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The Pride of Jesse Hallam (1981) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

ted read cash marion

Principal social themes: education/literacy

Konigsberg Company. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Johnny Cash, Brenda Vacarro, Eli Wallach, Glen Marley, Crystal Smith, Viola Borden, Michael Burnham, Tara Cash. Written by Roy Huggins. Cinematography by Gayne Rescher. Edited by Tony DeZarraga. Music by Johnny Cash. Produced by Sam Manners. Directed by Gary Nelson. Color. 107 minutes.


The Pride of Jesse Hallam was an exceptional film highlighting the problem of adult illiteracy and a man who finally decides to face the issue and learn to read and write. Noted singer and balladeer Johnny Cash is cast in the title role. The National Literacy Foundation assisting in the making of the telefilm, which debuted on CBS March 3, 1981.


Jesse Hallam (Johnny Cash) is a widower who sells his home in Kentucky to pay for an operation for his young daughter, Jenny, to be performed at the Children’s Hospital in Cincinnati. Jesse rents a house and enrolls his son, Ted, in the local high school. After testing Ted, Marion Gallucci (Brenda Vacarro), the vice principal, recommends that Ted be sent to junior high instead. Jesse appeals to the principal, however, and persuades him to allow his son to remain in the tenth grade. Jesse, a former miner, has trouble finding a job, largely because of his inability to read, which he tries to cover up. He finally lands a job with an elderly greengrocer, Sal Gallucci (Eli Wallach), who is impressed by Jesse’s familiarity with the quality of produce. Sal likes Jesse, but he figures out he is illiterate when he is unable to find the correct stall at the local farmer’s market. Sal was also illiterate when he immigrated to America, and he decides to help his new employee tackle his problem. Jesse also has to face the problem of getting a driver’s license in Ohio, which requires him to pass a multiple-choice test. Jesse tries attending a class to help adult students to read, but he finds that the process will take too long. Sal asks his daughter, Marion, to tutor Jesse privately. Jesse and Marion bury the hatchet over their past dispute about Ted, and they learn to work together using the special method that employs pictures to help students recognize letters and sounds. At the end of the first lesson, Jesse is able to read his first word, promise. Marion asks Jesse how he managed to cope for so many years. Jesse replies that he relied on his late wife and learned to bluff his way through most situations. He had managed to sign his name simply by memorizing it.

Jesse continues to make great progress in his lessons. Soon he is able to read a children’s book to his daughter as she recovers in the hospital. Marion gives Jesse his first novel to read, The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway. Jesse tries to take the written driving test, but gives up in frustration. Depressed while leaving the Motor Vehicle Department, he has an accident and is arrested when the police discover his Kentucky license has lapsed. Jesse becomes concerned that Ted fails to do well in school except for math. He suspects Ted is also illiterate. Instead of returning to Kentucky, Jesse decides to remain in Cincinnati, and Sal plans to make him a partner in his business. Together, Jesse and his son attend a remedial reading class. Making progress, Jesse decides to continue his education and obtain his high school diploma.


Johnny Cash is excellent as Jesse, coming across as both sincere and tenacious, a good man but one who is embarrassed to admit his limitations. The script brilliantly shows the obstacles that Jesse Hallam has to overcome simply to admit he is illiterate, having tried for years to hide his problem even from his own children. The Pride of Jesse Hallam explores the issue of adult illiteracy with understanding and compassion. Just enough adult-learning techniques are depicted to make the process understandable to the viewing audience. The plot never bogs down, maintaining a high interest level and good production values. Ted is also well portrayed by Glen Marley, showing the development of another functional illiterate. By the conclusion of the story, Jesse transcends his appreciation of the ability to read and comes to respect the value of education as a whole.

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