A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Southerner (Jean Renoir, 1945)

The Southerner is perhaps the best of the films Renoir made during his wartime exile in the United States, which is not to say that it ranks with his French masterpieces that include Grand Illusion (1937), La Bête Humaine (1938), or Rules of the Game (1939). It does, however, stand up well against the better American films of 1945, such as Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz), Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock), or Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl). It also earned him his only Oscar nomination as director: He lost to Billy Wilder for The Lost Weekend, but he was presented an honorary Oscar in 1975. The film was also nominated for sound (Jack Whitney) and music score (Werner Janssen). The Southerner feels less authentic than it might: Renoir was unable to overcome the Hollywood desire for gloss, so Betty Field looks awfully healthy and well-coiffed for the wife of a hard-scrabble cotton farmer whose family lives in a shack with no running water and whose youngest child almost dies of "spring sickness" -- a form of pellagra caused by malnutrition. Zachary Scott is a little more credible as her determined husband, Sam Tucker, a cotton picker who decides to start farming on his own. The role is a sharp contrast to his performance the same year in Mildred Pierce, in which he's a slick con man -- the kind of role he found himself playing more often. The cast also includes Beulah Bondi as Sam Tucker's grandmother, J. Carrol Naish as the Tuckers' stingy neighbor, and Norman Lloyd as the neighbor's nephew and man-of-all-work, who tries to drive the Tuckers off their land. Renoir is credited with the screenplay along with Hugo Butler, who did the adaptation of a novel by George Sessions Perry, but it was also worked on by an uncredited William Faulkner and Nunnally Johnson.