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It's no big surprise that RUBY GENTRY receives such mixed reviews, because the theme of the film will not appeal to small-town America. Ruby is a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, as the narrator at the beginning of the film states. What this is code for in classic Hollywood is not necessarily straight translation. In other words, we are in the realm of a lost art form: the romantic film, or the melodrama. King Vidor was a master of this craft.
Ruby, then, was different. She was a free spirit, an unconventional thinker, and a seductive beauty. This is a lethal combination in the small, conservative town Ruby grows up in. She falls in love, of course, with the 'popular' boy, the rich kid, who the most well-bred society girls are after. Of course none of them have anything except their money against Ruby, and Boake (Charlton Heston) knows it! So there is an essential conflict between what Boake wants (Ruby) and what he is expected to have. He, unlike Ruby, is rather weak, and afraid. Deep down he loves her, but he lacks her spirit and wisdom. He won't go after someone looked down on by the town. He has to be 'respectable.' He cares what others think. Ruby does not, so she is willing to fight for him, but at the same time she does not want to be taken for granted. She wants her love to be fulfilled through marriage; he only wants her as a sex object.
I think it is important to note that Ruby Gentry is not necessarily a femme fatale, nor does she necessarily sin. She simply follows her heart. However, a series of accidents, including the death of her wealthy husband, occur, and Ruby is involved in scandal after scandal. The people always choose to believe the worst of her because she represents what they despise: an independent woman with beauty and natural intelligence, and class mobility.
RUBY GENTRY is a masterpiece. King vidor, my favorite director, is at the top of his form. Jennifer Jones, a talented and underrated actress, makes Ruby both sympathetic and believable. Charlton Heston is extremely effective as a complex character--one who on the surface seems shallow, but beneath the surface you can still feel his love for Ruby (which he struggles to hide, or deny).
Boake and his family feel they are above Ruby. Even Ruby's brother is judgmental and calls her a 'sinner,' based on assumptions. The final event in the film is a tragedy, but noteworthy because it was not the fault of Ruby or Boake, but a judgmental, hypocritical, and merciless society, imposing religious and social institutions which hinder us all.
The film is not dated. If anything, it proves melodrama is more effective than realism sometimes, where larger-than-life human emotions are concerned. People who call a movie like RUBY GENTRY 'trash' are actually in denial that the theme, and the emotions, are as vividly real and relevant now as ever. Anyone who thinks social class, sex appeal, and money do not count for everything in today's world, just as then, hasn't a clue. These are timeless themes, and the relationships in the film, and how they were negatively affected by the prejudice and snobbery around them, can be compared to any number of contemporary homosexual or interracial relationships, among others. How's that for relevance?
Sometimes the bigger emotions, the tragedies, are more appropriately told in melodramatic terms--because they are serious and heartbreaking and should not be reduced to cinematic language that conveys anything less!
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