Davis Grubb: The Writer Behind Night of the Hunter

blogdavis“The fingers with the little blue letters. Now as the fingers stirred John could see them all. He supposed that at first the letters meant nothing; that perhaps each finger had a name and the name was a letter. H—A–T—E . The left hand. L—O—V—E. The right hand. Left hand and right hand and the fingers each had names. Now Preacher saw the boy staring and the hands sprang apart and he held them up. ‘Ah, little lad! You’re staring at my fingers!’”

This passage from the novel Night of the Hunter inspired one of Hollywood cinema’s most iconic images—Robert Mitchum’s tattooed hands. The widely recognized motif was referenced in later films (Do the Right Thing; Scorsese’s Cape Fear) as well as in song lyrics (Springsteen’s “Cautious Man”). Mitchum is chilling as Preacher Harry Powell who tells the story of his right hand and left hand, which represent the eternal struggle over love and hate, good and evil. Much has been written about Mitchum’s performance, James Agee’s script, and Charles Laughton’s direction in the film version of Night of the Hunter. However, the book’s author, Davis Grubb, who originated the love-hate tattoo and its symbolism, is generally overlooked.

Grubb was born in Moundsville, West Virginia, the city where Harry Powell is imprisoned at the beginning. The story takes place in Grubb’s old stomping grounds—the northern panhandle of West Virginia along the Ohio River. Despite the location footage of the West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville, and the aerial footage of the Ohio River, Night of the Hunter does not accurately capture the towns and culture of the Ohio River Valley. The highly stylized film is not authentic to the region. Laughton gave the material a fairy tale treatment that makes for a captivating viewing experience, part enchantment and part horror. But, in doing so, he pushed the material away from Grubb’s regionalist style. For this reason, the writer was upset with the film adaptation, declaring, “It hadn’t conformed exactly with what I had seen in my own mind.”

CHARLES LAUGHTON GAVE A STORYBOOK TREATMENT TO GRUBB'S NOVEL, WHICH THE WRITER DID NOT CARE FOR.

CHARLES LAUGHTON GAVE A STORYBOOK TREATMENT TO GRUBB’S NOVEL, WHICH THE WRITER DID NOT APPRECIATE.

I understand what Grubb was getting at. My family is from this area, and many times I have driven the route along the Ohio River, where the two children in the story float downstream to escape the clutches of Harry Powell. The Ohio River Valley is scenic, but the small, working-class towns are not quaint and picturesque, and the residents are ordinary working people—not eccentric folk from storybooks. However, Night of the Hunter is one of my family’s favorite movies; we appreciate Laughton and Agee’s dramatic license even if Grubb did not.

blogprison

THE WEST VIRGINIA STATE PEN IN MOUNDSVILLE FIGURES PROMINENTLY IN GRUBB’S WORK.

The penitentiary in Moundsville, a 19th century structure that finally closed in 1995, looms large in some of Grubb’s novels and stories. This particular state pen became notorious for the number of prisoners who slipped beyond its out-dated walls. The prison has been repurposed as a tourist site, and I was lucky enough to visit the institution a few years back. The most frightening moment of the tour was the “museum,” which exhibited home-made weapons made by the prisoners. A glass case in the corner contained a letter to the warden from none other than Charles Manson, who was requesting a transfer to Moundsville. Like Grubb, Manson was born along the Ohio River, and, according to his letter, he wanted to return to his roots and spend his remaining years as close to home as possible. But, the warden suspected that America’s most famous sociopath had heard about Moundsville’s reputation as an easy escape. The multiple-page letter started out logically but soon deteriorated into a rambling tirade against enemies only Manson could see. The letter reminded me that even pastoral West Virginia could produce psychopaths like Manson—and Harry Powell.

THE STORY OF THE RIGHT HAND AND THE LEFT.

THE STORY OF THE RIGHT HAND AND THE LEFT.

Grubb based Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter on a real-life lonely-hearts murderer named Harry Powers, who killed several people. He eluded authorities by using a number of aliases, but he was eventually caught and hanged in the Moundsville Penitentiary. He is buried in a prison cemetery and his story is also represented in the museum.

Grubb’s family had lived for generations in the Moundsville area. His father Louis was an architect from a prominent Wheeling family. His maternal grandfather had cofounded the Mercantile Bank, making the family prosperous—at least until the Depression. In the 1930s, he and his family were evicted from their home, among other humiliations. The experiences left him with lifelong grudges against the power-brokers of a capitalist society as well as organized religion. Grubb studied graphic design in Philadelphia and Pittsburg, with plans to be an artist, but his career path was altered when he found work as a page for NBC in New York. There, he was inspired him to write radio dramas. He sold his first to a station in his home state, WBLK in Clarksburg. Grubb expanded his repertoire to short-story writing, which led to his first novel, Night of the Hunter, in 1953.

JIMMY STEWART SIGNS AUTOGRAPHS ON THE SET OF FOOLS' PARADE IN MOUNDSVILLE, WV.

JIMMY STEWART SIGNS AUTOGRAPHS ON THE SET OF FOOLS’ PARADE IN MOUNDSVILLE, WV.

Grubb is not really the “Southern gothic  horror” writer that he’s painted to be in the TCM Guide for November. More of a regionalist, he captured the sites and people of Appalachia in ten novels and more than 50 short stories. His characters are complex beings; the truly good-hearted and insightful are often people of low repute, those who have committed crimes, or those with simple minds. The despicable are found among society’s most respected figures, such as bankers, authority figures, or clergymen. Grubb said in a video interview for the state’s Library Commission, “I write my stories first and foremost for West Virginians. . . I never made fun of West Virginia.” The latter remark refers to the frequent stereotyping that the state has endured over the decades, in which its rural residents are the butt of jokes. Some of his stories were turned into episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. The exception to his usual content was his third novel, Shadow of My Brother, about an African American boy who is lynched in Mississippi.

ANNE BAXTER AS A MADAM

ANNE BAXTER AS A MADAM

Only one other novel by Grubb, Fool’s Parade, was turned into a Hollywood film. The tone, characters, and style of the film are much closer to Grubb’s work than Night of the Hunter. Set during the Depression, Fools’ Parade stars Jimmy Stewart as Mattie Appleyard, one of three convicts about to be released from prison. Grubb patterned Stewart’s character after an old West Virginia storyteller named Riley Wilson and a real-life convict, Holly Griffith. The trio plan to make a new start with the $25,000 Mattie has earned while incarcerated. Upon release, the friends discover that Mattie’s check can only be cashed at the Bank of Glory. Corrupt prison guards plan to retrieve the money and return them to jail on trumped up charges. Directed by Andrew McLaglen for Columbia, Fools’ Parade was more of an action film than Night of the Hunter.

One of the strengths of Fools’ Parade is the cast. Strother Martin costarred as Mattie’s friend, Billy Lee Cottrill, while a young Kurt Russell played the third member of the trio, Johnny. George Kennedy, everyone’s favorite villain in the 1970s and 1980s, played Uncle Doc Council, the sinister captain of the prison guards. Anne Baxter seemed to be having great fun as the madam of a floating whorehouse on the Ohio River. Another high point was the location shooting in Moundsville, giving the film a kind of local flavor that matched Grubb’s regionalist style. The town’s name in the film was changed to Glory, but it is recognizable as Moundsville.

GEORGE KENNEDY AS

GEORGE KENNEDY AS UNCLE DOC COUNCIL

Grubb spent the bulk of his writing career in New York City, but in the last years of his life, he returned to his beloved Moundsville. An eccentric, who once rode from Pennsylvania to Moundsville via a $700 taxi ride so he could bring his dog, Grubb was working on his eleventh book when he died in 1980.

The much-loved Night of the Hunter airs on TCM this Wednesday, November 11, at 8:00pm. Fools’ Parade is much more difficult to find. It has been released on DVD, but it is now out of print. Occasionally, Fools’ Parade airs on such cable stations as THIS and MOVIES, but it would be terrific if TCM would take an interest in the film.

19 Responses Davis Grubb: The Writer Behind Night of the Hunter
Posted By swac44 : November 9, 2015 5:01 pm

I’d love to take a tour of that prison, much the same way I hope to get to Alcatraz one of these days. The one I did visit was in Fremantle, Australia, which may be best known as the jail that AC/DC lead singer Bon Scott visited briefly as a wayward youth. They didn’t spare grim details either, at one point the guide brought us into the room where hangings were performed, and let us walk right up onto the gallows. Then it turned out the last person to be hanged there was serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke, which gave me a bit of a chill as we share the same last name (same spelling too). Since his death, Cooke has been the subject of a few books and documentaries, but it sure felt weird standing on the very spot where he took his last breath.

I’d love to see Fools’ Parade, given that cast. I guess it can be obtained through some “grey market” means, but caveat emptor, you never know what those discs look like or where they’re sourced from. Apparently the best place to keep an eye out for it is Sony Movie Channel HD, which runs a decent transfer of the film from time to time.

Posted By Susan Doll : November 9, 2015 5:25 pm

Swac44: I think Fools’ Parade is available on the grey market, but it was too iffy to recommend in the post.

Reading the Manson letter, which was a look into the abyss, was one of the most frightening things I have ever encountered.

Posted By swac44 : November 9, 2015 9:23 pm

Yeah, I would rather avoid those copies as well, Susan. Hopefully it turns up in Sony’s “Choice Collection” of MOD DVD-Rs, as I don’t get those other channels that have run it in the past. It was on YouTube for a spell, but Sony had it taken down.

Posted By Lisa W. : November 9, 2015 10:44 pm

I’ve seen Night of the Hunter quite a few times and get something new out of it each time, so reading Grubb’s original story would shed new light again, I am sure. Thanks much for the the enlightening story of his work.

Posted By Jenni : November 9, 2015 11:02 pm

Our oldest is a college student at Ohio University, which isn’t too far away from WV. My husband’s brother is also a professor at OU and when the family wants to visit a mall, they often drive to Parkersburg, WV for just that. In Athens, there is an eerie set of buildings, known by the locals as The Ridges. I got to visit that site this past spring, when OU has Moms Weekend. The Ridges were originally a state mental hospital, but in my readings about it, WV sent folks there too. Due to the buildings being sprawled high up on a series of ridges, that’s how they got their nickname. It’d be the perfect setting for a horror or gothic style movie, and if you’re ever near that area of WV/OH, it’s worth a look.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athens_Lunatic_Asylum

Posted By AL : November 10, 2015 12:00 am

I was be-friended by Davis Grubb when I was 21. He was a “regular” at the restaurant I worked at (The Right Bank” 69th & Madison NYC). He was so much fun; sweet and warm & always brought his doggie with him. One time, when I served him an elaborate desert, he said “Heck, I’m not going to eat that–I’m going to take it home and have sex with it!” He told me something interesting: the song in the film was written via a phone call between Davis and Charles Laughton!Isn’t that a Kick?!We lost a beautiful mutual friend (Claudia) to suicide. She was 19. Long before her death, Davis had dedicated his latest book to her…whataguy!

Posted By AL : November 10, 2015 12:04 am

What a mystery that this Masterpiece was Laughton’s only film as director…Curious

Posted By Susan Doll : November 10, 2015 5:10 am

AL: You are just the coolest. How great that you knew him. Am sorry about your friend, though.

Posted By Susan Doll : November 10, 2015 5:11 am

Jenni:
I used to work with someone who had attended Ohio University, and he told me about the Ridges. Scary-looking place for sure.

Posted By swac44 : November 10, 2015 1:13 pm

I love how one thing leads to another on Movie Morlocks, had to look up The Right Bank restaurant, and discovered it closed in 2000 (pretty ritzy neighbourhood, with Cartier and Gucci on the same block). Apparently it was one of Al Pacino’s favourite eateries.

http://observer.com/2000/07/right-bank-closes-where-will-pacino-go-now/

Posted By AL : November 11, 2015 1:25 am

swac44–How wonderful that The Right Bank lasted until 2000. We used to call it “A G. Village Coffee Shop For Celebrities”…

Posted By KC : November 11, 2015 3:49 am

I understand how you feel about the Manson letter.I just read a Sharon Tate biography and the parts about CM terrified me. I had to skip through the murder parts. I mean, I like to be able to sleep at night! We’re darn lucky that guy got put away.

This was such a fascinating post; I loved all the detail about the true settings of Night of the Hunter. I read the Grubb book years ago (I think in high school?)and I didn’t enjoy it, but lately I keep hearing how wonderful it is. I’m thinking of giving it another try. You’ve got me curious about his other novels now too!

Posted By kingrat : November 13, 2015 5:38 am

Susan, I always love your writing about West Virginia and similar areas. I love your respect for the place and the people. It’s interesting to learn about Davis Grubb.

Posted By Susan Doll : November 13, 2015 7:30 am

Kingrat: Thank you very much. It is nice to feel appreciated after a particularly difficult week.

Posted By robbushblog : March 22, 2016 1:27 pm

Since it has been months since this article was posted, I hope you will permit me to include my poem about one of the characters in the film:

Icey Spoon

I see you, Icey Spoon,
Working in your ice cream shop.
I never know upon whom
Your judgments soon will drop.

God’s word you claim to speak,
Yet he didn’t give you vision.
Why’d you see Reverend Powell
With such myopic imprecision?

John saw the truth about him,
As children often do.
Your husband even felt it.
Icey, why didn’t you?

Now two children are orphans
And you should feel the shame.
For delivering their mother to Powell,
You deserve part of the blame.

Posted By Susan Doll : March 23, 2016 12:53 am

Rob: I like your poem.

Posted By robbushblog : March 23, 2016 5:21 am

Thanks!

Posted By April : July 19, 2016 6:40 am

I’m from Moundsville but been in NY since 1990. Hubbie worked at the penitentiary back in the 80′s. Watching the movie right now on TCM.

Posted By Rod : May 31, 2018 9:30 pm

I have love letters written by davis but signed “bob” monday 14 nov 1960.from 591 p.v.jal. mex. John slo dickey gave the college 3more days vacation.

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