I like old movies, a category that has expanded, quite alarmingly, to include flicks that were filmed in my lifetime.
Fay Wray’s beauty contrasted King Kong’s beastly mitt but little onscreen when I first developed my love for old movies, just as Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s star-crossed love in Casablanca unfolded only in shades of black and white. But, heck, a couple of months ago the Turner Classic Movies channel showed me a colorful film that hit theaters when I was a seventh-grader.
However, it was not the era so much as the place that drew my attention that night to this movie, “Conrack.” The elusive blueish-brown hues of the brackish creeks that wound through golden-green salt marsh grasses on my television screen immediately struck a familiar chord. Likewise, the oceanfront beaches and distinctly-Southern Victorian homes were comfortingly recognizable.
Then, a couple of nights ago, I was thumbing through “Brunswick: A Book of Memories,” when the reason for this film’s familiarity smacked me broadside. Conrack was filmed right here in the Golden Isles in 1973. St. Simons Island served as the backdrop for sheltered Daufuskie Island, S.C., while Brunswick stood in for Beaufort, S.C.
Based on a biographical Pat Conroy book, Conrack tells a charming story about a hippie-teacher who returns to his low-country Carolina roots in 1969 to teach Gullah children living innocently isolated from 20th Century America on a barrier island. It is a pretty good movie, starring Jon Voigt, an Academy Award-winning actor from back in the day.
The Conrack film crew’s visit nearly 45 years ago was not the first time Hollywood came calling in Glynn County. Sure, most of us can scarcely forget that, just two years ago, a movie star Ben Affleck took over downtown Brunswick to film Live By Night.
But Brunswick’s movie credits go all the way back to 1955.
That is when Brunswick and the stately old Oglethorpe Hotel stood in as the backdrop for the “The View from Pompey’s Head.” Parts of the Twentieth Century Fox film also were shot on Jekyll Island.
The movie was based on writer Hamilton Basso’s best-selling novel of the same name. It is the story of a New York lawyer who returns to his native coastal Carolina town, which he left in the first place in disillusion over unresolved racial and class strife. He returns to help restore royalties owed an aging Southern writer and mentor, tangling romantically in the process with an old flame now married to a boorish businessman. The whole thing unfolds in black and white, with men in sensible suits and ladies in flowing dresses, just like old movies should.
Brunswick beat out more than two dozen Southern cities who were courting the filmmakers, according to a 1955 article in The Brunswick News. Brunswick leaders even put together a book highlighting the city’s virtues, which then Mayor Millard Copeland sent to Philip Dunne, the film’s director.
“Though about 30 towns answered the studio’s specifications for the type of scenery, streets and buildings … it was the Brunswick Chamber of Commerce (Ruby Berrie) who prepared a huge book proving Brunswick had not some but all that the film needed,” The News reported.
Scenes filmed at the Oglethorpe Hotel created quite a stir among the locals, Mary McGarvey recalled in “A Book of Memories.” It would be but one more bittersweet memory of the Oglethorpe, which was destroyed in the 1960s to make way for a Holiday Inn.
“There was much local excitement when time arrived to film the scenes at the Oglethorpe Hotel,” McGarvey wrote. “It was our crown jewel. Little did we know that the ball of demolition was figuratively hanging over it.”
And the movie? It was OK. Reviewer Leonard Maltin gave it 2 1/2 out of 4 stars on TCM’s webpage (www.tcm.com). The book, which hovered on the best-selling list for 40 weeks in 1954, is certainly better.
Ditto for Conrack, or any movies based on the sterling words of Pat Conroy. Still, TCM’s overall review of Conrack gives it 4 out of 5 stars. Voigt actually plays Conroy in this movie based on the writer’s memoir, The Water is Wide. The movie’s title comes from the children’s mispronunciation of the author’s name.
Many of Conrack’s younger stars likely walk among us today. Director Martin Ritt recruited local black children to star as the student’s in Voigt’s island classroom. Ritt apparently chose well, according to a New York Times reviewer at the time.
“And (Voigt) deserves special credit for acting with the 21 children selected from a local school — who could snatch a scene from many a seasoned veteran,” wrote Nora Sayre.
Another local shining through in the movie was the McKinnon House in Brunswick’s Historic Old Town. The Victorian home built in 1902 serves as a backdrop for a climactic moment when “Conrack” and the island kids visit the school superintendent’s home during their first time trick-or-treating in Beaufort.
“The owners (of the McKinnon House) in 1972 were Nelson and Hazel Westbrooks, who recall showing Jon Voigt around the house that they had purchased just two weeks before,” according to A Book of Memories.