“I’d Climb The Highest Mountain”: Then and Now

     The controversy over the recent opening of the reportedly extremely violent movie “The Joker” reminds us once again that controversy over what movie audiences want, don’t want, will accept or won’t is an old one.

     For movie studio executives to want more action and violence in a movie project is hardly a new trend. That very thing almost killed one of the first major films ever made in Georgia, largely in White County but with an Elbert County connection.

     About eight years ago, White County writer Emory Jones snapped up a chance find on Ebay, an original script of the 1951 release “I’d Climb The Highest Mountain.” The movie was filmed in White County in 1950 − starring Susan Hayward, William Lundigan and Rory Calhoun − but was based on the 1910 novel “A Circuit Rider’s Wife” by Corra Harris, born in Elbert County in 1869. Included with the script were appended notes from movie executives that showed the uphill battle Atlanta native screenwriter Lamar Trotti had between 1947 and 1950 getting anyone interested in bringing the story to the screen.

On the set of “I’d Climb The Highest Mountain” just outside of Helen in 1950. The church is the Chattahoochee United Methodist Church, founded in the 1820s and still going strong.
Star Susan Hayward is front and center as the an interior shot at the church is rehearsed.

     Trotti’s story of the often heartbreaking travails and seemingly too small triumphs of a Methodist minister and his story narrator-wife in the north Georgia hills of the early 1900s did not attract a lot of enthusiasm.

     According to a story about Jones’s find that ran seven years ago in the Gainesville newspaper, 20th Century Fox studio heavyweight Darryl Zanuck’s script readers reported to him that it was “too preachy,” in their view a box office killer. Another studio executive, Samuel G. Engel, wrote Zanuck that “It falls short on too many vital counts for it to merit being considered for production.” Yet another executive thought the script too similar to the 1941 film “One Foot In Heaven,” starring Fredric March as an itinerant minister. Zanuck himself thought the script needed more conflict and violence. His own verdict to Trotti was, “I cannot find one person who liked it.”

     That wasn’t exactly true, as the notes accompanying the script show. One of Zanuck’s subordinates, Julian Johnson, penned him this note: “I think it has a great deal of what we need in the theatre today — simple, downright humanity, as opposed to the abnormalities, the crimes and the ‘isms’ which seem to possess the world almost to the exclusion of all the more normal impulses.”

     That over seventy-year-old observation could have been written yesterday.

     By early 1950, for reasons not altogether clear − maybe he sensed a changing market, or maybe he had taken Johnson’s note to heart − Zanuck bubbled with enthusiasm for the movie. “I want to do this story and do it as quickly as we can get it ready,” he wrote. “I can get very excited about this.”

     Even then it wasn’t clear that the movie would be filmed in Georgia. The Blue Ridge area of Virginia and the Ozarks of Missouri were rejected before Trotti was successful in pitching the north Georgia hills where the story was set as the actual filming location. The movie premiered in February 1951 in Atlanta’s Paramount Theater.

Corra Harris’s real life marriage to a Methodist minister was far from the happy one portrayed in her novel.

     Today, of course, there are many reasons why the movie likely wouldn’t’ be made. Most would probably echo the notes from the naysaying movie executives of 1947 and after. One would certainly focus on Corra Harris herself. She wrote two dozen books in all, fiction and nonfiction, nineteen of which were published in her lifetime (she died in 1935), and was a well known journalist for over half her life, including as a war correspondent during World War I. But today she would be a pariah. Her start in journalism came in 1899 when she wrote a lengthy piece to a New York newspaper, The Independent, defending a lynching near Newnan, Georgia, that the paper had attacked. On the strength of her writing, the paper’s editors asked to see more of it. Despite that beginning, her writing has merit in the study of her times. The best of her fiction has the literary bone and muscle to stand on its own. Like everyone else, she deserves to be judged by the standards of her own time, not through the purblind prism that produces perverse modern notions of “political correctness.”

     By itself, “A Circuit Rider’s Wife” as a story is hardly autobiographical. Aside from the young Corra Mae White actually marrying a Methodist minister and educator, Lundy Howard Harris, the story’s main turns bear little resemblance to Harris’s own life. (Though as in the film, she and her husband did lose a child.) In fact, her husband abandoned her a few years into their marriage before finally returning to her, along the way him making public confessions of adultery. As a result he lost his teaching position at Emory University and the Harrises faced years of poverty relieved in greatest part by the proceeds of Corra’s writing. Lundy Harris bore almost no resemblance to “the Reverend William Thompson” of the novel and committed suicide in 1910, the year “A Circuit Rider’s Wife” was published. If he ever read the manuscript, and it’s most probable that he did, maybe he couldn’t live with the comparison. The novel’s narrative, which has been described as “a spiritual journey,” perhaps tells the life story Corra Harris had hoped she would have. If Hollywood executives were at all interested in Corra Harris these days I suspect it would be her real story that would interest them and not her “spiritual journey.” But those are the times we live in. (And if future generations judge us by our times’ standards, I hope it’s with mercy. Not that that should be expected.)

     Darryl Zanuck and his minions were right in that “I’d Climb The Highest Mountain” wasn’t a huge blockbuster success on its release. But the film endures and gains fans while many others have been forgotten. Nostalgia movie channels have practically granted it immortality. Some latter day discoverers of it even seek out the 197-year-old Chattahoochee United Methodist Church on Ga. Alt. 75 in the Robertstown community just north of Helen. The church was used extensively in the filming. The nearby Stovall Covered Bridge, also appearing in the film, is another visited site.

     The film endures because its story of life’s gains and losses, troubles and triumphs, all met with faith and fortitude, that Lamar Trotti distilled from Harris’s best known book is timeless. And its endurance is testimony that even though the values it espouses are under attack, and as Julian Johnson’s note indicates have been for a long time, they are far from dead, and still sought.

     I suspect Julian Johnson foresaw that in 1947, even if right way the mogul Darryl Zanuck did not.

The Chattahoochee United Methodist Church as it appears today.

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