As the title should suggest, this will be a silly article. But the truth is, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is probably my favorite Coen Brothers film. I’ve watched it a lot. But it is historical fiction. The Coens have called it a cross between Homer and Ma and Pa Kettle. That’s certainly true, but it is a film that is firmly grounded in the Great Depression. And it has two clear historical figures in Baby Face Nelson and Tommy Johnson. Plus, the character of Governor Menelaus “Pappy” O’Daniel is clearly based on the Texas governor Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel. So I figured we’d look into these things.
One part of the film that has really come to bother me has nothing to do with history. Instead, it has to do with timing. After the young Hogwallop saves the trio from the police and Satan, Pete says that it is the 17th and that the location of the buried treasure will be turned into lake on the 21st. So let’s go through the film, although I know this is not going to be interesting to anyone who doesn’t know the film fairly well.
- The trio pick up Tommy and make a recording. They sleep near a barn that night, and again the police and Satan show up. Since they weren’t in the barn, they got away — Tommy separating from them.
- The trio are picked up by George (Baby Face) Nelson. They spend the evening with him until he wanders away, leaving them with all the money.
- With all the money left to them by Nelson, the trio seem to forget all about the treasure. We see them take a pie that was cooling in a window (they leave payment for it, however). Then, that night, we see them eating the pie.
- We see them walking more and a brief scene of them at night with Ulysses telling them a story. One could take days 19 and 20 as just a montage and really only one day. But as you will see, this doesn’t help.
- The next day, the trio run into the Sirens, who turn Pete over to the authorities. We see that night that Pete is about to be hanged, but then roles over on his comrades.
- Ulysses and Delmar discover that Pete is alive and back in prison. That night, they break him out. Then they save Tommy from being lynched. And finally, Ulysses reunites with his wife who insists he go back to their old home and get her original wedding ring.
- When the quartet reach the house, Satan is waiting for them, because Pete told them they were going there. (They think they are safe because they’ve been pardoned, but at this point it is completely established that the “sheriff” is Satan, “The law?! The law is a human institution.”)
I’m going to deal with three characters here, even though the governor isn’t supposed to be exactly the same character. There are some interesting aspects of his story.
George Nelson was quite an interesting guy — especially for a gangster and a psychopath. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is quite correct that he hated the moniker of “Baby Face.” In 1926, Harry Akst and Benny Davis wrote it. It was an immediate Number 1 song by Jan Garber and His Orchestra. George Nelson was just 18 at that time, and already an established gangster. But some other gangster with more power started calling him “baby face” because of his youth and small stature. (I can’t find the details, but I read a book about Nelson years ago.)
What’s most amazing about George Nelson is that he had, all things considered, a pretty normal family life. At the age of 20, he met and married Helen Wawzynak. The two of them had two children: first a boy and then a girl. As Nelson wandered the nation robbing banks, he brought his wife and son with him. His wife taught his son on the road. I don’t remember anything about the daughter; it’s possible she wasn’t born until after George Nelson’s death.
By all accounts, George Nelson was very sweet to Helen and the children. This is remarkable, because as a gangster, he was ruthless and shows every sign of being a psychopath. Helen lived until 1987. I’ve always thought should would have been a fascinating person to know.
George Nelson never went to the electric chair. He was killed in a shoot-out with federal agents. Nelson still holds the record for the number of federal agents killed by a man: three.
There is a story told about Tommy Johnson (but more often about Robert Johnson). Tommy Johnson’s brother told a story some years after Tommy had died, that he had sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his extraordinary guitar playing skills. You can see why the the story is so often attributed to Robert Johnson, who was truly an innovator, whereas Tommy Johnson was a great blues musician, he didn’t stand out that much from other blues players of his time.
The problem with his portrayal in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is that it has Tommy Johnson meeting with the Devil in 1937. He had been a professional musician since 1914, when he was still in his teens. His career lasted until his death in 1956, when he died of a heart attack. He is still a very enjoyable performer. You can see that he’s actually more of an interesting singer than guitar player.
Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel
The real Pappy O’Danniel was the governor in the wrong state and the wrong time (in the 1940s). But there is no doubt that the Coen Brothers were thinking about him. For one thing, he worked most of his early life in the flour industry. What’s more, he went on to be a radio celebrity with a show that was supported by a flour company. In fact, it was the fame he gained from radio that made him governor — much like our current president. Nothing ever changes. We’ve always been stupid.
The other thing that is wrong about O Brother, Where Art Thou? is that there was no gubernatorial race in Mississippi in 1937. The races were in 1935 and 1939. It’s interesting though. It had been 70 years since the Civil War, yet no Republican ran in either of those races. The South only turned Republican, when the Republican Party became the party of segregation. It’s not nice to say, but there really is something wrong with southern whites.
Like I said, this was a silly article. But why not? O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a silly movie. I hope you enjoyed my providing some context.
 The trick that Ulysses plays on the blind producer, saying that there are six of them rather than just the four would never work. He could clearly hear that there are two background singers, a lead singer, and a guitarist. One person could sing and play guitar, and the lead singer could also do background vocals on the song. So Man of Constant Sorrow could be performed by two people — four at the most. Just because you’re blind doesn’t mean you are an idiot. But it is a clever con on first brush.