Monday, November 03, 2008


Jeeter Lester (Charley Grapewin) and his impoverished family live on a plot of land in rural Georgia which, long ago when they were active tenant farmers, was promised in perpetuity to them. But Dana Andrews, the son of the late landowner, arrives with the news that he has lost the land to the bank and in order to stay on the land for another year, Grapewin has a week to come up with $100 rent money. Whether because the land is barren or because the family is slothful and decadent, they are barely able to eke out a meal, let alone a living. The film follows the family's misadventures during the week. The teenage son (William Tracy) marries a 40-something revivalist (Marjorie Rambeau) who is constantly singing hymns and exhorting others to join in--and they usually do; the main action of the last half of the film occurs when she buys a car with insurance money left her by her late husband, and Grapewin tries to get hold of the car himself to sell it for his rent. Son-in-law Ward Bond comes by once in a while, complaining that his 13-year-old wife Pearl objects to being tied up, and soon Grapewin is offering his sexy 23-year-old daughter (Gene Tierney) to Bond as a replacement--though Bond thinks she's too old for a wife. Grapewin's wife (Elizabeth Patterson) is sad that none of her other "seventeen or eighteen" children ever write or visit. There's also a grandmother lurking around somewhere whom we rarely see. In the end, just as Grapewin and Patterson head off for the poor farm, Andrews ponies up 50 bucks for a half-year's rent so they can stay, but it's made clear that nothing's really changed and that six months later, the family will be in the same straits, and, oh yeah, Grandma just might be lying dead in the woods.

This is based on a notorious novel and long-running play, both of which were considered controversial in their time for the portrayal of such an unsavory lifestyle. The movie was altered considerably to conform to the Production Code and it winds up played as a comedy; it could even be seen as a forerunner to the rural "Beverly Hillbillies"-type shows that were popular in the 60's. The young Tierney, almost unrecognizable under a thick layer of dirt, is sexy as all get-out, but she has almost nothing to do except to pull a mock seduction on Bond in order to get his bag of turnips (and that's not a metaphor). Though the characters are almost uniformly unlikeable, the acting is really quite good. Grapewin (OZ's Uncle Henry) and Patterson (Mrs. Trumball on "I Love Lucy") do particularly well in rare lead performances. There is an almost palpably unpleasant atmosphere set up at times, but whenever it threatens to become too dark, it's undercut by humor. Bond's child bride is mentioned but never seen, and Tracy looks and acts older than a teenager, so his relationship with Rambeau is just odd rather then potentially repellent. The movie looks great, especially the first few minutes which take place at a ramshackle old mansion belonging to Rambeau and her brother (Slim Summerville). This film has been difficult to run across until recently when Fox issued it on DVD as part of a set of John Ford films. Recommended. [DVD]

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