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Movie made in mountains almost stalled

POSTED: February 12, 2012 12:30 a.m.

The original script of the movie "I'd Climb the Highest Mountain," which was filmed in White County in 1950, reveals how much a story goes through before making it to theaters.

White County author Emory Jones was trolling E-Bay, the Internet marketplace, for things White County one day, found the script and bought it.

What makes the script unique is not so much the words themselves, but it includes memos among the writer, Lamar Trotti, and 20th Century Fox executives such as Otto Preminger, Darryl Zanuck and Samuel G. Engel.

The script, based on Corra Harris's novel, "A Circuit Rider's Wife," was about a minister in the mountains of North Georgia and the trials and tribulations he and his city-bred wife faced. Susan Hayward, William Lundigan and Rory Calhoun starred, and numerous White Countians and other North Georgians had supporting roles.

For a while, it seemed the story would never become a movie. The discussions started in 1947, and the film finally premiered in Atlanta's Paramount Theater in February 1951.

One early memo from a reviewer of the script to Zanuck said flatly it wouldn't be a "box-office picture."

However, Julian Johnson, another movie exec, wrote to Zanuck, "I think it has a great deal of what we need in the theatre today — simple, downright humanity, as opposed to the abnormalities, the crimes and the ‘isms' which seem to possess the world almost to the exclusion of all the more normal impulses."

You hear that same criticism of some movies today.

Another studio critic told Zanuck he couldn't work up much enthusiasm for Trotti's script. "I feel this to be overly ‘preachy,' and I would have serious doubts as to a favorable reaction at the box office ... "

Engel wrote Zanuck during an early revision of the script that he felt it greatly improved, but " ... it falls short on too many vital counts for it to merit being considered for production ... " In a later memo, he said he would vote a loud and resounding "no" to even trying to revise the script.

Preminger in 1948 wrote Zanuck that the screenplay was very expertly written, but he couldn't get interested in it. After Zanuck had several others read the script, he practically wrote it off as a movie. "I could not find one person who liked it," he told Trotti.

One reviewer was violently opposed, saying it would be a financial catastrophe. Zanuck had suggested changing the story into one of conflict and violence.

He was almost apologetic to Trotti, acknowledging all the hard work he had put into the script. But, he concluded, "You and I have got to sit down and find a new assignment."

Trotti persevered, however. He rewrote the script three times, though studio executives continued to pan it. Some said it was too similar to a 1941 movie, "One Foot in Heaven," which starred Frederic March as a minister who moved around a lot with his family.

By March 1950, however, Zanuck changed his tune, telling Trotti, Henry King — who eventually directed "I'd Climb the Highest Mountain" — and others that he had become interested in producing the movie.

"I want to do this story and do it as quickly as we can get it ready," he wrote. "I can get very excited about this."

In the same memo, he suggested Lew Ayers and Jeanne Crain as the minister and his wife. They weren't available.

Studio executives also debated the film location. They rejected the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, but seriously considered Joplin, Mo., in the Ozark Mountains. They referred to the backwoods "hillbillies" in that area as a perfect fit for the film.

Trotti was a native of Atlanta and familiar with the North Georgia mountains. The story goes that studio officials stopped at the Gainesville airport while scouting potential locales for the filming, including Charlotte, N.C. Pilot Lee Gilmer persuaded them to look more around North Georgia and flew and drove them around before they decided on White County.

"I'd Climb the Highest Mountain" wasn't a box-office blockbuster or much of an award winner. But millions continue to watch it today on television or video recordings. And it is treasured still, especially in White County.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.



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