the kathy fiscus incident: 3 film inspirations

By the athletics field on the private grounds of San Marino High School in California, a small plaque sits attached to a rock.

These days, parents and students alike gather here to cheer on their local Titans football team at home games. But just over 70 years ago, crowds were gathering for a very different reason. For this was the location where 3 year-old Kathy Fiscus had fallen 90 feet down the shaft of an abandoned well whilst playing with her cousins, one April afternoon back in 1949. 

The tragic accident had captivated the hearts and minds of millions of Americans at the time – made possible by the feverish popularity of television, in a year that saw the population buying 100,000 TV sets a week on average. Local news crews, including Los Angeles radio and television station KTTV raced to the scene to get the scoop coverage, beaming the incident out across the nation in what would be the first live remote broadcast, a watershed moment for news.

Before the 48 hours that this ordeal would endure for was over, rescue teams would have gone through the heavy machinery from a dozen neighbouring towns, everything from floodlights to dwarf extras that were rushed in from Hollywood sets, and a gallimaufry of far-out rescue theories and suggestions. At one point, a local carnival even offered the services of its sideshow ‘Thin man’. If ever an event was worthy of the title of ‘circus’, then sadly this incident (which ended in heart-rending tragedy for the Fiscus family) truly was the circus of all circuses.  

Fictionalized over the years in literature, cinema, television and music, the incident has been revisited time and again in popular culture. British writer Rumer Godden (author of Black Narcissus) wrote about a similar incident in her 1969 novel In this House of Brede. The Simpsons spoofed the event in their season 3 episode ‘Radio Bart’. Country musician Jimmie Osbourne recorded the dedication song ‘The Death of Little Kathy Fiscus’, which sold over 1 million copies and resulted in subsequent country versions by Kitty Wells among others (Osbourne donated 50% of the record sales to the Fiscus family). 

Located barely 20 miles to the west of where this tragedy had unfolded, it’s probably of no surprise to anyone that Hollywood too would have found a way to weave this grievous tale into their pictures. What may in fact be surprising to some however, is the dignified way in which they handled the subject matter. 

In the early 1950’s, three specific film noir pictures managed to use the inspiration of this news story in order to produce standalone social commentaries that addressed a trio of dissimilar (but no less pertinent) issues of the period. The filmmakers behind each of these were never known to play it safe during their careers; and all three films demonstrate that fearless streak. 

Three Secrets – Warner Brothers 1950

When news reaches town that a private plane has come crashing into the nearby Sierra mountain ranges and a 5-year old boy is the soul-survivor, the local community are soon gripped to their television sets in collective grief. Whilst a tense rescue operation mounts at the foot of the peak, a newspaper discloses sensitive information that the boy was adopted. 

The headline soon sweeps the townsfolk into a fever-pitched state…but none are more perturbed by this news than three strangers who find themselves united by the painful memory of one common secret.  

Fresh off an impressive run with RKO Studios that saw him advance from the cutting room to the director’s chair, Robert Wise had hit his stride by the time he was enlisted by Warner Brothers for this intelligent drama that possesses dark undertones and shades of noir. With the narrative split into a triptych of flashbacks, we’re whisked away from our own realities and plunged into the circumstantial scenarios of the three stories told from the perspectives of the three female protagonists. 

The plot of Three Secrets is anchored around the women’s shelter where each had made the heartbreaking decision to put their unborn child up for adoption. But we soon learn that their personal reasons in doing so are uniquely tragic in their own way. 

Happily married Susan Chase, played by Eleanor Parker (best known for her role as Baroness Elsa von Schraeder in Robert Wise’s 1965 film The Sound of Music) harbours a dark secret from her husband – and her domineering mother is determined to keep it from surfacing. Meanwhile, prized journalist Phylis Horn (played by stage/screen heavyweight and former wife to writer Roald Dahl, Patricia Neal) is sent out to report on the scene – but unbeknownst to her colleagues the story is closer to her heart than they know. Lastly, we are introduced to Ann Lawrence (Golden Globe nominee and star of Hitchcock’s 1951 Strangers on a Train, Ruth Roman) who is forced by the courts to give up her child after the manslaughter of her abusive partner. 

‘I fought like a man in a man’s world – and I made it’.

Phylis Horn (Patricia Neal)

Irrespective of our own personal biases, it’s hard not to feel deeply for the women in Three Secrets. With society’s prejudices and taboos thrust upon them, their right to choose is literally snatched from their hands. A bold statement for 1950 by anyone’s standards, the film challenges the status quo with regards to the role of women in society and sexism as a whole. 

The Well – United Artists 1951

Known for the ‘offbeat creativity and originality’ of their screenplays, the creative partnership of Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene is best exemplified with the string of half-dozen moody noir pictures produced whilst under contract with United Artists. The second instalment in this collaboration, The Well, is a little more conspicuous in its use of the original source material in order to steer its plot. Filmed on a minuscule budget of $450,000 USD (almost one third of the finances raised for the other two films on this list), Rouse and Greene enlisted the services of a racially diverse cast of mostly unknown actors in prominent roles. 

The story follows the community response when Carolyn, a 5-year old black girl goes missing on her way to school. After a white engineer and nephew of a local businessman, Claude Packard is brought in for questioning (played here by actor Harry Morgan, best known for his role as Colonel Sherman in the hit TV series M*A*S*H), rumours circulating throughout the small town fan the lingering embers of racial tension into an inferno of hate-fuelled violence and disorder. 

‘Writers Clarence Greene and Russell Rouse based the well-meaning The Well on an actual incident. Leo C. Popkin, who co-produced with Greene, and co-directed with Rouse, believed it as a comment on racial disharmony, but opted for a low-budget, small-town melodrama with an unknown cast’.

Ronald Bergan – The United Artists Story

Both Rouse and Greene had studied the race riots that had broken out in America in the early 1940’s; including the 1943 riots in Detroit that lasted three days and claimed the lives of 34 people. In addition to its gutsy script and sharp editing (of which it was nominated for two Academy Awards), The Well is noted for its intrepid location cinematography from Ernest Laszlo, and its musical contribution by multi-award winning composer Dimitri Tiomkin. It’s also significant for being the only Hollywood film that celebrated black actor and African-American literature and theatre academic Maidie Norman would play a lead role in. 

In the end, the film’s stark commentary and sensitive subject matter would not be the only factor that would inhibit its distribution. As it turned out, authorities also voiced objection to the producers decision of not relegating its black actors to less prominent roles. It’s Cincinnati premiere in 1951 was even delayed by the Ohio Film Censor Board and debated before a committee after it reportedly took offence with ‘the presence of Negro characters in the plot’. 

Ace in the Hole – Paramount Pictures 1951

Billy Wilder had originally intended to translate the story of Kathy Fiscus to the silver screen until he learned that the producers of The Well had beat him to the punch. The solution was to construct a story around the character of a self-centred and obstinately pig-headed news reporter who is willing to go to any length in order to secure that scoop. 

Kirk Douglas is simply sublime here as brash disgraced Albuquerque journalist Chuck Tatum; who seizes the opportunity to resurrect his career from the gutter when he learns that local man Leo Minossa (Richard Benedict) has become stranded in a collapsed cave whilst searching for ancient Native American artefacts. What ensues is outrageous dollops of deceit, swindle and scandal, as Tatum endeavours to keep the unwitting Minossa penned in for as long as he can possibly milk the man’s misfortune. The film is a scathing social commentary on the omnipotent power of the media, and how the press can manipulate public opinion and stretch truths. 

‘I can handle big news and little news. And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog’

Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas)

Ace in the Hole, known also as The Big Carnival (Paramount executives had attempted to change the title in an effort to boost revenue at the box office) signified Billy Wilder’s severance from the screenwriting partnership of longtime collaborator Charles Brackett, who’d worked with Wilder on the scripts for Five Graves to Cairo, The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard among others. 

Ironically, Paramount had initially relinquished any creative control over the project, after the commercial success of Sunset Boulevard one year prior. But when the film fared poorly at the box office on release, it impacted negatively on Wilder’s career – and as a result he’d have to subtract a portion of the profits from his next film, Stalag 17 to make up for the losses. Despite all this, Ace in the Hole was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story and Screenplay, and Wilder has since cited the picture as one of his finest films.

One comment

  • My dad named me after Kathy Jean Fiscus and told me this story often. My name is Kathy Jean Olson Ives.

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