Lesson Plan and Internet Resource Guide


 for Film


The Ballad of the Sad Café



From the Hollywood Hills to the 

Appalachian Hills:

The Universality of the 

Provincial Stereotypes in

The Ballad of the Sad Café 


By Judy A. Teaford 

Mountain State University
Beckley, WV



"But," you say, "The Ballad of the Sad Café is not Appalachian!" You’re right. And the fact that it is not Appalachian, but rural, is why this is a good film to use in Appalachian classrooms. By applying regional components–Appalachian values (non-stereotypical), hillbilly types (typically stock characters that are basically one-dimensional and often stereotypical)–to The Ballad of the Sad Café, students will develop self-pride and learn tolerance. General knowledge of popular culture (movies, television, rock music, romantic novels, newspapers, etc.) and mass culture (the spread of popular culture through distribution methods such as radio, movies, magazines, newspapers, and television) enhances students’ understanding of the world and enables them to bring this new information to their analysis of the film. An understanding of film techniques helps students make important discoveries and connections between plot, characterization, and mood.

Grade Level:  10-College

Subject:  English/Literature, Film

Time Frame:  Public School: Seven class periods (45 minutes each) or Three to Four block classes (1 hour and 30 minutes each) College: Three to Four classes (1 hour and 15 minutes each)

Learner Outcomes:

  • The student will develop techniques to facilitate a broader world view

  • The student will employ critical thinking skills through discussion and writing


  • Classroom with TV and VCR

  • Handout "Credits for The Ballad of the Sad Café (1991)"

Teacher’s Notes:

Students are familiar with basic film terms and are able to use appropriate terminology to express their thoughts and ideas in both oral and written forms.

Students have studied Appalachian literature and are familiar with the concept of Appalachian values as identified by Loyal Jones–Religion; Individualism, Self-Reliance, Pride; Neighborliness and Hospitality; Familism; Personalism; Love of Place; Modesty; Sense of Beauty; Sense of Humor; Patriotism–having applied same to select pieces of Appalachian literature. During this period of study, students may have decided that some of the values identified by Jones no longer exist or need re-described. They will carry these new ideas into this lesson. (Jones, Loyal. "Appalachian Values." Voices From the Hills. Eds. Robert J. Higgs and Ambrose Manning. New York: Ungar, 1975. 507-517. Jones’ article is a response to a comparative summary of middle class American and Southern Appalachians in the Appendix to Jack Weller’s Yesterday’s People. KY: Kentucky UP, 1965.)

Some relevant quotes and summaries--which may lead to insightful consensus or provoke disagreement –from Williamson, J. W. Hillbillyland: What the Movies Did to the Mountains & What the Mountains Did to the Movies. Chapel Hill: North Carolina UP, 1995. Note to Teacher: You may choose to prepare a handout with the following quotes and summaries for general class discussion or distribute different passages for group discussion and later reporting.

"My assumption is that the hillbilly mirrors us, and like most mirrors he can flatter, frighten, and humiliate. As a rough-and-ready frontiersman, he can be made to compliment American men. He can also terrify. Put him in the same woods, but make him repulsively savage, a monster of nature, and he now mirrors an undeniable possibility in American manhood. In other words, we want to be him and we want to flee him" (2).

"In the countryside, denials of the hillbilly identity can get even more heated, probably because so many people understand the power of the image as a class marker, hence a fighting word" (7).

Speaking of politicians who have embraced the identity for generations: "Playing dumb but showing smart was just good sense in a politician, a purely symbolic but useful leveling of power in the eyes of voters so that power could continue to be unlevel" (10-11).

"Like the fool or the village idiot, the American hillbilly clown is an impudent mirror held up in front of us–both a reflection of and a window into something rarely glimpsed, the native deep and sable face of this creature we still are" (26).

The appearance of hillbilly women in films can present 1) "a glimpse of the same democracy of violence that men have always assumed for themselves: equal freedom possessed at physical hazard" 2) a "democracy of victimization . . . women have often been depicted as sympathetic victims of unjust power" 3) a "democracy of sexuality . . . [the] tradition of the boundary-crossing female . . . sexual authority [and] willful assumption of equal status" (226).

Plot Summary for movie The Ballad of the Sad Café (1991)

The following summary is from a useful site but is not entirely accurate. "A tangled triangle. In the rural South of the early 20th century, Miss Amelia is the town eccentric, selling corn liquor and dispensing medicine. She takes in her half-sister's son, a diminutive crook-back named Lymon. He suggests they open a café in the downstairs of her large house. Marvin Macy gets out of prison and returns to town to marry Amelia. They marry, but she won't let him sleep with her; first he pleads, then he gets angry. Eventually, Amelia and Marvin stage a no-holds-barred fight in the café. Lymon's complicated response to Marvin and to Cousin Amelia figures in the resolution" (The Internet Movie Database, pg. 11 – July 16, 2000 – Search http://www.imdb.com  – Summary written by jhailey@hotmail.com).

Negative Movie Review: From Leonard Maltin's Movie & Video Guide

Ballad of the Sad Café, The: "Truly odd stab at filming Depression-era tale of Southerner Redgrave, a loner who rules rural hamlet like a despot--until hunchback Hubbert and ex-con husband Carradine appear. Far too theatrical in its look, tone, and pacing; Redgrave's performance may interest drama students, but nothing in film really works. Based on Carson McCullers' novella (and its stage adaptation by Edward Albee). Film directing debut of British actor/stage director Callow." Copyright© Leonard Maltin, 1998, used by arrangement with Signet, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc. (From Amazon.com, Editorial Reviews   http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/6302413834/qid%3D964129835/104-1619846-2799956 - Search http://www.amazon.com if the previous address does not take you to the appropriate destination.)

Additional Reviews:

By Joe Brown
http://www.washingtonpost.com  (Do a search for review)

By Hal Hinson
(Do a search for review)

By Roger Ebert
(Do a search for review)




1. Provide students following out-of class reading:

Kolker, Robert. "Film as Cultural Practice." Film, Form, and Culture. Boston: McGraw Hill College, 1999. 60-97. (Any good film text may be substituted. Topics covered in Kolker’s text, pages 60-97, include Popular Culture, Definition of Culture, How Popular Culture Becomes Mass Culture, Theories of Culture, Cultural Studies, Cultural Criticism Applied to Cinematic Texts.)


2. Allow for in-depth class discussion and analysis of Kolker’s "Film as Cultural Practice."

Sample Questions (substitute appropriate questions for different text):

A.) Kolker’s provides the following definition of culture: ". . . culture can be seen as the text of our lives, the ultimately coherent pattern of beliefs, acts, responses that we produce and comprehend every day (61-61). What is your reaction to Kolker’s definition? Explain.

B.) Kolker states: "Now, our culture–or that part of our culture that makes divisions between high and low, serious and popular art–defines culture much more narrowly than we just have. It defines as culture those serious works make by independent imaginations that are complex, difficult to understand, and acceptable only to the few who have, want, or like ‘culture.’ In other words, culture segments and segregates itself" (62). He explains that high culture includes such imaginative works as paintings in museums, symphonies played in concert halls, etc. Those things that do not fit this definition fall into the category of low or popular culture, which includes things like movies, television, rock music, romantic novels, newspapers, etc.–all of which are commodities. Within these narrowly defined types (often based on things like class, education, race, and gender), groups split into subcultures based on their particular interests. Do you agree that cultures (high and low) segment and segregate themselves? Can you provide examples? Explain.

C.) Do you agree with Kolker that "In order for popular culture to become mass culture, storage and distribution methods had to be developed" (64)? In other words, radio, movies, magazines, newspapers, and television became venues for and worked together in the distribution of popular culture, that without these technological advances, popular culture might well have faded away. Explain.

(D.) Will Kolker’s belief that "for popular culture to become mass culture, storage and distribution methods had to be developed" hold true if you accept the premise that terms applied to humans as identifiers (such as hillbilly or redneck, etc.) are/can be part of culture, popular and mass (64)? Do you personally think that terms applied to humans as identifiers since before storage and distribution methods were developed are aspects of the same type of culture that Kolker writes of, that they can be seen as aspects of popular or mass culture? Explain.


3. Introduce movie The Ballad of the Sad Café by providing credits. Distribute handout "Credits for The Ballad of the Sad Café (1991)"


4. Screen movie for students


5. Discuss the term hillbilly and all it implies. If the following "types" do not come up in discussion, introduce them: fool, monster, woman (not heard, cross-dresser/mannish misfit.) For a more thorough explanation see Williamson, J. W. Hillbillyland: What the Movies Did to the Mountains & What the Mountains Did to the Movies. Chapel Hill: North Carolina UP, 1995.


6. After screening movie, have students work in groups to analyze and discuss the following:

(A.) Appalachian values as revealed in the movie

(B.) Hillbilly types

(C.) Filming techniques (including camera shots, lighting, music) that impact the audiences’s response to the film–add to or detract from the film


Possible Responses:


(A.)  Appalachian values as revealed in the movie

  • Religion:  outdoor sermon, prayers before meals, almost sad spirituality 

  • Individualism:  all characters exhibit trait, especially Miss Amelia

  • Self-Reliance:  again, most characters (with the occasional exception of Cousin Lymon, whose self-reliance is revealed in his devious actions), and again especially Miss Amelia

  • Pride:  community when store turned into café, Miss Amelia (as evidenced by her red dress), community in Miss Amelia's moonshine making, curing skills, fighting ability

  • Neighborliness and Hospitality (including strong community bonds):  feel and behave as one in emotional situations such as sadness and happiness, share concerns (gossip) and events (meeting Marvin, watching Miss Amelia practice for fight, the actual fight, Miss Amelia's and the community members' final destruction

  • Familism:  families frequent café together, even care for one of own that is outcast (Marvin)

  • Love of Place:  community loves café (feels new and alive, no longer dead) 

  • Storytelling:  Miss Amelia tells stories to cousin Lymon and writes others; community members gossip and speculate about Miss Amelia, Lymon and Marvin Macy; Lymon tells tall tales


(B.) Hillbilly types

  • Fool and Monster Character Combined: Cousin Lymon–grotesque fool, cunning, plays jokester/clown, trickster, performs magic, wiggles ears, tells truth (Tell those women to come on in here. "They’ll hurt their noses."), snoops in Miss Amelia’s things, childish infatuation with gangsters and Marvin (who he plays the biggest fool for); sinister aspect mostly for Marvin’s benefit or because of some strange influence Marvin has over him (love?), instigator–makes fun of Miss Amelia’s kidney stones, makes fun of Miss Amelia behind her back (mocking and making rude gestures), pushes Miss Amelia to fight Marvin, flies down from top shelves like a demon to give advantage to Marvin, helps destroy and burn café and moonshine still

  • Monster: Marvin Macy after his return from prison–cruel (often hits or pushes Cousin Lymon, certainly treats him with disdain, even when Cousin Lymon is less sinister in behavior), physically upsets table in café, physically and emotionally upsets people in café, always goading Miss Amelia, takes watch (from time he was married to Miss Amelia) from Cousin Lymon and throws it away, receives cruel enjoyment out of staying in Miss Amelia’s house, helps destroy and burn café and moonshine still

  • Woman (not heard, cross-dresser, mannish misfit): Until the end of the film, it is the other women who are not heard. When Miss Amelia’s freedom and spirit are completely taken by Cousin Lymon’s betrayal, then Miss Amelia is also unheard. (However, during the high spiritedness of the café days, the women do have some voice.) Miss Amelia is the cross-dresser, mannish misfit who plays mother to Cousin Lymon’s childish behavior (stuffing his face, wanting light on, door open, bragging about doing more than Miss Amelia knows about, sneaking around). She also plays the role of lover to Cousin Lymon.


(C.) Filming techniques

There are many film techniques that contribute to the movie as a whole. A few examples include

  • The establishing and closing shots (circular), track shots, of the open cotton fields and the road where the chain gang is working on the dusty, hot road as they sing a mournful song helps establish mood–desolate, lonely, sad.

  • The music played during the first time Miss Amelia travels to her moonshine still and during part of the fight scene evoke mystery, magic, loneliness, sadness.

  • When Cousin Lymon enters, the music is mystical, reflecting the stupor and fantasy-like vision of the drunken men after a day’s work and Miss Amelia’s moonshine, and later qualities we observe in the hunchback.

  • The extreme close-up shots of the people as they talk about what Miss Amelia might have done with the broke-back emphasize horror, fear, and even acceptance.

  • It is very effective to have a dust blizzard precede the big fight (desolation to come).

  • Lighting is often diffused, occasionally dark, again emphasizing mood.


Additional questions for class or group discussion


(A.) The term hillbilly, and all it implies, has come to identify Appalachians. It has become part of popular culture. Is it now, in some areas of the world, part of our mass culture? Has the mass culture adopted the term hillbilly (or some similar term) to identify people on the "poor rural fringes of the economy who [do] not seem to be accompanying everyone else into the dawning of the thoroughly modern twentieth century" or does it simply continue to identify people from the Appalachia region (Williamson 37)?

(B.) Has this aspect, the identification of a rural "something" or "someone" in terms typically used in the media to identify people of the Appalachian region, always been present throughout rural regions across the world?

(C.) Kolker discusses several theories of culture in Film, Form and Culture. One theory is that offered by Walter Benjamin. As Kolker summarizes, Benjamin believes that "the growth of popular culture [is] something to be understood not as an oppressive reality, but as a potentially liberating one. . . . Everyone could come into contact with works of the imagination and everyone would be free to make of the auraless work what she could. Curiously, the loss of aura could lead to a greater intimacy with the work. The ritual and awe that surround the work of original genius [aura] might be replaced by the intimate interpretation of each viewer" (Kolker 70)? Do you agree with Walter Benjamin’s premise? Explain. How does this premise fit into the idea of the hillbilly-type character as a member of the world rather than a member only of Appalachia? Or does it? Is the idea of a worldwide hillbilly- type persona a liberating idea?


7. Have students write a three-page essay (documentation, typed or word-processed) discussing some aspect of their findings. Students should be prepared to present a summary of their paper in class. Note to Teacher: You may wish to provide in-class time for peer revising and editing.


Enrichment Activity:


Choose a film we have not studied and evaluate it as has been modeled in class. Write a three-page essay (documentation, typed or word-processed) discussing your findings. Be prepared to present a summary of your paper in class, along with an excerpt from the film that will highlight your findings/conclusions. Note to Teacher: You may wish to provide in-class time for peer revising and editing.



  • Active participation in class and group discussions and activities

  • Completion of three-page evaluative essay on The Ballad of the Sad Café

  • Completion of three-page evaluative essay on movie of student’s choice


Additional AppLit Resources: 


Index of AppLit Pages by Genre:  Film

Index of AppLit Pages by Genre:  Fiction for Adults



This Page Created:  7/23/2001

Last Update:  09/05/2001 09:50:09 AM

Links Checked:  02/05/2004