The Learning Tree (1969)

107 mins | Drama | 6 August 1969

Director:

Gordon Parks

Producer:

Gordon Parks

Cinematographer:

Burnett Guffey

Editor:

George Rohrs

Production Designer:

Edward Engoron

Production Company:

Winger Enterprises
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HISTORY

The working title of the picture was Learn, Baby, Learn. Based on his 1963 autobiographical novel, The Learning Tree, it marked the feature film debut of Gordon Parks, who was the first African American staff photographer for Life magazine. With the making of The Learning Tree, Parks became the first African American to direct a major theatrical motion picture. Parks had previously directed “several short film subjects and two one-hour features for National Education Television,” as stated in the 2 Apr 1968 NYT.
       The project was five years in the making, according to a 17 Apr 1964 DV item, which reported that the writer-director had begun talks with producers interested in optioning his book. Two independent producers first acquired film rights, the 17 Aug 1969 NYT noted, but they were unable to raise the necessary funds. Another producer allegedly offered Parks $75,000 to adapt the script, with the stipulation that he must rewrite the black characters as white. Parks declined. At some point, Bob Hope’s daughter, Linda Hope, was interested in producing the adaptation, according to a 7 Nov 1968 DV brief, but it was Parks’s friend, filmmaker John Cassavetes, who introduced his work to Ken Hyman, an executive at Warner Bros.—Seven Arts, Inc., which ultimately funded the production. Although Cassavetes accidentally gave Hyman a copy of Parks’s 1966 memoir, A Choice of Weapons, instead of The Learning Tree, Hyman became enthusiastic about working with Parks and reportedly struck a four-picture deal with him within a fifteen-minute meeting. The Warner Bros.—Seven Arts deal was announced in the 1 ... More Less

The working title of the picture was Learn, Baby, Learn. Based on his 1963 autobiographical novel, The Learning Tree, it marked the feature film debut of Gordon Parks, who was the first African American staff photographer for Life magazine. With the making of The Learning Tree, Parks became the first African American to direct a major theatrical motion picture. Parks had previously directed “several short film subjects and two one-hour features for National Education Television,” as stated in the 2 Apr 1968 NYT.
       The project was five years in the making, according to a 17 Apr 1964 DV item, which reported that the writer-director had begun talks with producers interested in optioning his book. Two independent producers first acquired film rights, the 17 Aug 1969 NYT noted, but they were unable to raise the necessary funds. Another producer allegedly offered Parks $75,000 to adapt the script, with the stipulation that he must rewrite the black characters as white. Parks declined. At some point, Bob Hope’s daughter, Linda Hope, was interested in producing the adaptation, according to a 7 Nov 1968 DV brief, but it was Parks’s friend, filmmaker John Cassavetes, who introduced his work to Ken Hyman, an executive at Warner Bros.—Seven Arts, Inc., which ultimately funded the production. Although Cassavetes accidentally gave Hyman a copy of Parks’s 1966 memoir, A Choice of Weapons, instead of The Learning Tree, Hyman became enthusiastic about working with Parks and reportedly struck a four-picture deal with him within a fifteen-minute meeting. The Warner Bros.—Seven Arts deal was announced in the 1 Apr 1968 DV, which referred to Parks as “the first negro in film history to direct a major feature for a major film company.” Also a well respected musician, Parks was set to write the score, which, according to the 12 Jul 1968 DV, entailed a four-movement symphony. The production budget was set at slightly less than $2 million, the 25 Jun 1969 Var reported, and Parks was slated to receive twenty-five percent of any profits, according to the 19 Oct 1969 LAT.
       Principal photography was scheduled to begin on 30 Sep 1968 in Parks’s hometown of Fort Scott, KS, as noted in a 27 Sep 1968 DV production chart. Problems arose when the film crew, including six African Americans, began shooting in the town, as stated in a 7 Nov 1968 DV report which implied that the difficulties arose from racial tension. A later article in the 25 Jun 1969 DV noted that there were twelve black crew members, not six, and blamed the tension between locals and filmmakers on the fact that Fort Scott residents wrongly assumed The Learning Tree was a “dirty film.” Parks said that shooting there eventually worked well, and that the local Elks Club admitted African Americans for the first time at a party thrown for the cast and crew. Parks was given a key to the city by local officials, and “Gordon Parks Day” was declared in early Nov 1968.
       Following five-and-a-half weeks in Fort Scott, cast and crew moved to the Warner Bros.—Seven Arts studio lot in Burbank, CA, where another two-and-a-half weeks of principal photography was scheduled, beginning in mid-Nov 1968. On 11 Dec 1968, Var confirmed that filming had been completed.
       Although William Conrad acted as executive producer throughout the shoot, his name was removed from the credits, as reported in the 19 Jun 1969 DV. The following week’s Var explained that Conrad had agreed to help but wanted no credit, since The Learning Tree was “Gordon’s story.”
       In discussing the small contingent of African Americans on his crew, Parks was quoted in the 17 Aug 1969 NYT as saying, “I hired 12 Negroes to work on the production. It was a fight, because the Hollywood unions are all white, but I got enormous cooperation from Warners.” The studio hired a black electrician, Gene Simpson, for the first time in its history, according to the 13 Mar 1969 Los Angeles Sentinel, which also noted that publicist Vincent Tubbs – the only black union head as the president of the Hollywood Publicists Guild – worked on the film. Parks’s son, Gordon Parks, Jr., acted as still photographer.
       The Learning Tree was first screened on 18 Jun 1969 at a Warner Bros.—Seven Arts press junket held in Freeport, Bahamas, as stated in that day’s Var. Following its debut there, the 25 Jun 1969 Var suggested that Parks’s “viewpoint on America and its racial problems” in the 1920s-set film might be negatively received by “black militants and other radical types.” Parks contended that black militants had been purposely planted in preview screenings, and although they had sometimes laughed at inappropriate times, they had generally congratulated him for his accomplishment. Parks stated, “But actually, I don’t care what they think. This is my story. I believe that in the black revolution there is a need for everyone.”
       Despite the film’s perceived innocence, it received an M-rating (suggested for mature audiences) from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), as noted in the 16 Jul 1969 Var. It was due to have its world premiere on 6 Aug 1969 at the Trans-Lux East and West theaters in New York City, the 30 Jul 1969 Var announced. Early reviews were mixed. The 10 Sep 1969 Var noted that although Warner Bros.—Seven Arts had initially planned a slow rollout of the film in art house theaters, its success at the more commercial Trans-Lux West – and relative failure at the Trans-Lux East – indicated the picture would play better at larger, inner-city theaters. A new “playoff pattern” was devised to take advantage of its box-office potential at theaters known for action films and other commercial fare. Within seventeen weeks of release, a 5 Nov 1969 Var box-office chart listed a cumulative gross of $1,327,543 in twenty-seven theaters.
       At Los Angeles, CA’s Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where The Learning Tree opened on 20 Aug 1969, a large fiberglass sycamore tree was built around the box office in honor of the film. According to an 18 Aug 1969 DV brief, Warner Bros.—Seven Arts planned to donate the decoration to the Crippled Children’s Society of Los Angeles County after the film completed its run at the theater.
       The 23 Jul 1969 DV announced that The Learning Tree would be shown as a U.S. entry at the Edinburgh Film Festival in late Aug or early Sep 1969. In addition to its inclusion in the festival, the film went on to garner many accolades, as noted in various DV items published between Aug and Oct 1969, including National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Image Awards for Best Picture (in a tie with Joanna [1968, see entry]), Best Director, Best Actress in a Feature (Estelle Evans), and Most Promising Young Actor and Actress (Kyle Johnson and Alex Clarke). Parks received an Annual Achievement Award from the Foundation for Research and Education in Sickle Cell Disease of New York City; an Achievement Award from the city of Cleveland, OH, presented to him by Cleveland’s mayor, Carl Stokes, on the night of the 24 Sep 1969 Cleveland premiere; and a Certificate of Merit from the Southern California Motion Picture Council, which also named the film a “Picture of Outstanding Merit.” Twenty years after its release, in 1989, it became one of the first twenty-five films selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress’ newly founded National Film Registry.
       Parks’s next film as a director, 1971’s Shaft (see entry), is widely regarded as one of the first examples of the “blaxploitation” genre.
       Actress Mira Waters made her feature film debut in The Learning Tree. The following actors were listed as cast members in DV items published between 10 Oct 1968 and 2 Dec 1968: Patrick Hall, Arthur Adams, Lorna Doone, Lynn Hamilton, Francois Andre, Roland Rego, Rachel Benson, Marie Brown, Janice Gore, El Freda Lott, Evelyn Coffee, Gina Lewis, Harry Caesar, George Davis, Oliver Hartwell, Warren McCowan, S. J. McGee, Lawrence Douglas, Fred Wright , Lynda Carlin, Rita Carrella, Ellen Chute, Emily Chute, Cathy Code, Kathy Fooey, Virginia Green, Jeannie Jones, Laurie Lynne, John Westman, Gregory Boyer, Mark Firestone, Mike Corfain, Robert Fink, Chris Hayes, Mark Hershon, Greg Mace, Don Medlevine, Jack Bowman, and Alice Dudley. More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Daily Variety
17 Apr 1964
p. 2.
Daily Variety
1 Apr 1968
p. 1, 4.
Daily Variety
12 Jul 1968
p. 7.
Daily Variety
27 Sep 1968
p. 8.
Daily Variety
10 Oct 1968
p. 4.
Daily Variety
10 Oct 1968
p. 18.
Daily Variety
11 Oct 1968
p. 6.
Daily Variety
16 Oct 1968
p. 12.
Daily Variety
17 Oct 1968
p. 4.
Daily Variety
7 Nov 1968
p. 2.
Daily Variety
11 Nov 1968
p. 2.
Daily Variety
15 Nov 1968
p. 10.
Daily Variety
25 Nov 1968
p. 8.
Daily Variety
26 Nov 1968
p. 4.
Daily Variety
2 Dec 1968
p. 4.
Daily Variety
19 Jun 1969
p. 2.
Daily Variety
23 Jun 1969
p. 2.
Daily Variety
23 Jun 1969
p. 3.
Daily Variety
23 Jul 1969
p. 4.
Daily Variety
11 Aug 1969
p. 3.
Daily Variety
15 Aug 1969
p. 3.
Daily Variety
18 Aug 1969
p. 2.
Daily Variety
29 Aug 1969
p. 14.
Daily Variety
15 Sep 1969
p. 5.
Daily Variety
13 Oct 1969
p. 1.
Los Angeles Sentinel
4 Apr 1968
Section A, p. 4.
Los Angeles Sentinel
30 Jan 1969
Section B, p. 1.
Los Angeles Sentinel
20 Feb 1969
Section F, p. 4.
Los Angeles Sentinel
13 Mar 1969
Section B, p. 3.
Los Angeles Sentinel
29 Jan 1970
Section B, p. 5A.
Los Angeles Times
22 Nov 1968
Section F, p. 22.
Los Angeles Times
20 Aug 1969
Section E, p. 1.
Los Angeles Times
28 Sep 1969
Section Q, p. 1.
Los Angeles Times
19 Oct 1969
Section S, p. 20.
Los Angeles Times
19 Sep 1989
p. 1.
New York Times
2 Apr 1968
p. 51.
New York Times
7 Aug 1969
p. 30.
New York Times
17 Aug 1969
Section D, p. 11.
Variety
11 Dec 1968.
---
Variety
18 Jun 1969
p. 4.
Variety
25 Jun 1969
p. 7, 29.
Variety
16 Jul 1969
p. 5.
Variety
30 Jul 1969
p. 28.
Variety
13 Aug 1969
p. 6.
Variety
10 Sep 1969
p. 50.
Variety
15 Oct 1969
p. 20.
Variety
5 Nov 1969
p. 11.
Variety
28 Jan 1970
p. 4.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
Asst dir
PRODUCERS
Assoc prod
WRITERS
Story cons
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
ART DIRECTOR
Art dir
FILM EDITOR
Film ed
SET DECORATOR
MUSIC
Mus comp
Mus cond & orch
Mus supv
SOUND
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec photog eff
MAKEUP
Makeup supv
Hairstyles
PRODUCTION MISC
Admin asst to Mr. Parks
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novel The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks (New York, 1963).
AUTHOR
SONGS
"The Learning Tree," words and music by Gordon Parks, sung by O. C. Smith
"My Baby's Gone," composer undetermined, sung by James "Jimmy" Rushing.
COMPOSER
DETAILS
Alternate Title:
Learn, Baby, Learn
Release Date:
6 August 1969
Premiere Information:
World premiere in New York City: 6 August 1969
New York opening: 6 August 1969
Los Angeles opening: 20 August 1969
Production Date:
30 September--early December 1968
Copyright Claimant:
Winger Enterprises
Copyright Date:
1 September 1969
Copyright Number:
LP37991
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Technicolor
gauge
35 Panavision
Duration(in mins):
107
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
22108
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

Newt Winger, a sensitive teenaged Negro boy, lives in a small Kansas town in the mid-1920's; his mother, Sarah, is a domestic for the local circuit judge, and his father works for Jake Kiner, a kindly white rancher. When Newt is injured in a tornado, he is rescued and initiated into sex by Big Mabel, the local whore. Later, while swimming with friends, including the embittered Marcus Savage, he is forced to dive for the corpse of a frightened Negro gambler whom the bigoted Sheriff Kirky had shot in the back. After Marcus is sent to jail for brutally beating Kiner, Newt turns his attention to Arcella Johnson, a new girl in town, but he is heartbroken when her family moves away because she has become pregnant by Judge Cavanaugh's white playboy son. Soon after, while working for Mr. Kiner, Newt sees Marcus' father, Booker, and a white man, Silas Newhall, attempting to rob the rancher's liquor supply. When they are discovered and attacked by Kiner, Booker kills Kiner and flees, leaving behind the unconscious Silas. As a result, Silas is placed on trial for murder, and Newt hesitates to reveal what he knows, fearing that the white community will rise up against the blacks. Eventually, however, Newt decides to tell the truth, and Booker shoots himself upon hearing the news. By this time, Marcus is out of jail, and sets out to kill Newt, who is attending his mother's funeral. The confrontation leads to a fight, which Newt wins; he lets Marcus escape before Sheriff Kirky arrives, but Kirky follows Marcus into the woods and shoots him in the back. Newt, sickened by the hatred and violence, decides ... +


Newt Winger, a sensitive teenaged Negro boy, lives in a small Kansas town in the mid-1920's; his mother, Sarah, is a domestic for the local circuit judge, and his father works for Jake Kiner, a kindly white rancher. When Newt is injured in a tornado, he is rescued and initiated into sex by Big Mabel, the local whore. Later, while swimming with friends, including the embittered Marcus Savage, he is forced to dive for the corpse of a frightened Negro gambler whom the bigoted Sheriff Kirky had shot in the back. After Marcus is sent to jail for brutally beating Kiner, Newt turns his attention to Arcella Johnson, a new girl in town, but he is heartbroken when her family moves away because she has become pregnant by Judge Cavanaugh's white playboy son. Soon after, while working for Mr. Kiner, Newt sees Marcus' father, Booker, and a white man, Silas Newhall, attempting to rob the rancher's liquor supply. When they are discovered and attacked by Kiner, Booker kills Kiner and flees, leaving behind the unconscious Silas. As a result, Silas is placed on trial for murder, and Newt hesitates to reveal what he knows, fearing that the white community will rise up against the blacks. Eventually, however, Newt decides to tell the truth, and Booker shoots himself upon hearing the news. By this time, Marcus is out of jail, and sets out to kill Newt, who is attending his mother's funeral. The confrontation leads to a fight, which Newt wins; he lets Marcus escape before Sheriff Kirky arrives, but Kirky follows Marcus into the woods and shoots him in the back. Newt, sickened by the hatred and violence, decides to go elsewhere to live with his aunt. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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