July 25, 2017
Jean Renoir considered The Southerner (1945) to be his “only work of a personal nature carried out in Hollywood.” Adapted from the National Book Award winning novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand, by George Sessions Perry, it follows a year in the life of a struggling Texas tenant farmer and his family. A lyrical portrait of do-it-yourself Americanism, it was nominated for three Academy Awards, including one for Best Director (Billy Wilder would win for The Lost Weekend). Sam Tucker (Zachary Scott) is passionately, almost irrationally obsessed with farming a plot of land, even if he’s working it for another owner. So he quits his cotton-picking job and enters into a tenant-farming agreement with his boss, tilling a plot left unworked for years. For him it’s a kind of freedom, though he is gambling that he can harvest enough crop to feed his family and begin to save for a better life. He’s a more responsible version of Boudu from Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), both seek a way off the grid and find it in rural sections of the country. But Sam has family responsibilities, while Boudu only answers to himself.
(Full Disclosure: I work for Kino Lorber, who released The Southerner on DVD and Blu-ray)
After the Nazi occupation of France, Renoir secured a United States visa and arrived at a dock in the port of Jersey City on December 31, 1940, where he was greeted by Robert Flaherty, who had facilitated his arrival. His first Hollywood production was Swamp Water (1941), a Georgia outlaw romance, on which he regularly clashed with producer Daryl Zanuck. He wrote of Zanuck: “Our story was feasible, more or less. He’s managed to turn it into something I find totally stupid” (quoted in Jean Renoir: A Biography, by Pascal Merigeau). Though a financial success, Renoir was not pleased with the experience. He then signed with Universal, who assigned him to the Deanna Durbin vehicle The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943). He worked on it for fifty days before he left the production, citing pain in his leg, which was a cover for his unhappiness with the project, though Durbin was ” a nice girl.” He would jump from there to RKO, to direct the Dudley Nicholas penned and produced This Land is Mine (1943), about the resistance movement in an unnamed Nazi-occupied country. Nichols was passionate about the film, which starred Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara and George Sanders, and controlled the production tightly. He didn’t allow the use of a crane, citing budgetary restraints, and disallowed any improvisatory deviation from the script. Renoir directed it, but was not in full control.
The Southerner, on the other hand, proved an ideal film for Renoir because the producers had little interest in it. Robert Hakim, a friend and producer of La Bête humaine (1938), asked Renoir to read a proposed screenplay of Hold August in Your Hand, by Hugo Butler. He was intrigued by the possibility, and after going back to the original novel, agreed to direct if he was allowed to come up with his own script – which would also pass through the hands of Nunnally Johnson and William Faulkner. Zachary Scott later claimed that Faulkner wrote the entire script, but Merigeau’s biography indicates Renoir wrote the majority, and that Faulkner reworked two scenes, on in which Sam Tucker lights the stove for the first time, and the sequence where the family catches a giant catfish. Hakim secured distribution through United Artists, who sent David L. Loew to be a co-producer. This was not a prestige title for Hakim or Loew, and so Renoir was pretty much left alone to recreate a Texas farm at the General Service Studios, located between Santa Monica and Las Palmas.
Initially Joel McCrea and his wife Frances Dee were sought to star, but they eventually cast Zachary Scott and Betty Field as Sam and Nona Tucker, the husband and wife who would try to transform a fallow pile of wood, rocks and dirt into a working farm. Scott spends most of the film shirtless or nearly so, his character exhibiting a serious buttoning phobia. The lithe Scott is the object of adoration for the women of the town, and for good reason, as every other eligible bachelor is either a drunk or a kindly old timer. The Tuckers are introduced in a massive field picking cotton, when their uncle Pete collapses and with his final breath urges them to farm their own land. Sam takes him at his word, and convinces his boss to become a tenant farmer on one of his disused plots. The house is collapsing, the ground overgrown, and his neighbor Devers (J. Carroll Naish) is a bitter old bastard with a violent streak and a crazed son (a feral Norman Lloyd).
But the Tucker family, rounded out by son Jot, daughter Daisy, and Granny (an obstreperous Beulah Bondi), perseveres through any and all disaster, from Jot’s Spring Sickness to a storm that wipes out their crop. It is a movie about endurance and that peculiar brand of insanity called the American Dream, where people seek their fortunes in the face of calamity. For Renoir protagonists Sam and Nona are remarkably straightforward or true, neither touched by Boudu’s wanderlust but similarly attached to the idea of nature-as-freedom. Though in this case Sam is far from free – he is a tenant farmer, still working for a boss, however distant, and his responsibilities lie with his family whose health and happiness depends on the success of this mad enterprise. For it is entirely mad – the farmhouse is a wreck, and the family freezes in the winter and soaks during summer rains. The well is dry so Sam has to ask Devers for fresh water, and he is nursing a variety of wounds against the world, his wife and child having died while he was building up his plot of land. His is the nightmare side of the dream, gaining wealth while losing your life.
Renoir is very adept at blocking out scenes of group revelry, and there is a giddy wedding party sequence that acts as an oasis between emergencies, joining the entire town on bootleg liquor and dance. Sam gets clocked by one of his many disappointed suitors (he’s a one woman man) while Granny nearly lights the place on fire while making tea. Everyone laughs in a blissful state of forgetting. But then a storm hits, and it’s back to disaster management. Though this is mainly a film of static setups, Renoir does utilize his skill with moving camera early on, when the Tuckers first move into their dump. The camera breaks free of the family and enters the home, a free-floating Tucker POV that pokes its head in the door and peeks around corners. Absent of human presence, it presents the house as a blank slate that the Tuckers can fill with all their pain and laughter and failure and fleeting successes. The Southerner is one of Renoir’s most direct, most simple films, and certainly one of his most moving.
This is the tenth part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. To read the previous entries, click below.
Whirlpool of Fate (1925)
La Chienne (1931)
Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)
A Day in the Country (1936)
The Lower Depths (1936)
The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936)
La Bete Humaine (1938)