Wednesday, September 2, 2015

...Leading the Blind

Film: A Patch of Blue
Format: Streaming video from TCM Watch on laptop.

A Patch of Blue is a film that is very much a product of its time. That’s true of all movies, of course, but in this case, there’d be no reason to ever remake the story. A Patch of Blue is the story of an abused and socially oppressed blind girl who is befriended by a kind office worker. That doesn’t sound like much, but in this case, the blind girl is white, the office worker is black, and this is 1965.

Selina D’Arcey (Elizabeth Hartman in her debut role) is blind and lives almost the entirety of her life within the confines of her tiny apartment. She shares this apartment with mother Rose-Ann (Shelley Winters, who won the Supporting Actress Oscar for the role) and her grandfather Ole Pa (Wallace Ford). Rose-Ann makes something like a living as a prostitute, while her hobby seems to be making life as terrible for Selina as she can. Ole Pa isn’t much better; he is similarly abusive of Selina although not to the same extent, but his alcoholism makes him an ineffectual guardian at best. Selina spends her days stuck in the apartment doing chores and stringing sets of beads for Mr. Faber (John Qualen) as a way to supplement the family income.

Rose-Ann’s abuse of Selina is absolutely sadistic to the point of melodrama. There is not a single bit of abuse that you might consider including in a movie about a woman abusing a blind girl and it’s here. Eventually, Selina pushes for her right to go sit in the park, promising to do twice as much work on her bead stringing if she’s allowed to go. It’s here that she meets Gordon Ralfe (Sidney Poitier). Gordon is intrigued by Selina, mainly because she has evidently never been outside of her apartment much and doesn’t seem to know anything.

Selina starts spending her days in the park and meeting with Gordon every day. Gordon starts to show her the wider world, introducing her to new things and learning about Selina’s melodramatically tragic life. For instance, he learns that she was blinded by Rose-Ann, who was visited by Selina’s father while Rose-Ann was “entertaining” a “guest.” Selina’s blindness happened when Rose-Ann hurled some undetermined chemical substance at Selina’s father and hit Selina instead. He also learns that one of Rose-Ann’s customers raped Selina about a year previous. And to pile on more tragedy, Selina has never been to school, so all she knows comes from her drunk grandfather, hateful mother, or what she hears on the radio.

Naturally, Selina falls for Gordon while Gordon really just wants to get her out of her terrible environment and into a school for the blind. The romance angle is problematic for the time of the film because Selina is white and Gordon is black, and those things simply didn’t happen in 1965. And to make matters even more melodramatic, Rose-Ann, in addition to being one of the most purely hateful characters ever created is also a racist. Oh, and she and her friend Sadie (Elisabeth Fraser) have decided to move in together, abandon Ole Pa, and force Selina into their world of prostitution. Aside from a couple of scenes featuring Ivan Dixon as Gordon’s brother and a moment where Gordon rescues Selina from a rainstorm, that’s pretty much the film.

The biggest strengths of A Patch of Blue are also its biggest weaknesses. This is pure melodrama from start to finish. Our good characters are purely good and our evil characters are purely evil. In a world where racism was a common element, the easiest way to show racism as evil is to make the worst character a racist and the sympathetic characters not racist. Selina is a true innocent, which makes her easy to root for, and when she loves a black man, that’s intended to make the “love is love” message more palatable.

I can imagine that this was an effective melodrama in 1965 when racial tensions were high. The easy emotional decisions offered in a melodrama make the desired conclusion of the audience something almost foregone. The issue is that in general melodrama doesn’t age well, and this really has aged poorly. Only the most intractable racists have an issue with interracial marriages these days, which makes the message on offer here one that has been overcome by general society.

Because of that A Patch of Blue is little more than an interesting time capsule. There’s no reason to watch this other than for a sense of history and the racial struggle at the time. Today, virtually no one would blink at the central conflict, which causes the film itself to fall flat.

Why to watch A Patch of Blue: Sidney Poitier further cements his status as the nicest guy of the era.
Why not to watch: Society has passed this film by a long time ago.


  1. Patch of Blue is a favorite of mine. Agree it is a tad good and evil, and yes, a product of its time with the interracial theme. But I think the story and its gentle depiction of friendship, along with Goldsmith's beautiful score, will appeal to any generation(regardless of the racial aspect). For me, it's also a film about how we behave towards the disabled, which remains relevant. If I was blind, this is how I would want to be treated by a stranger. There's still a hell of a lot of racism going on, so playing the "harmony between blacks and whites card" continues to be needed if you ask me. If the film in 2015 can prevent just one person from being a racist, then I see it as a positive.

    1. You may be right--I may simply be jaded at this point.

  2. Yea message movies along with with topical comedies are the pictures that age and date the worst and this is one. It does have the underlying message of tolerance which is good of course but it's buried under the braying harridan Shelley Winters plays. I love Winters, she was one of the queens of hamminess at times but when she was on her game she could modulate her performances beautifully even in junk. However either the director couldn't communicate the need for shading to her or she ignored him but she is out of control here and it's mind boggling that she was nominated for this sideshow performance let alone won!

    True it was an odd line up that year with several worthy performances, Claire Bloom in The Spy Came Who Came in from the Cold, Vivien Leigh in Ship of Fools and especially Eleanor Parker in The Sound of Music, missing but both of the women in Othello were better than she, they probably cancelled each other out though.

    1. Othello is still a hole in my viewing.

      I agree about Winters in general. I tend to like her in most of what I see, but here character here is not so much character as caricature. As much as I might like her, she does seem like a stretch for a nomination, let alone a win.

  3. Haven't seen this one, but I will say that there are still plenty of folks struggling with the idea of interracial marriage. And abuse of the disabled is also still relevant. Now, if Shelley Winters is all screeching chalk on a chalkboard that could be a problem. I'm curious to see this.

    1. There are people who struggle with interracial marriage (and there always will be), but they're a significant minority. It may be that I live in a town with a large college, so the town is racially mixed for at least eight months out of the year.

      A Patch of Blue is heavily melodramatic, though, which I think reduces the issues of interracial marriage and abuse of the disabled to caricature and sentimentality rather than really addressing the issues.