My Sweet Charlie, 1970
Patty Duke and Al Freeman, Jr.
A White Girl, a Black Man, White Guilt,
Black Rage, Transcendent Art
There’s a certain kind of movie that some people never forget. Here’s what they say about this particular type of movie.
“It’s a film I saw years ago, when I was a kid. No one else was home. I just flipped on the TV, not really planning to watch anything. I never caught the beginning. I was too young to process all the film’s implications; nevertheless, it moved me deeply. I never saw it again. It’s not famous and I never heard anyone mention it. Every now and then, I’d think of the characters as if they were real people I had met at a party or on a long night bus ride. I’d wonder how their lives had worked out. Something would happen and I’d think, ‘What would she think of this?’ Though of course she was just a fictional character. My memory of the film faded, like an aged garment that had been washed too many times and had developed holes, but there was still a recognizable shape there. One day it occurred to me to use the internet to try to see if I could track down the movie. I didn’t even remember the title. I just typed in a rough description of key plot points. That search brought me to this site, and now I see that there are others who remember this film. I wish they’d bring it out on DVD.”
My Sweet Charlie is a 1970 movie about Marlene Chambers, a white girl, and Charlie Roberts, a black man. Each is hiding out at a remote lighthouse. Below are quotes taken from the International Movie Database, YouTube, and Amazon. Quoted authors go by screen names like “Shasta,” “Bron-Tay,” “txbardtobe” and “Carl Brown from Ipswich, England.”
“My Sweet Charlie is one of the finest films ever made. It is more than mere entertainment. This film is art. Patty Duke is letter perfect and Al Freeman, Jr. matches her from beginning to end.”
“I saw this when I was young and loved it. It made a big impression on me. No one that I know has seen it, so no one to discuss it with.”
“I’ve been waiting for it to air again for decades.”
“I’m desperate to get hold of a copy. Please post a message if you are able to get hold of it on DVD. Fiona, Melbourne Australia.”
“I had not seen this movie since I was a kid. I had forgotten so much of it. However something about the movie always reminded me that I wanted to view it again.”
“I saw its initial premiere and was completely mesmerized. Duke won a well-deserved Emmy and Freeman was nominated. This movie was so successful when it premiered on NBC that it eventually earned theatrical release overseas.”
“Last summer we went down the driveway and saw the family standing out there next to the huge iron lighthouse. They looked at us for a second and then just turned around. It was funny because I thought we would get in trouble but I guess a lot of people do that.”
“I saw this on TV back when. I never forgot it. I miss these kinds of intimate, sensitive stories with no gimmicks or special effects. Story and acting.”
“Imaginative storytelling, writing, directing, and acting without any gimmicks … The key ingredients were simply art and talent.”
“Without political correctness. Just some from the gut and heart human turmoil and genuine connection.”
“One of the finest two-character studies ever produced.”
“After watching this the first time years ago as a child, I was never able to find it again, so thanks for downloading. This was a great movie and I love both characters and actors but I will say that I watch this up until the end and then turn it off and make my own ending in my head.”
“I first saw it when I was younger. I remember being shocked hearing the N-word. But I was blown away with both actors’ performances. This is a movie that should be in the top 250, and yet not many people have heard of it. I don’t mind admitting it. I have searched for this film for over 30 years. And it was only yesterday a person who uses this website helped me find the film’s title. That person is ladyboss1717. I wish to thank that person in helping me find a classic. Trust me! Please see it.”
When I was a kid, living at home with one black-and-white TV shared by eight people, I saw My Sweet Charlie on TV. I remember a woman hiding out and a black man coming along. I remember a kitchen. It was stormy outside. There was danger of some kind — at least one gunshot. I didn’t like the ending. I remember being deeply moved, in spite of, not because of, a didactic undertone. I did not remember what moved me. I just remember that — being deeply moved.
The other day, on a whim, I googled it. I rewatched the film for the first time in forty years. Watching blotchy, postcard-sized YouTube images on my laptop, I was as moved as I would be while watching a classic in a movie theater.
Two things I wish I could change about My Sweet Charlie
I want to talk about how much I love this movie, but first I want to tell you two things I would change, if I could.
The director, Lamont Johnson, did a fine job. Still, I would love to see a My Sweet Charlie directed by Peter Weir.
Weir made The Year of Living Dangerously and Dead Poets Society. He has a gift for capturing the ache of a human being out of place. His uprooted characters endure disorientation as well as uncanny and ultimately transcendent epiphanies. They hanker for the security of home, but must redefine home after being turned inside out.
Marlene and Charlie are human rejects. Around their lighthouse hideout, mud and water stretch toward an empty horizon. I would have loved to have seen cinematography that captured the Wyeth-like light of blond beach and lush, wind-turned marsh grass, the changing hue of mud flats as they absorb rushing tides and then dry in the sun.
The landscape mocks Marlene and Charlie. It appears barren, and for their purposes, it is barren. They are hungry. One false move, and they could be dead. There is no transportation, no food they know how to access, and no escape.
In fact, of course, this liminal landscape where earth and water meet, embrace, and, daily, in accord with the moon and tides, dominate or succumb to each other, throbs with abundant opportunity and life: birds, fish, crustaceans, grasses and flowers, currents that could whisk them away from their woes. This is just not an environment that is inviting to Charlie and Marlene. They are out-of-place both in human society and in nature. Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.
Jazz musician Gil Melle scored the film. Marlene attempts to escape from Charlie. She runs, into the wild night, across sand and past palms undulating in a cyclone, into grasses and shrubs. The scene begins with bass guitar, then snare drum rim tap, then flute, then the train-like chugging of a harmonica, then a very jazzy clarinet: the music of urban hipsters and smoky cafes.
I would like to have watched this film with a soundtrack by Maurice Jarre. There’s something elemental about a man and a girl acting out ancient and unsolvable tensions while surrounded by earth and water approaching and retreating with each tide. Maurice Jarre’s work for Lawrence of Arabia transmutes desert into sounds. He gives us Russia’s snows in Dr. Zhivago. Perhaps for My Sweet Charlie he would have captured water as he does so well for The Mosquito Coast.
Patty Duke and Al Freeman, Jr.
Patty Duke, who stars as Marlene, had been in fifty different productions by age 12. Her name appeared above the title on the marquee for Broadway’s The Miracle Worker. Duke played Helen Keller again in the movie and, at 16, was the youngest person, at that time, to receive a competitive Academy Award. She starred in television’s very successful Patty Duke Show from 1963 to 1966. The book American Sweethearts: Teenage Girls in Twentieth Century Popular Culture identifies Patty Duke as one of the celebrities who helped define what it once meant to be a teenage American girl: perky, spunky, sexy, but in a very safe and chaste way.
In 1988, in her memoir Call Me Anna, Duke revealed that her childhood home in Elmhurst, Queens, was infested with bedbugs. Her parents were blue collar, an Irish-German-American cashier and an Irish-American cabdriver. Her mother suffered from depression and was sometimes violent. Her father was an alcoholic. Her mother threw him out when Duke was only six years old. Duke saw him only a few more times, usually at a bar, before he died. Her mother handed her over to John and Ethel Ross, managers of child actors. They changed her name from Anna Marie to Patty, controlled her life and squandered her earnings. The Rosses refused permission for Duke’s mother to attend the Academy Awards. They gave Duke drugs and alcohol, and molested her.
Duke suffered from anorexia, dropping to 76 pounds. She had relationships with men both much younger and older than herself. Against Lucille Ball’s wishes, Duke dated Ball’s son, Desi, when he was 17 and Duke was 23. One of Duke’s marriages lasted thirteen days. Her son Sean Astin (Samwise Gamgee in Lord of the Rings) did not know who his father was until he took a DNA test.
After The Patty Duke Show went off the air, Duke’s first major film role was in the 1967 The Valley of the Dolls. Michael Medved lists it as one of the “Fifty Worst Films of all Time.” Duke’s costar was Sharon Tate. Tate would go on to wed Roman Polanski. In 1969, the Manson Family murdered Tate when she was eight and a half months pregnant.
It is testimony to Duke’s resilience as a human being and her gift as an actress that she was able to give the performance she gave in My Sweet Charlie. At the Emmy Awards, hosted by the now-disgraced Bill Cosby, Duke gave what is one of the most uncomfortable acceptance speeches in Hollywood award history.
Patty Duke attempted suicide at least five times. “I wanted to be out of pain.” “I didn’t know how to be an adult. I had no preparation.” In 1982, at age 35, Duke was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She has since become a mental health advocate.
Patty Duke plays a white girl interacting with a black man in My Sweet Charlie. One might assume that her character is rich and privileged, contrasting with a poor, suffering black person. The movie, and life, is more complicated than that. Those complications are reflected in Duke’s biography. Her youth included so much exploitation and pain that though my own life has been no picnic, I would not trade my childhood for Patty Duke’s.
Al Freeman, Jr. (1934-2012) plays Charlie Roberts, the black man. Freeman was a stage, TV, and movie actor who appeared as Malcolm X in Roots, the Next Generations, and as Elijah Muhammad in Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X. He was the first African American to win a Daytime Emmy; he won for his depiction of Ed Hall on the TV soap opera One Life to Live. He taught theater at Howard University.
My Sweet Charlie Is Not a Politically Correct Lecture
My Sweet Charlie was made in 1970. That’s six years after passage of the Civil Rights Act, three years after Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the Loving v Virginia Supreme Court decision and the
riots, two years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, and one year after the Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” that depicted space aliens with half white and half black faces fighting to the death. Given its context, one might assume that My Sweet Charlie is, metaphorically, black-and-white, that is, a preachy exercise in white guilt and black power.
I’m not the audience for Politically Correct agitprop. I first saw the PBS miniseries Eyes on the Prize, about the Civil Rights Movement, after I’d gotten back from spending 1988-89 in Poland. I had participated in bringing down Communism. I met people like Jacek Kuron and Lech Walesa; I faced off with water cannons, riot police, and tear gas. When I watched Eyes on the Prize — with its archival footage of African Americans facing off with water cannons, riot police and tear gas — I didn’t feel that I was watching their story — a story that belongs only to black people. I felt that I was watching our story — the story of how people expand human freedom and dignity.
That colorblind, universalist worldview is unacceptable to the rich white liberals and black grievance industry professionals who now monopolize the microphone. Whiteness per se is now blameworthy.
Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were two white men who were killed for their Civil Rights activism. They are not unique; were it not for many white heroes who supported Civil Rights, to the point of sacrificing their lives, the movement would have failed. The 1988 film Mississippi Burning dramatizes their martyrdom. David Sirota is one of many high priests who instruct us to reject Mississippi Burning. Sirota grew up in one of the wealthiest, whitest counties in the country. He attended the oldest private Quaker school in the world, an elementary Ivy. He has worked as Bernie Sanders’ spokesman. He appoints himself to instruct you in what movies you should value, and why.
“Oscar Loves a White Savior” he mocks, in reference to Mississippi Burning. Sirota also pillories Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln for the same crime: dramatizing a white historical figure who risked life and career to end racial injustice. In the 2011 film The Help, Octavia Spencer, playing a black heroine, forces a white villainess to eat her feces. Spencer won an Academy Award. Sirota denounces The Help as racist. “It refuses to focus on black working-class struggle.” The film, Sirota alleges, by depicting white racists as bad people, lets non-racist, nice white people feel good about themselves. We can’t have that, because all white people are the problem, and must feel guilty all the time.
Melissa Harris-Perry is the daughter of two college professors. She taught at Princeton and is an MSNBC star. She asks, “Why do people love Star Wars so much? … Darth Vader is a terrible and bad and awful … black guy … who cuts off white men’s hands!”
Rich white liberals like Sirota and black grievance mongers like Harris-Perry monopolize the microphone. They tell us whiteness is bad.
I never see or hear anyone anything like my African American students or neighbors in high-profile national productions about race. They are largely hardworking people. They disdain welfare dependency. They want a better future. They have white friends. They are eager to learn about, and to try, new solutions, but they remain woefully uninformed about them. That’s because black conservatives like Shelby Steele and Walter E. Williams are also excluded from the conversation.
Also silenced: the vast majority of white Americans. Most white Americans do not descend from slave owners. Most white Americans scoff at the concept of “white privilege.” Most white Americans have sacrificed for what they have. Most white Americans have tragic histories of their own.
My Slavic ancestors were such common items in the international slave trade that we gave the world the word “slave.” Muslim slave-traders took so many Slavic slaves that they incorporated their word for us into their word for “eunuch.” Muslims routinely castrated male slaves.
We were liberated from serfdom in the 1860s, at the same time African Americans were liberated from enslavement. My friend John Guzlowski‘s parents were two of the over a million Poles enslaved by Nazi Germany. Occupiers outlawed our language and slated our culture for extinction. My grandmother learned of her own heritage in secret meetings in a church basement. In this country, we were shot if we organized. Some were lynched. My mother, a brilliant woman, cleaned houses. My dad did manual labor. Neither had a high school diploma. Sirota and Harris-Perry must silence me; my mere existence muddies their narrative.
There’s another reason PC silences working class whites like me. Their hate requires a boogieman. We, rather than rich white liberals like Sirota, are the bad guys. We are responsible for racism. But our parents and grandparents immigrants, we were barely getting our footing in this country when the Civil Rights Movement began. In Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, angry blacks don’t rise up against a plantation-owning Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Rather, angry blacks destroy a pizzeria owned by Italians. This cinematic black-on-working-class-white-ethnic crime is a reflection of real life events that occurred during the Newark Riots, that destroyed, not rich white neighborhoods, but those of working class Jews and Italians.
PC’s worst boogiemen are poor white Southerners. Trailer trash, white trash, hillbillies, rednecks, cracker: our very vocabulary tells the tale of how unquestioned and universal is our contempt. We recognize poor white Southerners as a culturally distinct group, and we have no single neutral term for them. “Inbred” is a frequent insult. We unthinkingly attribute incest, an abomination in our culture, to poor white Southerners.
No David Sirota rises up to critique depictions of poor white Southerners in American film. At least two high-profile films, The Prince of Tides and Deliverance, hinge on scenes of poor white Southerners as anal rapists. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, poor white Southerners are sadistic cannibal serial killers. Poor white Southerners are the go-to, default population for unspeakable acts. Horror-movie scholar Carol J. Clover writes that the “redneck has achieved the status of a kind of universal blame figure, the someone else held responsible for all manner of American social ills … anxieties no longer expressible in ethnic or racial terms have become projected onto a safe target” — safe, she says, because white.
If My Sweet Charlie were a product of rich white liberals and black grievance industry professionals, I would have none of it. It’s not. It’s art.
So Let’s Talk About My Sweet Charlie
Marlene Chambers (Patty Duke), is a poor, uneducated, white, Southern girl. She is pregnant. Her dad throws her out; her boyfriend rejects her. Not knowing what to do, cardboard suitcase in hand, she travels to a vacant home near a lighthouse. She breaks in. We see Marlene carefully washing, drying, and putting away the dishes she has used. We see her taking the very few single dollar bills she has out of her purse and placing them under a lazy Susan, as payment for the food she has eaten. Heartwarming guitar music strums as Marlene gathers driftwood for her fire. She gazes toward her “home” and smiles as if suddenly catching sight of a long-lost friend. We sense that Marlene has never had much autonomy, and that playing lady of the house is her first chance to spread her wings. Before falling asleep at night, she places her hand over her swelling belly, grimaces, and simply blows out her candle — she is refusing to confront the consequences of her actions.
Marlene knows the world is full of rules and etiquette that she can’t navigate. She attempts to hitchhike. A VW van painted with flowers and slogans like “Peace” and “Love” pulls over. These hippies, “peace and love” notwithstanding, are no refuge. It’s clear from their derisive comments that they are inviting Marlene into their van only in the hopes of sexually exploiting her naiveté. “I’m not hitchhiking!” she lies. (One of the men inside the van is Brent Spiner, who would later play Data on Star Trek.)
Marlene jerks awake. She investigates. “A nigger!” Marlene screams a word so taboo we are not even supposed to spell it. Yet we don’t hate Marlene.
I detect no barrier between Duke’s heart and my eyes. I feel, when I’m watching My Sweet Charlie, that I’m watching, not Patty Duke, but Marlene Chambers, a real, live, terrified, dumb, pregnant Southern girl. I see every flicker of her thoughts and emotions, her weaknesses and her strengths. I feel like I experience more authentic humanity watching Duke play Marlene than I experience in many a one-on-one encounter with a flesh-and-blood human being.
I have to wonder if Duke’s history of mental illness is not at play, here. I don’t know if anyone fully sane could ever so thoroughly access, and be, another human being. I don’t know if anyone who has a firm grip on consensus reality could be so naked, so vulnerable, so aware — since so much of sanity is the demand that we close our eyes, not open them, that we build walls so as not to overwhelm ourselves.
So, this is the power — and the compassion — of My Sweet Charlie. The lead character just said the ugliest word in the English language, and we remain on her side — we don’t approve of the word; we hope she will learn and grow — and we hope that we will accompany her as she does. Too, we know that Marlene has been taught to fear the mythic black rapist typified in the 1915 D.W. Griffiths’ film Birth of a Nation. Marlene is certainly unaware of Eldridge Cleaver’s claim in his 1968 book Soul on Ice that he “consciously, deliberately, willfully, methodically” raped white women as “an insurrectionary act.” We don’t know if, like South Carolina author Mary Boykin Chestnut, Marlene knows about white men’s rape of black women — but we do know that when it comes to the sexual politics of historical power plays, Marlene, like most poor young women, is a bystander, a pawn, or maybe a victim, but not an empowered actor.
Marlene insists to the intruder she has labeled a “nigger” that this is her home and her father will return from the “picture show” at any minute.
The man studies the house. There are dust cloths on the furniture. The man attempts to switch on a lamp; nothing happens — no electricity. Marlene naively admits that “there ain’t no phone.” He rapidly sizes up Marlene. “By no stretch of the imagination do you belong in a decent house.” He rapidly surmises that Marlene has broken into the house just as he has.
We know Marlene has concluded that the black, male intruder is a “nigger” — a force to overturn the tiny, fragile civilization Marlene has imagined into being in her playhouse. We know that he underestimates her as “poor white trash.” What do we, the viewer, make of him?
The movie seems to want to confuse us. He is breaking into a house at night. He has the grim, deadly focus of a killer. He grabs Marlene. He places his hand over her screaming mouth. She runs; he pins her wrists; he is on top of her; she writhes about, throwing open her housecoat to reveal her naked thighs. She runs again; he chases, tackles her, downs her, and then slaps her across the face. “A nigger hit me!” she screams.
But he’s wearing a suit. A good suit, also a tie and dress shoes. His speech is pristine, and he has an exceptionally beautiful voice. She throws herself on the bed and sobs convulsively, as only a bratty teenage girl can. Marlene doesn’t see this, but we do; the man looks at her, slouches, looks down, and frowns. We can see that he’s never hit a woman before, and he is as shocked by his own violence as Marlene is. He reaches out and lightly touches her hair. “I didn’t hit you that hard,” he says. She recoils. He locks her in her room, and then falls asleep in a wicker chair.
We quickly discover that whoever he is, he is not as easy to love as Marlene. My Sweet Charlie is not just about blacks and whites. It’s about males and females, adults and teens, the city and the wild earth. Marlene is all heart, as hot, moist and fertile as the Southern bottomland for which she yearns, “so rich you could eat it with a spoon.” Charlie is all head. And he is cold.
Marlene calls Charlie a “nigger” twice in their initial encounter. She stops herself from saying it a third time, but her courtesy is of no avail; the dead silence — the audible blank space — where she would have said the word is almost louder than the spoken syllables.
There is no flicker in his eyes. I wonder if it was hard for Freeman to be called a “nigger,” even as part of a movie scene, and not flinch.
We soon learn that his apparent lack of response is not evidence of passivity; whoever he is, this is a man who knows the meaning of, “Revenge is a dish best eaten cold.”
“You better not try anything,” Marlene spits, her eyes narrowed and her lips rigid and stern. She’s trying to look the venomous snake when she’s really just a squishy little salamander.
“What?” he asks, incredulous.
“You know what I mean,” Marlene insists. “You know exactly what I mean.”
“Well, Little Miss White Lady, I wouldn’t worry about that if I were you. Because, have you looked in the mirror lately? You’re ugly. Uuuuu gly.”
Freeman was twelve years older than Duke. Duke plays Marlene as if she were 15. It’s a powerful moment. He says the thing that any teenage girl dreads to hear, especially from an adult man: you are too ugly to be attractive.
Many an actor would be tempted to deliver that line with extra helpings of special sauce. Freeman does not. His voice never rises. He speaks in an almost kind tone. He could be saying, “Here, pet this nice puppy.” I love Marlene because Duke vivifies her with naked life. I love Charlie because Freeman executes him with iron discipline. His brilliance gleams with the luster of sharp steel. We get to know Marlene because Duke bares her. We get to know Charlie because Freeman keeps us at arm’s length. Exposing and concealing: both aesthetic disciplines.
“That’s what you say,” Marlene spits. “If my daddy wuz here — ”
Charlie cuts her off. His voice is gentle. His correction is scathing. “Were. ‘If my daddy were here.'”
Marlene is a high school student. She obeys an older man in a suit who knows more than she does. She knows he knows more. Through clues, we learn that Marlene strives for the dignity, command and societal respect that elude her. “If my daddy were here —” she tries again.
Charlie nods at her corrected grammar and her pliability; he produces the cold, shallow smile of a slightly sadistic schoolmaster.
But again Charlie cuts her off. “He’d sic the hounds on me. But he’s not here, is he? It’s just you and me.”
Freeman’s Charlie isn’t anybody’s stereotype. He’s not playing a “black man.” He’s playing a man. He’s bringing to life a human being, of above average intelligence, trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare. His blackness is not essential, any more than Marlene’s whiteness; both their skin colors are incidental. It’s testimony to the power inherent in the script that, with minor tweaking, it could work with the roles reversed.
In the morning, Charlie brings Marlene coffee and promises her that he will leave, if she will swear on a Bible that she will never tell anyone that she has seen him. Whoever or whatever this character is, he is not what we at first had thought. He’s not the Sidney Poitier character from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner — that is, someone too good to be true. He’s not the dreaded “magical negro” who must be superhuman to be palatable, and to avoid charges of racism. He’s also not a stereotypical villain; had he been one, he would not have slept in the wicker chair.
Charlie attempts to leave Marlene’s requisitioned house. At this point there is a plot contrivance that temporarily takes me out of the movie. Charlie complains of the cold. He is desperate for a winter coat. The film was shot in Port Bolivar, on Texas’ Gulf Coast. Blinding sunshine, lush palm trees, flamboyantly blossoming oleander and facial sweat are quite evident in several shots. The MacGuffin of Charlie stealing a winter coat just doesn’t work.
The coat Charlie steals is sheepskin. I have to wonder if this is an attempt at symbolism, if we place the emphasis on skin. Sheepskin coats are, of course, “flesh tone,” that is the color of Caucasian skin. Is this a message of some kind? Dunno.
Charlie, after leaving Marlene’s hideout, enters Mr. Treadwell’s store, steals a coat, and is seen. Treadwell shoots at him. Charlie makes a narrow escape and returns to Marlene’s hiding place. He promises her he will leave on Christmas Day, when the roads are free of traffic and he can avoid detection. This is another contrivance; crowded roads before Christmas would better serve a fugitive avoiding a lynch mob. The writer chose Christmas as the date for Charlie’s escape for symbolic reasons, as we shall see.
Charlie and Marlene are imprisoned in the same cell: the house is not their trap; their trap is their defiance of societal norms. They are both transgressors; they have both sacrificed normal human relationships and are now outside anyone’s “universe of obligation.”
And so they talk. Their every conversation is a wrestling match; who is on top or bottom changes with each line. Their opposite features constantly vie: his formal education and her earthy knowledge. His coolness and her heat. The North against the South. “You northern people think you can come down here and lord it over everybody.”
He uses the expression Q.E.D. “I know what that means,” Marlene says. “I learned it in geometry class.” But there is so much this city boy doesn’t know. He panics when he hears a screech owl. “What was that?” he demands.
“Ain’t you never heard an owl before?”
Though Marlene is obviously just a kid, and as desperate and outcast as he is, Charlie tosses heaps of stored up rage at her.
She mentions that he looks as if someone has beaten him up. “Just because somebody beat you up is no reason to act ugly to me. Wasn’t me that did it.”
“Yeah,” he replies. “But you’d like to, wouldn’t you?”
She hears him refer to himself as “Charlie” and asks if that is his name. “We don’t have names, Miss Scarlett, we’re not bright enough to remember them.”
She says she is a Christian, “Everybody is a Christian.”
“How would you know? Ever see a black face in your church?” he asks.
“You people have your own churches,” she replies.
“You people burn them down.”
“I don’t know anything about that.”
“I bet you don’t.”
“I don’t! Why are you always blaming me for everything?”
Charlie badgers Marlene. “What’s your name, Little Miss White Lady? After all, we’ve lived together in the same house.”
After some resistance, tells him her name is Marlene.
He immediately mocks her. “How did that happen? I thought you people went in for Amy Lou and Sally Joe.”
She reports that she is named after her great-great grandmother who had a “big place in Atlanta.”
“I never knew the name of my great-great grandmother. Probably ‘Mammy’ something.”
“Don’t blame me. It ain’t my fault you’re black.”
As ever, Freeman doesn’t flinch; there isn’t even a flicker in his eye. He merely, coolly asks, “If I were white, do you think I’d be a better man?”
“You sure couldn’t be no worse.”
This all might sound very didactic, very paint-by-numbers. The angry black. The defensive white.
It’s not the what — the substance of their conversation. It’s the how — the actors’ and filmmakers’ artistry. I could rent a theater and spout, “To be or not to be that is the question.” No one would come. Theater-goers who know Hamlet’s soliloquy by heart are brought to tears when a great actor speaks it in a way that brings it new life.
Freeman, Duke and the filmmakers conjure magic. They speak these trite race-war talking points as if no one had ever thought them before — as if they matter, intensely, to Marlene, and to Charlie — as if their lives could be different in the next moment depending on what is said, and felt, and understood. Because Duke and Freeman are everything movie stars must be — intimate and yet larger than life, unique and yet as familiar to you as your neighbor or yourself — these words come to matter to you. They matter in the specific — would Charlie be any better if he were white? And they matter in the universal — why has humanity allowed superficialities like skin color to take on the power of life and death?
Eventually, Charlie notices Marlene’s voracious appetite and expanding waistline. Charlie, with cold calculation and sadistic relish, unleashes his rage.
When I watch this scene, I identify with both Charlie and Marlene. I identify with Charlie, because I have been the underdog who had to put up with insults from my social betters. I relish his opportunity to sink the knife in to his tormentor. I identify with Marlene because I was once a girl as vulnerable as she. That My Sweet Charlie invites me to share in the humanity of both of its opposite leads, to identify with Charlie’s triumph and Marlene’s pain, testifies to the power of its artistry.
Suddenly realizing that Marlene is hiding out because she has, as they used euphemistically to say, “gotten herself in trouble,” Charlie says, “Here all alone. As if you had no place else to go. Got ourselves pregnant, didn’t we? And I thought you were such an innocent little girl. Stupid, but innocent. My apologies little mother. And here I thought you were too ugly for anyone to look at. Somebody did more than just look, didn’t he?” When he speaks these lines, Freeman’s eyes are diabolical, coldly boiling with subdued rage. He is aiming a deadly weapon at the heart of the one he identifies as his enemy. He is moving in for the kill. He will taste his revenge. “That daddy of yours. Didn’t he have a shotgun? Kicked you out, didn’t he?”
Marlene breaks down. She cries, “I hate you!” and runs outside to the lighthouse. Unlike before, when he slapped her, and looked immediately remorseful, here Charlie is merely cold.
A teenage girl does not want to be told she is two things: ugly or a slut. Charlie has called Marlene both, and also, of course, fat and stupid. He never apologizes. He goes to the lighthouse. Marlene is dozens of feet above him, staring down. He shouts up to her. He has stolen some potatoes from the house next door.
“Marlene, you should eat!”
She ignores him.
“All right,” he says. “You’re not hurting me. You’re only hurting yourself, and your baby.”
“I don’t want no baby! I ain’t gonna have no baby!”
He enters the house. When he hears Marlene sidling into the kitchen behind him, he wears a self-satisfied grin, one we see but Marlene does not.
He fondles the potatoes. He talks about them. How could they be cooked in this kitchen?
Marlene mocks his ignorance.
“How am I supposed to know?” he asks, his voice high-pitched, like a helpless little boy.
“You don’t like it when people talk to you the way you talk to them, do you?” she challenges. She is one spunky girl.
He concedes nothing. He continues to bait his trap. He verbally fantasizes a baked potato, with sour cream.
She sneers. “When our cream clabbered we threw it to the pigs.”
Charlie baits Marlene into bragging that she can cook French fried potatoes. “I don’t cook for no…” We know what word she was about to say, and did not say.
“If you want to eat them you will,” Charlie says.
“I’ll cook them if you peel them.
“Charlie suddenly looks atypically helpless. “Well, where’s the … peeler?” Charlie, like so many men, suffers from a peculiar blindness — he cannot find a basic tool in a kitchen.
“If you ain’t the most helpless — ” Marlene opens a drawer and takes out the potato peeler.
He has book learning about the Irish Potato Famine, and he shows it off. She has none. He tells her she should not use the word “ain’t.” It makes her sound ignorant. She replies that she may be ignorant, but “I know what potato blight is, and rust and rot and pip.”
“Pip?” he asks, incredulous.
“Chickens get it.”
“Live and learn.”
He doesn’t want to tell her for her own good, he says. “I don’t want to implicate you.”
Marlene tenderly responds, “I don’t mind if you impricate me.”
“Implicate!” he corrects.
Charlie had been a successful lawyer in New York City. He realized that other black people were putting their lives on the line to make the world a better place. He traveled south to participate in a protest. Whites assaulted the protestors. Charlie, afraid for his life, fought back. He inadvertently killed a man. Charlie is in agony as he relives the killing. It’s the most emotion we have seen from him.
Charlie and Marlene must collude to get more food. Charlie declares that the store is too far for Marlene to walk, given her pregnancy. Finally Marlene, who has been intellectually bullied by Charlie, gets back some of her own. She must tutor Charlie in how to act like a Southern black man so that he can fetch food from Treadwell’s store.
“He’ll probably suspicion something,” Marlene says of Treadwell.
“Suspect!” Charlie corrects. “Suspicion is the noun. Suspect is the verb.”
Marlene tells Charlie what items to buy. She lists evaporated milk. Charlie repeats, “Evaporated milk.”
“Vaporated!” she says, giving the word her pronunciation.
Charlie’s foray is successful. He gets food. But he can barely disguise his disdain for Treadwell’s barely disguised racism. This trip to the store has surely foreshadowed some dreadful plot element to come. Charlie and Marlene are walking back from a failed attempt to catch fish. A couple in a station wagon arrives to check on the vacant homes. Charlie grabs Marlene’s hand and pulls her down into oleander bushes. He quivers. He says he is going to run and never come back. In a few, deft, impressionist flickers on Marlene’s face, we know: she doesn’t want Charlie to leave. She wants to keep him. She summons her animal cunning, and bursts from their hiding place, at a run. Charlie stares, dumbfounded and terrified. What is this girl going to do? Expose him? Turn him in? He does not yet realize that things have changed between them, that Marlene has changed.
Marlene greets the couple fearlessly. Marlene displays a human warmth and an animal shrewdness that Charlie lacks. She is so affecting, innocent, and eager in her greeting that the couple believes her when she announces that the homeowners have delegated her to watch over the very home she has broken into. Marlene can fool the neighbors, but Charlie could not fully fool Treadwell. Charlie watches from the bushes, a smile beaming on his face. “Marlene I’m proud of ya!” he says, the first time he compliments her.
Marlene is wistful. With a far-away look in her eyes, she tells Charlie that “The way he opened the car door for her, and called her honey,” moved her greatly. We know that no one has ever treated Marlene with such chivalry. Marlene’s back is to Charlie. She doesn’t see this, but the audience does. Charlie softens. Charlie cares. The cold rage is just not there in his face. He cares about this girl and her stunted life. “I know,” he says. “You all right?” he asks, solicitously. Previously he had urged her to eat perhaps because he felt guilty; perhaps because he wanted her to cook potatoes for him. Now we know that he cares.
In the time it takes Freeman to say “I know,” Patty Duke does something amazing with her face. She “says,” without words, “You don’t know. You think my yearning is for the young stud who impregnated, and then disappointed me. It’s not. You’re the one I fantasize about opening the car door for me. You’re the one I want to hear call me ‘honey.'” A viewer trained on action films, explosions, and special effects would never catch this seconds-long communication, and would never understand how rich this film is. That viewer would watch all of My Sweet Charlie “waiting for the action to start.”
Later, Charlie is comfortably sprawled across the wicker chair in the living room, casually smoking a cigarette, ashtray perched on his bent legs. He is doing what he has been doing during the entire film; he is watching Marlene. Before, he had been watching her to find her weakest spot to plunge the knife in, or out of the need to survive, and then from anthropological curiosity. Now we sense that he is watching her in a different way. His posture is relaxed and confident. He no longer looks like a hunted animal. We sense that this is Charlie, the real Charlie, the Charlie he is at home. He had slept, that first night, in this same wicker chair. The chair reminds us how much things have changed between them.
Earlier on this day he had been out scavenging for food when he took an ax and chopped down a pine tree. He brought it into the house as a gift for Marlene. She is decorating it now. She has fashioned paper and tin foil into ornaments.
Tinny, instrumental Christmas carols sound from a transistor radio: “Silent Night,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”
Charlie comments on Marlene’s improvised ornaments. “That’s pretty good, ya know? You’re pretty clever with your hands.”
Marlene does not turn around to face him. She shrugs off the compliment. “It ain’t nuthin’. Just foolin’ around. It don’t amount to much.” She is not used to receiving compliments, and doesn’t feel it would be proper to acknowledge them.
Charlie will not be dissuaded. “I don’t agree,” he says, polite but assertive. “I think it shows talent.”
“I do think about getting a job where I can make things. But first I want to get my high school diploma. No matter what.”
“Well that’s a good idea.”
Marlene is the yin to Charlie’s yang. He knows grammar and vocabulary; she knows people and beauty.
Marlene wonders aloud what makes Christmas lights go on and off. She asks Charlie, who, so far, has known everything that can be learned from a book. He fakes an answer about circuit breakers. She grins. “You don’t know neither!” They share a smile.
She tells a story on herself — she once thought the lyric to “Silent Night” was “brown young Firgin,” and “Firgin” was a “colored girl” who did washing for the Holy Family. Charlie laughs.
It’s the same conversation they’ve been having all along. He is a know-it-all. She is a racist. But now they are laughing, together, at their own foibles. It’s the resolution of Pachelbel’s canon.
Are Charlie and Marlene in love?
Posters at the International Movie Database discussion boards disagree. Some say yes; theirs is a love story. Others say that their relationship is a surrogate father-daughter one. Others, that they are platonic friends.
In her memoir Call Me Anna, Duke wrote, “things develop between these two, from each not being able to stand the other to the point where, without ever touching each other, without even sitting next to each other, it’s obvious that they’ve fallen in love … The real-life relationship between me and Al Freeman, Jr … paralleled what was happening in the piece.” At first, Duke writes, “Al had a very arrogant kind of attitude that put us all off. We were so paranoid that he was going to think we were bigots that we overcompensated, even pandered to Al, which made him even more arrogant … this man was simply a rude son of a bitch.”
Duke reports that she developed a crush on Freeman. “I couldn’t wait to get up and go to work, to meet Al on the ferry going from Galveston to Port Bolivar and have him talk to me about what he’d seen in the New York Times. The crush I had on him was really more for his brain and his charm than wanting a physical thing, and gradually I realized that I’d rather have the crush than the actual love affair.”
Me? I think Marlene has a huge crush on Charlie. I think Charlie would probably enjoy having a girl of Marlene’s passion and innocence having a crush on him. I think he’d always yearn for someone as ambitious, intellectual, and, yes, as cold and calculating as himself.
Marlene is on her knees under the Christmas tree. “I wish you wouldn’t go,” Marlene says. We’re used to seeing her fists in the air, her chest out, her feisty attempt to survive her tough world camouflaging her tender girlhood. Now she is soft and feminine. Her voice is not much more than a whisper. Her eyes are cast down, using attention to her ornaments as an excuse not to make eye contact with Charlie.
“I have to.” He tells her to go home. “You can’t carry a grudge against your father forever,” he says.
“Why not?” she challenges. “You carry a grudge against a lot of white people.”
“A lot of white people deserve a … grudge.”
“I’m white,” she whispers. “I want my baby to be like you.” Her eyes are down when she says this. His eyes are down. Both are silent. She asks, “Charlie, did you hear me?”
“I heard,” he says. “Get some rest,” he says.
Deferential as ever — the movie never forgets that she is a child who has spent her life at the bottom of the totem pole — she goes to her room and closes the door, the door that he had locked his first night in that house. He stares at the door for a long time. The viewer does not know how to interpret his stare. There’s a possible clue: while he is staring, the radio is playing the “comfort and joy, comfort and joy” passage from “God rest ye merry gentlemen.”
Later in the night, Marlene cries out. Charlie enters her room. She is in labor. He offers to go in search of a doctor. No, she insists. You will put yourself at risk. He insists. She begins to cry. She reaches her hand forward across her bed. He does not take her hand. He reaches up and wipes a tear from her cheek. He leaves.
Charlie is shot to death by a police officer who is suspicious of an unknown black man. Before he dies, Charlie does manage to ask Mr Treadwell, the storeowner whose coat he had previously shoplifted, to send a doctor to Marlene. Patty Duke, in her memoir, says that Marlene names her baby “Charlie.”
Charlie is murdered, of course, on Christmas Eve. He is trying to bring aid to an outcast pregnant girl. He is a martyr, a Christ figure.
I think some unhappy endings are earned. In Gone with the Wind, after they’ve spent ten years together as the most famous lovers since Romeo and Juliet, Rhett walks out on Scarlett. “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” Rhett says. That’s one of the greatest unhappy endings in all of literature.
I think an unearned unhappy ending is every bit as bad as an unearned happy ending.
I think My Sweet Charlie‘s unhappy ending is unearned. The whole movie, before the ending, defies preachy conventions. The ending is just so damn preachy. The movie is saying, “There, white people. Now you should feel guilty. We gave you this black character that you could love and admire and then we murdered him. All because of your racism.”
The murder of Charlie reminds me of the fate of transgressive characters in code-era Hollywood. It used to be a Hollywood rule: if someone broke some societal taboo, for example by committing adultery, the movie had to punish that character by killing her off.
Black actors had to disappear for other reasons. Sidney Poitier was one of the biggest stars of the 1960s. In film after film, this handsome, charismatic black actor was paired with white women with whom he had palpable chemistry. In film after film, that chemistry was either never consummated, or Poitier or his leading lady had to leave town. In Lilies of the Field, his leading lady, Lilia Skala, was a much older nun. Even there Poitier had to leave town at the end of the film. In A Patch of Blue, his leading lady, Elizabeth Hartman, was both blind and a victim of parental abuse. At the end of the film, she tells Poitier she loves him. She must immediately leave town without him. In To Sir with Love, Poitier strikes sparks with Judy Geeson, but he plays her teacher. Any romantic contact would be a no-no. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Poitier finally gets to marry his white costar, Katharine Houghton. But then the couple must immediately fly off to Geneva. In the Heat of the Night features Sidney Poitier as a Philadelphia homicide detective working a murder case in Mississippi. Poitier, as Virgil Tibbs, teams up with local Police Chief Bill Gillespie, played by Rod Steiger. Gillespie is clearly a bigot, but Tibbs’ excellent police work wins him over. In the final scene, Gillespie and Tibbs shake hands — before Tibbs gets on a train, and leaves town.
My Sweet Charlie has broken a taboo. Charlie is an angry black man who is also utterly lovable, and he is loved by a white woman. So the movie kills him for it. I just hate that.
The movie also skips out on a storyteller’s responsibility. I want to know: would Marlene and Charlie relate in the real world, after their time-out-of-time in the magical lighthouse? Would Charlie and Marlene be lovers, or even friends, when she had a squalling baby on her hip, and he had to keep a lawyer’s hours in his tiny Manhattan studio apartment? As she cooked him Southern delicacies, that no one outside the south wants to step in, never mind actually eat, like biscuits and gravy? When she refused to buy his beloved sour cream? I’d really like to see the meltdown of Charlie’s mother when her prize lawyer son brought home Elly Mae Clampett, bastard kid in toe, for Sunday dinner.
Patty Duke and Al Freeman, Jr. were remarkably talented, charismatic stars playing rich characters in an intriguing situation. There was so much yet to be said between them. You don’t squander characters or setups like that!
Confession: during long walks in wild areas — well, a park in Paterson NJ, home of Lambert Tower, which is the closest thing Paterson has to a lighthouse — I have composed an elaborate fanfiction that continues the saga of Charlie and Marlene. My fanfiction does not involve Charlie being shot.