Prop and Property

The house in American cinema, from the plantation to Chavez Ravine.

Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird
Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

Anyone who has watched American cinema has spent a fair amount of time looking at and into houses. Cinema’s privileged relationship to realism — to the representation of the contours of everyday life — has much to do with this fact. The house is where much of everyday life transpires. The house shelters, structures, temporalizes, differentiates, makes private, and also publicizes this life. It is the ground of realist representation, and it is everywhere in cinema.

Perhaps the most mysterious and desired feature of housing is the privacy of property, and especially the property of and in the house. Property, however, is fungible and alienable. Whatever is promised by the house is radically susceptible to violation, displacement, and loss. Often the experience of property’s violation or redefinition involves an unwelcome reminder that the house is not a very private place after all. Partly we know this: we have all spent time in living rooms, on porches, or in other spaces of the house in which it is nearly impossible to say where the public ends and the private begins. 1 But when property’s inherent instability is experienced vividly — whether in “real life” or in representation — we are forced to confront the tenuous relationship between public and private, as well as the tenuousness of all property relations as such.

Cinema heightens the ambivalent but powerful pleasure we take in looking at property. There is a kind of clarity in what is at stake here.

Cinema heightens the ambivalent but powerful pleasure we take in looking at property. The private property of the house is already a spectacle, of course, as the house is a medium for making visible the wealth of its owners and inhabitants. In a movie theater, this spectacular function is multiplied. We pay to occupy a space owned by another in order to look at something — the film — owned by yet another (at least after the bust-up of the vertically integrated Hollywood monopolies). When we see a house onscreen, the property relations implicit in the seemingly simple activity of moviegoing proliferate into confusion. And yet there is a kind of clarity in what is at stake here. In purchasing a movie ticket we pay for the right to occupy a space in order to gaze up at a space we can never occupy.

This is the story cinema has been mutely telling all along — a story about the house, the security and ease it promises, and the horrible anxieties produced when we try to force the house to deliver on those promises.

Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in snow
Thomas Jefferson’s plantation Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia. [Shane Lin]

The Afterimage of Slavery in Gone with the Wind

In an essay for The Rise of an American Architecture, Vincent Scully, one of the great narrators of American architectural history, surveyed the achievements of the 19th century. For Scully, the century was a long one: it began with Thomas Jefferson’s plans for Monticello (1770-1809), his country seat outside Charlottesville, Virginia, and ended “about 1915” with Frank Lloyd Wright’s work in Chicago. Scully argued that “the center-city office building and the suburban house” were “the major vehicles of America’s architectural invention during the 19th century.” 2 Both forms promised “freedom,” despite the fact that this period witnessed the flourishing of every human evil, including genocide, slavery, civil war, and industrial exploitation of land and human labor. In drawing on the examples of Jefferson and Wright, Scully depicted a history of ambiguous achievement punctuated by at least two moments, or two practices: pastoral agrarian reprieve and modernist suburban redemption. But the picture was more complicated, because it revealed that the rot had set in early and was, in fact, already there in the hills outside Charlottesville.

As Scully wrote:

[The] point of the completed Monticello as a whole … is about a man owning the earth. The house caps the conical hill, controls it, like a hero’s tomb. That again was what the century to come was to be about: how to control nature, how to own it. There was also the consistent Romantic convention of love for nature, perhaps real love for it, but the clearly directive instinct was toward ownership, embodied in the single-family house on its plot of land. That land is owned; there are few English complications of ninety-nine year leases and so on reflecting older systems of communal control and somehow respecting the eternal autonomy of the earth. The American land is possessed, and is soon worn out with possession. Across the continent, it was to be raped to death generation by generation. Monticello woos it, but grasps it all. 3

I am interested in the national specificity that Scully so boldly presented here: in the fact that the American house embodies a peculiar claim to and fantasy of ownership, and in the implicit threat that this fantasy poses to collective, public, civil life, to the environment, and to bodies. As evidenced by the gendered nature of Scully’s language and his choice of a southern slaveholding plantation as a point of departure, the desire for possession threatens and punishes some bodies more than others.

Still from Gone with the Wind
“We sure is rich now!” The spectacle of property in Gone with the Wind (1939).

A history of the house in American cinema might well begin with Gone with the Wind, a film that is, unsurprisingly, fascinated with the loss, acquisition, and consolidation of private property. I turn to this film precisely because of Scully’s polite evasion of the subject of slavery at Monticello. In particular, I am interested in a shot that occurs about two-thirds of the way into the film, in which three African American servants, formerly slaves, gather before Rhett Butler’s newly constructed mansion in Atlanta, where they will serve Rhett (Clark Gable) and his new wife, Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), their old mistress. Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), Pork (Oscar Polk), and Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) have endured extreme hardship and poverty amid the crumbling ruins of Scarlett’s family plantation. Now, with Scarlett’s marriage to Rhett, a shrewd businessman and war profiteer who has become fabulously rich during Reconstruction, these former slaves will labor under conditions of opulence that exceeds that of the old plantation.

If we look closely we can see there is no house there. They are really looking at a matte painting, a cinematic prop. The shot is a mise en abyme of property relations.

Prissy, the youngest and smallest of the three servants, looks up at the house and says, “Darkies, we sure is rich now!” (She pronounces the dialogue in an accent that renders “sure” as “show.”) The ironies of this scene and its appalling racism (entirely typical of Hollywood cinema of this period) demand that we recognize Prissy’s pleasure in this spectacle of privately owned wealth, even as we recall that she herself was until recently a slave, a unit of private property, like the house. (I do not mean to suggest that those who were freed from legal, literal slavery, were emancipated in more radical economic, political, and social terms.) Prissy’s identification with the house’s wealth is both false and true: the servants are not rich, but their new employer is; however, his wealth subsumes their being into its munificence and effectively returns them to the plantation. By conveniently slipping in these characters as proxies for (white) spectators, the film encourages the audience to share a laugh at Prissy’s delight — and at her expense. But these same (white) spectators disavow the fact that they, too, have shown up at the cinema to marvel at architectural phantasmagoria, which belongs to them even less than it does to Prissy.

This shot is a mise en abyme of property relations, in fact. The spectators look at the image, the studio’s property. Inside the image, and in the diegetic world it represents, these characters gaze up at the property of the house. If, however, we look closely we can see there is no house there. They are really looking at a matte painting, a cinematic prop. The word prop, of course, is short for property. Here the prop is an image of property that stares back at Prissy, Mammy, and Pork, and then at us, from the far end of a flimsy but stubborn visual chiasmus.

When we look at cinematic images we are always already looking at property. Black bodies are invisible and yet materially there.

We cannot discuss the representation of property without more broadly considering the ways in which the representation of African Americans is grounded by their historical relation to slavery — by the sale, purchase, possession, and exploitation of black human bodies. Frank B. Wilderson III, following the work of a number of critical race theorists, argues that “slavery is and connotes an ontological status for Blackness.” “Accumulation and fungibility,” or “the condition of being owned and traded,” are “the constituent elements of slavery.” 4 For Wilderson, “the Black” is “a subject who is always already positioned as a slave.” Unlike the worker, who may be exploited but still owns and sells his own labor power, the slave is “an anti-Human.” 5 If, therefore, the Black is always already a slave, this is because he is always already property. We could make Wilderson’s claims run backward and suggest that property itself always already is or embodies or is predicated on slavery (in some actual, concrete, or genealogically material way). Such a reading then would make any image of property an image, or at least an afterimage, of slavery.

Wilderson’s thinking is politically urgent, especially since African Americans have been so frequently left out of cinematic representation or relegated to its margins — to the margins of the screen or the margins of the film industry, or else to marginal positions outside it. When we look at cinematic images we are only rarely looking at black bodies, but we are always already looking at property. Black bodies are invisible and yet materially there. In this way, that shot from Gone with the Wind haunts the history of American cinema, including those films in which African Americans are glimpsed only fleetingly or not seen at all.

Exterior of the Fenyes Mansion in Pasadena. The house from Beyoncé’s Formation.
The “Louisiana plantation house” subverted in Beyoncé’s Formation (2016). Fenyes Mansion, designed by Robert D. Farquhar, in Pasadena, California. [Tavo Olmos]

The Architecture of Displacement in To Kill a Mockingbird

Let us now turn to a film produced and released more than twenty years later, at what was, perhaps, the height of the civil rights movement. To Kill a Mockingbird is a canonical example of middlebrow, high production value, white liberal self-representation. Adapted from Harper Lee’s celebrated novel, the film narrates the coming of age (and coming to consciousness) of Jem (Phillip Alford) and Scout (Mary Badham), and the unsuccessful attempt of their father, white lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman.

The film (like the novel) ought justly (indeed, necessarily) be criticized for its condescending portrayal of African Americans and its laudatory view of the white liberal savior who is revered by all the black characters, despite the fact that he actually fails to save Tom. In the scene that concludes the film’s legal melodrama, after the (implicitly racist) jury returns a guilty verdict, Atticus slowly and forlornly walks out of the courtroom on his own. As he leaves with his head bowed, members of the black community who have been watching the trial from a segregated spectators’ balcony rise to pay silent respect to the white man who tried to save one of their own. According to John Nickel, films like To Kill a Mockingbird “not only indulge white liberal viewers’ sense of importance and standing in society but also assuage their guilt about racial inequalities.” 6 The smugness of the film’s liberalism demands the critique to which critics like Nickel have subjected it. Just as in need of critique is another history of economic and racial injustice embodied and materialized in the film’s artistic design.

As the film begins, the poetic title sequence (actually an exquisite short film in itself) lap dissolves into a shot looking up through a lattice of leafy trees that proceeds to tilt downward into an establishing shot of a small-town street of modest, wood-framed houses whose front porches press up close to the sidewalk. Then we hear this voiceover, in a woman’s soft southern accent:

Maycomb was a tired old town, even in 1932, when I first knew it. Somehow it was hotter then. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum. The day was twenty-four hours long, but it seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go and nothing to buy, no money to buy it with, although Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself. That summer I was six years old. …

As these sentences are spoken, the camera pans left, lazily, as if to follow the movement of the solitary postman, who is the only figure in the street. Then a horse-drawn carriage approaches from the background and crosses the postman’s path, and the camera follows this carriage and its solitary driver back to the right, retracing the movement of the first pan. The effect is to describe this street of compact houses, and to provide a sense of the scale and rhythm of what we are told is Maycomb town, somewhere in Maycomb County, somewhere in the American South. This delicate choreography (of camera, bodies, animals, and vehicles) summons a sense of Maycomb’s existence as an organic community, one that the voice (speaking from some undeclared point in the future) implies has been lost.

Still from To Kill a Mockingbird
Expropriated housing as set design in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

Yet if we are attentive, we might glimpse a mountain range in the deepest background of these images and might infer, correctly, that we are not, so to speak, in Maycomb, but in California — in a back lot of Universal Studios, to be precise. Making this observation about the fictionality of the diegetic world would be banal and beside the point, were it not for this one material fact: The houses that we see along this fictional street were actually expropriated from a real organic community in Los Angeles, a few miles from Universal Studios.

The houses that we see along this fictional street in Maycomb were actually expropriated from a real organic community in Los Angeles.

Filming locations had originally been scouted around Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, but that town no longer resembled the lost object it was meant to symbolize. Director Robert Mulligan recalled the effort: “The town had changed radically. After World War II a lot of the old buildings came down. There was a lot of corrugated iron up and modern looks to the buildings, and big plate glass stores. … It just didn’t have the feel of the small town.” 7 In an interview, art director Henry Bumstead narrated his experience of being shown around Monroeville by Lee, who introduced him to collard greens and to the local scenery. He rounds off his story with this somewhat paratactic insight: “I did get a lot of wonderful research done in Alabama. And so when they were moving a lot of houses in Los Angeles to make way for the freeway, we bought three or four of them and remodeled them. That saved the studio a lot of money.” 8

The story of those expropriated houses is a murky one. One account suggests that the houses were to be demolished to make way for the construction of Dodger Stadium, home to the baseball team that had recently moved to Los Angeles from Brooklyn. 9 Another account, in the film’s publicity pressbook, coincides with Bumstead’s memory that the houses were to be destroyed due to the development of the freeway, and confirms that their purchase was a money-saving measure for the studio. According to one of the packaged articles (which could be adapted to suit the needs of distributors and exhibitors), “Almost a dozen 50-year-old Southern California cottages being removed to make room for a network of Los Angeles Country freeways were hauled to the back lot at Universal studios to provide the main setting, a small Alabama town.” 10 Another article from the pressbook adds more details:

Cost of the set would have been at least $100,000 more had it not been for the ingenuity of [Alexander] Golitzen [another member of the art department] and Bumstead. Learning that a number of clapboard houses of the same general style as many Monroeville homes were being demolished to make room for a new Los Angeles Freeway, Golitzen and Bumstead made arrangements to buy a dozen of these houses. After they had been moved to the studio back lot and slightly remodelled to match specific Monroeville houses, the total cost to Universal was approximately $25,000. To have built them from the ground up would have cost close to $125,000, according to Golitzen. 11

The studio’s breezy reference to the state’s assertion of eminent domain, resulting in the displacement and expropriation of Angelenos, is disturbing enough to raise the curiosity and suspicion of the historian-analyst. These vaguely specific production anecdotes suggest that the film’s production is imbricated in one of the most notorious episodes in Los Angeles history.

Homes in Chavez Ravine, Los Angeles
Homes in Chavez Ravine, Los Angeles, ca. 1950. [Leonard Nadel/Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles]

As historian Eric Avila has shown, the development of Dodger Stadium was not only a controversial project of civic and urban renewal but also a concerted program of racist and classist urban displacement. 12 Dodger Stadium was constructed in an area known as Chavez Ravine, a working-class and largely Latino neighborhood close to downtown Los Angeles. In the early 1950s, Chavez Ravine was identified as a “slum” that required “rehabilitation.” Residents were cleared from their homes so that they could be resettled in a large-scale public housing project, yet to be built. However, when the conservative Republican Norris Poulson became mayor in 1953, he canceled plans for the new housing estate and began divesting the city’s existing public housing. Political and private interests latched onto Chavez Ravine, which they saw as a desirable, even inevitable site for the stadium, given its proximity to downtown. The few remaining inhabitants were forcibly evicted and their houses seized by the city. One woman, a resident in the Ravine since the 1920s, adopted the technique of passive resistance learned from the civil rights movement and forced authorities “to carry her out the door before a crowd of news reporters and television cameras.” 13

The ironies of this production history are stunning: a putatively antiracist film is actually an archive of racist urban development.

Thus it would seem that the houses we see in To Kill a Mockingbird, the houses of Maycomb, the traditional community that, by 1962, no longer existed in a modernized Alabama, are in fact the material remains of a traditional community that was destroyed in order to make way for a modernized Los Angeles. The film’s weak claims to an investment in racial and economic justice are belied by the indices of racial and economic injustice that constitute its very architecture, that are the formal and material units of its mode of production, its style, and its mode of rhetorical address.

The ironies of this production history are stunning: a putatively antiracist film is actually an archive of racist urban development. The fictional houses of Atticus Finch and his white neighbors in a fictional Maycomb were in fact the real houses of nonwhite Angelenos forced to surrender their private property, not to the needs of the state but to the desires of the private interests that owned the Los Angeles Dodgers. A film that mourns the loss of an organic community, circa 1932, is literally constructed from the remains of an organic community whose destruction was exactly contemporaneous with the film’s production, circa 1962.

Woman evicted from home in Chavez Ravine, Los Angeles, 1959
Police evict Aurora Vargas from her home in Chavez Ravine, Los Angeles, in 1959. Houses moved from the neighborhood were reportedly used on the set of To Kill a Mockingbird. [Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries]

These houses in the made-up Maycomb, Alabama, like so many houses in cinematic representation, serve as both figure and ground. They are mute, inexpressive, typical, unremarkable. And yet their appearance, the specificity of their architecture, and their semiotic connotations structure the film’s narrative. 14 On the one hand, the house is a place of stability and refuge; on the other, it is the object of every anxious imagining. (Think of Boo Radley’s house, just down the street from the Finch house.) The voiceover’s opening evocation of Maycomb life in the Great Depression suggests a town in which class distinctions are leveled: “There was nowhere to go and nothing to buy, no money to buy it with.” The houses’ similarity, one to another, tells us the same thing. Thus the image of these houses provides a secure foundation for the film’s liberal ideology.

The spectacle of the houses in this film is both mute and articulate. It forecloses and discloses what the film cannot say but will not cease from showing.

As we are educated out of our fear of Boo, we come to see that his house is actually, perhaps, not as scary as we thought: we are all alike, really, just like these houses. Yes, Boo’s house must harbor the open secret of patriarchal violence (his father is one of the film’s scariest characters), but then what house does not harbor this secret, in one way or another? To be generous to the film, however, it does take pains to show us that African Americans do not live on Atticus’s street. Tom Robinson’s house is always insisted on as a destination to which Atticus must drive. The film cannot talk about its geography explicitly, but it manages at least to indicate implicitly Maycomb’s racial and geographic apartheid.

But these subtle textual clues cannot redeem the racism of urban development that the film (and its publicity material) archives and indexes. We should see the houses carted away from Chavez Ravine and placed so artfully on the Universal back lot to embody the artlessness of Maycomb as stubborn signs of a repressed history. Without intending to do so, the film testifies to real racial and economic injustice in a way that cannot be voiced or contained by the film’s fictional narrativization of racism, black suffering, and white liberalism. The spectacle of the houses in this film is both mute and articulate. It forecloses and discloses what the film cannot say but will not cease from showing.

Editors’ Note

This essay is adapted from Spectacle of Property, by John David Rhodes, published this month by the University of Minnesota Press, © 2017 Regents of the University of Minnesota. It appears here with the permission of the author and publisher.

  1. See Raymond Guess, Public Goods, Private Goods (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), esp. 32–33.
  2. Vincent Scully, “American Houses: Thomas Jefferson to Frank Lloyd Wright,” in The Rise of an American Architecture, ed. Edgar Kaufman Jr. (London: Pall Mall Press/Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1970), 163-64.
  3. Ibid., 165–68.
  4. Frank B. Wilderson III, Red, White and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 14. See also Silvia Federici’s argument that “to not see women’s work in the home is to be blind to the work and struggles of the overwhelming majority of the world’s population that is wageless. It is to ignore that American capital was built on slave labor as well as waged labor and, up to this day, it thrives on the unwaged labor of millions of women and men in the fields, kitchens, and prisons of the United States and throughout the world.” Silvia Federici with Nicole Cox, “Counterplanning from the Kitchen” (1975), in Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland and Brooklyn: PM Press/Common Notions/Autonomedia, 2012), 31.
  5. Wilderson, Red, White and Black, 7, 11.
  6. John Nickel, “Disabling African American Men: Liberalism and White Message Films,” Cinema Journal 44:1 (Fall 2004), 39.
  7. Robert Mulligan, speaking in Fearful Symmetry: The Making of “To Kill a Mockingbird” (Charles Kiselyak, 1998). This documentary is included as an extra on the 2005 special edition DVD release of the film (Universal).
  8. Henry Bumstead, quoted in Andrew Horton, Henry Bumstead and the World of Hollywood Art Direction (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003), 88.
  9. Jon Primrose offers this explanation on his website The Studio Tour, which is intended as a guide to Universal Studios. See “Elm Street.” It is unclear where Primrose’s information comes from, and attempts to contact him were not successful.
  10. “Newest House Aged to Enact Role of Oldest,” To Kill a Mockingbird Pressbook (1962), Pressbooks Collection, British Film Institute Special Collections.
  11. “‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Has Largest Outdoor Movie Set,” To Kill a Mockingbird Pressbook (1962), op cit.
  12. Eric Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 145–84. Avila frames the entire history of the movement of the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles as, essentially, a parable of twentieth-century urbanism. The Dodgers were richly embedded in Brooklyn working-class culture, emplaced in the borough in a very specific way. Their movement to Los Angeles, effected by the franchise owner, Walter O’Malley, was a purely financial gambit. Dodger Stadium, at the time of its construction the height of a modern and even modernist spectacular sports arena, was built to be fundamentally alien to its geographical context, apart from its proximity to downtown and its accessibility to L.A.’s freeways. It was the first stadium built expressly for the automobile, and thus is further imbricated in patterns of white flight suburban development. Thus its entwinement with racism — despite the history of the Dodgers as the first racially integrated team in Major League Baseball — extends beyond the destruction of Chavez Ravine (the complicated story of which I condense in what follows). For an even fuller account of the subject of Chavez Ravine in relation to the fate of public housing in Los Angeles, see Dana Cuff, The Provisional City: Los Angeles Stories of Architecture and Urbanism (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000), 272–309.
  13. Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight, 167.
  14. Rachel Watson provides an interesting reading of the function of the front porch in the film as a narrative and symbolic space, one that figures the limits of the film’s ideological imagination. See Rachel Watson, “The View from the Porch: Race and the Limits of Empathy in the Film To Kill a Mockingbird,” Mississippi Quarterly 63:3 (Summer–Fall 2010), 419–43.
John David Rhodes, “Prop and Property,” Places Journal, December 2017. Accessed 22 Mar 2023.

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