Cast & Crew
J. Carrol Naish
As veteran picker Pete Tucker lays dying from heat stroke in a Texas cotton field, he urges his young nephew, Sam Tucker, a fellow picker, to find his own land to work. Sam takes Pete's advice to heart and, after discussing the matter with wife Nona, asks his boss, Ruston, for permission to rent a piece of his land that has been idle for several years. Equipped with only two mules and some cotton seed, Sam, Nona, their children, Jot and Daisy, and Sam's cantankerous grandmother move their meager belongings to Ruston's farm. The Tuckers are dismayed to discover that the farm house is small and barely livable and the water well, non-functional. Although Sam immediately offers to return to his old job, Nona concludes that if they can borrow some water from their neighbor, they can survive until spring. When Sam asks neighbor Devers for access to his well, Devers, a cynical, embittered man, grants it grudgingly and lets Sam know that his chances for success are slim. As autumn turns to winter, the Tuckers battle cold and hunger. Because she has no coat, Daisy is forced to stay home from school, until Sam insists that Granny sacrifice half of her wool blanket so that Nona can make Daisy a little coat. Then, after weeks of fruitless hunting, Sam finds an opossum to shoot, and the family enjoys a much-needed meaty dinner. Later, Sam and Nona work together to plow the overgrown fields and, in the spring, plant their seed in the fertile, muddy ground. At the same time, however, Jot contracts "spring sickness," or pellagra, because they have no milk or vegetables. Distressed by Jot's quickly deteriorating health, Nona takes him into town to see Doc White, who informs her that unless Jot is fed milk and vegetables, he will die. Sam asks general store owner W. Harmie, his widowed mother's suitor, to extend him some credit, but Harmie refuses. When Sam confides his problem to his best friend Tim, the citified Tim offers to get Sam a high-paying job at the same factory where he works. Sam is tempted, but finally refuses, explaining that only by working his own land can he call himself a free man. Jot's condition continues to worsen and, out of desperation, Sam goes to Devers for help. Although Devers has plenty of milk, he spitefully refuses to give Sam any. Devers' daughter Becky tries to sneak some milk to Sam, but Finley, Devers' cruel, slow-witted nephew, stops her. Sam returns home to find Nona crying from fear and exhaustion, and prays to God for guidance. Soon after, Harmie presents the Tuckers with a cow, and Jot is saved. The cotton then sprouts and the Tuckers plant a vegetable garden. One morning, however, Sam and Nona see Devers' pigs and cow trampling through their garden and conclude that Finley, at Devers' behest, herded them there. When Sam storms over to Devers' place and confronts him, Devers admits to wanting to ruin Sam, because he has plans to buy Ruston's land. Devers, whose wife and son died during his own lean sharecropping years, also admits that he resents Sam's unabashed determination and resourcefulness. The two men fight, and during the struggle, Devers tries to stab Sam. With help from Becky, Sam finally beats his rival and leaves, but Devers goes after him with his gun. Devers finds Sam at the river, fishing for Lead Pencil, an enormous catfish that Devers has been trying to catch for years. Momentarily forgetting his anger, Devers helps Sam snag the big fish and agrees to give the Tuckers his garden, in exchange for the fish and bragging rights. Later, as the cotton nears harvest time, Harmie and Mama Tucker marry. Their wedding is an especially sweet celebration for the Tuckers, as Jot is fully recovered, Daisy is excelling at school, and the crop is promising a good yield. Joy is soon replaced by sorrow, however, when a vicious thunderstorm ruins the cotton and almost destroys their house. After rescuing the cow from the flooded river and saving Tim from drowning, Sam, tired and discouraged, announces to his friend that he is quitting the farm. As soon as Sam sees Nona and Granny cleaning up the house with determined smiles, however, he changes his mind. Then, buoyed by the promise of spring, the Tuckers return to plow their land once more.
J. Carrol Naish
Joe C. Gilpin
David L. Loew
Gregg G. Tallas
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
The Internet Movie Database
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.