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Set in Georgia amidst the wild and woolly Walden clan, God's Little Acre (1958) tells the story of a farmer patriarch Ty Ty Walden (Robert Ryan) obsessed with the idea that there is gold buried by his grandfather on the family farm. The only spot untouched by Ty Ty's shovel, "God's Little Acre" is set aside as a tithe for the church. But that acre tends to move around, depending upon where Ty Ty wants to dig. When director Anthony Mann's film opens, Ty Ty and his two sons Buck Walden (Jack Lord) and Shaw Walden (Vic Morrow) are deep within one of the pits that litter the Walden farm after 15 years of digging for their fortune. Ty Ty has allowed his land to grow fallow, much to the amazement of his black farm hand Uncle Felix (Rex Ingram) who reminds him that all the effort he is putting into his endless treasure hunt could yield greater rewards if he'd farm the land.
Ty Ty is occasionally distracted in his big dig by strange notions - including the certainty that an albino named Dave Dawson (Michael Landon) will help him locate the treasure more quickly. Equally distracting is an even stranger cast of local characters including a buffoonish ice cream truck driver running for sheriff, Pluto Swint (Buddy Hackett), who longs to marry Ty Ty's provocative, mischievous daughter Darlin' Jill (Fay Spain). Ty Ty's complicated family relationships also conspire to distract him from his goal, such as the tempestuous marriage of the beautiful Griselda (Tina Louise) to his son Buck, who believes Griselda still carries a torch for her former beau and Ty Ty's son-in-law Will Thompson (Aldo Ray). While the Waldens dig away in rural Georgia, in town Will-the hard-drinking husband of Ty Ty's daughter Rosamund (Helen Westcott)-is similarly possessed by another quest: to reopen the shuttered cotton mill which once employed a good percentage of the town.
Despite a sense of absurdity that confirms every stereotype about scheme-crazy, sex-crazed Southerners, God's Little Acre endures as a capsule of its time and a rousing entertainment to boot. Nominated for a Golden Lion at the 1958 Venice Film Festival, God's Little Acre is often remembered as the film debut of Tina Louise and for its stand-out performance by Robert Ryan as the crazed Southern farmer. "He makes a rough-hewn but memorable figure," noted a positive review the year of its release in The New York Times. Anthony Mann, according to Jean Basinger's biography of the director, considered the film, alongside Winchester '73 (1950), El Cid (1961) and Men in War (1957), one of his favorite films, despite never achieving great box office success.
Though the film's sexual content in some ways diverged from Mann's overtly masculine film oeuvre, Basinger found the representation of Ty Ty as a father engaged in a complicated relationship with both the landscape and his sons and daughters, as more typically Mann. Basinger also saw in the roles of Rosamund and Griselda, in love with the same man, another characteristic authorial flourish, "they represent a female variation on Mann's idea of opposite characters linked by some common interest or shared emotion."
The film was based on Erskine Caldwell's sensational best-selling novel whose sexual content resulted in the book's being banned from many book stores upon its release in 1933. The New York Society of Suppression of Vice even filed a complaint against the film, which was dismissed by the New York City magistrate.
The film script itself was initially rejected by the PCA for its sexual content: the affair between Will Thompson and Griselda, the description of Shaw's sexual activity and Jim Leslie's sexual attentions to Griselda while his wife was ill. Jim Leslie's role in the novel and a far more downbeat ending also in Caldwell's original, were removed to meet with PCA approval. In fact, notes Basinger, the novel was chosen for adaptation "to cater to the preoccupation with sex and explosive emotions of the audience of the 1950s." Oftentimes, filmmakers chose the lower classes or a geographically remote setting to treat sexuality, as Basinger notes, "the vicarious enjoyment of throwing off middle-class manners and correct behavior was best approached through a distanced setting, both geographically and socially."
Actual Southerners were less pleased with the prospect of the film shooting in Atlanta, where Mann and producer Sidney Harmon initially scouted locations. Denied the right to shoot in Georgia, the film ended up being lensed outside of Stockton, CA. Anticipating a negative response to the film, Mann spent an additional $75,000 shooting alternate scenes for exhibition below the Mason Dixon line, including scenes involving Southern womanhood, politics and unemployment meant to appease Southern viewers. In truth, the film was critically well-received. Daily Variety described God's Little Acre as "a ripe Georgia peach, bursting with earthy vigor." The New York Times said of Caldwell's "primitive, ribald Georgia rustics," that they emerged "impressively alive and full of sex, vitality and bucolic humor. Although they still are as far from the country-club set as possible, the denizens of God's Little Acre have been treated with dignity and intelligence in a folk comedy that is actually funny, realistic and rarely a lampoon."
Director: Anthony Mann
Producer: Sidney Harmon
Screenplay: Philip Yordan based on the novel by Erskine Caldwell
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Production Design: Jack Poplin
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Ty Ty Walden (Robert Ryan), Bill Thompson (Aldo Ray), Griselda (Tina Louise), Pluto (Buddy Hackett), Buck Walden (Jack Lord), Darlin' Jill (Fay Spain), Shaw Walden (Vic Morrow), Rosamund (Helen Westcott), Jim Leslie (Lance Fuller), Uncle Felix (Rex Ingram), Dave Dawson (Michael Landon).
by Felicia Feaster