of you probably have, and am quite familiar with the film version made in 1962. As a high school junior, I was less than enamored with Harper Lee’s book, finding it too long and meandering. She was telling the side of the story that didn’t interest me. I recall our teacher telling us that Harper Lee’s original story was considerably shorter, which explained why it felt so padded. Oddly enough, the character of Scout, the narrator of the novel and the daughter of Atticus, shares some similarities with Eve’s Bayou’s narrator in that both of them use childhood memories to paint a very idealistic and somewhat unreliable portrayal of their father. It’s daughter’s love for daddy distilled down to its essence. Atticus seems perfect, because to his daughter, he is.

As much as I love Gregory Peck’s performance in the film (he truly IS Atticus Finch, and it’s one of the best performances ever given), I don’t have the reverence for the movie most people do. It’s never about the Black character on trial (Brock Peters, who would team up with Hernandez on The Pawnbroker two years later). He’s just the Noble Negro who earns Atticus his wings. Peck never makes it about being taught Soul(TM), but the movie makes no attempt to hide its intentions, carrying the novel’s flaws to the screen. Roger Ebert sums it up:

“The problem here, for me, is that the conviction of Tom Robinson is not the point of the scene, which looks right past him to focus on the nobility of Atticus Finch.”

How I would have loved if Atticus had turned to the jurors and cussed their asses out, or if Tom had let out a Chris Rock-worthy yell of “You Cracka Ass Crackas!!” He’s doomed anyway, so why not? But no, this is 1962, and Hollywood was still so scared of the South. I’ve beaten that dead horse before. Let’s move on.

The similarities between the cinematic interpretations of Lee and Faulkner end with the portrayal of the accused. Clarence Brown shows his first full shot of Lucas Beauchamp (Hernandez) by panning up from his boots to his hat. He is standing over a frozen creek helping a teenager who has fallen in. I immediately realized what Hernandez had done with his body language in The Pawnbroker. Hernandez is HUGE. In the Pawnbroker, he seemed so small and inconsequential; here he seems to tower over everybody. Beauchamp’s character had appeared in Faulkner’s work before, in Go Down, Moses (which I have read). Chick Mallison (Claude Jarman, Jr.), the character whom Beauchamp saves in this scene, and whom he addresses when they first bring him to the jail, has also appeared elsewhere in Faulkner.

Lucas asks Chick to bring his uncle to the jail. Chick’s uncle, John Stevens (David Brian) is a lawyer, but he’s no Atticus Finch. Stevens offers to take the case, but he believes Lucas is guilty of the crime. After all, a White man named Crawford Gowrie tells him he saw Lucas standing over his brother, Vinson, with the smoking gun used to shoot him in the back. Lucas has a hot gun, and he is seen standing over the body, but that doesn’t make him the killer. Stevens takes the case because Chick asks him to, though Chick’s motivations are a little complex.

Chick tells Stevens that, after Lucas saved him from the frozen creek, Lucas took him home to feed and clothe him. Chick attempts to pay Lucas and his wife for their troubles, but Lucas asks “What are you doing?” Chick throws the money on the floor and demands that Lucas pick it up. It’s almost absurd, this young punk disrespecting his elders in such a fashion, but it portrays Chick’s sense of entitlement; he wouldn’t have done that to Miss Habersham (Elizabeth Patterson), the revered old White lady in town.

Lucas tells Chick’s Black teenage pal/servant boy to pick up the money and give it back to Chick. Chick is infuriated—he owes this Black man for helping him and that’s a pox on both his houses. He tries paying Lucas back numerous times, but Lucas knows his game and keeps doing things to keep the “debt” unpaid. Lucas never saw a debt in the first place. Perhaps Chick’s delivery of Lucas’ message to his uncle will settle the debt.

Chick also mentions to Stevens the altercation that gave motive to the crime. Lucas had come into town to do his weekly shopping. In the store is Vinson Gowrie, who, along with the other Whites, hates Lucas’ sense of entitlement. Hernandez plays Lucas as a proud Black man, bending to no one. He doesn’t acknowledge the Whites’ presence in the store, and when Vinson attempts to attack him from behind, Lucas shows absolutely no fear. He doesn’t even turn around to give Vinson the satisfaction. Chick yells out “RUN LUCAS,” but Lucas just stands there, eating a candy bar, before walking away. The Whites in the store, all of whom (wisely, considering the size of Lucas) restrain Vinson, look at Lucas with that hatred reserved for a Black man who considers himself in the same human race they inhabit. Chick wonders why Lucas would shoot in the back a man he wasn’t afraid of, because only cowards strike from behind.

At the jail, Lucas refuses to tell Stevens the entire story. Stevens is frustrated, but Chick feels that Lucas may tell him. It’s Sunday, which, according to the movie is a no-lynching day in Oxford, Mississippi, so Lucas will at least be able to survive in the jail until after midnight. The townsfolk will wait for the signal from the Gowries before attacking, which buys Chick a little time to do what Lucas asks him to do. Lucas tells Chick that he’s innocent, and if he’d go look at the body, he’d see that the bullet hole in Vinson Gowrie couldn’t have come from Lucas’ gun.

The townsfolk could care less whether Lucas is innocent, even John Stevens, but Miss Habersham does. She’s an elderly woman, a fascinating character in the film, who helps Chick go up to the gravesite to see if Lucas is right. Assisting the odd couple is Chick’s Black servant friend, Aleck, whom the cin-togger shoots like an ace of spades with eyes. Chick and Aleck dig up Vinson’s grave to find out that he isn’t there. They hear a mule in the distance, and hide. Our detectives avoid detection, but that mule will provide the key to this mystery.

I’m not going to tell you how this mystery is solved. Instead, I want to focus on the depiction of the town on the day the lynch mob plans to storm the jail. The town center is full of cars, people playing cards and dominoes, kids eating ice cream—it’s a fucking carnival! Brown pans his camera over an endless series of faces, all anxiously awaiting the show. It’s a chilling moment that Brown takes his time to show.

The menfolk get restless as they await patriarch Nub Gowrie’s OK to storm the jail. Nub (so called because he only has one arm) is away, but his son is at the front of the jail. Impatiently, he decides to storm the jail, only to be met by Miss Habersham. Miss H.’s job is to keep people out of the jail while Chick and Stevens work out a plan to clear Lucas before he’s murdered. While the rest of the menfolk won’t storm the jail while she’s sitting there (homegirl has that much dap in this town), Crawford Gowrie doesn’t care. He tosses gasoline at her feet and strikes a match. But Miss Habersham is gangsta. She doesn’t move. “You’re in mah sewin’ light,” she tells Crawford. He backs down.

After Lucas is freed (and trust me, rent the movie because it’s a good mystery), he shows up at Stevens’ office. Stevens is just telling Chick that he’s expecting Lucas to show up to rub his face in the fact he was wrong. “He’ll stand there, expecting his apology,” says Stevens, as if the mere thought of a Negro expecting an apology is a slap in the face to Southern pride. Lucas does show up, to pay for the lawyer services. Stevens charges him 3 dollars (he’s cheaper than Johnnie Cochran). Lucas pays, and then stands in front of Stevens’ desk. “Well what are you waiting for?” demands Stevens, fearing that Lucas will ask for that dreaded mea culpa.

“My receipt,” says Lucas.

Juano Hernandez’s portrayal of Lucas sticks with me because I don’t believe I have seen a stronger depiction of a proud Black man onscreen, one whose thought process didn’t allow for a single moment of feeling inferior because of his skin color. He never bends to any White character in the film, and in 1949, this must have been shocking to witness onscreen. When Stevens suggests Lucas bring Gangsta Granny Miss Habersham some flowers for staring down that crazy lynch mob, he reluctantly agrees. I wanted to see another movie with Hernandez and Patterson, the proud Black man and the tough as nails grandmother. Based on the personalities, she’d probably drive him!

After Intruder, Hernandez played in a few other movies, including John Ford’s similar Sergeant Rutledge, but outside of this and the Pawnbroker, he didn’t do too many memorable roles. What was Hollywood to do with him? Hernandez, a former vaudevillian and actor in Oscar Micheaux movies, died in his native Puerto Rico (he was of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent) in 1970.


Hal said...

I also remember Juano Hernandez playing W. C. Handy (Nat 'King' Cole)'s disapproving preacher father in ST. LOUIS BLUES. The character itself is one more 'music bio' cliche, the father who disapproves of his son's association with "the devil's music", but Hernandez does what he can with it. That film itself had a mediocre script but a phenomenal cast: Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson, Cab Calloway and, in IMO her best screen role, Eartha Kitt were just a few.

odienator said...

I remember Hernandez in St. Louis Blues, as well as in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that I saw on some cable channel in my room in Chicago some time back.

I didn't get to honor Eartha Kitt here. Maybe I'll do it as a BHM extra. I'll always love her nasty self in Boomerang. "Marrrrrrr-cus! I'm not wearing any panties!"

Daryl said...

Clarence Brown's film imo was the best of that genre which appeared in 1949. Pinky was the box office champ, then came Home of The Brave and Lost Boundaries.

Juano was just incredible. The cast as a whole was good with one of my favorite character actors Porter Hall turning in a fine performance as Nub Gowrie.

I still remember that "carnival". One guy was literally DROOLING when Crawford filled the gas can.

Brown caught the mood accurately because as a young engineering student he was in Atlanta during the 1906 riots. He saw the savagery and hate first hand.

odienator said...

Daryl, thanks for the comment and the information about Brown's early days in Hotlanta. Hall is quite good as Nub, but this is Hernandez's show all the way, with a clever assist from Patterson.

I haven't seen Pinky in decades, so I guess it's time for a rental. The only other Ethel Waters movie I remember vividly, besides Cabin in the Sky, which I did last year, is The Member of the Wedding.