Classic Film Review: Renoir’s “The Southerner (1945)”

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Years after his time in Hollywood, where the great French director Jean Renoir (“The Rules of the Game,” “The Grand Illusion”) spent World War II, he related how cultural stress and strife is the crucible for great art.

All Hollywood needs, he told the future Indian director, Satyajit Ray, “is a good bombing.”

But something else comes through in his second and final completed film in Hollywood. “The Southerner.” Sentimental almost to the point of condescension, it is an affectionate ode to American resilience and an innate working class decency that stood in stark contrast to the cynicism and factionalism of Europe.

It’s no “Grapes of Wrath,” just a hardscrabble year in the life of a farm family in Eastern Texas, a 30ish married couple struggling to survive as husband Sam (Texan Zachary Scott of “Mildred Pierce”) took his shot at their piece of what would come to be called “The American Dream” — a sharecropper and farm laborer trying to strike out on his own and not pick another man’s crops.

Sam takes the dying words of an aged laborer who dies picking cotton with him to heart — “Raise your own crops.” With Nona (Betty Field), cantankerous Granny (Beaulah Bondi of “It’s a Wonderful Life”) and their two kids, he borrows a truck to move them, borrows mules and a plow, and borrows seed to plant his own cotton.

They settle into a tumbledown shack, struggle through a year of little food, bad nutrition from the possum and fish they eat (pellegra), unfriendly neighbors (J. Caroll Naish and Norman Lloyd) and fickle weather, and the temptation to throw in the towel and take up a wartime factory job to make their own way and their own destiny.

“Jus’ cause we’re havin’ hard times right now, don’t mean we gotta stop nothin’. We gotta keep goin’. Once we give up, we won’t have the courage to get ourselves back to good times.”

It’d be easy to read “patronizing” into this tale, with its country wedding, bar fight, brawl over a fellow farmer’s act of sabotage and bare-handed fishing, and imagine Renoir rolling his eyes at every Granny gripe.

“When you all look down on my cold dead face in the county pine box, you’ll be sorry then! Mebbe!”

But there’s something nobler going on here, a “realistic” and respectful statement on the quiet faith the farmer has in his own enterprise. The leftist politics of Renoir’s earlier work, and of Ford’s “Grapes of Wrath,” isn’t here. The urgency of his other Hollywood outing, the Occupation thriller “This Land is Mine,” is missing as well.

There are good people, overreaching people, cheats, using floozies, tipplers and in that nasty neighbor, a classic “for me to succeed, you must fail” type. As with his later Indian film (where he met Ray), “The River,” and with his earlier “Rules of the Game,” this is Renoir as cultural anthropologist, observing and dissecting and appreciating, with every painterly-composed scene.

3half-star

MPAA Rating: “approved”

Cast: Zachary Scott, Betty Field, Beaulah Bondi, J. Caroll Naish, Charles Kemper and Norman Lloyd.

Credits: Directed by Jean Renoir, script by Hugo Butler and Jean Renoir, based on a novel by George Sessions Perry.

Running time: 1:32

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