Horton Foote’s Dramas Understood What Really Matters To Us

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for January 23, 2020, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            The movie, Baby, the Rain Must Fall, screenplay by Horton Foote, based on his three-act stage play, The Traveling Lady, was mostly filmed in Texas, with scenes filmed in Columbus, Bay City, Lockhart, and Wharton, the finished movie premiering in Wharton in 1965. It was in Wharton while the movie was being filmed that I first met the American writer I admired the most and who probably influenced me the most.

            At the time of the filming in Wharton, I was teaching at Columbia High School in nearby West Columbia, and I was able to bring my journalism and my drama students to Wharton to meet the already famous Horton Foote, who lived part of each year in the family home in Wharton. I don’t remember how we managed to do it, but my students and I were able to meet my much admired “hero,” Mr. Foote. Folks in Wharton where he grew up called him “Horton,” but I could never call him anything but “Mr. Foote,” because my awe of him never diminished.

            Naturally I was a little disappointed when my students found Steve McQueen, the star of the movie, more exciting than Mr. Foote. When our bus drove by the filming site in Wharton, my students stuck their heads out the bus windows and screamed, “Steve, Steve, Steve!” I was looking only at Mr. Foote who was also on the set. Having focused on playwriting in college, I wanted to be a great author like him. I never became a great writer, but Mr. Foote certainly had a strong influence on me.

            However, the influence was more than just the stylistic aspects of writing, though there was no doubt some of that; he influenced me as a kind and caring human being who had an amazing ability to deeply understand the human condition, with its hurts and sorrows and tragedies and joys, and to even love the provincial folks who were so provincial they were funny. I’m glad of that, because I am still very “provincial” (more so “rural”) in many ways. He did not have that ugly cynicism about salt-of-the-earth people I saw in so many writers, as I came to know him better when years later he graciously led seminars for my creative writing class and the drama students at Wharton College Junior College where I was teaching.

            Although I was in Galveston for the Horton Foote Film Festival as we celebrated his Academy Award winning adapted screenplay, To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as for his Academy Award winning screenplay, Tender Mercies (he also won the Pulitzer Prize for his stage play, The Young Man from Atlanta), no work of his moved me so deeply as his The Trip to Bountiful, which he wrote as a drama for television, for Broadway, and for the cinema. It was nominated for Best Screenplay in 1986.

            The Trip to Bountiful touched my heart so greatly, not just because it was so beautifully written, but also because Carrie Watts, the elderly lady heroine (yes, heroine) of the play, seemed so remarkably like my mother. Carrie wanted more than anything else in her life to return to home out in the country in Bountiful. In spite of her son and daughter-in-law, she slips away and actually goes back to Bountiful, — only to find it wasn’t what it was before. In her later years of life, my mother wanted to move back to Dime Box when my father retired from his Section Foreman job in Giddings. Eventually she found herself the owner of my grandparents’ old home in Dime Box, and she was able to move back to her much-desired Eden. Only, it wasn’t what it was before. Perhaps in her subconscious mind, returning to her meant returning to the old way of life, — plowing a big garden, milking her cow, churning butter, and quilting. At least she was able to quilt, but her Eden was not the same, because her friends had passed away, and her children had moved away. No, it wasn’t what it was before. Sophisticated people rather than provincial folks might chuckle over what was important in life to my mother, and only truly insightful human beings can really understand what really matters to us. Horton Foote understood.

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Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.

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