During the symposium in Lake Placid, NY in early December 2009, we attended an incredible event entitled Slavery: An exploration through contemporary film, presented by JW Wiley, Director of the Center for Diversity, Pluralism, and Inclusion for State University of New York-Plattsburgh.
We viewed 5 – 10 minutes of several movies about John Brown, slavery, and events of the Antebellum era, after which JW lead us in discussions about what we just watched. One of the movies that we watched various parts of was “Santa Fe Trail,” the absolutely worst movie about John Brown ever made.
During the reception that followed the discussions, many of us were talking about how truly awful Santa Fe Trail is. I mentioned that one of Brown’s descendants had sued Warner Brothers over their treatment of John Brown in the movie. Many people at the reception remarked that they were not aware of this interesting bit of history, so I agreed to write a post on my blog about it.
Santa Fe Trail – an overview of the movie
Warner Brothers released Santa Fe Trail, a star-studded blockbuster, on December 28, 1940. Robert Buckner, who also wrote such hits as Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and Knute Rockne All American (1940), wrote the original story and screenplay. Michael Curtiz, a favorite Hollywood Director known for his larger than life movies, such as Casablanca (1942), White Christmas (1954), and Mildred Pierce (1945), directed the movie.1
The initial release in large cities featured an experimental new sound system called “Vitasound.” This innovative system employed a second track between the regular soundtrack and the sprocket holes, which controlled additional speakers installed in the theater thus allowing for louder, more realistic sounds during the action scenes such as battlefields, gunfights, and trains. Vitasound was not well received and was only used on two movies, Santa Fe Trail and Four Wives (1939). 2
Santa Fe Trail is set in Kansas prior to the Civil War. The main story line follows the building of the Santa Fe Railroad across the new frontier, and the fictitious love triangle involving Kit Carson Holiday, the daughter of the Owner of the Santa Fe Railroad, J E B Stuart and George Custer. This main plot often gets lost in the sensational subplot of the pursuit and capture of John Brown, portrayed as the “Abolitionist gone crazy” by Raymond Massey. Many historical figures are featured in the movie — J E B Stuart played by Errol Flynn, George Custer played by future president Ronald Reagan, John Brown played by Raymond Massey, and Kit Carson Holiday, daughter of the owner of the Santa Fe Railroad, played by Olivia de Havilland.
The movie is full of historical inaccuracies. Buckner and his assistant, Elaine Wilmont, reportedly researched the west of the 1800s by reading many, many books on the subject yet they appear to have skipped over all of the important history lessons. Buckner was only interested in creating the feel of the Wild West, not telling the truth. He told his assistant, “I don’t give….a damn about ‘strict historical accuracy’ if it hamstrings a story.” He continued to explain that the making of a hit movie was “eight parts entertainment to two parts facts.” 3
Massey, who brought John Brown to life in two movies, Santa Fe Trail and Seven Angry Men (1955), portrayed Brown as a deranged, deceitful, and dangerous man with evil treacherous plans against America and “the proper” way of life, a man with no respect for the life of any human, and without honor or decency. While Brown looks like a lunatic out to kill all who stood in his way of freeing the slaves, the other leading characters, when asked about their feelings about slavery, answer with vague, two dimensional, non-committal statements like – “A lot of people are asking those questions” and “I don’t have an answer to that.” 4
The movie, marketed as a Western /Love story, promised all the hard-riding, fast shooting, innocent flirting, and occasional comic relief that audiences had come to expect from a blockbuster staring the likes of Errol Flynn. Yet soon after the movie starts, the tone moves from innocent flirtations and standard Wild West horse rides to a darker, ominous anti-John Brown saga. Once Brown has been captured, tried and hanged, the movie returns to the main story and ends on the cheerful note of Miss Holliday and Jeb Stuart riding off into the west, blissful in their love and their grandiose plans to finish the railroad that will bring about the realization of the true American Dream, now that the marauding John Brown has been stopped.
Sixty two year old Nellie Brown Groves (1878-1982), daughter of John Brown’s son Salmon, was so appalled when she saw Santa Fe Trail in early May 1941, that she filed a lawsuit in the Los Angeles County Superior Court on the 23rd, against Warner Brothers Pictures Inc for $1,320,000. She alleged that she was caused great mental and physical pain and had her privacy invaded by the movie. 5
Mrs. Groves prepared a 5 page hand typed transcript to her lawyers, Charles L Clearman and E H Delorey, demanding that Warner Brothers Pictures pull all copies of Santa Fe Trail from circulation due to the treatment it afforded her grandfather as well as the feelings of humiliation, shame and resulting mental stress she suffered after seeing the movie. A photocopy of this transcript was given to me by my cousin Susan Groves Apts, granddaughter of Nellie Brown Groves, and now resides in my archive. I have included the transcription below.
Southern California and most of the West coast was fascinated by the story of John Brown’s granddaughter, Nellie Brown Groves, taking on the goliath of Warner Brothers Pictures, Inc. Numerous newspaper articles were published during the spring and summer of 1941.
Just four months after the case was filed in the Los Angeles Appellate Court, U S. District Judge Ben Harrison rendered his decision in favor of the defendants. According to newspaper articles, the judge stated that since the film was about John Brown, and not Nellie Brown Groves, it was not possible for her privacy to be invaded.6 Since I do not have any copies of the original filing or decision documents, I have requested copies from the Los Angeles Appellate Court Archives. I was advised that due to the age of the case, it might be 6-8 months before they can locate and copy the files. I will update you further as I get more detailed information.
Below are transcripts of Nellie Brown Groves’ original plea and the newspaper articles.
THIS IS TO CERTIFY that, I, Nell Brown Groves, am a granddaughter of John Brown, the abolitionist, who fought in the defense of Kansas, 1855 to 1859. Attached herewith is my photograph, duly signed and sworn to the day and date below.
[a photo of Nell is attached to the bottom of the page]
This is my plea
I am a law abiding and peace loving person. I have many friends in different part of the country. They all know I am the granddaughter of John Brown, and I have had reason to believe they have respected me for it. I am a violinist, and have been asked to take part in many patriotic programs, and have always been announced as the granddaughter of John Brown. I sat in a first run theatre a few nights ago and saw my grandfather slandered, vilified, and held up as a public enemy. I wondered how Warner Bros. could have the daring to picture such infamous lies. Fictitious characters in a story can be properly portrayed as human or inhuman without hurting anyone, but when producers of motion pictures are so unjust as to dig up a man who has really lived and done a great service to his country and characterize him as a ruthless murderer, a fiendish killer, a renegade, and an enemy of mankind, they should be made to see the stop signal. This picture is presented in true western style, with the brutal throwing of horses, bloody battles, and fist fighting so often shown in Westerns to thrill the young. Warner Bros. have used three of their finest stars to give this picture public appeal, and throughout John Brown is made the villain of the story. Never in my life have I been so humiliated, and I fee that no amount of money is adequate to repay me for the mental suffering I have endured. Warner Bros. must and shall make reparation for the injustice they have done to my grandfather, the resultant mental suffering I have endured, and the attendant illness which followed.
I, Nell Brown Groves, demand that Warner Bros. Corp. withdraw from circulation the picture, Santa Fe Trail, on the grounds that it vilifies the character and name of my grandfather, John brown, who has for the past eighty years been a hero to the people of the North. That on account of the exaggerations, misrepresentations, gross and vicious untruths, he is pictures as a revengeful and ruthless killer to the court of public opinion. He is called a renegade, a madman, a killer, a dirty windbag, and an enemy of the human race. He is pictured knocking down or shooting any one who crosses him, which is fictitious, imaginary, and defaming to his character. John Brown’s son Jason is pictured dying as a youth, from wounds in battle, with words of condemnation on his lips for his father. This is not true. Jason lived to a ripe old age, living most of his live here in the west. He died in 1895, and is buried in Akron, Ohio. In this picture a man by the name of Rader demands money and John Brown displays brutality by knocking him down. This is not true. Later John Brown shoots Rader in revenge. This is not true. A man by the name of Brewer is held as hostage, and John Brown is pictured shooting him in cold blood. This is not true. Authentic history proves that both of these scenes are vicious lies. John Brown’s son, Oliver, is pictured as killed in battle in Palmyra. This is not true. Oliver Brown lost his life at Harpers Ferry. There is a scene showing woman and children lying dead, and John Brown is attributed to having perpetrated the crime. This is another vicious lie. John Brown or any of his men never harmed a woman or child. Reference to history will prove my claim. John Brown is credited with saying, “The breaking up of the Union is my plan,” and “To the devil with the Union,” and “If the American Govt. doesn’t believe as I do its their fault,” all of which is untrue. All through the picture are given such expressions as, “That murderous John Brown is on the loose,” “John Brown’s bloody raids are terrorizing the
Country,” and “There will never be any peace while John Brown or his followers are alive.” Those who are familiar with the history of our country just before the Civil War know of the depredations committed by the Border Ruffians during the early settlement of Kansas. The political issue at that time was whether Kansas should be a slave or free state. At the first election, thousands of residents of Missouri living close to the border of Kansas came pouring into Kansas and took forcible possession of the polls. They came in wagons and on horseback, well armed with rifles, pistols, bowie knives, and even cannons loaded with musket balls. In the words of Horace Greeley, “There was no disguise, no pretense of legality, and no regard for decency.” Although there were only 831 legal voters, there were 6,320 votes polled. These people were called Border Ruffians, They vowed they would drive out all Free Staters, and they burned and pillaged towns, stole and destroyed private property, and committed many murders. In 1854, five sons of John Brown, among them my father, Salmon Brown, migrated to Kansas, took up claims and settled down to peaceably make their homes in this new country. So many depredations were committed by the Border Ruffians that the sons wrote to their father asking him to send them arms and ammunition in order that they might protect themselves and their neighbors. John Brown responded by coming himself with arms, and on arriving, he organized a company of Free Staters to stand ready to protect the towns from raids. He defended the town of Lawrence, which they burned and plundered, and he defended the town of Osawatomie in which every house was burned to the ground. On account of his brave efforts to save Osawatomie, he was afterwards known as Osawatomie Brown, and today on that Battle Ground where he and his company of men stood, there is a Kansas State Park called John Brown Memorial Park. In this park is a life size bronze statue
of John Brown. At the time this John Brown Memorial Park was dedicated, Theodore Roosevelt was the speaker. The state of Kansas surely appreciated the valiant service done by John Brown in the early days. Besides defending Lawrence and Osawatomie, he commanded his men in the Battle of Black Jack. My father, Salmon Brown, fought with him in these battles, and never did John Brown kill or fire upon any man except in open battle or in self-defense. Many wealthy men and women in the east furnished him with money and arms for the defense of Kansas. Wendell Phillips, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the great naturalist Henry Thoreau were his friends. Ralph Waldo Emerson called him a saint. Wendell Phillips said, “He stood a representative of law, of government, of right, of justice, of religion, and they were pirates that gathered around him and sought to wreak vengeance by taking his life.” And yet, Warner Bros. gave expression to such libelous sentences as, “John Brown’s bloody raids are terrorizing the country” and “There will be no peace until John Brown is hanged.” In a beautiful park in Akron, Ohio, there is a very tall and imposing stone monument has been erected to the memory of John Brown with inscriptions at the base. I visited the park and saw this monument in 1936. In New York state another imposing bronze statue has been erected at his grave, and a pilgrimage is made to his grave each year. I have a picture of a gold medal that was presented to the widow of John Brown by Victor Hugo, the famous novelist, in 1874.
Since it is true that John brown has been honored in so many states and by so many noted people, it seems infamous that he should be so violently attacked through the medium of motion pictures, which is the greatest influence we have in this modern age.
[End of plea]
Public interest was high throughout the country when the story broke in late May 1941. Below are some of the articles that appeared in various newspapers around the country as the story unfolded.
Unknown Newspaper and date
Granddaughter of John Brown Sues Film Firm
LOS ANGELES, May 23 –(UP)—Mrs. Nell Brown Groves of Tulare, 62 year old granddaughter of the famed abolitionist, John Brown, today filed suit asking $1,320,000 damages from Warner Brothers studio on the ground the motion picture, Santa Fe Trail, was a “travesty upon the factual record” of Brown’s career.
Mrs. Groves charged the movie “blackened the memory of the dead” by portraying Brown as a “revengeful and ruthless killer: a renegade, madman, windbag, and enemy of the human race.” She said the film falsely represented Brown as have said that “breaking up of the Union is my plan.”
She alleged invasion of privacy by the movie story. She said that during all of her life she has regarded John brown as a hero “whose passage across the pages of history left a trail admired by right thinking people.”
Mrs. Groves said she had taken great pride in being introduced as a granddaughter of the abolitionist.
The suit charged that the picture falsely represented a true scenes in which the Brown character know down and shot a Confederate who asked him for money, shot a hostage and killed a woman and child
(Immediately below ran this article)
Woman Says Suit Is Filed In 32 States
Tulare (Tulare Co), May 23 – Mrs Nell Brown Groves, granddaughter of John Brown of Civil War fame, said today she has filed suit in thirty two states in which the motion picture Santa Fe Trail has been exhibited.
She said she was “shocked” when she first saw the picture in a Tulare theater.
(photocopy supplied by Susan Grove Apts, great granddaughter of Nellie Brown Groves)
From the Nevada State Journal. Sunday, May 25, 1941 Page 5
Film Company Sued
LOS ANGELES, May 24. (UP) – Mrs. Nell Brown Groves of Tulare, 63-year-old granddaughter of famed Abolitionist John Brown, today filed suit asking $1,320,000 damages from Warner Bros. studio on the grounds the motion picture “Santa Fe Trail” was a “travesty upon the factual record” of Brown’s career.
(article located on Ancestry.Com)
From the Albuquerque Journal, May 25, 1941 Page 11
John Brown Kin Sues Film Studio
HOLLYWOD, May 24 (INS) Mrs. Nell Brown Groves of Tulare, Cal., Saturday filed a $1,320,000 damage suit against Warner Brothers Pictures Inc., on the grounds that portrayal of her grandfather, John Brown, famous Civil Ware abolitionist, in the picture “Santa Fe Trail,” was untruthful and blackened his character.
In her suit Mrs. Groves contended that depiction of the historic character in the film was an invasion of her right of privacy. She declared John Brown was “a hero whose passing across the pages of history left a trail admired by right-thinking people.
She said Brown was pictured in the film as a “reckless and relentless killer,” and branded the movie a “travesty upon the historic facts.”
(article located on Ancestry.com)
Unknown Paper Possibly the Tulare Bee, June 4, 1941
TULAREAN’S ACTION AROUSES FILM CAPITAL
Right of Privacy Becomes Issue in Suit For $1,320.000
Special to the Tulare Bee—
HOLLYWOOD, June 4, (Special) – Is Hollywood invading the right of privacy of individuals with historical pictures based on the lives of real persons?
This question was being heatedly debated the length and breadth of the film capital today as the result of a $1,320,000 damage suit filed in the Los Angeles Superior Court recently by Nell Brown Groves. Tulare resident, against the Warner Brothers Pictures, Inc., for their characterization of her grandfather, the noted abolitionist, John Brown, in the motion picture “Santa Fe Trail.”
Through her attorneys, Charles L Clearman and E H Delorey, the plaintiff launched a virtually unprecedented attack on a major motion picture studio, alleging that the screen portrayal of John Brown, “untruthfully and unjustly blackened the memory of her grandfather,” and constituted an invasion of her privacy.
Only four times previously has the matter of right of privacy come before California courts, according to John P McGinley, attorney for the defendants. Although no answer to the suit had as yet been filed, McGinely indicated that the studio might cite three major points in their defense:
First, that Nell Brown Groves did not appear in the picture, and therefore her right of privacy was not invaded; secondly, that the lives of public persons and historical characters of renown are virtually “public property” and therefore open to public discussion or portrayal; and thirdly, that the picture, “Santa Fe Trail,” was a reasonable and fair portrayal of the life and times of John Brown.
Much interested is being focused on the legal controversy by representatives of other Hollywood studios in view of the effect the outcome may have on the future productions of other pictures based on the lives of actual persons.
It is recalled that the first California suit involving the right of privacy was brought by Gabrielle Darley Melvin against the producers of a motion picture entitled “The Red Kimono,” in 1931, in which the plaintiff alleged her maiden name had been used in a dramatization of her life story made without her permission.
In this instance the plaintiff’s right of privacy was recognized by an Appellate Court decision, in which it was pointed out that the subject, although unknown to ancient common law, was first given national prominence in an article by the noted jurist Louis D. Brandeis.
This decision significantly remarked, however, that right of privacy “does not exist where a person has become so prominent that by his prominence he has dedicated his life to the public and thereby waived his right to privacy.”
(photocopy supplied by Susan Grove Apts, great granddaughter of Nellie Brown Groves)
From the Oakland Tribune, Tuesday, July 1, 1941 Page 14
Big Suit Filed
LOS ANGELES, July 1 – (AP) – Nell Brown Groves, granddaughter of John Brown of Civil War fame, filed a $1,320,000 damage suit against Warner Brothers and a group of John Does over the picture “Santa Fe Trail,” based on Brown’s life. She charged the picture presented John Brown as a ruthless murderer, while she and other descendants (last sentance is illegible)
(located on Ancestry.com)
From the Oakland Tribune September 18 1941 Page 16
Exits and Entrances
Mrs. Nell Brown Groves of Tulare, granddaughter of John Brown, who wanted $1,320,000 from Warner Brothers because her right of privacy was invaded, thus destroying her happiness, in “Santa Fe Trail,” won’t get it. U S. District Judge Ben Harrison decided that since the film referred to her grandfather and not to her, there was no invasion of privacy.
1. IMDB Web Site http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0033021/ accessed 1/10/2010
2. TriggerTone Web Site http://www.triggertone.com/term/Vitasound access 1/10/2010
3. Vaughn, Stephen Ronald Reagan in Hollywood (Cambridge Press, 1994) page 88
4. Ibid, page 89
5. Groves, Nellie Brown Hand typed plea for lawyers, 1941
6. Oakland Tribune September 18 1941 Page 16