Looking to discover a top-quality film that honors lasting values? Jean Renoir gives Zachary Scott and Betty Field as Texas sharecroppers trying to survive a rough first year. It’s beautifully written by Hugo Butler, with realistic, earthy touches not found in Hollywood pix. And the transfer is a new UCLA restoration. With two impressive short subjects in equal good quality.
1945 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 92 min. / Street Date February 9, 2016 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Betty Field, Beulah Bondi, Carol Naish, Norman Lloyd, Zachary Scott, Percy Kilbride, Charles Kemper, Blanche Yurka, Estelle Taylor, Paul Harvey, Noreen Nash, Nestor Paiva, Almira Sessions.
Cinematography Lucien Andriot
Film Editor Gregg C. Tallas
Production Designer Eugène Lourié
Assistant Director Robert Aldrich
Original Music Werner Janssen
Written by Hugo Butler, Jean Renoir from a novel by George Sessions Perry
Produced by Robert Hakim, David L. Loew
Directed by Jean Renoir
What an important film rescue. I sat down to see Jean Renoir’s The Southerner only once in college, but the print was so bad that I turned up my nose and left. It’s an important picture, and Kino’s transfer makes the public domain copies of the past pale by comparison. Somehow or another, UCLA gained possession of good film elements and produced the restoration, and we get the benefit. A great many important films of the late 1930s and early ’40s were independent productions released by United Artists, which didn’t dictate content as much as did the majors. Producers like Walter Wanger and Albert Lewin pushed through politically challenging, if not always well-judged, movies like Blockade and So Ends Our Night, as well as artistic efforts like Of Mice and Men and Our Town. Unfortunately, when the rights reverted to the producing companies, the films became orphans. Some have been simply thrown away.
Jean Renoir had perhaps the most productive and satisfying Hollywood experience of any European director displaced by WW2. His last American film was rather messy, but he worked at Fox and RKO directing the excellent Swamp Water and This Land is Mine, and for the independent Benedict Bogeaus (United Artists), Diary of a Chambermaid.
Producer Robert Hakim had worked with Renoir in France and was also embarked on a brief American career. The Southerner is the work of a committed group of film artists. It has no overt political message but its heart is definitely with the little farmer trying to scrape out a living on his own. It can also be seen as an outgrowth of the populist agrarian movement of the 1930s, encouraged by the New Deal from Washington. The Southerner was at one time celebrated as an ideal blend of artistic purity and New Deal sentiment. Yet it’s also an audience picture — it’s a difficult film to watch without being caught up in the tribulations of its characters.
The show covers one year in the Tucker family, rural farmers somewhere in the South, Texas perhaps. Hard working Sam Tucker (Zachary Scott) gambles on his skill and luck by volunteering to sharecrop acres owned by his boss. Tucker will clear the land and grow cotton, and the owner will take half of whatever he grows. Sam has a good family — his wife Nona (Betty Field) and two cute kids, and a cantankerous grandmother (Beulah Bondi). His many needs put him in Dutch with his neighbor Devers (J. Carrol Naish), an unhappy farmer who wanted the choice bit of land for his own. Devers grants the newcomers fresh water but begrudges them any extra help at all, including milk for the sickly Tucker boy, when he comes down with Pellagra. The events are the stuff of survival drama. Sam must hunt for food when the family is hungry. The shack they live in is barely habitable. To give his daughter a decent coat to go to school in, Sam must take a blanket away from Granny. The Tuckers obtain a cow with help from the friendly Tim, a city pal (Charles Kemper, also the narrator). They must find away to withstand the hostile acts of neighbor Devers. A catastrophic rainstorm comes to threaten the cotton crop, but thanks to Nona’s attitude, Sam doesn’t give up. The Tuckers may pull through.
The description may not sound exciting, but The Southerner builds a formidable emotional grip on the viewer. Jean Renoir gives the film a special feeling, a strong connection to the Earth. Although we see an old flivver of a truck suitable for an Okie, this is apparently not Dust Bowl territory; the Tuckers have a chance to succeed. They are literally dirt poor, with nothing more than two mules and the clothes on their back. The kids don’t have shoes. Everything they have is invested in cottonseed. They are at the mercy of the elements, in a rickety shack that doesn’t keep out the wind or the rain. Almost like primitives, they gather around the little wood stove for heat. This is very basic living. Nona and Sam are brave and almost impossibly resilient, knowing that the promise of their labor can be taken away by the weather or an injury.
Screenwriter Hugo Butler, later one of The Hollywood Ten, sketches the Tucker’s year in a series of wonderful episodes. The Tucker girl has an amusing way of dealing with Granny’s stubbornness. Sam is tempted by Tim’s promise of a factory job that pays well, but stays faithful to his dream of working under open the sky. He doesn’t care if he’s earning money for the landlord, because there’s a chance he’ll someday have a farm of his own. As is typical of Renoir’s flexible worldview, no deterministic traps lie in wait for Sam Tucker, just the gamble with the weather. Tim and Sam aren’t problem drinkers and Sam isn’t tempted by the bartender’s daughter or the rather willing-looking neighbor girl, Becky (Noreen Nash). When the crooked bartender (a young Nestor Paiva) tries to short-change them, Tim feels free to retaliate by busting up the place.
Kino’s cover blurb bears an endorsement by James Agee, but the critic’s original June ’45 review is deeply split on the film. Agee loves its concern with non-Hollywood values, but then criticizes most of the actors because they’re industry pros and not indigenous non-professionals. Betty Field is amazingly expressive of womanly reserve and patience, but Agee finds her to be doing too much ‘acting.’ I agree that Beulah Bondi is pretty thick at the beginning, but such old crones do exist. By the second reel she seems very natural. [ Bondi was only 56 by the way, but she’s made up to look 86. ] Agee finds the kids too saccharine (huh?) and disqualifies Percy Kilbride because he’s too much of a New Englander. Zachary Scott is the only one to get a free pass, because Agee detects his authentic Texan background. That’s fine for Agee, but the rest of us now associate Scott with his oily Film Noir roles. To us Zachary Scott needs to be a lizard in a tuxedo, sneering at Joan Crawford while feeling up Ann Blythe (pardon).
But anyone with any kind of rural American heritage will be swept away by the honesty and truth of The Southerner. Butler and Renoir make the people feel authentic. They’re poor but not ignorant; the neighbor has reasons for being so troublesome but talking about them doesn’t transform him into a sentimental creampuff. The show is less glossy and tragic-hopeless than The Yearling and free of the message-making of social agenda movies like Our Daily Bread. Sam Tucker believes in fair play and good neighbors, but he also wants to be independent, his own man. I would imagine a conservative would like this movie very much. There are a couple of moments where one’s eyes begin to tear up, and not because of any directorial manipulations.
Betty Field is just a doll, and this show can be added to her long list of stellar performances. J. Carrol Naish doesn’t compromise the neighbor with any secret-lovable qualities, while his brainless jerk of a son, a real stinker, is given a good turn by the great Norman Lloyd. Estelle Taylor and Noreen Nash are women infatuated with Sam, but Nona doesn’t have to worry – this isn’t a tale of cruel love, like Renoir’s A Day in the Country. Blanche Yurka has a fun moment with Percy Kilbride — they’re caught lying down together in the cotton field, necking. It’s okay — the sixty year-olds laugh and invite Sam and Nona to their wedding. Charles Kemper makes a great nice guy — he’d go on to memorable parts in Ford’s Wagon Master and Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground before being lost to an unfortunate car accident at age fifty.
The Southerner has top names in its credits. It appears to be Robert Aldrich’s first film credit, as an assistant director. Perhaps this is where Aldrich began his career-long collaboration with writer Hugo Butler. Renoir associate and genre favorite Eugène Lourié did the production design, while editor Gregg C. Tallas has an interesting set of genre credits in the next few years.
Kino’s extras are worth mentioning up here in the body of the review. They are good HD transfers of Renoir’s wartime propaganda piece Salute to France (1944, 35 min.) and Pare Lorentz’s epochal WPA documentary The River (1938, 31 min.). Produced by the war office in conjunction with the OSS, Salute spends half an hour aligning American interests with those of the French. In staged scenes Burgess Meredith plays a typical American “Joe” infantryman, who meets “Jacques” played by a very young Claude Dauphin. Dauphin is also versatile. In imagined segments he plays various martyred French patriots as well as a country priest, giving them all attractive broken-English accents. The script, credited to Renoir and actor Meredith as well as Philip Dunne, is an effective slam at the Nazis, making excellent use of newsreel clips and excerpts from feature films. It’s good pro-France propaganda. Renoir co-directed with Garson Kanin.
If I’m not mistaken, the uncredited narrator is none other than José Ferrer.
The notes say that Lorentz’s famous docu The River was an influence on Renoir, but judging from the film’s write-ups in cinema books it was an influence on every filmmaker who ever lived. Made by Roosevelt’s WPA to explain (and justify) the expensive water conservation projects of the 1930s, it’s an almost dreamy set of powerful images coupled with a Lorentz narration that borders on poetry. I see its influence on later work, like Josef von Sternberg’s The Town and Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand’s Native Land.
Stressing how the Mississippi drains two-thirds of the United States, the show depicts the ravages of bad land use, with striking images of once fertile areas ruined by erosion. It blames generations of bad farming for destroying the land’s precious topsoil. Lorentz deals in simple but dramatic shots of water in motion, tools, land formations, floods, and finally the machinery of the giant dams that tame the rivers. The destruction of floods is most effective, as the docu justifies the radical water projects initiated in 1933 with the Tennessee Valley Authority. Viewers that have seen Elia Kazan’s Wild River will feel a lump of recognition forming in their throat during this section. It also relates strongly to the flooding scenes in The Southerner. The film does not focus on people, but when it does it picks a sharecropper family living in abject poverty that makes the Tuckers of The Southerner look glamorous. Maybe James Agee was right, but nobody would go to see a movie that made starving Okies look as dirty and backward as the real thing.
The Kino Classics Blu-ray of The Southerner presents the show and the two short subjects in fine form. The Southerner has some scratching issue and its title sequence appears to have shrunken somewhat, but otherwise it is nigh perfect. Madera County, California passes for Texas, and the improved images show the precision and expressiveness of Renoir’s camera — one shot of Sam walking away while Nona lies crying in frustration into the dirt of the plowed field has a simple, undeniable beauty.
The short subjects look great too, although each has its share of scratches. The River in particular is impressive — it’s a full fledged 35mm production filmed by (with two others) Floyd Crosby. Salute to France has an active orchestral score by none other than Kurt Weill. The track includes a little patriotic song that sounds ‘very Weill.’
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Video: Excellent –
Supplements: Short subjects, in HD: Salute to France, dir: Jean Renoir and Garson Kanin; The River, dir: Pare Lorentz.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 25, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson