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When France fell to the Germans in 1940, director Jean Renoir escaped Paris and went to the unoccupied southern region of the country to Cagnes-sur-Mer, and the house where his father, the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir had lived and worked until his death in 1919. While there, he was approached by the Nazis about becoming head of all new French film productions. Knowing that this really meant collaborating with the Nazis, he managed to sneak out of the country before giving an answer. He made his way to America where he was invited to make films in Hollywood at Fox and RKO. The experience was not a good one. As essentially an independent filmmaker in France, he was not used to the rigorously regimented studio system in which a director takes second place to the producer, and all decisions have to go through a myriad of channels. Later, he would write to his nephew, the cinematographer Claude Renoir, "The only work which fully satisfied me here was The Southerner ".
It is not surprising that Renoir felt more in his element while making The Southerner, as it was an independent production and a collaboration with producers David Loew and Robert Hakim. The film was released by United Artists, the releasing company originally formed by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and D.W. Griffith, as a way of retaining control over their work.
The original working title of the film was Hold Autumn in Your Hand, based on George Sessions Perry's 1941 novel of the same name, that producer Hakim had brought to Renoir's attention. In his autobiography, My Life and My Films Renoir wrote, "What attracted me to the story was precisely the fact that there was no story, nothing but a series of strong impressions -- the vast landscape, the simple aspiration of the hero, the heat and the hunger. Being forced to live a life restricted to their daily material needs, the characters attain a level of spirituality of which they themselves are unaware... What I saw was a story in which all the characters were heroic, in which every element would brilliantly play its part, in which things and men, animals and Nature, all would come together in an immense act of homage to the divinity."
Joel McCrea was approached for the leading role but dropped out, unhappy with the script which was written by Hugo Butler and Renoir, with William Faulkner and Nunnally Johnson uncredited. Other actors were being courted, as Renoir's best friend, screenwriter Dudley Nichols, wrote in a letter to Renoir: "Incidentally, [Gregory] Peck, when I talked with him the other night, spoke about your farmer script. Evidently he has been approached in case they cannot get Joel McCrea. Perhaps that means there is some hitch about getting Joel. Might be worth your inquiring. I know you would be happy with Peck. He is fine....Peck said he had read the novel, not the script, and liked it very much." The role of the sharecropper who battles the earth to raise his crop went to Zachary Scott, who had been typecast in suave, sophisticated roles, but in real-life came from Texas and was very familiar with farm life. Casting against type was practically a Renoir trademark. In this instance, it would earn Scott some of the best reviews of his career, but sadly did not make his home studio, Warner Brothers, give him more varied roles.
After production wrapped, Renoir wrote to producer David L. Loew on February 17 1945, that the film had been well received by the French journalists he screened it for - and the projectionist. "The projectionist of RCA told him it was the first time, since long ago, he was looking at a picture through his little window. Usually he just reads a magazine. But his wife, who was waiting for him, told him in the middle of the first reel that the picture didn't look like the other ones he is used to project[ing], and he said he was so much attracted by the story he simply couldn't go back to his magazine during the whole show. If we have many people thinking this way, maybe the picture will be more commercial than one expects. I believe the publicity will play a big part in its destiny. If we attract the public inside the theatre the fight is won. The problem is how to attract it. That is why the title is also so important. With Down by the River [another working title] I think you have a good one." The final title of the film may have helped earn it the distinction of being banned in Tennessee and boycotted by the KKK for its depiction of the South.
Critics praised The Southerner, on its release on April 30, 1945, particularly The New York Times' critic Bosley Crowther, who called it "A rich, unusual and sensitive delineation of a segment of the American scene well worth filming and seeing."
Jean Renoir was nominated for Best Director, Werner Janssen for Best Music Scoring, and Jack Whitney for Best Sound. The Southerner would win Best Film at the Venice Film Festival in 1946.
Producer: Robert Hakim, David L. Loew, Samuel Rheiner
Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Hugo Butler, Jean Renoir, George Sessions Perry (novel)
Cinematography: Lucien Andriot
Film Editing: Gregg C. Tallas
Art Direction: Eugene Lourie
Music: Werner Janssen
Cast: Zachary Scott (Sam Tucker), Betty Field (Nona Tucker), J. Carrol Naish (Devers), Beulah Bondi (Granny Tucker), Percy Kilbride (Harmie), Charles Kemper (Tim).
by Lorraine LoBianco
Letters - Jean Renoir edited by Lorraine LoBianco and David Thompson
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