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The Southerner

by Peter Bogdanovich
January 18, 2011 4:02 AM
9 Comments
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Orson Welles and I were talking one time about the relative merits of John Ford and Howard Hawks at their best, and finally Welles summed it up: “Hawks is great prose; Ford is poetry.” There haven’t really been very many poets in pictures, but the one pretty much everybody agrees about now is the Frenchman Jean Renoir. He was also Orson’s favorite director--as he is mine--and Ford was so impressed by Renoir’s Grand Illusion (l937) that he wanted to remake it in English. Luckily, studio-head Darryl Zanuck told him to forget it; he would “just fuck it up.”

To define poetry in the movies, take a look at any one of Renoir’s numerous brilliant pictures, from the 1930’s Boudu Saved from Drowning, La Bete Humaine, A Day in the Country, The Crime of Mr. Lange, or The Rules of the Game through his glorious 1950’s The River, French Cancan, Elena and Her Men and The Golden Coach. From his earliest silents in 1925 through his final work, The Little Theatre of Jean Renoir in 1969, Renoir’s films were, for those who really knew cinema, on the very highest level of achievement. Nobody made better pictures.

What distinguishes the real film poets is their use of the camera to convey meanings and reverberations beyond the geography of place or the needs of the narrative. Camera placement, and therefore the composition, the lens choices, the lighting of the image, the camera’s movement, the particular juxtaposition of images, are all in the grammar for conveying hidden aspects of the tale or people—-exposing a part of the theme, or the true meaning beyond simply the plot—-endorsing, subverting, enriching the more obvious qualities of setting or performance. This is why the finest filmmakers are generally always remembered for certain of their unique and personal images. Among the other poets, D.W. Griffith comes to mind, and F.W. Murnau, Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg, King Vidor, John Ford, Kenji Mizoguchi, Robert Flaherty, and Orson Welles.

During 1944, the last full year of World War II, Renoir was making his third of five American pictures, The Southerner (available on DVD). It was to be his only success of the five, and is generally considered the best of his U.S. work (though all of it is at least interesting). Renoir had left France in 1939, not because of the impending war, but because his amazing Rules of the Game (now considered one of the five best ever made) had been decimated by critics and public. The filmmaker was so devastated, he vowed never again to live or work in France. Although he did eventually return to shoot in his native land (but not until the mid-‘50s), he nevermore was resident there. Believe it or not, from 1940 until his death in 1979 at age 86, Renoir and his extraordinary second wife, Dido, lived in Beverly Hills. For his understated and charming 1974 autobiography, My Life and My Films, Renoir wrote: “Hollywood was very well disposed toward me; indeed, I will go so far as to say that they were fond of me, and are even fonder now that my health no longer permits me to do any active work.”

Like many of Renoir’s pictures, The Southerner, shot entirely on real locations near Madera, California, with the actors and crew sleeping in pup tents, is deceptively simple. A young Southern man’s uncle dies picking cotton for others, so the man decides to strike out on his own, becomes a tenant farmer, and he, his wife, his two young children, and his aged grandmother start a farm and experience a series of hardships—-from envious, hostile neighbors and from natural calamities—-like the flood that wipes out their first cotton crop. In his book, Renoir eloquently explained his take on this lovely film, based on the novel, Hold Autumn in Your Hand, by George Sessions Percy: “What attracted me in the story was precisely the fact that there was really 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.”

Beautifully acted—-by Zachary Scott, Betty Field, Beulah Bondi, Norman Lloyd--the picture achieves all of that in profoundly subtle ways, almost entirely in its quiet images, the moments before or after the dialog, the angle from which everything is seen, literally and figuratively. In his autobiography, Renoir generously credits the quality of the picture to his having written the script with “the counsel of [William] Faulkner. The influence of that man of genius had certainly a lot to do with the success of the film.” But the particular feeling you’re left with when the movie has ended—-that somehow you’ve been miraculously healed and purified—-only happens after a Renoir picture.

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9 Comments

  • J W Phillips | July 29, 2012 11:49 PMReply

    A fascinating transposition of time, place, history, culture, and moment. Jean Renoir, a genius, was at one of those break points of history. The war was no over. Here he was directing a story that he adapted to screenplay, and the world was at one of these awkward adolescent moments.

    The Great Depression was more than a recent memory. It was still a presence in reality. There were shortages, sacrifice, and rationing. The Vichy moral compromises, and the true dimensions of the Holocaust were uneasy suspicions in the process of being brutally realized. The "Grapes of Wrath" had just been produced in 1940, but four years earlier, dirt farmers and share croppers we still poor and without indoor plumbing. French peasants were no better off. But, in other ways, fundamental ones, the world had jumped track. Millions of young men and women had been dislocated by a global war. The Nazis and the Japanese had been vanquished. A weapon compared to the power of God had scorched the earth and incinerated civilians. The ads in the Saturday Evening Post, Life and other material manifestations of collective consumer expectation were already previewing stand-alone refrigerators, and dishwashers. In other words, there was a whole new generation of outlook that wanted to turn the page on Ma and Pa Kettle and 'the struggle.' This was the timing for "The Southerner" - and while Bosley Crowther and the antigen Hollywood Left were receptive to it, the South was downright hostile, and took it to be the work of Northerners making fun of their backward ways. Unremarkably a black or ex-slave never 'darkens the frame' of the central concerns of this film -the race issue was still too hot to handle in its roots, yet it was taken by certain Dixie critics as an elitist Eastern slap in the Confederate kisser, essentially for its honest portrayal of the difficulties and depredations of farming. The populace wanted to think about anything else but.

    An interesting sidelight is how Betty Field may have come to this film as her playwright husband, Elmer Rice, then still working in Hollywood was about to feature Betty Field in the Broadway hit Dreamgirl (1945), had connected with Renoir in Europe in the 1930s when touring with his eldest son, Robert. Elmer Rice's tour of Hitler ascending Europe was prompted by his financial prosperity on the heels of Street Scene in 1929, as the Great Depression was first unfolding. Carl Laemmle, Jr. liked Rice - his "Counsellor at Law" was John Barrymore's best vehicle. But, Rice, like Renoir was having difficulty relating to the Hollywood of the Bing Crosby WWII period. Betty was finishing up her Hollywood contract when "The Southerner" came along. She gave it a spirited performance, though there is nothing about her physique that convinces the viewer that this is a farm woman who can take the plow, but, she could certainly take on a mother in law and hold the high ground.

  • Bill | March 9, 2011 6:23 AMReply

    Another poet of the cinema: Terrence Malick.

  • Blake Lucas | February 21, 2011 7:19 AMReply

    Belated I know, but I wanted to say that I enjoyed this and it's especially good to have attention called to a film as beautiful as this one that hasn't been as widely seen as it deserves to be.

    I read Renoir's MY LIFE AND MY FILMS some years ago and always stayed in my mind as the most articulate autobiography of a filmmaker. Renoir really gets over that he was always thinking about cinema, its art and possibilities, never bound to one single idea, and so evolved movingly through the years. You wouldn't think anyone could beat his 30s films but that quartet of color ones from THE RIVER in 1951 (which has become my favorite of all his films) through ELENA in 1956 is in its way one of the special treasures of all cinema. And I have to say I really liked your introduction on the Criterion to FRENCH CAN CAN--it was so sensitive and understanding of that wonderful film and the place it has for Renoir.

    Above, you quoted this line from his book: "the characters attain a level of spirituality of which they themselves are unaware…"

    And maybe this to me is something that more and more in my life I most respond to in movies--a spiritual dimension that some directors have, and I guess it's not too surprising it's usually the ones you describe as the poets. The response to this in your picture of the week choices say to me that this means a lot to you too--and those tend to be my favorites, this one, and also BROKEN BLOSSOMS and THEY WERE EXPENDABLE come to mind..

  • michael | January 25, 2011 3:26 AMReply

    really wonderful and insightful writing here.

  • Sam Shaw | January 24, 2011 10:38 AMReply

    Hello Peter.
    I worked on the sound for "Mask" and we spoke and visited several times. I am living in Sun City, Hilton Head SC and know Iris very well. We speak of you often. I am currently singing in a stage show she is the A.D. on which is directed by Ester Rosen called "Hooray for Hollywood"
    I have enjoyed your blog and will visit it regularly now. I miss the Sopranos something awful.
    All the best stuff,
    Sam

  • Chris Barry | January 23, 2011 4:30 AMReply

    Wonderful explanation regarding what makes a filmmaker a poet - it is "their use of the camera to convey meanings and reverberations beyond the geography of place or the needs of the narrative."

    What immediately came to my mind was your own classic, "The Last Picture Show" - a film rife with indelible, poetic images.

  • Antonio Nahud Júnior | January 22, 2011 11:37 AMReply

    Gostei do blog. Parabéns!

    Apareça na minha revista eletrônica brasileira de cinema:

    www.ofalcaomaltes.blogspot.com

  • Brendan Flaherty | January 19, 2011 6:38 AMReply

    It's nice to see Robert Flaherty mentioned in the same breath (inasmuch as the computer keyboard has lungs) as such luminaries as Ford, Renoir, Welles and the like. I'll admit I just love it because he's the only well-known director who shares my last name (at least at the moment). Could a "Picture of the Week" entry on Man of Aran be in the offing?

  • Scott | January 19, 2011 2:12 AMReply

    Wonderful thoughts on Renoir, Peter. When asked what film he'd take for the sake of posterity as the Ark was loading, Orson Welles told Dick Cavett that he'd bring Renoir's Grand Illusion. I can't agree more. As you say, Peter, Renoir was a true poet in pictures.

    The Southerner is great. Perhaps Criterion will give it justice someday.

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