Southerner, The (1945): Jean Renoir’s Oscar Nominated Film (Strangers in Paradise)

One of the best films about the rural South was The Southerner, directed by the noted French filmmaker, Jean Renoir. As an outsider, during the time he was in Hollywood in exile,

Renoir showed the other, more realistic, side of country life. Swamp Water (1941), his first American film, set in the Okenfenokee swamps, featured striking cinematography and interesting ambience, but it was marred by a weak story and even weaker performance by Walter Brennan (miscast as a fugitive).

The Southerner was a better film, narratively and stylistically, winning Renoir his first (and only) Academy nomination as Best Director. The lyrical realism of this film, shot entirely on location, and its meticulous attention to detail, startled critics and audiences at the time. One critic wrote that the film makes “an interesting departure from the grove of Hollywood pictures,” and another stated that “it may not be entertaining in the rigid Hollywood sense.”

A tribute to the staunch farmer, this grim film chronicles the plight of poor white sharecroppers, fighting storms, pellagra, and other disasters. Lacking dramatic focus, the film consists of 22 episodes in the life of a farming family: Sam Tucker (Zachary Scott), his tireless wife Nona (Betty Field), their two children, and the acidulous Granny (Beulah Bondi). The narrative follows the Tucker’s struggle to work the land in the face of immense adversities: poverty, diseases, bad weather, imminent threats to foreclose the farm, and unfriendly neighbors. It begins with an off-screen narration, repeating the message of Young Mr. Lincoln and Sergeant York: “When old Sam gets an idea in that hard head of his, there ain’t no room for nothin’ else.”

A hymn to the human spirit, which may despair but never fails, this film’s beauty is in its portrayal of daily survival: plowing the land, planting the seeds, milking the cow, building shacks, mending clothes, fixing dinner, etc. The Southerner deviates from most rural films of the decade in its reversal of conventions and stereotypes. Unlike York, it refrains from sentimentalizing farmers. For example, the “villain” is not a City person (usually a banker), but a farmer, Devers (J. Carol Naish), the embittered neighbor, who can’t stand Sam’s pride and determination to succeed. When Sam goes to Devers to ask for milk for his sick child, he is not only rejected, but Devers viciously dumps gallons of milk. “I had old fashioned ideas about neighborliness,” says the disenchanted Sam.

However, the film avoids easy judgments, using Devers’s past as an explanation for his behavior: “The first year, my whole crop was ruined by the hail. The second year, the hoof ‘n mouth took my cow and pig. My woman caught cold and died. Two years later, one of my kids died from spring sickness. Mebe I lost ’em both, cause I didn’t have no money for doctorin.'” Nasty competition, not collaboration, is the pattern: Devers can’t wait for Sam to fail to buy out his land. Finley (Norman Lloyd), another farm worker, is also depicted as vindictive and stupid. By contrast, the City fellow, Tim (Charles Kemper), a close friend of the family (and the film’s narrator), is more sympathetic than the country folks.

The film’s central piece is a devastating spectacle of a storm, never before depicted so accurately and graphically. The cotten, on both sides of the road, is flattened by the wind and the rain, the road transforms into mud, and the house leans over precariously; part of its roof is off. Desolation is everywhere: trees, parts of the house, and debris are carried down the current. Sam is trying–in vain–to keep the cow, “Uncle Walter,” from being swept away by the current. In such weak moments, Sam, as other screen farmers, considers quitting. “I gave ’em everything I had to give, honest,” he says angrily, “and what do they give me back Nothin’, nothin’ but trouble and misery.” “I’d be crazy to stick any longer,” he says, “A feller ought to know when he’s beat.”

Granny is not the supportive type of a Mother Earth, in the mold of Ma Joad or Mother York in “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Sergeant York,” respectively. Acidulous and irascible, she charges Sam with being “a mean criminal.” She wants to quit: “I’m takin’ this weary ol’ body d’rect to the cemetry…don’t even have a decent place to sit ‘n wait for my call to glory.” But the indomitable Nona who keeps the family together. “A time like this, folks gotta stick t’gether,” she says, threatening Granny with a stick, “ya’ll stay right here with the rest o’ us.”

The Southerner shows Nature, physical and human, in its most complex and contradictory facets. As a force, Nature can be destructive as well as regenerative and healing. The film also shows the dialectical relationship between faith and failure, optimism and pessimism in equal measures, an uncharacteristic balance in American farm movies. The last episode, in which the Tuckers reassess their land after a violent storm, is far from a conventional, reassuring ending. Sam regains his faith: “Now that my clothes is startin’ to dry, I’m beginnin’ to b’lieve again.” “I knowed it all ‘long,” says Tim, “that you’d never leave here. Man, if there was only one farmer left on this here earth, that’s be you!” Full of resolve and eager to get started, Sam says in the film’s last sentence: “Spring’s gonna come a little early this year. I reckon we kin start our seedin’ even before the Twin Days.”

Hitching up the mules to the plow, with Sam in the back and Nona up ahead, the Tuckers begin once again to work the devastated fields. But, there is good reason to believe that the nasty side of nature will strike again.