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Sam Tucker, a cotton picker, in search of a better future for his family, decides to grow his own cotton crop. In the first year, the Tuckers battle disease, a flood, and a jealous neighbor. Can they make it as farmers? Written by
George S. Davis
Every time I get plumb wore out, I think about you and Jotty and Daisy, and I ain't quite so tired anymore.
Aw Sam... I just never could get along without you.
Me too, honey. I couldn't live without you.
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The opening shot amounts to a wonderfully compelling hymnal to the land and those who toil there, while the rest of the movie attempts to follow through with that noble theme. There's no doubt that this is one of the most laudable movie projects to come out of the decade. But for all the earnest concern, there's still too much of the theatrical for my liking. I know, the film is generally hailed by critics, and there's much to be said for its consistent down-and-dirty look at the plight of the southern share-cropper. But there's also a staginess to many of the characters and scenes that blemishes director Renoir's naturalistic approach.
Consider Beulah Bondi's over-the-top turn as Granny. She's supposed to offer amusingly caustic comments on events as relief from the rigors of the plot. The trouble is that both she and the camera rub our nose in the role. They just as well have hung a sign around her neck saying "crusty old woman". The bad make-up job doesn't help either and serves as a constant reminder that the Tuckers are after all only a make-believe family. Since she's a central character, the flaws in her wild eye-rolling performance are hard to ignore.
The other acting is fine, especially from Scott in the lead role as Sam. However, both he and wife Nona (Field) are more stereotypes than multi-dimensional people. He's the noble, tireless worker, and so is she. Together, they are unwavering in their support of each other and the farm. And when Sam does waver after the flood, it's Nona providing the strength to persevere. Thus, it's the whole family and not just Sam plowing the field that will make the farm a success. That's a good point for the script to make. The trouble is that Sam and Nona are simply too good to be believable in the face of all the adversity. At least one breakdown scene where the emotional toll of the wrenching burdens is expressed would have added a more human dimension. Writer Renoir is simply too insistent on the nobility of the two characters, turning them more into symbols than complex real people.
On the other hand, the hostile neighbor Devers (Naish) is the most interesting of the characters. His dark resentful nature would appear to come from uncredited co-writer William Faulkner who specialized in such Gothic personalities. The real agonizing story of what it means to start up a farm is told by the embittered old man in what I take to be the movie's central scene. He's made a success, but that success has made him hard and mean, and now he lives in fear of anyone rising above him. I wish the screenplay had not betrayed that dark impact for the price of a big fish in what strikes me as a very implausible turn- around scene on the riverbank.
The film's virtues are pretty obvious. There's a real effort at showing rural poverty and its effects on people, never a Hollywood biggie. When little Daisy lovingly puts on the crude blanket-coat, I was reminded of a world so easily passed over in a nation of commercialized malls. Ditto the well-done possum feast, where the simple act of eating means so much more. And especially when the family and we gather around the little hearth fire to peer into the glow through eyes much more ancient than our own. These are indelible scenes that transcend the movie screen and alone are worth the price of the movie.
Maybe it took a European auteur outside the usual studio framework to want to deal as honestly as possible with such a non-commercial theme. But the location shooting and insistence on the unglamorous, even down to the very unHollywood barfly, add up to what looks like an effort at honest depiction. Of course, Renoir's well-known humanism and rollicking humor show up in the party scene in what amounts to a folk celebration of life and community. Then too, there's that telling scene between Sam and Tim (Kemper) where each comes to appreciate the contributions of the other in supplying the community's needs. Whatever the film's regrettable flaws, the message remains a powerful one that needs constant retelling, especially in our own cynical times. Too bad Renoir didn't stay on this side of the Atlantic. His influence on our own movie-makers would have pushed them in a much needed direction.
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