Classic Film Review: Anthony Mann’s take on Erskine Caldwell’s sordid Southern Gothic “God’s Little Acre” (1958)

The thing that sticks in the memory is that jaunty Elmer Bernstein (with lyrics by Erskine Caldwell?) title tune.

“Diggin’ in the moonlight, diggin’ in the sun,….Diggin’ in the ground till the diggin’ was done — Come over to God’s Little Acre, Come over to God’s Little Acre.”

It seems to promise something a lot lighter than any adaptation of Erskine Caldwell’s scandalous, salacious “Cracker Gothic” novel “God’s Little Acre,” could possibly be. Maybe that’s why it stuck with me, even if I never watched the rest of the movie, which first turned up on TV back in the ’70s.

It opens like “Lil’ Abner,” but crawls right into a hole of sex, sin, obsession, madness and murder. And I was plainly too young to “get it” way back when.

What Tennessee Williams was to the theater, Erskine Caldwell was to literature — a droll, drawling observer and savvy satirizer who leaned into Southern stereotypes entirely too much for my taste.

Williams was too genteel and courtly to really wallow in what I call “Cracker Gothic” — quaint, backward Southerness as a slur — although “The Fugitive Kind,” adapted from “Orpheus Descending,” “Baby Doll” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” certainly have a whiff of ridicule about them.

The Georgian Caldwell, most famous for “Tobacco Road” and “God’s Little Acre,” may have dabbled in religious superstition, class prejudice, labor oppression and racism as explanations for “backwardness” in his fiction. But whatever his intent, “mockery” is something that always slipped through on the screen.

Anthony Mann, best-known for his Westerns (“Winchester ’73”) and action pics (“The Heroes of Telemark”), dabbled in every film genre over the course of his career, with epics like “El Cid” and “The Fall of the Roman Empire” a hallmark of his later years. Here, he guides a stellar cast that hurls itself into accents, melodramatics and stereotypes in a story of fake piety and pointless poverty, sex, lust and sin in 1950s Georgia.

The plot, which plainly inspired Louis Sachar’s YA novel “Holes,” concerns a patriarch obsessed with treasure his grandaddy told him was buried on the family farm.

Robert Ryan is one of those Hollywood stalwarts who never gave a bad performance, and he brings a gusto and physicality to Ty Ty Walden, a would-be farmer too busy driving himself and two sons — played by Vic Morrow and Jack Lord –– to exhaustion and mania, digging deep holes all over their property, looking for the loot.

The handsome Buck (Lord, who went on to fame in “Hawaii 5-0”) is openly bitter about these circumstances, and given to unfiltered lashings of his beautiful young wife Griselda (Tina Louise, headed to “Gilligan’s Island”). Younger sibling Shaw (Morrow, soon to star in “Combat!” on TV) does what Daddy says and parrots whatever Buck blurts.

Griselda likes her dresses diaphanous and her sexual cards always on the table. Buck’s furious jealousy doesn’t phase her. She keeps her temptation in the family. Factory worker brother-in-law Will (Aldo Ray) has her attention, and Buck knows it.

Will is unhappily married to Walden daughter Rosamund (Helen Westcott), and out of work. And one of the many ways Hollywood watered-down the novel — sex, suggestions of incest, etc. — is playing down the fact that he’s a labor leader, an organizer of the strike that led the owners to close the local cotton (textile) mill. Will figures people “look up to him,” and when he’s drinking, he fumes about “turning the lights back on” in that just-closed mill, as if that alone will bring it and the “bankrupt” town back to life.

To Buck, Will’s just a “lousy lint-head.”

Ty Ty, who has Black hired hands (Rex Ingram and Davis Roberts) working the parts of the farm actually producing something, is sure that salvation will come from this buried treasure. He maintains a pious pose whose only real evidence of “faith” is the acre that he keeps a cross on, “God’s Little Acre,” land that he’s promised the Lord will be tithed to a church if anything of value comes out of that soil.

Ty Ty moves that “acre” cross marker any time he gets a notion that the treasure might actually be buried on God’s Little Acre. Piety and faith are flexible on this stretch of the Georgia/South Carolina state line, apparently.

Buddy Hackett plays a rotund oaf, Pluto, running for sheriff and desperate to marry the other sexpot under Ty Ty’s roof, his teasing, taunting daughter Darlin’ Jill (Fay Spain). Pluto rides around the county, allegedly canvassing votes in his white linen suit. But he’ll lay down on the dirt pile to jaw with digging Ty Ty when it comes to talking about Darlin’ Jill. His one suggestion? Find an albino, because they have “magical powers” when it comes to divining things hidden under the ground.

That’s how the patriarch and the boys come to kidnapping Dave (a pre-stardom Michael Landon) to help them with their search.

Whenever Ty Ty runs low on cash — there’s not much money in digging pointless holes all day — he and the others fantasize about hitting up the one son (Lance Fuller) who left the farm, moved to Augusta and made his way to a comfortable life as a cotton broker.

There’s little that’s subtle going on here, although Ryan, Louise, Lord and Landon deliver performances that pop.

Hackett is cartoonishly grating and Ray is brought in the give the picture a primitive blast of animal testosterone.

Strips of fly-paper dangle into the frame on shots around the table where water melon is discussed and savored. A bar is seen, from outside. The inhabitants of a New Orleans style brothel inject themselves into the proceedings.

Characters don’t so much argue as bray at one another. Because pretty much everybody hits their accents hard in that ancient Hollywood way of turning Southern speech into Elizabethan English. Ty Ty’s colloquialisms may be cute, but they’re as thick as molasses.

“Well dawg my cat!” “What in the pluperfect Hell!”

One and all never give a care into filtering their innermost thoughts of outermost lust.

“Darlin’ Jill, you in here. Stand up. Let me look at you in the light. Well, well, baby’s a full grown woman. Plump as a peach on a branch, ripe and ready to pluck!

Watching this 60+ year old film of an almost 90 year-old novel, I wondered if anyone still reads Caldwell or visits the little museum dedicated to him in the sleepy Georgia hamlet where he was born. You never hear him mentioned in the same breath as Faulkner, Harper Lee, Capote, Zora, Flannery, James Dickey, Cormac McCarthy or Pat Conroy.

The subtexts Caldwell wrote about — Southern “indentured servitude,” the reluctance to challenge the patriarchy via labor organizing, the constant Protestant religious lip service and superstition that public education is never allowed to fix (the REAL “critical race theory” is what rich white folks don’t want working class white folks to learn about) — are in the movie and still in Southern life, if you’d care to see them. The film almost buries Big Ideas under its Original Sin fixation, because sex sells.

Whatever the literary merits of “God’s Little Acre,” the film (a Blacklisted screenwriter had a hand in it) pulls too many punches and lacks the dramatic subtext of Tennessee Williams’ works. It feels quaint, dated and cartoonish, so much so that seeing just how much Robert Ryan could commit to a part and how terribly confining a hit sitcom was to the gifted Tina Louise isn’t reason enough to sit through it.

And the fact that for all its sex and sordid goings on, no streamer or cable channel has seen fit to remake under “uncensored” conditions is further damning, a book whose time passed and a movie that had no prayer of having its moment, much less outlasting it.

Rating: General audiences, pretty racy for its time

Cast: Robert Ryan, Tina Louise, Aldo Ray, Jack Lord, Vic Morrow, Fay Spain, Buddy Hackett, Rex Ingram, Helen Westcott, Lance Fuller and Michael Landon.

Credits: Directed by Anthony Mann, scripted by Philip Yordan and Ben Maddow, based on the novel by Erskine Caldwell. A United Artists release on Tubi, Amazon and other streaming platforms.

Running time: 1:58

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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