(American, 1945, 92 minutes, b&w, 16mm)
It was a strange exile. Jean Renoir, son of the painter and already, at 27, the acknowledged patriarch of the French dramatic film, arrived in the United States in February of 1941, a refugee from the tragedy of France's fall. The Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game were masterpieces, clearly, but just as clearly not formula pictures. Studio executives were vaguely impressed by his reputation, but confused about just what sort of pictures to assign him. During his six year stay in America, Renoir would direct five films, all but one of them fascinating but faulty, each one marred by a small flaw – a weak performance or a vague premise, something that made it not right, not quite Renoir.
The lone exception was the smallest of his American films, one made without big studio backing, an independent production released through then-lowly United Artists It was 1944, and Renoir was frustrated by the many unconsummated deals he’d been a part of in the last two years. A project to make Mary Webb’s novel Precious Bane with Ingrid Bergman fell through because producer David O. Selznick wanted Renoir to direct Bergman in Joan of Arc instead. Another idea was a film set in Los Angeles’ decrepit Victorian slum, Bunker Hill. Each of Renoir’s film ideas was dismissed as "uncommercial." Finally, producer Robert Hakim (another emigre), brought Renoir the book Hold Autumn in Your Hand by George Sessions Perry, along with a script by Hugo Butler. It was the most uncommercial project of all, the story of a sharecropper who tries to make a go of it on his own place, some waste land his neighbors have dismissed as unworkable acreage. The sharecropper struggles against disease, the weather, even the hatred of other farmers. A surprise hit, The Southerner is one of the finest films about rural labor between John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath and Elia Kazan’s Wild River.
Butler’s script concentrated on the social injustice that swirled around the sharecropper. Butler, a Left screenwriter who would soon be caught in the maelstrom of the Hollywood blacklist, saw the film as an opportunity to venture into political areas which the film version of The Grapes of Wrath had neglected. Renoir saw Butler’s narrative of class warfare as fervent and true, but also melodramatic. A Renoir story was often a will o’ the wisp, a fragile, even vague thing that sufficed mostly as a place to create memorable, melancholic characters who commented ironically on the human condition. His films were not political broadsides, but poetry. And that was how he saw The Southerner. In his autobiography, My Life and My Films, Renoir wrote:
What attracted me to the story was precisely the fact that there was no story, nothing but a series of strong impressions -- the vast landscape, the simple aspiration of the hero, the heat and the hunger. Being forced to live a life restricted to their daily material needs, the characters attain a level of spirituality of which they themselves are unaware... What I saw was a story in which all the characters were heroic, in which every element would brilliantly play its part, in which things and men, animals and Nature, all would come together in an immense act of homage to the divinity.
Butler saw immediately the virtue of Renoir’s approach, as well as his unsuitability to it. He graciously withdrew, and Renoir went to work on a revised version of the script. On this portrait of Southern rural life and work had the uncredited assistance of a long-time admirer of his work, William Faulkner. Renoir’s original choice for the film’s lead was Joel McCrea, but McCrea was put off by Renoir’s impressionistic script, and backed out. It was Renoir, who loved casting against type, who suggested Zachary Scott, who had specialized in playing urbane, cynical "other men" characters. Scott had grown up in Texas, where the film is set, and knew the world of cotton planting and chopping and harvesting Renoir wished to capture on film. The film’s other major players, Betty Field, Norman Lloyd, and the indispensable Beulah Bondi, are further examples of Renoir’s eye for skilled, empathetic performers.
Renoir owed his initial sponsorship in the United States to the legendary documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty. Renoir's style in The Southerner owes much to Flaherty, but there is something else operating in this small, eloquent film than the documentary aesthetic. It’s Renoir’s uncanny ability to create a cinematic world completely believable on its own terms, and no matter that the film is fictional. James Agee, a Southerner himself, said that the film’s possum hunt sequence "gets perfectly the mournful, hungry mysteriousness of a Southern country winter." Perhaps Agee saw something of the exquisite powers of observation of rural life he himself had demonstrated in his astounding journalistic elegy, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In that work, Agee and photographer Walker Evans had portrayed the lives of Alabama sharecroppers in exhaustive, almost cinematic detail. The life of the `cropper was one of almost unrelieved physical misery and destitution, yet Agee called himself to avoid even a gesture of patronage or pity. As a film reviewer, he demanded the same from films about the lives of the poor, and almost never got it. In The Southerner, he did. Agee loved the sense of tactile reality in the film’s rough-hewn surfaces, its hardscrabble fields, and the battered but resilient faces of its people. When Agee called The Southerner "¼ one of the most sensitive and beautiful American-made pictures I have seen," he accurately placed Renoir’s portrait of rural life alongside the work of himself, Faulkner, Ford, and John Steinbeck. Renoir, the immigrant, offered an image of American country life as if lived from the inside, yet simultaneously seen from the outside with perfect clarity. Renoir’s own greatheartedness added to this perfect artistic tension a great depth of compassion for what is universal in human experience.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
The following review by Shawn Badgley appeared in the Austin Chronicle, March 29, 2002:
As the war he left France to escape was coming to an end, Jean Renoir, by then a naturalized U.S. citizen, set his scope on the American South. With screenwriter Hugo Butler (alongside novelist William Faulkner and star script doctor Nunnally Johnson as uncredited consultants), he adapted troubled Texas author George Sessions Perry’s Hold Autumn in Your Heart, retitled it The Southerner, and cast Austin, Texas native Zachary Scott—known previously as the consummate villain—as Sam Tucker, a man on a mission to grow his own crops and earn a little old-fashioned prosperity for his dirt-farming family.
The result is perhaps Renoir’s last great film, his Hollywood masterpiece, a forgotten classic whose wholesome story of feuding families and Old Testament adversity gestalts unexpectedly well with the grand illusionist’s technical genius and subjective realism. Or maybe it should be expected: The imagery here is of the stark, scorched variety: uncompromising life amidst an uncompromising landscape. (Although the foreground shot with the determined, denim-clad Betty Field leading mules across the Tuckers’ virgin farmland as Scott looks on must be one of Renoir’s sexiest.) The sense is one of impending doom, and despite all the action, it’s the things that don’t happen that drive the narrative. When doom does strike, in the form of a 50-year flood, The Southerner is charged hard with oppositional forces: man vs. nature, town vs. country, agrarianism vs. industrialism, optimism vs. pessimism, neighbor vs. neighbor. But that’s simplifying a deceptively simple film. Renoir had the eyes of an artist, thanks mostly to his father, and those eyes saw in this work performances alternately brilliant and overwrought, sequences subtle and contrived.
Ultimately, subtlety and brilliance win out, overcoming an incidental plot and a Capraesque ending. After all, it’s the meat of the thing that counts, much like the textured, chunky opossum that serves as the Tuckers’ first proper country meal. "Much obliged, lord," Sam prays awkwardly as he digs in. "Looks like the Tuckers are going to make the grade, after all." That’s before the flood. After, Sam tells Cousin Tim (Kemper), "All the fields and the trees and the river, I just can’t look at ‘em no more. I gave ‘em everything I had to give, honest, and what’d they give me back? Nothin’. Nothin’ but trouble and misery." Maybe so, but they also gave Renoir an Academy Award nomination for Best Director. It would be his first and last.
The following article by Jaime N. Christley appeared in the e-zine Film Written Magazine, June 22, 2001:
"Grow your own crops." That’s what Sam Tucker’s uncle mutters to him, just before passing on from heat stroke. Sam (Zachary Scott) senses the regret in his uncle’s voice, fearing that, at the end of his life, he hasn’t got anything to call his own, and that his time on the earth has been spent in the service of other men more ambitious than he. The seed, so to speak, is planted in Sam’s head, and with the help of his wife Nona (Betty Field) and the unending complaints of his crotchety, cantankerous granny (Beulah Bondi), he manages to get a piece of land nearby and the basic equipment to get started in growing cotton. Everything that can go wrong, of course, does; the Tuckers have a vindictive, vile neighbor (J. Carrol Naish) who, through bitterness at his own lifetime of troubles, scoffs at the earnest young couple, saying to Sam, "You’re too big for yer britches." Food is scarce, sickness strikes easily, and the plains weather has neither pity nor favor. We spend a year with the Tuckers, through good times and bad, through prosperity and temptation—the greatest one for Sam is to give up and join his friend in the city, working in a factory.
Although his classic 1937 Grand Illusion was nominated for Best Picture, Jean Renoir was only nominated once for a Best Director Academy Award (as is the case with most famous non-English-speaking filmmakers): it was for his 1945 American film The Southerner, which he made for United Artists—it was one of five films he made in Hollywood while fleeing from Nazi-occupied France (it is considered the best film he made during that period). Although one normally associates Renoir with French classics like Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game, and Boudo Saved From Drowning, the legendary director turned out to have a natural instinct for telling the story of an American farmer struggling with near-biblical adversity.
The plot of The Southerner is wholesome, ultra-sincere slice-of-Americana material that celebrates the strong back of the lower class worker, who earns what he toils for and is satisfied. On paper and in advertising, the film looks so righteous and nutritious and honorable, it could make you nauseous, but Renoir pulls it off. Sure, there are things that lay the syrup on pretty thick, and the film has quite a few earmarks of being a studio production…. But the film works, in part because of its sincerity, but mostly because of the authentic, earthy feel to the production. Renoir has the good sense to take his time with the narrative, and he makes each shot and scene seem to flicker with life—he’s never on autopilot. Always the unsentimental humanist, Renoir manages to paint in broad strokes and, paradoxically, an eye for detail and incident.
Scott and Field are a likable pair, and there’s no delay in earning our sympathy. We want them to win in the end, to triumph over hardship. One can take or leave Beulah Bondi, but there’s more to her performance than her shrieking and cursing—"’Tain’t much of a man, I tell ye!" Renoir gives her some comic bits in the opening reels, some sweet ones later on, and she has a good rapport with the child actor Jean Vanderwilt, who plays Sam and Nona’s young daughter. And J. Carrol Naish’s character is, amazingly, presented as something more than just a villain—he’s genuinely angry and jealous, and he has his reasons. Lucien Andriot’s cinematography breathes life into the surroundings, making frequent contrasts between the earth and the humans that work on it, and the movie lets us know that as long as there is one, there’ll be the other. Although The Southerner will probably remain unmentioned among Renoir’s most acclaimed films, it’s not to be missed.
The following bio of Jean Renoir is taken from the Encarta Encyclopedia:
Jean Renoir (1894-1979), French actor and motion-picture director, one of the master filmmakers of world cinema. Born in Paris, Renoir spent much of his youth in the country in Provence, where he was educated at the University of Aix-en-Provence. As the son of impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir, he was exposed early to the worlds of art and nature, a contrast he later explored in his work. After World War I (1914-1918), having served in the French cavalry, Alpine infantry, and air force (for which he received the Croix de Guerre), Renoir became a ceramist.
In the 1920s, using a small inheritance from his father, Renoir began to write, direct, and produce films for his own independent production company. His early silent films, such as La Fille de l’Eau (1925) and Nana (1926), starred his wife, Catherine Hessling, once a model for his father. Renoir embraced the advent of sound in films, revealing a major talent when, in 1931, he released his second talking picture, La Chienne, a story of bohemian life in Montmartre. This was soon followed by such notable films as Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), Madame Bovary (1934), Toni (1935), The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), and Lower Depths (1936). The moving antiwar film Grand Illusion (1937) and the social tragicomedy The Rules of the Game (1939), generally considered his masterwork, confirmed Renoir’s regard as a filmmaker of genius.
An innovator whose greatest contributions lay in his willingness to take risks, to improvise, and to resist convention, Renoir experimented throughout his career with a wide variety of cinematic techniques that imparted to his style a unique fluidity. Perhaps most apparent was his penchant for long, uninterrupted sequences and deep-focus photography, which helped him to create a sense of the wholeness of a scene and to follow the activities and interrelationships of the actors without separating or isolating them. Other hallmarks of Renoir’s work include his lifelong interest in exploring the relation between theatre and reality and his fascination with water imagery, which he used repeatedly as a symbol of the perpetuity of life.
From 1941 to 1947 Renoir made motion pictures in Hollywood, California. His Hollywood films—Swamp Water (1941), This Land Is Mine (1943), The Southerner (1945), Diary of a Chambermaid (1947), and Woman on the Beach (1947)—are generally ranked among his least successful works, with the one exception being The Southerner. In 1950, offered conditions of total autonomy, he went to India to make The River (1951), a lyrical color film of great beauty and delicacy photographed by his nephew, Claude Renoir. He returned to Europe to film The Golden Coach (1952) in Italy, and Only the French Can (1955) and The Elusive Corporal (1961), both made in France. His final film, The Little Theatre of Jean Renoir, an anthology of sketches, was originally made for French television in 1971. Renoir’s writings include the memoir Renoir, My Father (1961; translated 1961), the autobiography My Life and My Films (1974; translated 1974), and the novel The Notebooks of Captain Georges (1966; translated 1966). His honors include a special Academy Award in 1975 for his cumulative contribution to film art, and his decoration with the Legion of Honor by the French government in 1977 following a public tribute in Hollywood by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He spent his last years at his home in Beverly Hills, California.
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