French director Jean Renoir directed this adaptation of George Sessions Perry’s novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand, which won the first National Book Award in 1941. (The novel was adapted by screenwriter Hugo Butler, with uncredited contributions from Nunnally Johnson and William Faulkner.)
Zachary Scott, in a role originally intended for Joel McCrea, plays a Texas cotton picker named Sam Tucker who decides he doesn’t want to be a sharecropper anymore. He wants to grow his own cotton, harvest it, and be responsible for his own destiny. So he buys a piece of land and a ramshackle little house, and moves his wife (played by Betty Field), his children, and their crotchety grandmother onto it. Once there, the Tuckers must valiantly struggle against nature, disease, and their fellow humans to make a go of it.
The Southerner received three Academy Award nominations, including one for best director. Renoir didn’t win, but he was named best director by the National Board of Review, which also named The Southerner the third best film of 1945, after the World War II documentary The True Glory and Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (which won the Oscar for best picture). Despite all these accolades, I was lukewarm about this picture. Scott is good in his role. His acting is understated, and he embodies “quiet dignity.” J. Carrol Naish is also very good as the villain of the piece, Tucker’s neighbor who seeks to destroy Tucker merely because of his inchoate hatred for anyone who tries to rise from his station in life. In fact, all the actors are good, except for perhaps Beulah Bondi, who hams it up a bit as Granny, a prickly pear if ever there was one. (Also, it might be hard for modern viewers to see her sitting in her rocking chair in the bed of a slow-moving pickup truck along with all the family’s worldly possessions and not think of The Beverly Hillbillies, which is unfortunate, since this film strives to be a realistic human drama.) My tepid reaction to the film is not related to any of the particulars, but rather to the overall feeling I had at the end. I just felt as if something was missing. Some essential component that would make me care about the characters and their situation more than I did.
Renoir is today best known for his French-language films like Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939), but he made a few English-language films besides this one. The first was Swamp Water (1941), which, like The Southerner, is about simple rural Americans. Perhaps my cool reaction to this film was due to the fact that I don’t find simple people as compelling as complicated people. Or maybe it’s just because the print I saw was kind of crummy. If the visual beauty of the countryside were allowed to shine through, maybe I would have liked it more. I’ve read that Renoir considered this his favorite American-made film. And, as I mentioned above, it was very successful with critics. So if this sounds like the kind of film you enjoy, then by all means you should see it. Meanwhile, I’ll be next door, watching a late ’40s film noir set in a big city about paranoid, sweaty people who aren’t quietly dignified in the slightest.