“The Well” is a 1951 movie about race relations in a small town. I stumbled on it by chance on YouTube. It’s available for free and makes for good COVID-19 viewing.
“The Well” follows a small town in the 1950s as it confronts the emergency of Carolyn, a 5-year-old Black girl who goes missing but then is discovered to have fallen into an abandoned well, hence the title. The principal textbook theme of “The Well” is that incendiary rumors are quick to start and move so fast — even before the internet. In part because it is filmed in black and white, it has the familiarity of “Lassie” or “Leave it to Beaver” for baby boomers.
The low-budget film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing and won a Golden Globe for its music score. The film was inspired by the 1949 tragedy of Kathy Fiscus, of Pasadena, California, who fell into a pipe sunk into an abandoned oil field and died before help could reach her. Her plight was broadcast on live television, marking the first time a news event became a dramatic national focal point through the fledgling medium of television.
The film’s simplicity brings a clarity about the human nature of people under duress. Carolyn’s parents seek the help of the sheriff as a young boy reports that he saw her talking to a white man outside the florist shop where a man, Claude, gave her some flowers on her way to school. Carolyn’s disappearance generates rumors that quickly spread among Black and white citizens after the man is arrested as a suspect in her disappearance. Claude is a stranger to town who was just passing through on an early-morning bus and decided to stop to see his uncle with whom he is not on good terms. While walking a few blocks from the bus station, Claude ends up buying a bouquet that he gives Carolyn and helps her safely across the street. She never arrives at school.
The florist’s assistant, a young Black man, overhears his boss say that the suspect is white, and soon there are rumors that a white man kidnapped a Black girl. The suspect is interrogated by a good cop-bad cop routine that is interrupted by the uncle’s grand entrance with an alibi already made up. He tells his nephew, “You will do as I say,” rather than allow him to stick with his version of the truth. Rumors that “the uncle will get him off” spread quickly among Black people in the community.
The uncle then has a heart attack that white people in the community say was a result of an attack by young Black men. A young Black man says, “If they want to fight, we will kill them 2-for-1.” Two young white women make up a story of being harassed by a Black man. Racial tensions escalate, resulting in the burning of the construction warehouse owned by the suspect’s uncle, as the mayor calls the governor requesting the state militia intervene.
The sheriff’s effort to deputize selected Black and white men is halted only when several men speak up saying, “I can’t do this with guns. Those are my neighbors.” A memorable moment is when an older Black man asks, “Have any of you seen a race riot? I have. People just go insane.” Just then, a boy discovers Carolyn’s doll and sweater at the top of the well in a field and runs for help.
Carolyn is alive at the bottom of the 63-foot well. The community comes together to sink a shaft alongside the well using the skills of Black and white construction workers and drilling equipment provided by the uncle whose construction warehouse had just been torched. After a long and dramatic drilling effort, Carolyn is safely brought up and out of the well and placed in a waiting ambulance. After a few tense moments, it is announced she will be all right. Cheers.
Carolyn is driven off in the ambulance. A minister leads the Black and white community in “The Lord’s Prayer.” The suspect and his uncle reconcile. All ends well.
A simple story, with a feel-good ending, perhaps, but one offering lessons from a time gone by. A community pulling together, after nearly coming apart, because of an emergency, is realistic. Today, a 911 call would displace community volunteers with specialized EMS teams and better equipment.
Several scenes in the movie are ripe for a discussion of “What would have happened if race were flipped?” For example, what would have happened if a Black man had been suspected of kidnapping a white girl? Or, what difference would it have made if white people and Black people had not cooperated in slowing down the sheriff’s idea to deputize and arm volunteers to quell race conflicts? Was the uncle loaning his drilling equipment motivated by altruistic concern for the young Black girl, or was it due to self-interest of clearing his family name? Moreover, was the uncle a community leader at his best or was he acting as a white “savior”?
After watching “The Well,” I thought that the violent ending of the recent “The Hate U Give” (2019) or Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” (1989) might have been a likely outcome if Carolyn had not been found alive, but this was the 1950s.
“The Well” is certainly a bit dated by its lack of media coverage of the search and its focus on a community where everybody knows everybody. One lesson the film demonstrates is that racial tensions are more likely to be overcome through cooperative actions or projects rather than merely conversations. People come together to achieve a specific, shared goal, not to compare notes.
David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.