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The following information about this production comes from the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department, located at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, a January 14, 1941 studio press release and Hollywood Reporter news items: Several studios expressed interest in acquiring the rights to Jack Kirkland's play and Erskine Caldwell's novel, both of which were popular, but also very controversial. On December 5, 1933, the night after its New York City opening, the play was attended by a PCA official, who reported, "this play contains about everything which would make it very objectionable as a motion picture." RKO, which May have been the first studio to acquire an option on the properties, was discouraged by the PCA from pursuing the project. According to a March 3, 1940 New York Times news item, RKO had intended to purchase the play for Charles Laughton, who was to play "Jeeter." In 1939, Republic was informed by PCA official Joseph I. Breen: "The material, in our judgment, is definitely and specifically in violation of the Production Code and is, likewise, enormously dangerous from the standpoint of political censorship." Columbia was advised in March 1940 that the title Tobacco Road was on a list of banned titles because the play was "consistently considered unsuitable material." Warner Bros. also was interested in the properties and entered into negotiations with Kirkland, but apparently was discouraged by the PCA's intimation that the title would not be available for use.
By July 1940, Twentieth Century-Fox had intensified its efforts to acquire the screen rights and was concerned that a film based on the play would be banned in England, as the play had been. According to an August 18, 1940 New York Times article, Twentieth Century-Fox's purchase of the play ended "seven months of bidding for the property, in which RKO was the chief competitor." The article speculated that the studio's success with The Grapes of Wrath "influenced the Hays office to sanction the purchase," and that it was "possible that Henry Hull, who created the role of Jeeter Lester on Broadway, [would] be borrowed from [M-G-M] to play the role on the screen." On October 13, 1940, New York Times reported that Hull, Walter Brennan and "even" Henry Fonda were under consideration for the role of "Jeeter," and on October 30, 1940, Hollywood Reporter stated that the picture was "slated for" Fonda. The studio settled the acquisition on November 7, 1940, and agreed to pay Kirkland $150,000 against a percentage of the gross receipts.
In discussing a November 6, 1940 temporary script submitted by the studio, Breen warned that "many religious folk throughout the nation May be offended by the religious aspects." Breen advised the studio to "secure the counsel of an intelligent Protestant clergyman as to the likely reception of the picture, as now drafted, among church-going folks generally," and also cautioned against portraying the relationship between "Lov" and "Ellie May" as overtly sexual. While casting was in progress, which included testing Fred Stone for "one of the top roles," according to an October 1940 Hollywood Reporter news item, the PCA continued to evaluate the submitted screenplays. In late November 1940, Francis S. Harmon, a PCA official from the South, who had written extensively on religious matters, wrote a memo to Breen outlining his concerns about the potential impact of the film's treatment of religion. Harmon concluded: "Most serious is the fact that the laughter in the theatres [provoked by the extreme religiosity of the characters] will give point to the charge that a Hollywood 'filled with Godless sophisticates,' 'foreigners,' and 'Jews' is capitalizing this opportunity to make fun of all religion and by disgusting moviegoers with this screen exposition of an admittedly superficial, highly emotionalized type of religion, is doing a disservice to all religion."
In order to avoid any pre-judgment of the film's screenplay, the studio decided to film on location at Sherwood Forest, CA, rather than in Augusta, GA, as had been originally planned. The "poor farm" sequences were shot on location at Encino, CA. Marjorie Rambeau was borrowed from M-G-M for the production. Although a January 9, 1941 studio billing sheet includes Charles Waldron (Mr. Lester) and Charles Trowbridge (Rector) in the cast, they appeared only in a sequence that was cut from the film, in which "Jeeter" requests help from his son "Tom." The Variety review listed the film's running time as 91 minutes, but this length is probably an error.
Upon its release, the film encountered very few censorship problems, apart from being banned entirely in Australia for unspecified reasons, and was successful at the box office despite mixed reviews. A March 6, 1941 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that the play's controversial nature May have helped the film in the end: "Tobacco Road is getting away to a big start in New England as a result of the wide open exploitation possibilities offered by the censorship situation here. All the New England censor boards passed the picture but, by contrast, the stage play was banned throughout this part of the country except in four cities. As a result, the exhibitors are capitalizing plenty on the chance to see the film version of the long-barred play." According to the legal records, the film had grossed almost $1,900,000 by 1973.