Did My Ancestor Really Work for 20th Century Fox?
Sometimes when I stumble upon a new record, the information enclosed can really be a surprise.
I experienced one such unexpected surprise while compiling vital records for a relative's application to join the Daughters of the American Revolution. For some exasperating and unknown reason, the state of Georgia did not have a death certificate on file for my second great-grandmother Frances Azzie Vandiver Abernathy. The second best thing, my registrar insisted, was a copy of her Social Security application form. As I had other information regarding the birth and date of death for this ancestor, the Social Security application form would verify the names of Azzie's parents.
As Azzie and her family lived in Helen, Georgia, a small rural village at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I did not expect to see world known film company listed as her employer on the Social Security application.
How the heck would a mother of eleven children living in a rural area with a sixth grade education be employed by the 20th Century Fox Film Corporation? The answer is listed in box thirteen of the application under 'Today's Date' - 'July 18, 1950'.
In the spring and summer of 1950, I'd Climb the Highest Mountain, was filmed on location in and around Helen and Cleveland, Georgia, exactly where Azzie and her family were living. The film starring William Lundigan and Susan Hayward was based on the 1910 book The Circuit Rider's Wife penned by Georgia native Corra Mae Harris. As expected from the title and the source material, this is the type of wholesome and spiritual story you'd find on the Hallmark Channel or streaming on Pureflix.com.
A common practice at the time, local residents appeared as extras in the movie, which entitled them to a paycheck and a highlight in local history books. I called the most reliable source I have on the subject - my granny, Geneva Sims Elwell. She was an extra in the film, and is always ready to share her experiences when I have questions.
"You had to sign up to participate and you filled in the days you wanted," Granny said cheerily. "They told you to meet down somewhere, like the the fest hall, at 10 a.m. on a certain day. Then when they were ready to shoot, they would tell you when to come out or go in or go right. You didn't stay on set very long. Sometimes we stayed for three or four hours, but it ruined your day because you didn't know when you were going to be needed."
Open auditions were held for some of the speaking roles. Granny's brother, Uncle Neil won a small role in the film, and his scene centered on a child drowning in the Chattahoochee River. Uncle Neil was paid much more than the extras, and while she can't remember how much her brother earned, Granny said it couldn't have been more than $50 in 1950's money.
While Granny was not earning much as an extra, people were attracted to the prestige and excitement of being in a Hollywood movie. "Anybody who was anybody was in it," Granny remembers. "Clothes were provided. But if you had some older clothes or an old timey bonnet, you were welcome to wear it. Most people just wore their own clothes, as you didn't need to dress up much."
While there is no official list of extras credited in the film, local historians confirm a good number of the residents in Helen and Cleveland were involved in the film as extras at some point. And that would have included Azzie, her children, grandchildren, and other close family and friends living in the area at the time.
As well as the acting and speaking roles, the movie provided well-paid temporary work for the men of the area. My great-grandfather (Granny's father) Charles "Daddy" Hayne Sims was a skilled builder and his reputation and work ethic landed him a job with the set crew. "Daddy built most of the props and buildings for that movie." Granny said. "I don't know who told the movie people about him, but the local people knew what a builder and a gentleman Daddy was. He worked for a man, Mr. King (director and actor Henry King). A lot of the movie was filmed in the school gym in Cleveland, and Daddy made everything. He did such good work that Mr. King offered him a job back in California."
The Hollywood money pouring into north Georgia would be brief, and when the movie crew left everyone in the area returned to their normal routines. However, the temporary employment would leave a clue behind which validates that yes, my ancestor was an extra for 20th Century Fox! And as it turns out, nearly everyone else in town walked through a scene or like Daddy Hayne, built the sets needed to to create it.
An interesting side note: my mother recalls seeing a mirror from the moving hanging in her grandmother's home in Helen, but no one can remember what happened to it after she passed. I would love to know where it went! Did it go home with another relative or was it auctioned off? A piece of movie history could be sitting in someone's home and they don't know it!