Directed by Jean Renoir. Cast: Zachary Scott, Betty Field, J.Carrol Naish, Beulah Bondi, Percy Kilbride, Charles Kemper, Blanche Yurka, Norman Lloyd, Estelle Taylor, Paul Harvey, Noreen Nash, Jack Norwith, Nestor Pavia. Released April 30, 1945. Running time: 92 minutes. Source: Kino Lorber blu ray.
Jean Renoir is best known for his French films “La Grande Illusion” (“Grand Illusion” 1937) and “La Règle du jeu” (“Rules of the Game” 1939). He came to America in 1940 as Germany invaded France and achieved sporadic success as a filmmaker there. His best American film, “The Southerner” (1945), which earned him an Oscar nomination, is now on DVD and blu ray from Kino Lorber.
Based on George Sessions Perry’s 1941 novel “Hold Autumn in Your Hand,” this is the story of cotton picker Sam Tucker (Zachary Scott) whose father’s dying wish is that he start his own farm. He and his family have very little and the land they cultivate does not respond well to their hard work. Sam must take a factory job to make ends meet, especially when his son falls ill and needs proper nourishment. Eventually his farm becomes prosperous, but then some bitter neighbors attempt to destroy Sam’s success because they want his land. After this conflict is worked out, a storm ruins Sam’s crops forcing he and his family to start over once again.
Filled with conflicts of every kind, the narrative centers upon Sam and his family’s perseverance and ability to triumph over all odds. There is an element of humor via the romance of storeowner Harmie (Percy Kilbride prior to his Pa Kettle fame) and Ma Tucker (Blanche Yurka), as well as the cranky Granny Tucker (Beulah Bondi). The rest of the cast is filled out with such welcome veterans as J.Carrol Naish, Norman Lloyd, Paul Harvey and Nestor Pavia. A scene early in the film where Naish’s character angrily explains the difficulty of the life Sam has chosen is one of its most stirring moments.
Renoir’s cinematic vision beautifully enhances the compelling narrative with such striking visuals as the dark sky surrounding a shot of the granny rocking in her chair, Sam and his wife framed around the shadowy figure of the shack they just built, and many shots of the vast land looking desolate and, eventually, prosperous. The music, which also received an Oscar nomination, further intensifies each scene’s emotional impact.
“The Southerner” is not a terribly conventional Hollywood movie of the period. While there are several triumphs within the narrative structure, it does not rest comfortably on a typical happy ending. The family loses everything and is forced to persevere through yet another enormous setback.
The film is truly exceptional, working on every conceivable level. Renoir manages to inspire some fine performances out of its talented cast, none of whom were top-drawer stars. The difficulties the family faces at the most basic level (having to catch fish with bare hands, having to wash threadbare garments against a board) are dwarfed by more serious situations such as freezing winters, illness, and borderline starvation. Their prosperity is celebrated, there loss of everything met with determination.
Renoir frames every scene with striking mise en scene. He does not employ tracking shots as found in his French films, but instead responds to the vastness of the outdoor scenes and how the negative space frames the action. His best tracking work are when he shows Sam plowing the land, futilely, as he doggedly attempts to make his farm work.
“The Southerner” is a film with a tight narrative structure, different levels of relationships among its characters, effective music, and brilliant direction. The Kino Lorber DVD is mastered in high definition from a 35mm restoration performed by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Its extras include Pare Lorentz’s 1938 short “The River,” which Renoir has stated inspired “The Southerner,” and a 1944 short by Renoir entitled “A Salute to France.”