• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:February 1, 2022

The Southerner: Soil of Sorrows

Betty Field and Zachary Scott. Photo: United Artists

In 1940, when the Germans invaded his country, famous French filmmaker Jean Renoir fled to the United States. He found work in Hollywood, but his movies were not among his greatest, including the anti-Nazi drama This Land is Mine (1943). The most acclaimed example from his Hollywood years remains The Southerner, which has also been called his most ”American” film in terms of style and story.

Dying words
Sam Tucker (Zachary Scott) is in Texas picking cotton in the fields together with his wife Nona (Betty Field) and elderly uncle Peter (Paul E. Burns). Peter collapses under the punishing sun, but before he dies he tells Sam to work for himself, not for others. His words leave a great impression on Sam who takes Nona, their two children and his crotchety granny (Beulah Bondi) along for a trip that ends at a vacant tenant farm. The building is close to falling apart and Sam doesn’t have much to grow the land. Granny is furious with Sam for subjecting her to this misery, but he has the support of his wife and children.

Trying to survive as a tenant farmer isn’t easy though, and Sam soon realizes that he can’t expect any help or even sympathy from his closest neighbor, Henry Devers (J. Carroll Naish), who considers him an unwelcome competitor. Over time, the Tuckers struggle with every challenge there is, including getting enough food and trying to keep the dreaded ”spring sickness” at bay…

Engaging and realistic
There’s no question that The Southerner depicted a difficult life that many in the working class recognized, especially during the Depression and the war years. Several of Renoir’s earlier films sympathized with left-wing sentiments in France and it’s easy to draw comparisons between The Southerner and The Grapes of Wrath (1940), John Ford’s classic film that also portrayed migrants and their fight to survive in a landscape that is anything but hospitable. This one is engaging and realistic in many ways, received several Oscar nominations and positive reviews, but has failed to become a landmark cinematic event.
The story, which follows the Tuckers through one crisis after another, including a climactic flooding, is after all simple (albeit well told).

It helps to have a Texan like Scott in the lead, but the cast is merely serviceable. Bondi does stand out however as Granny Tucker, always unhappy with circumstances, always ready to remind Sam of what a failure he is compared to the other men in their family; she was 56 at the time, but convincingly comes across as at least 40 years older.

A lot of people found problems with Renoir’s film. Accents come and go among the actors, and many actual southerners did not appreciate how their part of the country was depicted. The critic James Agee, born in Tennessee, had spent a lot of time with tenant farmers and did not think these people were accurately portrayed. There was talk of boycotts. Some critics pointed out that if the film’s title hadn’t been so specific, there wouldn’t have been a problem; now it looked like the filmmakers wanted to say that this is what the whole South looks like – poor and uneducated. That’s not what they were aiming for. Above all, The Southerner addresses a reality for the working class with great passion and credibility.

The Southerner 1945-U.S. 91 min. B/W. Produced by Robert Hakim, David L. Loew. Directed by Jean Renoir. Screenplay: Hugo Butler, Jean Renoir. Novel: George Sessions Perry (”Hold Autumn in Your Hand”). Music: Werner Janssen. Cast: Zachary Scott (Sam Tucker), Betty Field (Nona Tucker), Beulah Bondi (Granny Tucker), J. Carroll Naish, Norman Lloyd, Bunny Sunshine.

Trivia: Joel McCrea was allegedly considered for the lead role. 

Last word: “I worked a great deal with rather small lenses, which gave great depth, so as to never lose sight of the fields behind my characters. The fact is that this land that my hero wanted so much to cultivate and that he counts on to become independent, this land, these fields, play a role. The land is a character in the film, so you have to see it. That’s why I used these lenses, which gave me depth and allowed me to stay in touch with the background, even while our interest is focused, I hope, on what the character in the foreground is saying.” (Renoir, “Renoir on Renoir”)



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