Sidney Poitier’s films of the 1950s and ’60s almost always put a statement about race in the forefront, and even when the message was obvious, his work as ambassador across the race divide made a big difference. This sweet tale of a possible romance across social barriers came at a time when interracial pairing was still illegal in some states. Poitier is his sweet self, but the film was stolen by young Elizabeth Hartman, a major talent with a tragic life story.
A Patch of Blue
Warner Archive Collection
1965 / B&W / 2:35 widescreen / 105 min. / Street Date June, 2019 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Sidney Poitier, Shelley Winters, Elizabeth Hartman, Wallace Ford, Ivan Dixon, Elisabeth Fraser, John Qualen.
Cinematography: Robert Burks
Film Editor: Rita Roland
Original Music: Jerry Goldsmith
From the novel Be Ready With Bells and Drums by Elizabeth Kata
Produced by Pandro S. Berman
Written and Directed by Guy Green
A perennial favorite ‘small movie’ that’s always appealed to Sidney Poitier fans, A Patch of Blue is dramatically superior to the star’s pleasant Oscar winner from a couple of seasons earlier, Lilies of the Field. The difference is in the direction – ex cameraman Guy Green both adapted and very sensitively directed this tale of a handicapped girl coming of age in squalid surroundings, and falling in love with a man she doesn’t know is black.
Selina (Elizabeth Hartman) is the blind daughter of Rose-Ann D’Arcy (Shelley Winters), a sometime prostitute who keeps the young woman locked up and abused. Selina’s helped only occasionally by her alcoholic grandfather, Ole Pa (Wallace Ford). He walks her to the park each weekday so she can string beads under a tree, piecework she sells to Mr. Faber (John Qualen). Selina knows only harsh treatment and sordid misery with Rose-Ann, but in the park she meets Gordon Ralfe (Sidney Poitier), a lonely young man who likes her company. At first Gordon enjoys the idea of making friends with a non-black person for whom color can’t be an instant issue, but their relationship doesn’t stay so simple for very long.
Judging by the examples of Guy Green and Jack Cardiff, British ex-cinematographers make excellent directors. In this picture, Green and producer Pandro Berman fashion a studio film with neither a studio look nor a studio attitude. Released in the years when the name Sidney Poitier was synonymous with quality shows about black men that refuse to be classified by color, A Patch of Blue has dated less than most of its ilk. Poitier’s Gordon Ralfe is not a black superman or an ideal exponent of civil rights, but a guy just trying to get along. Sure, in 1965 everybody was going to notice Poitier’s color — as far as the studios were concerned, he was the only black actor given a ‘ticket to ride’ — even Harry Belafonte was considered too angry, too political.
The prejudice portrayed here is neither overstated or one-sided. A pair of biddies give hard stares of disapproval to a mixed-race couple, but they no longer feel free to shout or cry for assistance, as might have been the norm a few years earlier. Gordon’s brother Mark may be positively typed as a doctor, but he has grave & unyielding misgivings about Gordon’s judgment in getting involved with a white girl. Likewise, Selina’s mother and Ole Pa aren’t raving racists, but average whites who take their dislike of blacks for a given … well, let’s say they’re normal unenlightened Americans, which may indeed mean they’re raving racists. But they are presented as individualized people, not caricatures of specific attitudes.
Race is indeed major subject matter here, but the treatment is more complex than, say, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? That excellently written piece of progressive liberal propaganda still smacks of special pleading, with Poitier playing a man so utterly perfect so as to resemble a fantasy. A Patch of Blue’s Gordon Ralfe is also pretty darn genteel and, even though he describes himself as ugly, good looking. Gordon keeps a neat apartment. Both he and his brother wear ties to work and follow the Emily Post rules of ettiquette. What’s different is Gordon’s interior thinking process. Most of his racial concerns are left unspoken, and instead allowed to play across his face. Gordon takes it all in with varying degrees of patience and discomfort. He and the rest of the cast react as individuals, not representatives of an authors’ agenda.
To be honest, of course A Patch of Blue has an author’s agenda, But it does what it can to downplay the race card, as it were … an observation that will only seem true when comparing it to pictures of its time, the sort that followed more closely the hysteria of The Defiant Ones. And it can be noted that nervous liberals might have felt safe at Guy Green’s movie, knowing that little will happen to truly challenge their shaky values. This interracial relationship has no sex, and the sweethearts barely touch each other — but there is a discreet kiss. Goodbye Alabama.
Poitier is the star, but A Patch of Blue is Elizabeth Hartman’s picture. A frail-looking girl with an expressive voice, she had an impressive stage career but was only seen in a few more noteworthy roles. In Sidney Lumet’s awkward The Group, she’s a wife tormented by the unreasonable demands of her husband, a doctor with progressive notions. She’s a marvelous satire of a manipulative actress in Francis Coppola’s comedy You’re a Big Boy Now. She also has a powerful role as Edwina in Don Siegel’s The Beguiled, opposite Clint Eastwood.
Elizabeth Hartman’s Selina is an extremely sensitive, believable characterization. She conveys the idea of blindness beyond a simply mechanical problem, or a case of limited perception, as in the excellent Wait Until Dark. We’re acutely aware of Selina’s adaptation to her squalid environment, and quickly realize that the dirty apartment and low-life relatives may be the only reality she knows. Guy Green and his cinematographer Robert Burks give Selina a beautiful ‘wishful thinking’ daydream of being sighted, and playing in the park.
This makes her meeting Gordon in the park more than just a poignant romance a-blooming; both Gordon and the audience can see Selina opening up to new possibilities, like a cave dweller who suddenly discovers the sun. Almost all of this is due to Hartman’s theater-inflected performance, which has a touch of the theatrical that worked so well in the earlier The Miracle Worker. It’s not difficult to identify with Selina.
I don’t see ‘recommended for mature audiences’ on any of the posters for A Patch of Blue. Within the production code, it manages to suggest the prostitution, alcoholism and child abuse of Salina’s home life, without resorting to clichés. Shelley Winters and Elisabeth Fraser cavort like a couple of over-the-hill good time girls, and by the general pitch of their conversation we can guess how they augment their income. Wallace Ford and Shelley Winters make a great pair, especially when enjoying themselves, giving the neighbors a hard time. Winters does a variation on The Wicked Witch of the West, slum-living style. The story of course needs her to be cruel, to generate sympathy for Selina. Gordon soon finds that Selina has been deprived of schooling, and has never even heard of braille. Child services, please!
Ford’s booze-ridden Ole Pa is sweet when sober, abusive when drunk, and indifferent or melancholy the rest of the time. Even when Pa’s drunk, we never hate him, and when Rose-Ann plans to dump the old soak, we’re alarmed. For a mostly forgotten actor, Ford put in a remarkable number of excellent performances. He’s endearing in Tod Browning’s 1932 Freaks, and one can’t find a slimier character than his venal attorney in John Garfield’s The Breaking Point.
(spoiler) The story resolves itself with admirable restraint. Gordon and Selina don’t run away together, and he even gets her to realize that, since she’s just come out into the world, she should wait a year before making up her mind about him. He’s crazy about her, but knows that she needs to do a lot of maturing and self-discovery before they should even consider getting involved. The only weird note is Gordon’s packing Selina off to a boarding school for the blind… if this is the California social services system we’re talking about, I don’t get an instant mental picture of a pleasant place awaiting Selina. And how did Gordon get her in, without parental permission?
One thing about A Patch of Blue that merits special notice is its music by Jerry Goldsmith. One of a half-dozen major scores he wrote in 1965, it is characteristically beautiful yet sparse, simple and unfussy. Some film composers always sound the same, but never Goldsmith. I confess that my first contact with him was solely through swinging soundtracks for The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Von Ryan’s Express and Our Man Flint.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of A Patch of Blue gives us a brighter, sharper look at Robert Burks’ Panavision cinematography. Burks was Alfred Hitchcock’s regular director of photography, and his work is always precise, even for this small-scale slice-of-life tale.
Warner’s normally just duplicates their Blu-ray extras from what was released on DVD, but in this case they give us an extra treat. Repeated is the excellent commentary from director Guy Green, a modest-sounding man with amazing credits. Green tells the story of the making of the film, and touches on Elizabeth Hartman’s tragic early death only in passing.
New to video is the promotional featurette A Cinderella Named Elizabeth, which ‘introduces’ potential audiences to the promising new actress. Ms. Hartman is being the cooperative newcomer, wandering around the MGM backlot in awe, as a narrator says the the studio is giving her, a complete unknown from a small town, a big chance. In actuality, Hartman was already known from regional plays and was in New York trying out for plays when she was scouted. So it’s really a little more like ‘Cinderella had already fought her way halfway to the Ball.’ Film on Elizabeth Hartman is so scarce that this is a welcome item, much like the now-sad MGM featurette All Eyes on Sharon Tate, ‘introducing’ Sharon Tate for her The Fearless Vampire Killers. Or was it for Eye of the Devil?
Whenever A Patch of Blue is screened today, a scene set in a real 1965 supermarket always gets a big reaction. Apples 23 cents a pound, and Oranges 28 cents! How things have changed.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A Patch of Blue
Movie: Very Good – Excellent
Supplements: Commentary by director Guy Green; featurette A Cinderella Named Elizabeth; Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: June 6, 2019
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson