Cotton is one of the most important crops grown worldwide. What was once the land rich but dollar poor southern US and cotton are synonymous with each other, the crop itself originally imported from India. Despite the ease of growing cotton and the world demand for it, the labor intensive activity of separating the seed from the lint made it an expensive proposition until the creation of the cotton gin by inventor Eli Whitney in the late eighteenth century. Whitney was an unassuming schoolmaster when he created his deceptively simple but time and labor saving device, which revolutionized the cotton industry and led to great increases in the planting of cotton crops and production in the southern US. This increase had the unforeseen consequence of insufficient laborers to pick the cotton, which in turn led to an increase in the slave trade from West Africa, and the growing economic disparity between the rich cotton plantation owners and the poor slaves. The moral question of slavery ... Written by
This short documentary (or "miniature" as MGM liked to call them), designed as an accompanying bit of background info during the rush of Gone with the Wind fever, is one of the few Fred Zinnemann shorts that can be seen on DVD.
It often comes up in discussions about Zinnemann that his background in this area gave his full-length pictures a "documentary feel", although this isn't really the case. In the first place, other than the occasional realist touch here and there, I wouldn't say he had what you could call a pronounced documentary approach. Secondly, looking at The Old South (and other MGM miniatures which turn up as DVD extras) you can see these shorts largely consisted of staged scenes. Much of the "real event" shots appear to be stock footage, and for the final montage they even stole the opening shot from 1929's Hallelujah, directed by King Vidor! Still, one or two things make this stand out as the work of Zinnemann. In particular there is the way he shoots outdoor scenes pretty and tranquil images with lots of overhanging tree branches. Much later he would use shots like this to help bring out the poignancy of an important scene; here he is probably just doing it for aesthetics. He has consistently attempted to fill the frame with life and character, sometimes getting the better of himself. For example in the scene where two landowners discuss the slave trade, the arrangement of the shot draws our attention more to the activity in the background and away from the speakers, rather than balancing them effectively.
The Old South is available as part of the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink four disc edition of Gone with the Wind. Although it looks pretty and may be of vague interest to Zinnemann buffs, to be honest you can probably do something better with your eleven minutes.
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