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The most melodramatic scene of Ruby Gentry (1952) takes place in a North Carolina swamp, where the eponymous heroine and her on-and-off boyfriend have to slog through mud and water in a messy struggle to survive. That's almost how Jennifer Jones, who plays that heroine, might have felt in 1952, when her stardom was truly on the line.
Under her real name, Phylis Isley, she had started her career in B movies (New Frontier , Dick Tracy's G-Men ) at Republic Pictures during the late 1930s, and just a few years later (under her Hollywood name) she was at Twentieth Century-Fox making The Song of Bernadette, which brought her the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Actress of 1943. Her next picture, the 1944 drama Since You Went Away, was written and produced by David O. Selznick, who wooed her away from her husband, Robert Walker, a costar of Since You Went Away and later the memorable villain of Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 classic Strangers on a Train. Selznick made Jones his protégé, using his clout to land her the role of Bernadette and casting her in subsequent parts that extended her Oscar® nomination streak for three more consecutive years for her supporting role in Since You Went Away and then for her starring performances in the 1945 mystery Love Letters (1945) and the 1946 western Duel in the Sun. Jones was the last of four actresses whose initial success has been attributed to Selznick's influence; the others are Katharine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, and Joan Fontaine.
No star or producer is infallible, though, and Jones fell into a slump after Duel in the Sun, along with Selznick, who had produced and cowritten the epic western. Pictures such as Portrait of Jennie (1948), Madame Bovary (1949), and Carrie (1952) were received less enthusiastically than Jones's earlier films, and she had every reason to think twice when Ruby Gentry came her way. She badly needed a hit, but this project bore a suspicious resemblance to Duel in the Sun, which had put her in the Oscar® race but had almost sunk Selznick's career by chewing up vast quantities of money and turning only a slender, belated profit. Like the Mexican-American vixen Jones played in the 1946 film, Ruby Gentry is a spirited youngster from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, sent by her poor and troubled family to be raised in a more privileged household. Also like the earlier character, Ruby runs into complications with two men, one much older than herself, the other a hell-raising hunk who's very much on her wavelength.
On top of these similarities, Ruby Gentry was to be directed by King Vidor, who had directed Duel in the Sun or at least gotten screen credit for directing it, even though half a dozen others (including Selznick himself) had supervised parts of it during the drawn-out production process. Jones decided that the box-office potential of Ruby Gentry was too great to ignore, however, and signed on to the project, hoping she wouldn't be criticized for simply repeating herself. The picture scored a major hit with moviegoers, and while it didn't permanently revitalize Jones's career, its popularity smoothed the path to her starring role in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955) and her fourth Oscar® nomination three years later. Writing about Ruby Gentry long after its release, critic Richard Lippe accurately noted that her unique brand of "sensuality," combining broad physicality with psychological complexity, is central to the film's artistic success.
As things turned out, Ruby Gentry didn't emerge as an identical twin to Duel in the Sun, thanks to a tighter screenplay, leaner production values, and a cast that boasts fewer big stars but a lot of first-rate talent. Karl Malden, one of the most gifted character actors of his day, plays Jim Gentry, the wealthy man who gives teenage Ruby a stable home when her backwoods family finds her too wild to handle. Jim understands the challenges of being an outsider to polite society, since he came from humble origins himself, and when his sickly wife finally dies he proposes to Ruby without delay. But she's been playing cat and mouse with great-looking Boake Tackman, played by great-looking Charlton Heston, since the beginning of the movie, and it's unlikely they'll forget each other even if she marries Jim and Boake marries the society girl his family wants him to wed. Then surprising events cause radical changes in Ruby's situation, including her relationship to Boake, leading to the swampy climax in which Ruby's nutty brother, a puritanical religious fanatic played by James Anderson, makes a decisive difference. The finale is bittersweet and haunting.
As both director and coproducer of the film, Vidor was able to bring in Silvia Richards's screenplay at a concentrated running time of 82 minutes (the road-show version of Duel in the Sun was more than an hour longer) and to take full advantage of Russell Harlan's black-and-white camera skills, which convey an underlying grittiness at least as well as the western's Technicolor photography did. The film's depiction of Southern life is closer to a rough sketch than a detailed portrait its location shooting was done in California, some of it at Vidor's ranch so it's ironic that Joan Fontaine apparently turned down the picture because she felt insecure about her Southern accent, whereas Jones worked on hers for weeks, according to Fox publicity, traveling to North Carolina with the filmmakers when they went there to photograph background shots. An asset of Ruby Gentry that's familiar even to people who haven't seen the picture is Heinz Roemheld's music, built on the moody melody that became a huge hit (with the addition of Mitchell Parish's lyrics) for Ray Charles as the simply titled "Ruby."
A review in The New York Times, signed A.W., said Ruby Gentry purveys "pure, old-fashioned passion, corny and uncut, and she doesn't care who knows it." Getting at the film's deeper significance, though, the critic praised Vidor for using the Southern-set story to reveal a "prevalent caste system whose mellifluous accents cannot hide its implacable differences." Vidor made an admirable number of socially conscious films, from The Crowd (1928) and Our Daily Bread (1934) to Stella Dallas (1937) and War and Peace (1956), and Ruby Gentry belongs on the list as well. For all its corn and passion, it shows genuine concern about important issues like small-mindedness, injustice, and the ignorance that allows those ills to flourish. It's a movie to think about as well as to enjoy.
Director: King Vidor
Producers: Joseph Bernhard, King Vidor
Screenplay: Silvia Richards
Cinematographer: Russell Harlan
Film Editing: Terry Morse
Art Direction: Dan Hall
Music: Heinz Roemheld
With: Jennifer Jones (Ruby Gentry), Charlton Heston (Boake Tackman), Karl Malden (Jim Gentry), Tom Tully (Jud Corey), Bernard Phillips (Dr. Saul Manfred), James Anderson (Jewel Corey), Josephine Hutchinson (Letitia Gentry), Phyllis Avery (Tracy McAuliffe), Herbert Heyes (Judge Tackman), Myra Marsh (Ma Corey), Charles Cane (Cullen McAuliffe), Sam Flint (Neil Fallgren), Frank Wilcox (Clyde Pratt).br> BW-82m.
by David Sterritt