I saw the movie “Tammy Tell Me True” at a movie theater in about 1961. I was in my middle teens. Tammy’s physical beauty (Sandra Dee) and her personality made an impression on me. A couple years ago I purchased a DVD set including the first three of the Tammy movies.
“Tammy and the Bachelor” (1957) featured Debbie Reynolds and Leslie Nielsen. “Tammy Tell Me True” (1961) starred Sandra Dee and John Gavin. “Tammy and the Doctor” (1963) again starred Sandra Dee, with Peter Fonda as her co-star. There is a fourth Tammy movie, “Tammy and the Millionaire” (1967), featuring Debbie Watson. I have not seen that, nor have I seen any of the one-season TV series from the late 60s dedicated to Tammy. It didn’t last long.
Tammy Tyree is a 17-year old girl/almost woman who lives on the shanty boat the Ellen B. with her grandfather Dinwoodie. That is, until he is arrested for selling moonshine. She can’t stay on the shanty boat alone, so her adventures in the bigger world start.
Tammy is uneducated and unsophisticated. But she is by no means a fool. Her grandfather was a sort of lay preacher, and Tammy has been raised with a very deep knowledge of the Bible.
My favorite of the three movies is still “Tammy Tell Me True.” “Bachelor” is second best. “Doctor” is the weakest entry. There Tammy is sometimes portrayed as doing foolish things which I think are a departure from the spirit of the true Tammy. Sandra Dee is still beautiful and Tammy still has a kind and pure character, but the movie is a step down.
Somewhere along the line I began to wonder where Tammy came from. This wondering was belated–I can be incredibly slow–but once I started looking it turned out that Tammy did not spring out of the imagination of some Hollywood bigwig. Tammy was based on a fictional character written about in books.
There were three books about Tammy. The first was Tammy Out of Time (1948). Then came Tammy Tell Me True (1959). The first two movies used those two books as a jumping off place, for both plots and the portrayal of Tammy’s personality. The third book was Tammy in Rome (1965).
The books were written by Cid Ricketts Sumner (b. 1890-d. 1970). She was born in Mississippi, and her southern roots can be felt in the books.
Anyway, I thought I would try to see how the first Tammy book matched up with the movies. Well, as my father used to say, every now and then the old blind sow finds an acorn. I found an acorn. Tammy Out of Time is a fine book. It is extremely well written. Tammy is a deeper person than as she is portrayed in the movies. The book is intellectually stimulating. It challenges our thinking about how life should be lived. It upholds the centrality of the Bible and Christian ways of thinking.
I bought the other two books. The three books are not necessarily easy to find, but a kind providence let me get them for reasonable prices. The next two books also held my interest easily.
The books are written the third person, but Cid Ricketts Sumner does it in such a way that sometimes it can almost be the first person as we read how Tammy is thinking. The books constantly reminded me of another book written by someone with a strong connection to the Mississippi River–a boy named Huckleberry Finn. Lack of exactly correct English did not stop Huckleberry Finn from communicating with us in a powerful fashion, nor does it stop Tammy.
Tammy’s grandfather is a central figure in the first book especially. He is a moonshiner, yes, but even in his criminal moonshining he acts on principle. He believes the government has no right to keep him from making corn liquor. (See the Whiskey Rebellion for a similar opinion.) When captured, he treats his captors with courtesy, and feeds them a good meal. Tammy at first rebels at giving the men a meal, but her grandfather rebukes her, and the meal went well for all. Grandpa relishes the chance to preach to the men in prison; in fact he, like Joseph in the book of Genesis, is put to honorable use in prison. His thoughtful brand of Christianity is the spiritual and intellectual center of the novel. Here he is preaching to his fellow prisoners on a Sunday morning:
‘”Now I been listening to you all.” Grandpa searched their faces with his narrowed blue eyes. “I been harkening and holding converse with one and another. This man says, ‘I had hard luck.’ Another says, ‘I growed up in bad circumstances,’ and another says, ‘It ain’t my fault, it’s the system of government that done me wrong.’ And another sets back and says he’s the common man and this-here’s the age of the common man and if he don’t get his share, he’s going to take it. I tell you it ain’t nobody but himself’s responsible for a man’s being low-down and mean and common. And a man that goes around whining and putting the blame on somethin’ outside himself ain’t fit to be called a man. He’s done lost his human dignity and how in this day of wrath is he going to be able to stand? I tell you can’t nobody outside yourself make you secure. You got to start inside and work out, and when you stand on your own feet, then the Lord is your right hand, pointing out the way; then the Lord is your shield and your buckler, of whom shall you be afraid?”‘ (p. 190)
Acceptance of personal responsibility as a key to life? Brother Dinwoodie must have been drinking some of his own corn liquor.
More about Tammy and Cid Ricketts Sumner next time.