Director: Jean Renoir
Writer: Hugo Butler, Jean Renoir, William Faulkner, and Nunnally Johnson
Cinematographer: Lucien N. Andriot
by Jon Cvack
Here’s John Renoir’s first and only foray into American film, taking inspiration from John Steinbec, tough insteadof Clai he heads to Texas and following a family who decides to try and start their own farm, after finally leaving the grueling cotton fields. They end up in an old run down cabin with a leaky roof, broken windows, and a terrible draft. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to check this out on the Criterion Collection and was instead forced to watch a terrible dupe of a dupe of a duplication DVD, later discovering that - as usual with this problem - it stems from Renoir’s failure to renew the copyright, putting the film in public hands.
The family’s led by Sam (Zachary Scott) and Nona Tucker (Betty Field) with their two children Jot and Daisy, and Sam’s grandmother Granny (Beoul Bondi), who’s one of the best characters in the film; insufferably disagreeable at times and yet filled with that classic matriarchal love.
On account of the complete lack of meat and vegetables, along with infected corn, the children get “Spring Sickness” - which is Pellagra; a sickness due to vitamin deficiency and provides the “Three D’s: diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia” and is worth the read. The mother takes the best care she can and Sam is tempted to abandon the farm and join his friend Tim’s factory (Charles Kemper). In a great scene, we see each argue over why their respective trade is better than the other’s, ending in a massive bar brawl, in which I think any other of Renoir’s peers (Ford, Wilder, Capra) might have concluded in following them into jail. Renoir keeps it light, as though it’s no big deal, and perhaps it wasn’t entirely.
Eventually things work out - the children recover, the crops begin to grow, Sam’s mother gets remarried, and then a storm comes into town, flooding the area and destroying the crops. As good as it had gotten, they must start all over again.
I was excited to see Renoir’s take on American culture. Regardless of the inspiration or the material there was very much a different voice working here. It was as though he desired to mythologize the story and create allegory rather than provide a true to life portrait. And yet when I think back to The River (1951), which came out six years later, I recall a very real exploration of character, with very little moral postulating. We instead witness the possibility of building a life from scratch.
To think that you could be a peasant and purchase hundreds of acres to farm is now foreign to Americans. The pulled bootstrap attitude is shifting so rapidly that many are wondering if it’s even possible anymore. This film was written around five years after The New Deal officially ended, when a generation earlier inequality was as high as it is now. It’s never been more expensive to live in America - to have a house, health insurance, and children. This film makes you wonder how within only a span of about eighty years it all went away so quickly. The hope sticks, though, and I’m pretty sure it’s on account of the Granny character, who has probably seen far worse in her younger days; lauging at how everyone believes that this particular moment is unique to them and not experienced by most others. A flood to wipe out all they overcame? That’s a fairly dark idea for what is a profoundly American film, equitable to The Grapes of Wrath (1940), though far far more underrated.
NOTE: William Faulkner was one of the four writers, which is probably a testament to its greatness. For as much as Faulkner did screenwriting for money, I bet he enjoyed this project. Or maybe he just wanted to show up Steinbeck.
BELOW: In the public domain, you can check the film out in its entirety on YouTube
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