THE WELL (Leo C. Popkin, Russell Rouse, 1951)

One of the most exciting and emotionally overwhelming U.S. films ever, The Well is about what happens to an American town after five-year-old Carolyn Crawford one day vanishes. We know that Carolyn has fallen down an old, undemarcated well in a field; no one else does, including perhaps Carolyn herself. This “Alice” comes upon her “rabbit-hole” unexpectedly, and no “adventures” await her.
     A visitor by bus, the nephew of the town’s industrial big-wig, earlier that day bought the child violets and was seen walking with her hand-in-hand. Carolyn is African-American; Claude Packard, white. Violence erupts between blacks and whites, including assaults on Claude and his uncle, Sam (guess what he represents). An African-American girl, perhaps ten years older than Carolyn, is nearly run down in the street by white boys in a car. Embroiled in all the tumult, many have forgotten about Carolyn, who is spotted down the well by another child, a white boy; “What kid?” Sam Packard barks when informed that “the kid” has been found. But Sam pulls up short his stupid question and proves instrumental in the gut-wrenching, both highly technological and hands-on attempt to rescue Carolyn—an event for which townfolk, regardless of race, pull together.
     Overhead shots of the well cast a spell, as does, once it is amplified, Carolyn’s voice as Carolyn, sixty feet under the ground, seemingly responds to her mother’s attempts to make contact. Perhaps only later we realize, from her failure to respond to her father, that Carolyn never did hear her mother, never could draw even that much comfort. She was simply a little child crying out for her Mommy.
     Clarence Greene, who also produced (along with Leo C. Popkin), and Russell Rouse, who also directed (along with Popkin), won Oscar nominations for best story and screenplay—prizes they would not get until Pillow Talk (1959), a frothy, insipid piece of escapism: an indication of the fear-campaign in Hollywood against serious social themes, hence, Leftist movies.
     We never see Carolyn again after that brief early scene in the field.
     There is a declamatory aspect to much of the speech in this film, a borderline overwrought quality. But this is a splendid piece of work, and Maidie Norman and Ernest Anderson compel as Martha and Ralph Crawford, Carolyn’s parents, who go through what no parents should have to go through.

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