A year after the filming of “I Walk the Line” concluded in the Volunteer State, the movie made its world premiere Oct. 12, 1970, at the Tennessee Theatre on Nashville’s Church Street. Tickets cost moviegoers $10.
Among the celebrities who walked the red carpet on the big night were actress Estelle Parsons, author Madison Jones, country singers Tex Ritter, Jeannie C. Riley, Ferlin Husky, Justin Tubb, June Carter and Johnny Cash, who, of course, provided the soundtrack. (Star Gregory Peck and co-star Ralph Meeker were no-shows due to working in other film projects.)
Cash told the press, “It’s a good movie. I’ve seen it twice, and I hope my music makes a good movie better.”
Most film critics disagreed with the Man in Black’s opinion about the movie being good. The Tennessean’s movie beat guy, Harry Haun, wrote in his review about the protagonist, played by Peck, “The character turns out to be not so much a product of Tennessee as he is a by-product of Tennessee Williams — a male equivalent to the playwright’s fading Southern belles who consciously or unconsciously embrace their own destruction.”
The Los Angeles Times review noted, “Peck’s pre-existing heroic image made it difficult for him to appear flawed. Yet he conveys considerable anguish as a man who doesn’t know what hit him,” while the newspaper’s film critic opined, “It may be that in this instance, Peck as Mr. Imperfect was too much for audience’s tastes.”
Meanwhile, Variety accurately predicted that “I Walk the Line” would not be a winner at the box office.
Movie man tags flick ‘minor classic’
I asked my friend and fellow Tennessean, Drew White, who knows as much about movies made during the 1970s as anyone, his take on this made-in-Tennessee product. (White was the projectionist at the historic Bonnie Kate Theater in Elizabethton, Tenn., from January 1971 until January 1979 and later worked at the Marbro Drive-In in Kingsport and also was the substitute projectionist at the downtown Strand Theatre.)
White said, “When I first saw ‘I Walk the Line,’ I neither liked nor disliked the movie, but I recognized the director’s work and wondered about it. Later, I began studying and reading about film noir and then I began to realize its qualities as post-modern film noir. That is how it is described in film literature now. It is now reconsidered as a minor classic.
“Peck’s performance as a man who has fallen from grace — and how it affects himself and the people around him — is a stellar performance. Strong, sad and nuanced.
“To me his story is the story of King David and how he messed up, but God still loved him. I think that all men, when they reach a certain age, are susceptible to falling from grace when they wonder what their lives mean and whether it’s a success or not. I think it’s a forgotten classic, full of exceptional actors and local color,” said White. “It’s a forgotten gem and a part of our Tennessee background.”
Peck later shared about his performance: “People remember us for our best work, thankfully. No one comes up and says, “I hated you in I Walk the Line,’ even if they did hate you.”
Putnam citizens disenchanted
The Oscar-winning actor and film critics were not the only ones finding fault with the movie. Many Tennesseans who lived in the communities where filming took place were dismayed with how the characters and places were depicted on the big screen.
Eldon Leslie, manager of Cookeville’s Chamber of Commerce in 1970, told a newspaper writer, “It’s not that we’re angry. Just shocked and disappointed. A sheriff is a man who represents law and order, a man to be respected. That movie takes the sheriff and makes him a damn social derelict who blows his mind over a dumb blonde.
“Fortunately, not many people know it was filmed here. The trouble is it’s not a true picture. It picked our very, very worst and created something that doesn’t exist. We have three or four beautiful hollers, many fine homes and churches and schools. They don’t show any of that. They show the end of the county where strip mining has left some people dirt poor.”
Indeed, Leslie and Putnam County Sheriff Billy Smith refused to see the movie after hearing negative reviews about the motion picture (note: it was reported that Columbia Pictures spent $250,000 in Cookeville in 1969, the equivalent of $1.75 million today).
Carsey Lynch, Jackson County sheriff at the time, disagreed with his neighboring officials as he watched the flick and reported it being “A-1.” He said that the message of the movie “runs in the line of most of us. There’s no human being that can’t be got to. That movie showed us and the town and the holler just like it is. We got about 20 stills. The federal boys come in, and we bust them up, and then they come right back.”
Lynch also reported that leading men Peck and Meeker “really liked this place.” So much so that the layabouts around the Jackson County courthouse steps divulged that the two actors had purchased tracts of land in one of the hollers where they planned to try their hand at making moonshine. In fact, an article in the Smithville Review in 1969 confirmed that Meeker acquired an option on 500 acres of farmland in the area.
Archivist plans screenings
Putnam County archivist Glenn Jones has been an ardent fan of “I Walk the Line” since he first viewed it at as a teenager at the Bel-Air Drive-In in Detroit.
“When I saw it, I was thinking every bit of it was done here, and it was so neat seeing Center Hill Lake,” said Jones, who moved from the Motor City to Baxter at 14. (His mom was a Celina native and his father hailed from Smithville.)
“We knew the 50-year anniversary was coming up and wanted to do something until the virus hit,” he said of his renewed interest in the motion picture. When the virus chills, he plans to show “I Walk the Line” at his Rosewood Wedding Chapel and Event Center in Gainesboro. “We will open it up to everybody. I think that people who come would really enjoy it.”
He recognizes that most locals did not like the film when it was first released, but as to whether it harmed the Upper Cumberland region’s reputation, Jones said, “I don’t think it had any effect. It was not a movie people watched more than once.”
The archivist, like Peck, believes the soundtrack detracted from the story, noting, “I think if they hadn’t used Johnny Cash’s songs in the movie, it would have been a pretty decent drama. The music ruined it.”
McCloud has no complaints
As for the film’s youngest surviving cast member, the making of “I Walk the Line” left Fred McCloud with a passel of pleasant memories and remains a highlight of his life.
“I ended up making $2,800 and was in California for 11 weeks,” he recollected. “I enjoyed it so much, but I guess I had my fill.”
As for the reactions of his son and two grandchildren who recently watched him in the movie, the 63-year-old said, “They were tickled to death and said, ‘There’s Pa Fred on TV.’ ”
His own reaction at seeing himself at 12 years of age again?
“Overwhelming,” he said. “What was mostly overwhelming was to watch it on Turner Classic Movies on TV. Here I am watching myself in a movie on TV. That does make you stop and think.
“People see me and they still say, ‘You were the kid in that movie.’ Now I wish they just knew me for me, but I’m not complaining. I wouldn’t take none of this back: the good parts and the bad parts. I have been blessed.”
Sources for this story include: The Kingsport Times-News: Nov. 8, 1970; The Smithville Review: Oct. 16, 1969, Oct. 23, 1969; The Tennessean: Nov. 2, 1969, Oct. 13, 1970, July 30, 2000; The War Eagle Leader: Oct. 26, 2009; “Gregory Peck: A Bio-Bibliography” by Gerald Molyneaux, 1995; “Rural Life and Culture in the Upper Cumberland,” compiled by Michael E. Birdwell and W. Calvin Dickinson, 2004; “John Frankenheimer: A Conversation With Charles Champlin,” 1995.
‘I WALK THE LINE’
The 95-minute film based on Tennessee writer Madison Jones short novel, “The Exile,” brought together a number of talented people.
The cast included: Gregory Peck as Sheriff Henry Tawes, Tuesday Weld as Alma McCain, Estelle Parsons as Ellen Haney, Ralph Meeker as Carl McCain, Lonny Chapman as Bascomb, Charles Durning as Hunnicutt, Jeff Dalton as Clay McClain, Freddie McCloud as Buddy McCain, Jane Rose as Elsie, J.C. Evans as Grandpa Tawes, Margaret A. Morris as Sybil, Bill Littleton as Pollard, Leo Yates as Vogel and Nora Denney as Darlene Hunnicutt.
The screenplay was written by Alvin Sargent, who earned Oscars for his screenplays “Julia” and “Ordinary People” and who also scripted “Paper Moon” and “Spider-Man 2”.
Director John Frankenheimer, deceased, helmed such films as “The Birdman of Alcatraz”, “The Manchurian Candidate”, “Seven Days in May”, “Grand Prix” and “Reindeer Games”.
Cinematography David M. Walsh, 89, also shot “The Sunshine Boys”, “Silver Streak”, “The Goodbye Girl” and “California Suite”.
Art director Albert Brenner, 94, earned five Academy Award nominations and his credits include “Bullitt”, “The Goodbye Girl”, “Pretty Woman”, “Beaches” and “Summer of ’42”.
Veteran stuntman Buddy Van Horn, 91, doubled Peck in “I Walk the Line” but is best known as Clint Eastwood’s longtime stunt double and stunt coordinator on numerous Eastwood films.
Among known living cast members are Estelle Parsons, 92, who won the best supporting actress Oscar as Blanche Barrow in 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde”; Tuesday Weld, 77, and Fred McCloud, 63.
Author Madison Jones was born in Nashville in 1925 and at the age of 14 moved with his father to a farm near Ashland City. After graduating from Vanderbilt University in 1949, he taught English at the University of Tennessee and in 1956 became a creative writing teacher and artist in residence at Auburn University until his retirement in 1987. He died in 2012. His novella, “An Exile” was published originally by The Sewanee Review and then by Viking Press in 1967.
Among various locations where filming took place are the following: Jackson County — the Gainesboro square, county courthouse and Naff & Naff Hardware; Smith County — Lancaster, Laycock Bridge; DeKalb County — Center Hill Dam and Reservoir, Buffalo Valley, the Valter Fuston Farm on Dry Creek; Overton County — Hanging Limb; Fentress County — Davidson and Wilder; White County — Gum Spring Mountain.