Prepare to let your jaw drop: Jennifer Jones and Charlton Heston’s sleazy bucolic ‘romance’ comes off as two-way sex harassment, with suggestive one-liners that make us cringe. Are there other pictures like this? Is this where dolts came to believe that women wanted to be treated like stupid squeeze toys? The great King Vidor directed, with no sign of intentional satire — the bizarre, eventually violent Southern-set melodrama is a one-of-a-kind grotesque spectacle.
KL Studio Classics
1952 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 82 min. / Street Date April 24, 2018 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.96
Starring: Jennifer Jones, Charlton Heston, Karl Malden, Tom Tully, James Anderson, Josephine Hutchinson, Phyllis Avery, Barney Phillips.
Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Film Editor: Terry Morse
Original Music: Heinz Roemheld
Written by Silvia Richards from a story by Arthur Fitz-Richard
Produced by Joseph Bernhard, King Vidor
Directed by King Vidor
I have two basic thoughts on 1952’s Ruby Gentry. First, the great director King Vidor seems to be spinning his wheels on unworthy material. Second, the film’s sordid romance is so tastelessly presented, I’m surprised the Production Code office let it slip by, no matter how prestigious its director.
The great man behind the silent classics The Big Parade and The Crowd can’t bring much to this ragged bush-league soap opera. The script comes from a writer responsible for overheated fare like the Joan Crawford vehicle Possessed. Hal Wallis’s discovery Charlton Heston is over-the-top with sexual aggression, while Jennifer Jones seems out to top her oversexed hick trollop Pearl Chavez, in King Vidor’s deliriously entertaining Duel in the Sun. After lots of heavy breathing, vile threats and local vendettas Ruby Gentry settles for an ending that could be titled “Duel in the Swamp.” Just about the only thing that survived this camp-fest intact is Heinz Roemheld’s title song, the one immortalized by Ray Charles. One keeps looking for signs of self-parody that don’t show up. Our first sight of Ruby shows her posed seductively in a doorway, an image repeated for the film’s title card, and the key poster art.
Although the beautiful, sensual Ruby Corey (Jennifer Jones) spent high school living in the house of local big businessman Jim Gentry (Karl Malden), she was born on the wrong side of the tracks and became a local sensation from trumped-up rumors about her love life. Now Ruby’s back working in her father’s hunting lodge. She’s been excluded from the social whirl in her Southern town, even though she catches every man’s eye. Well-born Boake Tackman (Charlton Heston) returns from South America to drain a swamp and make his fortune, and he and Ruby rekindle their fiery teen romance. But when Boake instead weds a more socially acceptable debutante, Ruby goes wild, vowing revenge upon her lover and the whole hypocritical town as well.
Jennifer Jones had great gifts as an actress but her roles in many of her films post- Duel in the Sun are gross caricatures. Opinons abound about her erratic career, with plenty of evidence accruing that her husband-mogul David O. Selznick interfered in too many of her pictures by other directors. She gave an uncharacteristically modulated performance in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Gone to Earth, a terrific period picture about a rough country girl who becomes a hellion. Selznick saw that both Gone to Earth and her Vittorio De Sica film Stazione termini were re-cut for America, ruinously. From Selznick’s own diaries we see that the agent-husband-investor prided himself on shaping Jones’ characterizations. In Ruby Gentry the Ruby Corey character is a disaster of sordid overstatement. Ruby wears tight jeans and teases men mercilessly, sashaying around rooms and soaking up lewd remarks. With Charlton Heston’s big hunk Boake she behaves like a parody of a shanty tramp. Ruby greets Boake by half-scratching his face off.
The performances of the supporting cast are excellent, but the leads seem pushed to go far over the top. Ms. Jones’ Southern accent grates, while Heston’s surplus of testosterone makes us wonder why his peers put up with him. With his grins and leers, Heston’s Boake matches Jones’ Ruby for overplayed histrionics, scene after scene.
All the men who come to the hunting lodge lust after Ruby, even the local doctor who serves as the film’s uneasy narrator (Barney Phillips). The plot raises numerous other unsavory angles but doesn’t investigate them. Boake uses Ruby as a pre-nup sex toy before settling down with a more socially acceptable bride. After his ailing wife finally dies, wealthy businessman Jim Gentry makes a play for Ruby, and marries her. As she’s been living in his house as sort of a surrogate daughter, it all seems a little on the sick side. The old pervert / hot young thing setup makes Ruby Gentry seem like the launching point for Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll, where Karl Malden plays a much more thick-headed galoot keen to marry another voluptuous Southern wildcat, Carroll Baker. Weirdly, Kazan’s suggestive movie feels much ‘cleaner’ than Vidor’s.
Jim Gentry takes Ruby to New York where she’s transformed overnight from a freckled hick in blue jeans into a Park Avenue type complete with Paris fashions. More tragedy strikes, and before you can say Knot’s Landing or Dallas Ruby is exacting revenge on the local community, shuttering factories and foreclosing on mortgages. Ruby wants the entire town to suffer for the shabby way she was treated. She also takes her fury out on Boake Tackman’s farming project, which she destroys by letting the sea reclaim the swamp he so carefully drained. Hell hath no fury!
All of these developments are represented through montages of unemployed workers, inter-cut with Ruby pacing the floors in her mansion, savoring her revenge. The forced theatrics are not quite as exaggerated as Pearl Chavez’ antics in Duel in the Sun, but they’re also not as entertaining. The story has kept a Bible-spouting brother (James Anderson) on the back burner for eighty minutes, and trots him out for a tragic finale in a lavish swamp set, a set-bound sort-of replay of the absurd Winchester duel that ends Duel in the Sun. It’s all filmed and acted with conviction, but it feels like a silent DeMille picture, the kind with galloping retribution chasing moral transgressors. King Vidor co-produced, so it was his idea. Did he decide after The Fountainhead that a heavy-breathing, exaggerated melodrama of lust couldn’t fail?
Critics point to grand themes in King Vidor’s movies, although this show may have been warped more by the outside influence of David O. Selznick, Jones’ lover, producer and manager. The resoundingly misogynistic story points to a lusty female as the source of all evil. Ruby destroys the men in her life and tries to do the same to civilization — how many critical references have I read equating the ocean with Ruby’s female rage, inundating the good works of man as represented by Boake’s farm reclaimed from the swamp? It’s all thuddingly obvious.
Fans of champion scenery chewing will find plenty of delight amid Heston’s strutting and Jennifer Jones’ over-emphatic presence. Most of the rest of the cast simmers in as much drooling sexual envy that could grace a screen in 1952. The biggest shock is to hear the timeless song Ruby over the titles and orchestrated as the film’s theme: “They say, Ruby you’re like a dream…”. All that’s missing is Ray Charles’ haunting voice. The tune’s gentle but plaintive melody doesn’t have much in common with our feelings toward the tempestuous title character.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Ruby Gentry is a very handsome transfer of this B&W picture from just before the widescreen era began. A major improvement over the old 2004 DVD, the transfer makes the handsome location footage look its best, and does fairly well with the more artificial studio interiors, including the swamp sequence at the finish. (Early on Ruby points out how treacherous the swamp is, letting us know that we’ll be visiting the site again.)
A big plus is the beautiful underscore, which uses the classic Heinz Roemheld song, co-written with Mitchell Parish. It’s the kind of song that inspires songwriters — it’s such a popular standard that the checks surely roll in month by month, forever. Sentimental, wistful, mysterious, with its lyrics it’s an ultimate tune about painful longing. However, that makes it seem inappropriate for this un-subtle picture with its amorous vendetta.
Strangely, the most haunting use of the song is in an even less appropriate context, Federico Fellini’s Toby Dammit episode of Histoires Extraordinaires. It’s just a part of Terence Stamp’s drunken delirium when Ray Charles’ voice peeks through a weird sonic collage mixed in with Nino Rota’s soundtrack music, but it’s unforgettable just the sam — what is Toby suddenly inspired to remember?
No extras are included. Kino’s packaging doesn’t say so, but the disc is given good English subtitles.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Good, maybe
Supplements: Original Trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 1, 2018
A Rebuttal opinion from Chris D., May 4, 2018:
Hi, Glenn, I must chime in on your unusually prudish review of RUBY GENTRY.
One thing I must say for King Vidor (and my four favorite films by him: Beyond the Forest, Ruby, Duel in the Sun and The Fountainhead is that he takes the basic premise of a story, no matter how lurid, dark and/or hotblooded and runs with it to its logical, inevitable conclusion. One can call these camp if one’s sensibilities are offended or if one feels guilty about enjoying the let-it-all-hang-out sordid shenanigans. Vidor goes for the gusto, consequences be damned, and for that I admire him immensely. His movies are total cinema and achieve something rare and hard as hell to do, not only with his visuals, but with his performers, editing rhythms and music scores, that is creating celluloid fever dreams.
I can’t disagree with you more about what he seems to be saying about Ruby’s character and the nature of a sexually uninhibited woman. As in both Ruby and Duel, Vidor seems to me to be placing the blame for the misogynist behavior of the lustful louts (e.g. Peck, Heston) solely on their own arrogant sense of entitlement, and the sympathy is entirely with Ruby and Pearl in both films. They’re obeying their primal instincts in good faith, without societal inhibitions, expecting their male counterparts to be acting equally in good faith. But both are tricked and dragged through the dirt by the nearly-sociopathic, sexist male objects of their affections. Naive? Yes, that’s the point. Their sexuality is spurred as much by love as lust, unlike Heston and Peck, who seem to be fully ruled by their little heads below the belt, wherever it leads them.
As I’m sure you know, scenarios such as Ruby and Beyond the Forest were not anomalies at the time, in popular adult paperback literature. There are scores and scores of excellent, good and mediocre novels from the time period from prolific pulp writers from James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Gil Brewer, Erskine Caldwaell, Dan Marlowe, Orrie Hitt, Day Keene and countless others chronicling sordid small town, backwoods and swamp sleaze noir stories, churning them out like clockwork. Many, no matter how exploitative on the surface, were quite forward-looking and remarkably sympathetic to their so-called femme fatale protagonists. Just as many were not, with the women characters just as bad if not worse than the wicked male protagonists with whom they become involved.
Anyway, I could go on all night about these pictures, but it is late. Best to you, Chris D.
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson