by Mary Libby Payne
Growing up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I reveled in any air conditioning, and the only AC in our town was in the Paramount Theatre. I have a vague recollection of the first movie my sister talked about from those years in the 1930s when I was a preschooler. I was terribly near-sighted but did not know it. I just thought the whole world was fuzzy, but I digress. The movie was black and white, of course, and was the first version of Little Women (1933). Our family did not get to see the whole thing, however, much to the disgust of my older sister (who reminds me of it to this day), because I wept and wailed so loudly when Beth died that our whole family had to leave or get kicked out of the movie house. To this day, I remember just that one sad moment out of the whole movie.
Then in 1948, our speech class presented the play and I was cast as Jo. I have snapshots of each of my costumes. You can imagine my delight when the movie was remade in Technicolor in 1949 featuring that handsome teenage idol, Peter Lawford. Anyway, I really wanted to rewrite the script so that Laurie (Peter Lawford) married Jo (me); but my fantasy was not to be–fortunately!
Mostly I remember that, on those nights when we went to the movie house to cool off during my preschool years, I always went to sleep. My parents’ favorites–and I guess mine, too, since I could not see nearly as well as I could hear–were the Nelson Eddy/Jeanette MacDonald movies. My daddy had a beautiful tenor voice and he would sing duets with various women soloists on the Coast, often those same songs from the movies. They had real musical talent–not just flashing lights, smoke, and other special effects along with weird and sometimes obscene gyrations that “musicians” often resort to today. In the early days of videotaping, before the days of Turner Classic Movies, I recorded those old Eddy/MacDonald movies that were shown around 3:ooAM, and I sometimes still take them out and watch them. As an adult, I realize that I initially saw very little of them–never a whole feature when I was a child.
I started school in 1938, but it took several months or years for the movies to be sent around the country and into the smaller towns in the nation like Gulfport, Mississippi. We did not get them the same year they were first shown in New York, so I can’t remember the years in which I saw three beautiful movies: The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind (both 1939), and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). I loved them all, especially Snow White. I believed that “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and sure enough, he did! I still have the album of the original soundtrack of Snow White (78’s, of course).
I also have one or more Judy Garland albums from her early movie years. We saw her in the Andy Hardy series with Mickey Rooney. One scene especially stands out in my memory: Mickey Rooney was dancing with a girl he took to a dance and behind her back he was holding out a dollar bill to try to induce some boy–any boy–to cut in on this undesirable girl. When I was a teenager, I sometimes wondered if that was happening to me on the dance floor!
If my mother was to go to a movie with me, there were two rules: it had to be in Technicolor (in fact, she never bought a television until they came out with color TV), and it could not contain moaning or crying unless it happened to be for inspiration or humor, as in The Seven Little Foys (1955) with Bob Hope. I remember going to see Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), about the life of George M. Cohan, even though it was in black and white, and I think she did go to see that, too. My daddy had been in World War I and had at least two well-worn copies of the sheet music to “Over There.” I have a stack of his old sheet music somewhere in this house, but have no idea as to its possible value.
The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946) was my favorite Technicolor “dreamboat” movie. I was in junior high and I saw it, all told, seven and a half times! In those days you could sit through the movie as many times as you liked without buying a new ticket. I guess I did that in three different sittings. I longed to be the Maid Marian to Cornel Wilde’s Robin Hood! I had thirty-five pictures of Cornel pasted on the inside door of my closet so I could see him every night before I went to sleep. Needless to say, he was not my prince and was old enough to be my father, but my crush was not hampered by the facts.
One experience stands out in particular. When I was in about the fourth grade (1941), I saw a wonderful movie with Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson titled Blossoms in the Dust, in which Garson’s character says to the Texas legislature, “There are no illegitimate children. There are only illegitimate parents!” The movie was based on the true life story of Edna Gladney, the woman in Texas who established the adoption agency from which my Uncle Harris Cook and his wife Rubye got their son, Joe. When I went home and asked my mother what Garson’s statement meant, my mother was indignant that such language was used in a movie, but she never explained what it meant. Years later, I figured it out by myself. Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon became favorites of mine. I remember seeing Mrs. Miniver (1942) during World War II and marveling at her courage and at the miracle of the rescue of troops at Dunkirk. Those two movies made a profound impact on me in that they showed me that women could face adversity with courage and dignity and MAKE A DIFFERENCE.
Born and raised in Mississippi, Mary Libby Payne attended Mississippi University for Women and the University of Mississippi School of Law. A law professor and founding dean of the Mississippi College School of Law in Jackson, Payne was also the first woman elected to the Mississippi Court of Appeals, serving from 1995 until her retirement in 2001. She is the author of A Goodly Heritage: A Memoir of Mississippi College School of Law (2011). Payne celebrated her eightieth birthday in March. She and her prince, Bob Payne, celebrated their fifty-sixth wedding anniversary in December.