Review: High Yellow (1965)

Director: Larry Buchanan

Starring: Cynthia Hull, Warren Hammack, Kay Taylor

Release Date: 4th August 1965 (US)

A limousine pulls up at a train station somewhere outside of Los Angeles, where a young woman awaits a ride to her new place of employment. The chauffeur gets out and opens the passenger door, looks at the woman, and opens the rear door instead. “You were right the first time,” the woman tells him, but sits in the back of the limo anyway.

It’s often said that wealthy Americans find the traditional British way of life appealing, by which they mean becoming part of the British class system, where money is often part of a bloodline stretching back centuries. America doesn’t have such an established system of old money, but it does have a striking class difference all the same, and it’s skin deep, a sliding scale of skin tones, pale at the top, darkest at the bottom, with those inbetween left to find their own place as best they can. We’ve already seen the trouble this can create in John Cassavete’s excellent Shadows (1959), where fleetness, improvised individualism and the entrepreneurial spirit can blur the character just enough to less the impact of color. But what of those times when you have to hang around for a while to earn the money to take yourself upwards? What happens when you meet the past on the way to the future?

High Yellow voices these questions from an unexpected source, the Texan-born director Larry Buchanan. Say Buchanan’s name to devotees of down-at-heel films and they’ll think of the made for TV films produced by his Azalea company in the late 1960s, such as The Eye Creatures (1965), Zontar, the Thing from Venus (1966), and Mars Needs Women (1967), insipid schedule-filling hack jobs, often remakes of old AIP movies and usually starring John Agar, king of the Bs, if ‘b’ stands for ‘bland.’ Before these films however, Buchanan explored the exploitation market, looking at subjects mainstream Hollywood wouldn’t touch, including adultery and near-incest (Common Law Wife, 1963), and the assassination of John F Kennedy (The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, 1964). Such films were trash, in the purest sense; trashy subjects filmed in a trashy way, made with a hard-nosed attitude to both viewer and subject.

High Yellow was Buchanan’s last film before the Azalea TV projects. Filmed in cheap, gritty black-and-white, it’s by no means slick, but approaches the subject of race in a more direct way than the major studios, yet without the vicious conflict to come in later racially-oriented films; here, it’s more a case than people trying to get on with their lives and achieving their modest ambitions. There’s also a subplot regarding a character’s possible homosexuality, and this four years before the Stonewall Riots brought the issue to national attention.

At this point, I should tell the uninitiated the term ‘high yellow’ once described colored people who had white ancestry and so possessed a lighter skin tone than many within the ‘minorities’; indeed, one could say ‘high yellows’ formed a minority within a minority. ‘Redbone’ is a similar term, and the reader may recall other such slang from less well-informed times. Does it help to label people in such a way, even if handled sensitively…?

A limousine pulls up at White Rock train station somewhere outside of Los Angeles, where a young, olive-skinned woman is waiting for a ride to the wealthy home where she will work as a maid. The black chauffeur, Joseph (Bill McGhee) gets out and opens the passenger door, looks at the woman, and opens the rear door instead. “You were right the first time,” the woman tells him, but sits in the back of the limo anyway. “Why not? says the chauffeur, “No one will ever know the difference.” As the car heads along the pylon-lined highway, the woman, Cynthia ‘Cindy’ Wood (Cynthia Hull) revels in the luxury of the limo, stroking the leather seats and playing with the electric window.

They arrive at the palatial, secluded mansion of the Langley family. First, we meet Mrs Langley (Anne MacAdams), a largely bedridden woman who is debating the sexual nature of a Rodin statuette with the Reverend Hatfield (Jonathan Ledford), a frequent visitor to the Langleys. Why, asks Mrs Langley, did God make sex pleasurable if He only intended it to produce children? Annoyed at the Reverend’s measured response, Mrs Langley accuses him of only visiting when the church needs funds for repairs. The Reverend denies this and explains the reason for his visit; last night, the Chaplin “at the academy in Nevada,” phoned and “told me everything” regarding the Langleys’ son George and the “illness” that has forced his return home. Mrs Langley refuses to hear a word against her son.

Joseph show Cindy her quarters and warns against talking of George, kicked out of the academy for being “a queer boy,” (this during a time when a soldier could be investigated by the military if suspected of homosexuality and dismissed). Alone, Cynthia recites a rhyme to help remember the correct way of setting dinner and dons her maid’s uniform. America may not have a British class system (the UK domestic service industry had all but vanished by 1965), but money can still buy people’s livings, if not their lives, and a wealthy family, with a high local standing, would be expected to employ servants, and black servants at that. As if to underline the point, when Cindy passes Mr Langley (Bob Brown), a movie studio executive, on the stairs, Langley pauses, and asks “you are colored, aren’t you?” “Yes,” replies Cindy, “my mother was a negro.”

Summoned to Mrs Langley’s bedside, we learn Cindy is 17 and her father, a white saxophonist, left her mother, a school teacher, before Cindy’s birth. The pair were married, so Cindy is not illegitimate (and so avoids descending a step down the class ladder). “Then you’re what they call high yellow,” says Mrs Langley. Cindy seems a little hurt at this: “among other things,” she replies.

The Langleys’ teenage daughter, Judy (Kay Taylor), beckons Cindy to enter her bedroom. Judy, a college drop-out, acts like more literate version of the girls from Spider Baby, full of childish glee and affected verbiage –  Judy’s “into kicksville, dig?” Judy, naive but curious, notes “your skin is almost as white as mine. What’s it like to be colored?” It means, as Cindy puts it tactfully, that you have to drop out of school in order to work. Judy can’t get over how someone so light-skinned should work as a maid: “You could almost pass for white.” “I intend to,” states Cindy. The girls decide on being friends, though we could ask, would Judy be so keen to have Cindy as a friend if she were a darker color? Judy is bored and in need of company of her own age, but it’s possible there’s a line she wouldn’t cross, and the line is black.

George Langley (Warren Hammack) arrives by taxi – awkward, as Mr Langley and Joseph have already left for the airport to pick him up. After greeting Judy, George and Cindy make eye contact  – and there’s a definite spark between the two. Mrs Langley waits for her son at the top of the stairs, and the two hug with great affection. Mrs Langley asks Cindy to fetch a centerpiece for dinner from Major Bates in the conservatory.

How creepy do you like your conservatories? Because this one’s pretty creepy and the biggest creep in it is Major Bates, who throws a net over the startled Cindy. Bates tells Cindy the family were soft on George, and he “used to straighten out faggots in the army,” having never “found one we couldn’t straighten out, no matter how far gone.” One begins to fear for the safety of the little rabbits Bates keeps in a nearby cage, and sure enough, the Major picks up one of the bunnies while telling Cindy that Judy is no better than George. “I’d break her neck, like a rabbit’s!” I think you know what happens next, and it sends Cindy running with the centerpiece through the latticed garden paths, in one of a number of nicely constructed set-piece shots. Buchanan sets his stall out early as far as making Bates the villain, and although it lessens the tension, it doesn’t lessen our interest in High Yellow, as the film addresses a problem bigger than one man or one small family.

Mr Langley arrives back from his fool’s errand and soon accuses George of getting into “the worst mess a kid can get into.” George objects, but is told “the military don’t make mistakes.” “Oh, yes they do,” responds George, almost in tears, and rails against “the movie mogul war hero” of the signal corps. George tells his father he’s spoken to cameramen who served with his father, who claim footage of Langley at the Anzio landings was faked, and filmed in England. Major Bates meanwhile, is no more than “a sadistic criminal,” Langley’s “hatchet man,” who caused the needless deaths of three GIs through his cruelty. Langley blames himself for giving George too much early in life, leaving his son “a devious queer boy.” George calls these allegations lies, but Langley strikes his son down, leaving him sobbing in the arms of his mother. George’s accusations against his father’s war record may have surprised contemporary viewers as much as the allegations of supposed homosexuality. at a time when ‘the golden generation’ were held in the highest regard by American society. This was also a time however, when film-makers were willing to take risks and many independents couldn’t care less for popular opinion – if shock sold tickets, then they’d shock as far as they could.

Having overheard this confrontation, Cindy retreats to the basement to assist Joseph in preparing the cutlery for dinner. “Don’t worry,” he tells Cindy, “all families are the same. Just knock on any door.” Joseph tells Cindy of his love of cars, and his plan to open a garage – using the proceeds from stealing the family silver! Cindy wonders why Joseph has confided this to her, and is told “you’ve got it bad too. I can see it written over your face.” Joseph senses an ally in Cindy; to him, Cindy is black, not white, and so reasons the maid is on ‘his side.’ Buchanan emphasizes the point with a shot showing both Cindy and George’s face reflected upon a silver platter. Yet Cindy wishes to reach out to all, from the position of freedom she feels her complexion, and new job, gives her. Cindy tells Joseph of a rather obviously interpreted recurring dream in which she she tries to reach out to a white cake on a table, only the cake is always out of reach. “I want some of that cake. I want to learn.”

To Cindy’s surprise, this angers Joseph, who tells the maid she’ll end up a white lady, with white boyfriends and a white baby – and what would she tell a child about her mixed race parents? “From when you were born, you’ve lost every way a woman could lose!” Joseph, as conditioned to society’s binary thinking towards color, fears Cindy will have no sense of belonging, and will find herself rejected by both whites and blacks. We also suspect Joseph also has feelings for Cindy, and this is confirmed later in the film.

Time for dinner, but Judy is in the stables, furious at Bates for an act of cruelty to one of her horses. Judy whips the Major, in another scene unlikely to have made it to screens outside your local drive-in. Bates grabs the whip and snaps it in two. Judy runs for the house, screaming that her father should have thrown out Bates “years ago, you cruel creep!” “You’ll get yours!” cries the Major.

Arriving for the soup course, Judy takes umbrage at her mother’s instruction to wash her hands, and has Cindy take her dinner upstairs to her room, accompanied by some ditzy sitcom music. “Do you think I’m a kook?” she asks. “No, not really,” replies Cindy, knowing an act when she sees one. After Cindy and George exchange glances again on the stairs, the maid helps Joseph clear dinner. “I know it’s hard to take,” says George, “all the leftovers.” George tells Cindy to serve Mr & Mrs Langley their Cointreau in the lounge, adding if they take it straight, and not with coffee, there’s trouble afoot. And neat it is, with the Langleys disagreeing on which child we need to talk about, their gay son, or wayward daughter.

Retiring for the night, Cindy unpacks her case and finds a letter from her mother, and a gift, a diary. Mrs Wood, losing her little girl, feels from now Cindy “won’t be living a lie – but it won’t be the absolute truth either. Use this diary as my Cindy, not the other strange person.” Cindy hugs the diary and cries at this maternal wisdom, a summary of Cindy’s search for identity, as the music builds to a crescendo, and we half-expect a ‘to be continued’ caption.

A week passes, and Cindy Woods breaks an American record in keeping her diary for seven days straight, though even Bridget Jones would be v. shocked at the maid only covering two pages of double spaced cursive in that time. Cindy gives a surmise of each of the main characters during our absence. Joseph “knows everything about everything,” but Cindy cannot like him in the way he would wish. Mr Langley often has colleagues from his studio round for viewings, and after Cindy has served them snacks and left the screening room, “they always find something to laugh about” (tellingly, the film screened for the executives looks like a ‘jungle savages’ picture). Mrs Langley gets short shrift: “she isn’t ill at all,” but lies in bed all day, eating chocolates. Whenever Rev. Hatfield visits, Mrs Langley attempts to embarrass him with sexual talk. “She has so much, and he has so little,” sighs Cindy (it’s possible that Mrs Langley has mild depression, or is ‘ill for a living’ through not having enough to occupy her mind, like the older leisured ladies of Victorian fiction – Mrs Carson in Elizabeth Gaskill’s 1848 novel Mary Barton, for example).

As for gorgeous George, Cindy has “never met anyone like him before…is it my vanity, or does he only smile when he’s with me?” It’s George who explains Major Bates is in the employ of his father (Bates’ former Colonel) as a “war deal.” Cindy avoids the Major, and there’s some more rather obvious imagery as we see Bates cutting at a shrub with some shears.

Judy is an “untamed filly,” who treats Cindy as an equal, and so do her friends as the pony club: “were it not for my uniform, you wouldn’t know I was a maid.” I’m not so sure a bastion of conservative values as a wealthy kids’ pony club would be quite so accepting of a darker-skinned young woman in a maid’s uniform, but Buchanan has posted his colors on the side of youth; it’s arguable High Yellow is as much about generational conflict as racial. However, a note of caution is sounded in the language Cindy reports the club members as using: “thoroughbred,” “bloodline,” and “good breeding.”

That night, Mr and Mrs Langley leave for a screening, and Judy persuades Cindy into a night out at the Disco-A-Go-Go, despite the maid worrying about whether her color will clash with the customers. Judy reminds Cindy of her previous comments on her flexible ‘whiteness’: “let’s put it to the test! You’ll be a high yella Cinderella!”

Bates, one of those people who always appears when least wanted, shocks Judy in the garage, telling her “you’re a shame before God…I’ll report you to Colonel Langley!” Judy retaliates: “I’ll tell him you made a pass at me!” Some of Judy’s dialog borders on the unlikely (“you ghoul!”) but then, Buchanan is hardly the first male writer to struggle to write for young female characters.

The two girls pass a fun evening at the club, with singer Jody Daniels belting out a tune in praise of the Disco-A-Go-Go itself, followed by Jimmy Rabbit and the Rowdies singing something or other called ‘Pushover’, all in front of posters advertising Zulu and A Hard Day’s Night (both 1964). Looking at the clientele, it’s a surprise to see how old young people looked, even in the swinging Sixties, with all the guys in ties, and the girls drinking nothing stronger than a Coke. As for the dancing, white people can’t jump, and they can’t rock too good either.

Later, the girls leave, and one of the bouncers slips something into a drink Judy accepts on the way out. Cindy takes the wheel, but as they drive away, a bouncer laments “we just let two white pigeons fly away home.” It’s barely acknowledged in the script, but Cindy and Judy have narrowly avoided date rape, with the suggestion that had Cindy been darker, the bouncers would not have been interested, a very dangerous and mixed message.

During the drive back (during which we hear no dialogue, only music), Judy appears increasingly tetchy, before falling unconscious. At the mansion, Joseph is livid with Cindy; the Langleys returned early from their film as Mrs Langley had a ‘headache,’ (a cover for something else?), and both are now asleep, unaware Judy was out all night. Picking up Judy, Joseph crosses the gardens and returns the stricken girl to her room. Major Bates watches from a distance, swigging from a bottle of liquor.

Just as Cindy is ready for bed, George enters her room, feeling the need to talk. “Everyone needs someone,” says Cindy, who regards the diary as her “confidant.” They discuss parental love, with George feeling he and Judy can’t communicate with their parents. “Mom either failed as a mother, or I failed as a son – or a man.” “I think of you as a man,” replies Cindy, and the pair kiss. “Why does the world thrive on hurt?” wails Cindy. It’s now that George gives the full story of why he was expelled from the academy.

One night, two other soldiers in George’s barracks pressured George into visiting an “off-limits dive in town” to see a strip show. After the performance, the soldiers dared George into going upstairs to ‘visit’ the stripper in her dressing room. George, not keen on this to begin with, becomes very much less keen when the stripper removes her wig and earrings to reveal – oh dear – she is a he, “some kind of reptil” (well, that’s how George pronounces it), a transvestite, and where’s Ed Wood when you need him/her?

The police raided the club, and arrested George, numbed by the experience: “I wasn’t shocked or angry – I was fascinated.” We’ve all been curious at times in our lives George; I myself am often a curious man, so chin up. Cindy is sympathetic: “it doesn’t prove a thing. You don’t have to prove yourself to me – you have to prove to yourself,” something which often happens in films and TV shows, though how you prove yourself to yourself is never explained. George and Cindy kiss again, and it’s implied that some sweet sweet interracial lovin’ takes place, three years before Capt. Kirk and Lt. Uhura got to first base in Star Trek.

Morning, and some light comedic music awakens Cindy. Late for her duties, she hurries and makes for Judy’s room – only to find police photographers taking pictures of Judy’s corpse. Downstairs, where the rest of the household are gathered, the Police Officer (Max W Anderson) explains Judy was assaulted and killed during the night. Despite the drawing-room drama, the viewer may find their attention drawn towards the extraordinary clock on the wall behind Cindy, less a timepiece and more a tribute to some obscure Aztec god.

Cindy explains to the officer that someone slipped Judy a mickey and Joseph carried the girl to her room. “She’s lying,” interjects Major Bates, who claims he overheard Cynthia and Joseph arguing before the servant dragged Judy away. Despite George’s appeals, the Police Officer has Joseph taken away to the station for questioning.

The Police Officer talks to Cindy on their own; he knows Joseph is innocent and Bates is the murderer. So much for whodunnit, but that’s not what High Yellow is about. The Police Officer tells Cindy if she wants to help Joseph, she needs to wear a similar dress to the one Judy when she died and phone Major Bates later that night…

To paraphrase a cliche, it’s pretty, but it’s not effective, at least when you consider how rational High Yellow is up to this point. Cindy, posing as Judy, telephones the drunken Major in the stables and tells him to saddle up her horse. A fantastical sequence, even if it looks good, must fail if shown within a serious subject; Major Bates quakes as ‘Judy’ approaches, fearing a ghost, leaving us in Scooby Doo territory, though it does make the point that Cindy is finally proved ‘white’ only by faking the appearance of her dead friend, or perhaps Buchanan is saying Cindy is white to the authorities when it suits them. Sexual jealousy emerges as the motivation, as Bates rants against the “pimply boys” Judy preferred over “men.” Soon the Major realizes it’s Cindy, and threatens her with a pitchfork, but is shot dead by the Police Officer, who may want to reassess how he gets confessions from suspects.

Some time later, Cindy says goodbye to George in her room; George loves her and wants Cindy to stay. “But that’s why I must leave,” replies the tearful Cindy. “People like you don’t change the world, George. You only make it better.” Cynthia has given up trying being someone else, but hopes one day a place will exist where they can meet again as lovers. Joseph drives Cindy back to the station.

It’s unusual to find a film with serious intent, by a ‘name’ director (even if, as Buchanan would have cheerfully admitted, some of his films gave film a bad name) neglected to the extent of High Yellow. The film has zero reviews on IMDB (one less than Buchanan’s Naughty Dallas of 1964) and is dealt with only as part of the group of Buchanan’s pre-Azalea exploitation work in Rob Craig’s 2007 academic work on the director. Psychotronic author Michael J Weldon stated the film was difficult to find back in the 1990s, perhaps due to indifference on the part of Buchanan himself, and yet High Yellow surely merits more attention, if only for its subject matter and the sympathetic treatment it receives from Buchanan.

Therein lies the problem. Buchanan is so on the side of the underdog, and the plotting is so straight, there’s little room for dramatic conflict. One might expect Joseph to get the blame for Judy’s murder, and for the story to develop from there, but High Yellow‘s authority figures are so dedicated to justice (Mr Langley offers Joseph the use of his lawyer, for example) the true culprit is weeded out almost at once, and we see little of the impact of Judy’s death on her family. At times, High Yellow, with its Pollyanna heroine, feels like positive discrimination, an accusation leveled at the later NBC sitcom Julia (1968-71), with its whiter-than-white black lead. We do get a sense of Cindy’s conflict over her social position, and determination to find a place in the world, even at the cost of her true identity, and a little more care over the script would have helped bring this through. As it is, Buchanan becomes side-tracked on the battle of the younger generation in understanding their seniors.

I mentioned earlier High Yellow reminded me of Mary Barton, but another (equally unlikely) influence struck me while watching – Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), with Cindy the Fanny Price figure, arriving at the big house from a poor family, Mrs Langley the perpetually ‘unwell’ Lady Bertram, married to a man of importance, while George is the stand-in for Austen’s gallant Edmund. As far as literature is concerned though, High Yellow most wants to be a Tennessee Williams play, and so pines for the more in-your-face approach of a Russ Meyer, but Buchanan is just a little too distant for his film to truly cut loose and succeed. As such, High Yellow remains a minor, but worthy, curio.