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The working titles of this film were Hold Autumn in Your Hand and Tuckers of Texas. An unidentified contemporary item included in the production file on the film in the AMPAS Library notes that the title of George Perry Sessions' novel was dropped as the film's title after a Gallup poll indicated that it created a misleading impression, or no impression at all. According to translated letters of director/writer Jean Renoir, as reproduced in a modern source, Down by the River was also suggested as a possible title for the picture. Renoir's second onscreen credit reads: "Direction and screenplay by Jean Renoir." The film opens with a brief offscreen narration spoken by Charles Kemper as the character "Tim."
According to modern sources, when first approached about directing the picture, Renoir read Hugo Butler's adaptation and rejected it. With the help of his secretary, Paula Walling, he then rewrote the script based on his own interpretation of the novel. Walling is credited onscreen as dialogue director. Modern sources also claim that Nunnally Johnson, William Faulkner and perhaps John Huston contributed to the script. Faulkner became involved in the project after star Zachary Scott introduced him to Renoir, according to modern sources. Faulkner, who was under contract at Warner Bros. at the time, reportedly reworked the dialogue for the scene in which the "Tuckers" light the stove in their new house for the first time, and contributed to the scene in which "Sam" catches "Lead Pencil."
Hollywood Reporter news items add the following information about the production: Joel McCrea and his wife, Frances Dee, were first cast in the lead roles, but were replaced at the start of principal photography by Scott and Betty Field because of creative differences between McCrea and Renoir. Scott, who himself was reared on a Southern farm, was borrowed from Warner Bros. for the production. According to modern sources, after McCrea and Dee left the production, United Artists wanted to pull out of its distribution deal with Loew-Hakim, until David Loew threatened to withdraw UA's right to distribute his other pictures. Much of the film was shot on various location in California, including the Arthur Ranch in the San Fernando Valley, the RKO ranch near Encino, Malibu, the banks of the San Joaquin River, and cotton fields near the town of Madera, twenty-five miles out of Fresno. Renoir noted in his autobiography that he had originally planned to shoot the picture in Texas, but was forced to stay in California because of wartime demands on transportation. Renoir added that because the cotton fields near Madera were owned by members of a conservative Russian sect that prohibited reproduction of the human face, the film company was compelled to purchase the land temporarily to avoid any conflicts. A December 1945 Hollywood Reporter news item notes that the Jester Hairston Chorus was hired for post-production recording. Hollywood Reporter news items add Grace Christy, Wheaton Chambers, Anne Cornwall and Sy Jenks to the cast, but their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. Although some reviews list Bunny Sunshine in the role of "Daisy," Jean Vanderwilt is credited onscreen. Modern sources credit Rex in the role of "Zoonie," the Tuckers' dog.
The film received mostly favorable reviews. New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther commented: "The Southerner May not be an 'entertainment' in the rigid Hollywood sense and it May have some flaws, but it is, nevertheless, a rich, unusual and sensitive delineation of a segment of the American scene well worth filming and seeing." The Variety reviewer, however, complained that the picture "may be trenchant realism, but these are times when there is a greater need. Escapism is the word." In early August 1945, Lloyd T. Binford, the chairman of the Board of Censors for Memphis, TN, banned the film because he felt it was a slur against Southern farmers. In response, Loew hired a lawyer to test the legality of Binford's ban, but the outcome of his actions is not known. Washington, D.C.'s Evening Star reviewer defended the film by noting that, as depicted, the sharecroppers' "plight is...the Nation's shame, not a sectional one," but added that the picture "cannot stand as a social document or a cinema of high dramatic integrity."
As noted in his autobiography and letters, Renoir considered The Southerner one of his most satisfying American films. The picture received three Academy Award nominations: Best Direction, Best Music (Scoring, Dramatic or Comedy Picture) and Best Sound Recording (Jack Whitney). The National Board of Review rated the picture the third best of 1945 and voted Renoir as best director. The film also won the best picture award at the 1946 Venice Biennale.