Tobacco Road (1941): John Ford’s Compromised Version of Tougher Novel and Play

John Ford directed Tobacco Road, the controversial film starring Charley Grapewin, Marjorie Rambeau, Gene Tierney, William Tracy, Dana Andrews and Ward Bond.

Tobacco Road
Poster - Tobacco Road.jpg

Theatrical release poster

Nunnally Johnson’s script was based on the 1932 novel by Erskine Caldwell and the 1933 Broadway play that Jack Kirkland adapted from the novel.

In depicting poor whites who are turned off their land, The movie softened the rough edges and the harsh characters.

Thus, Jeeter Lester was transformed from a greedy barnyard animal to a seedy but serious mainstay of tradition.

The novel’s values were inverted to the point where individualism and dignity became the main ideas.

The characters were not meant to be taken too seriously, as Ford’s used an unusual comic tone that made them “unreal” and “too theatrical” by his own standards.

The stage play had contained sexual ideas that had to be repressed in the movie version.

RKO Pictures and Warner Bros. considered buying the rights, but were discouraged from doing so. Eventually, 20th Century Fox gained the rights in August 1940, with RKO as its main competitor. Fox won due to the success of The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Erskine Caldwell and Jack Kirkland were reluctant to sell the rights unless the film “would be picturized honestly and fearlessly.”

John Ford noted: “We have no dirt in the picture. We’ve eliminated the horrible details and what we’ve got left is a nice dramatic story. It’s a tear-jerker, with some comedy relief. What we’re aiming at is to have the customers sympathize with our people and not feel disgusted.”

Ford insisted that Charley Grapewin be cast as Jeeter, after their previous collaboration on The Grapes of Wrath.

To portray Dude, William Tracy had to diet and lose teeth.

Shooting was initially set on location in Georgia, but to avoid controversy, the studio decided to shoot it on closed sets. To further prevent banning of the film, there was no publicity.

The stage version was still running on Broadway at the time of the film’s release.

Despite the studio’s concerns, the film was only banned in Australia.

Although the film received mixed reviews, it was successful at the box office.

Charley Grapewin as Jeeter Lester
Marjorie Rambeau as Sister Bessie Rice
Gene Tierney as Ellie May Lester
William Tracy as Dude Lester
Elizabeth Patterson as Ada Lester
Dana Andrews as Capt. Tim Harmon
Ward Bond as Lov Bensey
Slim Summerville as Henry Peabody
Grant Mitchell as George Payne
Zeffie Tilbury as Grandma Lester