DVD: Southerner, The (1945)

March 23, 2012 | By

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Film: Very Good/ DVD Transfer: Good/ DVD Extras: Good

Label: VCI/ Region: 1 (NTSC) / Released: January 25, 2000

Genre: Drama

Synopsis: A poor family struggles to build new lives as farmers, only to have their dreams threatened by severe natural and social elements.

Special Features: 1939 short film: “Baby Daze” (15:26) / Text Bios

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Review:

Arguably the third and final ‘land’ film from Jean Renoir’s American period – after Swamp Water [M] (1941) and This Land is Mine [M] (1943) – is a peculiar adaptation of George Sessions Perry’s novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand, with the recently imported French director credited as writer, even though the adaptation is credited to Hugo Butler (Lassie Come Home [M]), and Nunally Johnson and William Faulkner reportedly did some uncredited work (most likely a dialogue polish).

Renoir brought his camera to several striking exterior locations to convey the realism of a farmer harsh life, eking out a living from nothing during a 2 year period as nature, neighbour, and bad finances try to destroy a family’s decision to stay on a beat-up farm and establish themselves as independent land owners.

It all begins when Sam Tucker (Zachary Scott, playing way against his refined macho type) is told by a dying co-worker to get his own plot of land and stop working ‘for the man,’ so he takes stock of his life, and leases land from an owner in the hope he can eventually buy the plot for himself after mining the soil’s richness for a cotton field.

With an old car packed in and roped together with possessions, Sam’s wife Nona (Picnic’s [M] Betty Field), son & daughter, and Granny Tucker (Beulah Bondi, literally riding on a makeshift mother-in-law seat above the exhaust) reach an overgrown farm, and realize they must work triple-hard to fix up the ramshackle house, clear the land, till the soil, and plant their cotton crop with the few riches in their possession: a pair of horses, and some rickety farm equipment.

Renoir’s film initially seems poised to being a leftist statement against corporate greed: Sam’s told to get his own plot and stop working for a rich landowner; then his new neighbour Devers (J.Carrol Naish) tries to shatter his dream by telling him it’s all for naught, given he’s essentially restoring a farm to functionality for a modern vassal offering little financial reward. The film then seems to take on a bit of Marcel Pagnol’s Jean de Florette, where the contemptuous Devers not only scoffs at his neighbour, but delights (and helps) in his misery, and yet little by little Renoir refines the story, detailing the Tucker family’s raw, miserable hardships, and he forces us to watch an honest family survive (presumably) the most common hurdles of a farming newbie: unpredictable weather, financial woes, and health issues stemming from a diet utterly bereft of fruits & vegetables during the frigid winter.

The family’s battles eventually settle on Devers’ mean-spirited tricks to break their will and abandon their farm; and a massive rainfall that yields a flood, causing a setback that may motivate Sam to pack up and take the factory job offered by his brother. Each sequence offers more intense emotions, and it’s unusual to see no neat ending or pat reconciliation between characters. Most disputes come to a mutual understanding: Sam’s brother understands they’re simply two of a kind, preferring work that’s necessary for both city and farm folks to survive; Devers and his idiot son Finlay (wiry Norman Lloyd) quietly stave off further destructive maneuvers for a while; and Granny Tucker finally shuts the Hell up and pitches in with the chores, but she’s permitted to whine (in moderation) about her imminent demise now and then.

Renoir’s approach to character introductions often lacks obvious intros, making it a bit confusing to discern direct relationships, such as Sam’s brother (or best friend?), and Mama Tucker (Blanche Yurka) who suddenly appears and marries general store owner Harmie (Percy Kilbride, who would more or less reprise the same role in the Lassie film The Sun Comes Up [M]). It’s also initially baffling when Harmie shows up with a cow so the Tucker’s son gets the protein and vitamins he needs to help the boy recover from the devastating winter diet; why the sudden generosity?

Bondi’s characterization of Granny Tucker is the film’s most trying element: she’s a whining, frumpish, heavily theatrical caricature most audiences will wish had fallen off the car en route to the farm. Aided by severe aging makeup and an endless stream of grating invective towards Sam, she’s frankly a nuisance, and her only function, as distilled in the script, is to give one chunk of wisdom to a broken Sam after the flood: ‘Been there, survived it before, and you can too.’ After that, she’s back to being a whiner.

Within The Southerner one can see common themes and elements Renoir would revisit, including man’s relationship with the land, the minutia of personal hardships, and little set-pieces of social interaction, such as the wedding reception which recalls the jovial square dance interlude in Swamp Water. Renoir’s fascination with waterside locations would blossom in his next film – the Technicolor drama The River (1951) – and there are small details that reveal the director’s more frank, European regard for marital relations.

Sam and Nona’s sexuality is very active onscreen – after cleaning up their new house, a curtain is drawn over their sleeping nook to clearly allow for some private interaction; and in one atypical montage for an American film, they’re lying in bed together under the stars.

They’re also equal partners in their marriage: Nona works just as hard as Sam on the farm; solves small engineering issues with the house; and the only time she breaks down in vintage Hollywood fashion is when her son falls very ill, and the family has no means of funding any medicine or fresh vegetables. Renoir, however, has Sam looking equally vulnerable, making him a more emotional man than the standard Hollywood archetype.

When Sam does reveal his macho side, it’s out of necessity, and his battle with Devers for destroying his family’s vegetable garden is a nasty, drawn-out slugfest. Their reconciliation is pat, but not particularly clichéd, either. When Sam gives credit to Devers for catching a massive catfish in front of Nona, Devers offers no glad-handing: he’s totally unsure of what to do, so he says nothing, and Naish nicely captures the awkwardness of his character – a man seething with contempt for anyone who manages to succeed in a time-frame that’s less severe, and without family sacrifices, than his own.

There’s much to admire in Renoir’s next-to-last American film, and Southerner gave most of the actors rare opportunities to play against type, including Naish (House of Frankenstein), Lloyd (Saboteur), and Scott (Mildred Pierce). Renoir also stuck with his longtime production designer Eugene Lourie, and the film was co-produced by Raymond Hakim, the influential producer of Renoir’s La Bête Humaine (1938), and who would soon work with some of Europe’s New Wave directors, including Roger Vadim (La Ronde), Luis Bunuel (Bele de Jour), Michelangelo Antonioni (L’eclisse), and Joseph Losey (Eva).

VCI’s source print is fairly worn, and the transfer unfortunately features harsh contrasts, sometimes blowing out Lucien Andriot’s cinematography. The mono mix is fine, if not a little quiet, and Werner Janssen’s rare scoring effort often goes against the grain of the film’s realist imagery.

Extras include text bios, and a RKO short, Baby Daze (1939), in which Edgar Kennedy plays a bullying husband who suddenly softens when he’s convinced his wife is imminently pregnant.

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© 2012 Mark R. Hasan

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External References:

IMDB Composer Filmography

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