Toronto Film Society presented The Southerner (1945) on Saturday, August 26, 2023 as part of the Season 75 Virtual Film Buffs Screening Series, Programme 11.
Producer: Robert Hakim, David L. Loew. Distributor: United Artists. Director: Jean Renoir. Screenplay: Hugo Butler, Jean Renoir. Cinematography: Lucien N. Andriot. Film Editor: Gregg C. Tallas. Music: Werner Janssen. Released in May 1945.
Cast: Zachary Scott (Sam Tucker), Betty Field (Nona Tucker), J. Carroll Naish (Devers), Beulah Bondi (Granny), Percy Kilbride (Harmie).
A stark vision in the life of sharecroppers, The Southerner portrays the hopes, the triumphs, and the crushing heartbreaks of a poor Texas family cotton farming over the course of a year.
At the time, growing and harvesting cotton was labour-intensive, and bad weather, particularly rain, would wipe out a harvest. Like a feverish gambler, the cotton farmer works the land in the hopes of a great crop to pay off at the end of the season, only to start the process over, year after year.
In the tradition of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, The Southerner is a fine film depicting early 20th century life in rural America, including the hardships of malnutrition. Young Jot in the film suffered from “spring sickness”, a colloquial term for pellagra, the disease symptoms caused by malnutrition. Only good food could save him.
The Southerner was directed by Jean Renoir, who also co-wrote the screenplay. If the Renoir name sounds familiar, you would be right: this director is the second son of famous French Impressionist, Pierre-Auguste Renoir. You can see Jean Renoir’s artistic vision in the use of dark and light to create stark contrasts. At times, the deep shadows accentuate despair, while bright scenes can at times, give the feeling of joy and fun, or a feeling of brutal heat under a bright, burning sun. One can only speculate whether artistic talent is inherited or inspired, but definitely, Jean Renoir continued in a family tradition of art.
Starting in France in the silent era, he made over 40 films, working right up to 1970. Although Renoir’s work was well-regarded, he found it difficult at times in the United States. The Southerner is regarded as his best American film, and he received an Academy Award nomination as director. Later in life, in addition to many other awards and accolades, Renoir received a lifetime Academy Award in 1975.
Of course, the film benefitted from the talents of great cinematography by another of Renoir’s countryman, Lucien Adroit, who shot more than 200 films and television programs throughout his career from 1915 to 1958 – wow!
The enjoyable, and at times melancholy, musical score was written by Werner Janssen and performed by the Janssen Symphony Orchestra. Born in New York City in 1899, young Werner and his family lived next to George M. Cohan who is credited as encouraging Werner to pursue his musical career. Werner’s first credited film score was for The General Died at Dawn (1936), which was his first of six Academy Award nominations. Some notable film scores include Captain Kidd (1945), A Night in Casablanca (a 1946 Marx brothers’ film) and Ruthless (1948) also starring Zachary Scott. It should be noted that Werner’s Janssen Symphony Orchestra was a rival of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; if you’re interested, search in Spotify for “Janssen Symphony of Los Angeles” or “Werner Janssen” and enjoy!
The film has some excellent performances by Zachary Scott (Sam Tucker), a native Texan, so he had the right accent for the film and he had the thin but strong physique of a hardworking farmer. Scott went on to become more notable in parts as a villain, such as his role in Mildred Pierce (1945) and South of St. Louis (1949). Alas, he died at the young age of 51 of a malignant brain tumour. Unfortunately, his co-star, Betty Field also died young, at the age of 57, of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Character actor Beulah Bondi (born in 1889) was only 56 years old when she played the often-petulant Grandma Tucker in The Southerner. A cute note: Beulah’s character sings the hymn “Sweet Beulah Land” in the later part of the movie. In her career, Beulah played the mother of James Stewart four times, including Ma Smith in Mr. Smith goes to Washington (1939) and Mrs. Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
Despite the mature, matronly roles she played, Beulah was a confirmed bachelorette, also known as a (gasp!) spinster. She never married, never had children. and never regretted it. Beulah started working when she was a child and never really retired; her last role was that of Martha Corinne Walton, Grandpa’s 90-year-old sister-in-law, in two episodes of The Waltons. She died at the ripe old age of 91 due to complications from injuries sustained when, still living in her own home, she tripped over her cat.
The film has a Canadian connection. One of Renoir’s two co-writers was Hugo Butler, who was born in Calgary in 1914. Perhaps one of the world’s first nepo-babies, his father was Frank Butler, who began his career acting in silent films but was also a well-known screenwriter, winning an Academy Award for Going My Way (1945).
Hugo wrote, or co-wrote, screenplays for 38 films including, A Christmas Carol (1938), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1938), and Autumn Leaves (1956). He was blacklisted in the 1950s and moved with his wife, writer Jean Rouverol (pictured, left), and their six children to Mexico, where he worked on scripts for directors including Luis Bunuel and Robert Aldrich. One of his sons, Michael Butler, also become a screenwriter. His credits include the John Wayne film Brannigan (1975) and the Clint Eastwood vehicle Pale Rider (1985). He died in January, 1968, before the release of the film The Legend of Lylah Clare, which he co-write with his wife.
Notes by Carol Whittaker