Charley GrapewinSpencer ChartersDana AndrewsGene Tierney
Tobacco Road
Medium: film
Year: 1941
Director: John Ford
Writer: Erskine Caldwell, Jack Kirkland, Nunnally Johnson
Country: USA
Actor: Charley Grapewin, Marjorie Rambeau, Gene Tierney, William Tracy, Elizabeth Patterson, Dana Andrews, Slim Summerville, Ward Bond, Grant Mitchell, Zeffie Tilbury, Russell Simpson, Spencer Charters, Irving Bacon, Harry Tyler, Charles Halton, George Chandler
Format: 84 minutes
Website category: Other
Review date: 21 April 2010
God's Little Acre and Tobacco Road are the most famous novels of Eskine Caldwell. The former's sold more than a million copies, while the latter is one of the Modern Library's hundred best novels of the twentieth century. Together with Journeyman, they comprise a comic-tragic trilogy about suffering and poverty in Caldwell's home state of Georgia, particularly looking at industrialisation, religious fundamentalism and the ruination of the land. What particularly makes his work startling though is the fact that he's not saying all this serious stuff in a serious way. Caldwell never pretended that poor people were saints just because they were suffering. On the contrary, his Lester family in Tobacco Road are violent, selfish, thieving, pig-ignorant bastards who make themselves look like idiots. Many Southerners were outraged, sometimes calling the book pornographic for its distasteful sexual content and saying that it reinforced stereotypes.
Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind has the same setting and was written around the same time, incidentally, but what a difference. To put it mildly, there's no Southern gentility in Caldwell.
Anyway, this book became a stage play, which by the time it closed eight years later had become the longest-running play in Broadway's history. It got shut down in Chicago for obscenity, but the producers sued. Sounds interesting, right? Twentieth Century Fox thought so too, so they bought the movie rights and gave them to John "The Grapes of Wrath" Ford. I'm happy so far. Unfortunately Fox went on to veto anything dark or controversial from Caldwell's original novel (i.e. everything), in the teeth of opposition from Ford and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson. The results are deranged, but also slightly pointless.
To start with, there's no tragic ending. No one dies in the whole thing, either from burning to death or from being run down by their own grandson. Bessie Rice isn't facially deformed and doesn't let herself be prostituted to an entire hotel. Instead the film is basically a laugh. It still remains a gob-smacking portrayal of outrageous lowlife scum, but I live in hope that one day someone will adapt Caldwell's novel faithfully and blow us out of the water.
So much for the history lesson, though. Forgetting all that, what's it like as a movie?
To be honest, it feels like a comedy sketch blown up to feature length. Like the 1966 Batman movie, it's the maddest thing you've ever seen and brilliant in twenty-minute chunks, but struggling a bit at movie-length. These hillbillies are unbelievable. Imagine all the worst real-life traits you could find in all the most retarded, scummiest bits of 1930s white trash country, poured into a single family. Had this been a modern movie, they'd have been having sex with animals or blood relatives. It's that level of depravity. I started realising what we were dealing with when Ward Bond's character was complaining to his in-laws that his wife wouldn't talk to him, even though he's been thoughtfully kicking her, pouring water on her and pelting her with sticks and rocks! Ah, a model husband.
Our main man is Charley Grapewin, who had a franchise going as Inspector Queen in some Ellery Queen films around this time, not to mention also being in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). There's a good-sized cast crossover between this and The Grapes of Wrath, incidentally. Grapewin is appalling in every way. There's a particularly startling bit where he says that he's well behaved these days, but that when he was younger he used to be a "powerful sinner". Sweet heavens, what was he before? A war criminal? I laughed at his short-lived enthusiasm for farming (i.e. doing some work), while there's something amazing about his ability to listen to the worst news in the world and respond with "Praise the Lord, things have taken a turn for the better already" because he's got some food out of it. He's entirely without redeeming features, but Grapewin is successfully managing to play this reprehensible old goat to the hilt without letting him become a cartoon. Every so often you'll be reminded that these people are human after all. Almost all of his children have abandoned him, for instance, except for the five he had to bury.
The women are better than the men. Admittedly they're just as poor, ignorant and badly behaved, with even the comparatively classy ones relying on voodoo for their reading and writing. You don't sign your name. You let someone else do it, then touch the pen. However I did get the impression that Patterson's character was simply following her husband because that's how she saw a wife's duty, even if it meant throwing rocks at people without asking why. She's not without depths. Similarly Gene Tierney's Ellie May looks like (and probably is) a simpleton and a slut, but there's no harm in her.
Their menfolk, though. Wow. I've already mentioned Ward Bond, that new age husband for the 1940s, but William Tracy's Dude is if anything more appalling. He has a mental age of about seven, loves car horns and is capable of retarded road rage. Anyway, the plot is... come to think of it, I've already described the plot. Imagine these clowns let loose for an hour and a half. That's the story. There's something bad on the horizon and Grapewin is at least vaguely aware of it, but his attempts at addressing the problem are about as organised as a headless chicken convention. You can probably see why I felt the film sometimes flagged a bit. You've got to admire its energy, but at the end of the day, the chances of these people achieving anything is zero. Paradoxically enough, the tragic ending wouldn't be for disaster to befall them, but for some kind-hearted soul to trust them enough to lend them money in the expectation that they'll start pulling their lives together again.
This film is demented. I compared it to a comedy sketch and it's got that kind of intensity of energy, except that amazingly it's keeping it up for ninety minutes. I greatly admire it, but it's also a silly throwaway compared with the movie John Ford had wanted to make. Occasionally it drops hints at what might have been, as with for instance a line I read as suggesting at the end that the grandmother might be dead. There are tragedies here, although they're only ever undertones. Put all this together and you'll get a bizarre, faintly horrible atmosphere in which Grapewin and his clan are at once idiots on the rampage and yet also surprisingly human and well-acted, despite appearances.
Eskine Caldwell disowned it, though. I can't blame him.