THE BOOTLEG FILES: THE PRIDE OF JESSE HALLAM

BOOTLEG FILES 439: “The Pride of Jesse Hallam” (1981 made-for-television film starring Johnny Cash, Brenda Vaccaro and Eli Wallach)

LAST SEEN: Unauthorized postings are online.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It has been released by a number of bargain basement labels.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Some people think this is a public domain film.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.

I had the pleasure of encountering Johnny Cash twice in my life – once in the early 1970s, when I was a kid in New York City (he smiled and waved from across a street after his name was called out) and again in the 1990s when he was in concert. I can attest that he was a larger-than-life character that lived up to his legendary persona.

However, being a larger-than-life entertainer can present problems when an acting role calls for playing an average Joe. For Cash, this dilemma was present throughout his 1981 made-for-television film “The Pride of Jesse Hallam,” in which he plays a Kentucky coal miner coming to grips with being illiterate.

Although acting was not Cash’s primary focus, he was more than capable of turning in a good performance. He was commendable as a depraved criminal in the 1961 B-grade “Five Minutes to Live” and he was a compelling presence as the Cherokee leader Sequoyah in the 1971 television drama “Trail of Tears.” He also offered a memorable guest role as a murderous singer on the long-running “Columbo” series, where he held his ground against Peter Falk’s scene-stealing antics. But in all of these roles, he stood out as a force of energy that dominated everyone around him.

In “The Pride of Jesse Hallam,” Cash was required to dial down his star power and play humble. It was a challenge, to be certain, and he certainly gave it his best. But, ultimately, the project proved to be unworthy of his talents.

Jesse Hallam is a widower with a teenage son and pre-teen daughter. He sells his family home in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, and relocates to Cincinnati, where his daughter enters a hospital to have spinal surgery. Hallam’s son is enrolled in a local high school while Hallam, a former coal miner, looks for work in the big city.

Alas, Hallam is abruptly confronted with a problem that he’s avoided most of his life: he cannot read. Unable to fill out job applications or to follow printed occupational instructions, he finds himself isolated and unemployable. His illiteracy is so acute that he cannot read traffic signs – and when he is pulled over by a police officer, he learns that his Kentucky driver’s license expired, thus requiring that he takes a new test in Ohio. (It seems that back in Kentucky, a relative casually arranged for him to bypass procedures and secure a driver’s license.)

However, Hallam winds up with a pair of angels that help him overcome his embarrassment and learn to read. One of these do-gooders is the assistant principal of his son’s high school – it seems junior also has reading problems, but this wise woman of academia quickly realizes that the elder Hallam is in need of serious literacy aid. Brenda Vaccaro plays the assistant principal, and the husky-voiced actress turns on the charm full-throttle whenever the camera finds her.

And then there is Vaccaro’s father, an Italian immigrant fruit merchant named Sal Galucci who agrees to give Hallam a job. Eli Wallach plays him in an overblown manner that seems to be a hyperactive tribute to Joe Kirk’s Mr. Bacciagalupe from the old Abbott and Costello sitcom. Wallach’s hammy performance is even more startling when awkwardly balanced against Cash’s attempt to bring some degree of subtlety to his character.

Although obviously created with the best of intentions, “The Pride of Jesse Hallam” comes apart at the seams. The subplot regarding the hospitalized daughter is occasionally remembered, but never satisfactorily resolved. An undercurrent sweep about the prejudice by urban folks against rural people like Hallam is briefly acknowledged, but is never given any significant depth. And adding to the confusion is the presence of several Johnny Cash songs on the soundtrack. Some of these tunes are sublime, particularly Cash’s cover of the John Prine gem “Paradise,” but they inadvertently keep calling attention to the fact that the film is anchored around a music legend in a non-singing role.

As for Cash, his performance is sincere and often touching. But the weakness of the screenplay and the sluggish nature of Gary Nelson’s direction works against the star. As a result, “The Pride of Jesse Hallam” winds up as a mediocre and forgettable curio that is made notable strictly by the offbeat casting of a country music legend in the central role.

CBS broadcast the film on March 3, 1981, but it did not make a significant impact in the ratings. Cash, however, came away from the experience hungry for more acting gigs, and during the 1980s he turned up in a number of made-for-television films, including a spirited supporting role as John Brown in the Civil War epic “North and South.” At the time of his death in 2003, however, Cash was lovingly recalled for his music and not for his acting roles.

“The Pride of Jesse Hallam” would have been forgotten, except that it has turned up on a number of bargain basement DVD labels specializing in public domain titles. I find it hard to believe that a 1981 film is not copyright protected – the music score is certainly not in the public domain – and the prints used for these DVD releases are badly faded and scratched. Copies of these DVDs can be found in bargain bins from lower-end retailers, and I picked up my copy as a double feature with “Five Minutes to Live” for $1.00 at a neighborhood Wal-Mart. I’ve also located some unauthorized postings of the film online.

The real shame about Johnny Cash’s movie work is that he never starred in a feature-length concert film that would have fully captured his charisma and talents. Really, who wants to see Johnny Cash pretending to be an illiterate coal miner when you could have seen him on the big screen in his complete “Man in Black” glory?

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!




Posted on August 3, 2012 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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