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William A. Seiter
A feud, the origins of which can barely be remembered, has been boiling for decades between two sheltered mountain families, the Tollivers and the Falins. With plans to build a railroad through both families' land and mine coal deposits beneath it, enterprising outsider Jack Hale (Fred MacMurray) inadvertently becomes entangled in the region's politics. He soon captures the attention of the beautiful June Tolliver (Sylvia Sidney) and quickly becomes involved in a love triangle with her and her cousin Dave (Henry Fonda) Written by
The movie's an affecting tale of feuding backwoods families, who must also make adjustments to encroaching modern world. I was expecting a Romeo-Juliet situation with the families, but that's surprisingly not the case. Instead June (Sidney) has to decide between her cousin Dave (Fonda) and outsider Hale (MacMurray). Tradition favors Dave, but her heart favors Hale. At the same time, railroad developers are crossing land owned by each family, and neither the Tollivers nor the Falins wants to accommodate their hereditary enemy. They'd rather shoot each other if they get the chance. And who knows how the enmity started, except now it's part of both families' tradition. If the movie's flawed, it's with the use of of popular backwoods stereotypes.
Apparently this was the first outdoor Technicolor feature (IMDB), but you'd never know it. Visually the film is quite striking, with a lot of beautiful outdoor compositions. Also, you'd never guess these were filmed just 35-miles east of LA in the San Bernardino mountains. The acting too is first-ratea soulful Sydney, an ornery Fonda, and an underrated MacMurray. Then there's Sherlock Holmes' favorite Dr. Watson, Nigel Bruce, in a non-comedic role. Needless to say, that took some adjustment for this old Sherlock fan. In fact, there're a couple other unexpected cast members, as well: Little Rascal Spanky McFarland and comedic Fuzzy Knight. And, of course, mustn't forget everyone's favorite hard-scrabble mom, Beulah Bondi, as the long-suffering ma Tolliver.
I like the way the movie works the culture clash between tradition and modernity into the plot. The railroad company pays big money for land use, and that along with a railway to service the expected coal deposits, is bringing the backwoods into the modern age, as June's evolution shows. Of course, not everyone's supportive of change, particularly dad Tolliver (Stone). The movie has some uncommonly poignant moments, especially that final sequence, which conveys an extraordinary emotional power. As a kid, I recall bawling at it, and even now as a geezer, it brought a tear to the eye. As I see it, Fuzzy and his dog are mourning not only friends but the passing of a simpler way of life.
All in all, the movie is surprisingly good, with a strong story, commanding visuals, and a thoughtful subtext. So don't pass it up because of a relative obscurity.
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