Tuesday, June 05, 2007


Before I saw this film on Turner Classic Movie's schedule, I had never heard of it, or at least it had never made a blip on my movie radar. From the title and the presence of actor Zachery Scott, best known as an effete cad in films like MILDRED PIERCE and FLAMINGO ROAD, I was expecting a Southern Gothic campfest, but I couldn't have been more wrong. Instead, it's a beautifully filmed, well-acted drama which focuses on a poor sharecropping family--it's a less self-consciously artsy GRAPES OF WRATH. Scott and Betty Field play a couple with two kids who are barely eking out a living as migrant cotton pickers. When his uncle collapses in the field, his dying words are, "Grow your own crops," so Scott arranges with his boss to rent a patch of idle land to farm, though first they have to put all their time, effort, and what little money they have into rebuilding the rickety house. The film consists of short episodes following the family through their first year, autumn through summer. Things start out tough and get tougher; in addition to the hard labor, chilly weather, and insufficient food, they also have to contend with Scott's incredibly cranky grandmother (Beulah Bondi) who keeps needling him about not living up to his manly ancestors. In the winter, Bondi has to give up part of her blanket to make a coat for the little girl so she can go to school in the cold. In the spring, their boy develops a serious skin disorder due to a lack of fruits, vegetables, and milk in his diet. A neighbor (J. Carroll Naish) develops a confrontational relationship with the family, worried that their success will somehow diminish his long-fought-for status as top dog in the nearby community. When Naish's animals destroy Scott's vegetable garden, a near-fatal brawl ensues. At harvest time, things seem to be looking up for the family, and when Scott's mother (Blanche Yurka) marries the local grocer (Percy Kilbride, best known as Pa Kettle), the whole town celebrates, but that night a huge storm hits and floods out Scott's cotton (and his diary cow). Scott hits rock bottom and is ready to join a pal in turning to factory work, but his family inspires him to keep trying.

The main thing that makes this film stand out is the way it usually undercuts cliches or heavy-handed symbolism. You expect Scott to eventually smooth things over with Naish, and he does, but not until they've gone through hard-fought battles of both words and fists. I kept waiting for Naish's daughter (Noreen Nash) to seduce Scott (as happens in a similar film, OUR DAILY BREAD), but it never happens. I also kept waiting for Bondi to die, of age or illness or just plain meanness, especially after we see her talk about the future while using a hand fan imprinted with the logo of a local undertaker, but to the film's credit, that never happens, either. She does soften her stance a bit, but remains mostly a nasty ol' cuss right to the last shots of the film. Directed by Jean Renoir, much of the film has a documentary feel, occasionally reminding me of the look of THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS, which helps it retain a fairly gritty tone. Scott is a revelation here; he's quietly strong, a bit like Henry Fonda, but there are times when he seems just about beaten, or when we question his judgment; even in the end, we're not sure that his family will make it. Oddly, despite being grimy and dressed in mostly the same dirty dungarees all through the film, he's also sort of sexy, and in general he's a much more appealing figure than I've ever seen him be. It's a shame his career led him into a rut of slimy bad guys. Field, perhaps best known as the doomed sexpot of the 1939 OF MICE AND MEN, is fine and the two feel right together. Norman Lloyd (Dr. Auschlander on St. Elsewhere) has a small role as a somewhat feeble-minded nephew of Naish's. Bondi is practically the archetype of the shrill, shrewish granny, and her performance is all the more interesting when you realize that just one year later, she would embody the opposite archetype, the sweet, wise granny, as Mrs. Bailey in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. This may not be a great movie, but it deserves to be better known and more widely circulated. See it if you can. [TCM]

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