It's the other Erskine Caldwell movie, after Tobacco Road
. (There's also a French film from 1983 and a couple of modern adaptations from 2004-5, plus the odd twiddly bit and some scraps of TV, but these are the two that people know about.) Just to get everyone up to speed, Caldwell is the guy who wrote wildly controversial and bestselling novels about poverty, unemployment and other social problems in the Deep South. The original novel of God's Little Acre came out in 1933. It was inspired by the textile mill strikes in Gastonia, North Carolina, and was intended as a "proletarian" novel about these abandoned workers without a union to protect them. A New York literary board sued Caldwell and his publishers, whereupon more than sixty authors, editors and literary critics rallied in his support. Caldwell won and the book was a massive success, called a worldwide bestseller in the credits of this movie adaptation.
The controversial bit comes with Caldwell's view of hillbilly life. Caldwell's poor people are starving, desperate and quite often about to die, but they're also ill-educated idiots with the refinement and moral fibre of a sewer rat with a hard-on. The sexual content of his books is what got America up in arms... and of course reading. Tobacco Road
even today is a shocking movie, despite being bowdlerised and played mostly for laughs. Its protagonists are truly appalling human beings, unfit for any level of civilisation beyond the medieval. They'd do pretty much anything indecent you could imagine, although you'll have to read the novel if you want to see them actually doing the worst of it.
This movie makes an interesting companion piece to Tobacco Road
. It's clearly based on the same man's work, but it's been bowdlerised differently. In some ways it's tamer, but in others it's going further.
The disappointing side of things is that this film's scummy family is more audience-friendly. It feels more like a normal movie, compared with the freakish eye-popping riot of bad behaviour in Tobacco Road
. Robert Ryan's patriarch is charismatic, morally upright and in the end even admirable, despite having the common sense of a grape under a steamroller. His children's failings are understandable. The film even has a happy ending, in which people sort of manage to learn from their mistakes and start a new life. There's a bittersweet element to it, yes, but it's a much more conventional Hollywood one than the counter-intuitive horror in which the apparently happy ending of Tobacco Road
is almost the worst thing you can imagine.
They're human, in other words. This broadens the film's appeal on the basic level of being able to identify with the characters, but it's also far less energetic and distinctive than its John Ford predecessor.
Hell, they're even all young and handsome. Robert Ryan's old codger patriarch is the equivalent of the Charley Grapewin character in 1941, but in real life Ryan was born forty years after Grapewin. In fairness I'm delighted that Ryan took the role since I think he's a wonderful actor, but he's still supposedly the patriarch of a generation that's being played by actors only 11, 15, 17, 19, 19, 20, 23 and 25 years younger than him. Well, it is the Deep South. Maybe his late wife died of exhaustion?
Other actors include Jack Lord, the first ever Felix Leiter (in Dr No) and probably more famous to Americans for always telling Danno to book 'em. I should also mention Buddy Hackett as the short fat schlub who's the exception to my "young and handsome" rule.
There's plenty of stuff that's been ramped up since Tobacco Road
, though. The most obvious is sex. Tina Louise is spilling out of her top and we first see her standing against the sun in a thin cotton dress, while Fay Spain as Darlin' Jill is the nymphomaniac they couldn't put on film in 1941. There's no actual nudity, but in her first scene she gets a man to pump over her while she's taking an outside bath. (It's not actually dirty, but it's definitely racy.) That's one side of things. The other is the dramatic meat, when Caldwell's addressing death, misery and chronic unemployment in an entire town. This goes far enough that the film attracted its own share of controversy back in 1958, by portraying an attempted popular uprising by workers against the capitalist system. Admittedly they're not exactly organised and it doesn't get very far, but it ends in a killing. Throw in some comments about God and religion and you can see why this film got people heated back then, even though today I'm saying it didn't go far enough.
It's certainly not going as far as Caldwell, though. The original novel had sexual betrayal and a murder that caused the break-up of the family. The book ended in tragedy. This doesn't. Nevertheless the last twenty minutes or so of the film have dramatic force, with Robert Ryan getting some strong material to play and doing justice to it.
The movie hasn't dated well, of course. Retarded hillbillies have become either a cliche or something from a horror movie, whereas back in those days they offered much more of a contrast to the strange and repressed culture of the 1950s. These social problems would have been in the newspapers. There's also a different reaction in these politically correct days to a perceived peddling of condescending stereotypes, although of course Southerners were furious in Caldwell's day too. Many people today are going to misunderstand this movie and if I hadn't read up on the movie's background and on Caldwell, I might even have been one of them.
The music's by Elmer Bernstein, by the way. There's a theme song.
I liked this film a lot. I'd particularly recommend it as a double bill with Tobacco Road
, each film providing some of what the other lacks. Neither was ever going to be allowed to go all the way in adapting Caldwell properly, but both are interesting films by respected directors, with some really good actors. I adore Robert Ryan. He's so wonderfully warm and happy in the role, while his bubbleheaded sense of honour is so magnificent that I forgive their hacking around with Caldwell's ending to give him to us. Tobacco Road
is more unique as a film, not to say jaw-dropping, but it's also more censored. Both films are full of energy. Both are fun and I did get laughs from this one. "Which hole are you in?" "This very deep one." It's good stuff.