Cast & Crew
After a long absence, Purlie Victorious Judson, a self-ordained preacher, returns to his hometown of Cotchipee, Georgia. He is accompanied by his disciple, Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins, a kitchen maid who figures in his scheme for buying an old barn and converting it into an integrated church. In order to raise the money needed to purchase the barn, Purlie persuades Lutiebelle to pose as his cousin Bea, who is actually deceased, to collect $500 which crusty old Captain Cotchipee, owner of the local cotton plantation, is holding in trust. Purlie and Lutiebelle share the home of Purlie's sister, Missy, and his "Uncle Tom" brother-in-law, Gitlow, who takes pride in his new position as Deputy for the Colored on the plantation. Purlie's fund-raising plan nearly succeeds, but Lutiebelle accidentally reveals her true identity to Captain Cotchipee. Determined to have his church, Purlie enlists the aid of the captain's son, Charlie, and the $500 is removed from the old man's safe. Purlie pretends to his friends that he forcibly took the money after beating the captain with his own whip, but his triumph is short-lived; Captain Cotchipee arrives on the scene and announces that he has purchased the old barn himself and plans to burn it to the ground. However, he has reckoned without Charlie, who announces that he made the purchase of the deed in Purlie's name. The news is too much for the captain, and he dies--standing upright--of a stroke. Purlie gets his church, and his first service is an integrated funeral for Captain Cotchipee.
Purlie Victorious on DVD
One of the funny things about Purlie Victorious, which takes place at the time it was made, is that it's about oblivious racism. The racism in Stonewall Jackson Cotchipee (Sorrell Brooke), the big boss man of a Georgia plantation, is so ingrained that he scarcely notices it. Not only does this Colonel Sanders-like figure think his paternalism is benefiting the sharecropping cotton-pickers whom he keeps in permanent debt and permanent subservience to him, but he can't even tell that the times are a-changing, despite the integrationist views held by his son Charlie (Alan Alda, in his movie debut).
Boss Cotchipee is about to get his come-uppance with the return of the title character, Purlie Victorious Judson (Davis), a big-talking preacher who grew up on the plantation. Purlie arrives at the shack of his aunt Missy (Hilda Haynes) and uncle Gitlow (Godfrey Cambridge) with sweet young country girl Lutiebelle (Ruby Dee) in tow. Purlie has not only fallen for Lutiebelle, a former kitchen servant he's trying to get to stand up for herself, but he's also noticed her resemblance to a cousin who also long ago left the plantation. The cousin's late mother was left an inheritance that got as far as Boss Cotchipee, and no further. Purlie hatches a plan to have Lutiebelle impersonate the wayward cousin, wrest the $500 inheritance out of the boss man and use the money to reopen a local church and, as he says, "preach freedom in the cotton patch."
Role-playing is a central theme of Purlie Victorious, and a prime source of laughs. When Lutiebelle balks at carrying out Purlie's scheme, primarily because she's a simple country girl and the unseen cousin attended college, Purlie retorts with, "Some of the best pretending in the world is done in front of white folks." We get a great example of such pretending in the scene that really dunks the movie in comedy, and washes away any reluctance to laugh about its injustices. That's a scene between Cotchipee and Gitlow, who the boss thinks is the most loyal, appreciative person in the world. But Gitlow's "Uncle Tom" act is so transparent, and so in contrast to how he really feels, that it's hilarious that the boss man can't see through it. The whites who prosper through black labor are amusingly portrayed as being unable to tend for themselves (the boss) or generally unable to think for themselves (son Charlie).
The scene in which Purlie brings the "cousin" to see Cotchipee is another highlight. The boss is totally charmed with polite, play-acting Lutiebelle until she brings up the inheritance. When the boss suddenly gets disagreeable, Purlie distracts him by presenting him with an official-looking certificate proclaiming him "Great White Father of the Year." Boss man is flattered but, alas, the inheritance ruse doesn't work when Lutiebelle signs her real name on the receipt Cotchipee insists she sign. Purlie still has some tricks up his sleeve and a lot of unresolved hatred for the boss, and these matters take up the second half of Purlie Victorious.
The film version of Davis' play shows its stage roots. Big chunks of action take place at single locations like Aunt Missy's shack or the backroom of the Cotchipee company store. The cast sometimes inhabits exterior locations, but this was mostly done in the studio with Nicholas Webster directing (Webster's next movie would be the ultra-schlocky Santa Claus Conquers the Martians). Sometimes the meshing of stage sets and exterior shots is awkward and, cinematically, at least, Purlie Victorious is a rudimentary production.
But the movie lets us see Davis—who, it is rarely noted, was a semi-regular on TV's clever Car 54, Where Are You? around the time this movie was made—in one of his signature roles (his play would later be turned into the musical Purlie). As writer and actor, Davis gives Purlie a mix of righteousness and self-interest that makes us respect his quest to liberate his fellow blacks and laugh at his more big-headed moments. With most of the cast coming from the stage production, Purlie Victorious is a dream team of black actors, circa 1963. Dee, Davis' real-life wife, makes Lutiebelle amusingly naïve and convincingly sweet, and in addition to Cambridge (who'd star in another fun racism comedy, Watermelon Man), the cast also includes Beah Richards. And behind all the broad comedy, in which Sorrell Brooke caricatures pre-civil-rights Southern paternalism to the hilt, Purlie Victorious is still a celebration of black empowerment. Although delivered through the character of Purlie, Davis' big sermon at the end of the movie on that subject holds up out of context. Like the character himself, the sermon is part Elmer Gantry, part Martin Luther King, Jr.
The lone extra on MPI's Purlie Victorious disc is an excerpt from a 1972 TV interview with Davis and Dee. Although the movie and play come up, the discussion is mainly on more general topics concerning the couple's career and activism.
For more information about Purlie Victorious, visit MPI Home Video. To order Purlie Victorious, go to TCM Shopping.
by Paul Sherman
Purlie Victorious on DVD
Ossie Davis (1917-2005)
He was born Raiford Chatman Davis on December 18, 1917 in Cogdell, Georgia. His parents called him "R.C." When his mother registered his birth, the county clerk misunderstood her and thought she said "Ossie" instead of "R.C.," and the name stuck. He graduated high school in 1936 and was offered two scholarships: one to Savannah State College in Georgia and the other to the famed Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, but he could not afford the tuition and turned them down. He eventually saved enough money to hitchhike to Washington, D.C., where he lived with relatives while attending Howard University and studied drama.
As much as he enjoyed studying dramatics, Davis had a hunger to practice the trade professionally and in 1939, he left Howard University and headed to Harlem to work in the Rose McClendon Players, a highly respected, all-black theater ensemble in its day.
Davis' good looks and deep voice were impressive from the beginning, and he quickly joined the company and remained for three years. With the onset of World War II, Davis spent nearly four years in service, mainly as a surgical technician in an all-black Army hospital in Liberia, serving both wounded troops and local inhabitants before being transferred to Special Services to write and produce stage shows for the troops.
Back in New York in 1946, Davis debuted on Broadway in Jeb, a play about a returning black soldier who runs afoul of the Ku Klux Klan in the deep south. His co-star was Ruby Dee, an attractive leading lady who was one of the leading lights of black theater and film. Their initial romance soon developed into a lasting bond, and the two were married on December 9, 1948.
With Hollywood making much more socially conscious, adult films, particularly those that tackled themes of race (Lonely Are The Brave, Pinky, Lost Boundaries all 1949), it wasn't long before Hollywood came calling for Davis. His first film, with which he co-starred with his wife Dee, was a tense Joseph L. Mankiewicz's prison drama with strong racial overtones No Way Out (1950). He followed that up with a role as a cab driver in Henry Hathaway's Fourteen Hours (1951). Yet for the most part, Davis and Dee were primarily stage actors, and made few film appearances throughout the decade.
However, in should be noted that much of Davis time in the '50s was spent in social causes. Among them, a vocal protest against the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and an alignment with singer and black activist Paul Robeson. Davis remained loyal to Robeson even after he was denounced by other black political, sports and show business figures for his openly communist and pro-Soviet sympathies. Such affiliation led them to suspicions in the anti-Communist witch hunts of the early '50s, but Davis, nor his wife Dee, were never openly accused of any wrongdoing.
If there was ever a decade that Ossie Davis was destined for greatness, it was undoubtly the '60s. He began with a hit Broadway show, A Raisin in the Sun in 1960, and followed that up a year later with his debut as a playwright - the satire, Purlie Victorious. In it, Davis starred as Purlie, a roustabout preacher who returns to southern Georgia with a plan to buy his former master's plantation barn and turn it into a racially integrated church.
Although not an initial success, the play would be adapted into a Tony-award winning musical, Purlie years later. Yet just as important as his stage success, was the fact that Davis' film roles became much more rich and varied: a liberal priest in John Huston's The Cardinal (1963); an unflinching tough performance as a black soldier who won't break against a sadistic sergeant's racial taunts in Sidney Lumet's searing war drama The Hill (1965); and a shrewd, evil butler who turns the tables on his employer in Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1969).
In 1970, he tried his hand at film directing, and scored a hit with Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), a sharp urban action comedy with Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques as two black cops trying to stop a con artist from stealing Harlem's poor. It's generally considered the first major crossover film for the black market that was a hit with white audiences. Elsewhere, he found roles in some popular television mini-series such as King, and Roots: The Next Generation (both 1978), but for the most part, was committed to the theater.
Happily, along came Spike Lee, who revived his film career when he cast him in School Daze (1988). Davis followed that up with two more Lee films: Do the Right Thing (1989), and Jungle Fever (1991), which also co-starred his wife Dee. From there, Davis found himself in demand for senior character parts in many films throughtout the '90s: Grumpy Old Men (1993), The Client (1994), I'm Not Rappaport (1996), and HBO's remake of 12 Angry Men (1997).
Davis and Dee celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1998 with the publication of a dual autobiography, In This Life Together, and in 2004, they were among the artists selected to receive the Kennedy Center Honors. Davis had been in Miami filming an independent movie called Retirement with co-stars George Segal, Rip Torn and Peter Falk.
In addition to his widow Dee, Davis is survived by three children, Nora Day, Hasna Muhammad and Guy Davis; and seven grandchildren.
by Michael T. Toole
Ossie Davis (1917-2005)
Idella, sometimes I think I oughta run away from home.- Charlie Cotchipee
I know, but you already tried that, honey.- Idella Landy
Now Gitlow would cut off his right arm for you if you were to ask him. Wouldn't ya, Git?- Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee
Uh, you the boss, Boss.- Gitlow Judson
Based upon the play "Purlie Victorious" by Ossie Davis, which ran on Broadway from 28 September 1961 to 12 May 1962 (261 performances). All actors in the play, except Hilda Haynes recreated their roles for this movie. A musical version entitled "Purlie!" later appeared.
Distributed by Hammer Brothers for the opening New York City engagement and through Trans-Lux Distributing Corp. for other bookings. Rereleased in 1966 as The Man From C.O.T.T.O.N. by Futurama Entertainment Corp. Alternative title: Purlie Victorious.
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1963
Alan Alda's screen debut
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1963