Wednesday Editor’s Pick: The Southerner (1945)

by on July 31, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed Aug 3 at 7:30 at 92Y Tribeca [Program & Tix]

*Presented by The Daily Show writer Elliot Kalan & host Aasif Mandvi

**BONUS: Also playing Wed/Thurs/Fri Aug 3/4/5 at MoMA at 1:30 [Program & Tix]

 

Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

Jean Renoir’s 1945 examination of dirt farmers in the American south is probably his finest Hollywood film, which is to say a masterpiece. There isn’t much of a story, but the film has a sense of people and place that gives it a tremendous weight and authenticity. The visuals seem sunbaked, blistering.

 


 

 

Michael Wilmington for the Chicago Tribune:

Jean Renoir is best known for his great French films of the ’30s, including “Grand Illusion,” “La Bete Humaine” and “The Rules of the Game.” But, in the 1940s, after immigrating to America to escape the Nazi invasion of France, Renoir was an active Hollywood moviemaker, directing five films there from 1941 to 1947. (Even after resuming his French studio career, he remained a Los Angeles resident until his death.) And though he suffered far more studio interference in America than he did back in France (Renoir usually referred to one of his employers as “19th Century Fox”), he was at the peak of his artistic powers, working on projects he originated with actors, writers and collaborators he esteemed.

 

The best of his Hollywood movies is 1945’s “The Southerner,” a moving, compassionate and picaresque depiction of a year in the lives of a family of poor Texas tenant farmers. It’s a portrayal of the American underclass empty of condescension, done with rare empathy, lyricism and the same pantheistic love of nature you see in French pictures like “A Day in the Country” and “Boudu Saved from Drowning.” The source was a George Sessions Perry novel, “Hold Autumn in Your Hand”; helping Renoir on the script were later black list victim Hugo Butler and (uncredited) the great Southern novelist William Faulkner. The actors — Texan Zachary Scott, Betty Field, J. Carrol Naish, Charles Kemper and the magnificently cranky Beulah Bondi — are a wonderful ensemble. The sense of landscape is poetic and robust, the film a true American classic.

 

Time Out (London):

A harsh yet human antidote to traditional Hollywood attitudes about ‘real people’, this is (with Diary of a Chambermaid) Renoir’s most successful American film, loose, free-flowing, honest. A year-in-the-life of Zachary Scott, Betty Field and family, poor sharecroppers turned self-employed, both romantic and realistic in its investigation of courage and freedom, both accurate and impressionistic in its view of ‘nature’, so that you can smell the river and the dead rain after the flood that almost ends their struggle. From the novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand by George Sessions Perry.

 

 

Lorraine LoBianco gives some background for TCM:

Renoir wrote to his nephew, the cinematographer Claude Renoir, “The only work which fully satisfied me here was The Southerner [1945]”.

 

It is not surprising that Renoir felt more in his element while making The Southerner, as it was an independent production and a collaboration with producers David Loew and Robert Hakim. The film was released by United Artists, the releasing company originally formed by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and D.W. Griffith, as a way of retaining control over their work.

 

The original working title of the film was Hold Autumn in Your Hand, based on George Sessions Perry’s 1941 novel of the same name, that producer Hakim had brought to Renoir’s attention. 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.”

 

 

Peter Bogdanovich for Indiewire:

Like many of Renoir’s pictures, The Southerner, shot entirely on real locations near Madera, California, with the actors and crew sleeping in pup tents, is deceptively simple. A young Southern man’s uncle dies picking cotton for others, so the man decides to strike out on his own, becomes a tenant farmer, and he, his wife, his two young children, and his aged grandmother start a farm and experience a series of hardships—-from envious, hostile neighbors and from natural calamities—-like the flood that wipes out their first cotton crop. In his book, Renoir eloquently explained his take on this lovely film, based on the novel, Hold Autumn in Your Hand, by George Sessions Percy: “What attracted me in the story was precisely the fact that there was really 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.”

 

Beautifully acted—-by Zachary Scott, Betty Field, Beulah Bondi, Norman Lloyd—the picture achieves all of that in profoundly subtle ways, almost entirely in its quiet images, the moments before or after the dialog, the angle from which everything is seen, literally and figuratively. In his autobiography, Renoir generously credits the quality of the picture to his having written the script with “the counsel of [William] Faulkner. The influence of that man of genius had certainly a lot to do with the success of the film.” But the particular feeling you’re left with when the movie has ended—-that somehow you’ve been miraculously healed and purified—-only happens after a Renoir picture.

 

Filmmaker Charles Burnett, selected quotes from Charles Burnett: Interviews:

And then I saw The Southerner, by Renoir. It didn’t have anything to do with Blacks, but since I’m from Mississippi I remember Zachary Scott in the role of the poor man who worked on the farm. There was also a Black couple and the movie shows how they helped each other survive in this miserable situation; it was man against nature and how much it costs whites as well as Blacks to survive.
 
One of the first films about the South that really moved me was one of [Renoir’s] films, The Southerner. One of the things I liked about the Southerner was the humanity and the broad spectrum of life in it. It wasn’t just about whites patronizing blacks. You saw people on an equal scale. It’s a rarity too see blacks given the same type of justice and humanity – I think that’s what attracted me to the film.
 
[One of] the movies I loved most when I was a kid was especially The Southerner, which for me precisely recalled the South, especially the relationships among the characters. And years later, when I was taking those film studies courses, one of my teachers, strangely enough, said that no European was capable of making a movie about America, giving as a prime example the Southerner, directed by a Frenchman! I nearly choked.

 

 

Michael J. Anderson for Tativille:

Renoir’s humanism, however, is equally clear in his portrayal of the highly sympathetic proletariat Tucker’s, whether it is the perpetually hard-working Sam or his strong-willed wife. She is in fact the one member of the family who seems to be able to reign in the often unreasonable Granny (Beulah Bondi) – she complains when one of her two blankets is used to make a coat for her granddaughter; in certain respects, Bondi’s character seems to anticipate Pather Panchali‘s (1955) similarly curmudgeonly matriarch. Actually, that Bondi has been cast in the part sheds some light on Renoir’s famous assertion that Leo McCarey knew the true nature of people better than anyone else in the American cinema: surely it was Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) that inspired the quotation?

 

Still it is less these characterizations than The Southerner’s visual interest which truly assure its high level of accomplishment: the horizontal cotton fields often picturesquely framed by the Tucker’s dilapidated farm house; and the dark storm clouds gathering above Granny’s head; the enormous catfish pulled from the muddy river; and the conclusion with the film’s protagonists wading out into the overflowing artery; the opossum hanging in the tree; and Nona collapsing onto the dirt field, her arms burrowing beneath the dry surface. In this last moment in particular, The Southerner’s physicality is translated into gesture, producing a film of almost ineffable carnality.
And of course, metaphor adheres in the film’s landscape, whether it is the slow leak in the farm house’s roof or in the downpour that signals catastrophe for the Tucker’s. Yet, it is the untransportable nature of the director’s visuals, be it Michel Simon’s flotation in Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) or Betty Field’s collapse into the dirt that mark Renoir’s cinema at its very finest. From The Rules of the Game‘s failure would come one of the lesser-seen treasures of America’s war-era cinema – as well as one of its greatest, and most tactile, single moments.

 

Alt Screen’s Dan Callahan for Culture Cartel:

If there’s one image in The Southerner that stays with you, it is this haunting view of a defiant old woman nearly swallowed by the elements, yet still there, still fighting. “I’m not takin’ it no more!” she howls. Life is inside the house with Sam and Nona and their family, while oncoming Death and change rocks on outside. It’s a view of old age that is little seen.

 

“When ya all look down on my cold dead face, in that county pine box, you’ll be sorry then—maybe!” says Granny (Bondi perfectly delivers the last word as a guilt-tripping afterthought.) “Ya keep on promisin’ Granny. Ya don’t deliver the goods,” says Nona, with tolerant black humor. Granny smiles lewdly when Sam and Nona bid her good night (the couple seems to have a warm sex life even in cramped quarters.) It’s clear that Granny is so angry because she remembers her youth so vividly. This is felt most keenly when she gets up during a square dance and goes off by herself to see if she can remember the steps (she can’t.) This heartbreaking cameo of despair is followed by a big laugh—Renoir glides from moment to moment effortlessly, to the point where he has no demarcation between tragedy and comedy. Yes, we are watching a film, with actors and sets, but Renoir makes films feel like life by stressing artificiality just enough for it to seem familiar.

 

In the ending of The Southerner, Renoir catches the spirit of perseverance so beautifully that it takes your breath away. To watch The Southerner you need concentration and openness and it repays you in bounteous aesthetic pleasure. Flashy, glib movies spoil us for a film this good, but its quality is readily apparent to anyone who is lucky enough to see it.

  • Cullen Gallagher

    THE SOUTHERNER on two different screens on the same day! Has this ever happened to this movie before…ever? It is certainly deserving of it. Underrated Renoir classic.

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