Saturday, September 8, 2012

Tobacco Road

Tobacco Road (John Ford, 1941) The same year that Ford made the magnificent How Green Was My Valley (which won the Best Picture Oscar over Citizen Kane, a decision I'm still surprisingly ambivalent about) and after he'd made The Long Voyage Home, he made this oddity, an adaptation of the hit play that, itself, was an adaptation of Erskine Caldwell's scandalously bleak novel about the (to put it mildly) dysfunction among the Georgia poor.  I'm not familiar with either, but the material is so venal and hard-scrabble that with each level of the airing of its dirty laundry, compromises had to be made to reach the stage and the screen.  By the time producer Darryl Zanuck and Ford got hold of it, it was a bizzarro version of their collaborative effort on The Grapes of Wrath, an out-and-out comedy of the "Kettle" variety, with much slapstick and hee-hawing, the novel's displays of greed, selfishness, shiftlessness and hypocrisy and (let's call it what it is) its animalistic depiction of rural poor life, neutered by low comedy and high over-acting.  And to pass the censors and the Board of Review (not to mention the Catholic Legion of Decency), Caldwell's malicious intentions with its 13 year old brides, dead grammas, and apocalyptic "Wrath of God" fire (and no one would think of Gene Tierney possessing a cleft palate) is left by the way-side for lunk-headed males, religious loons, and the wholesale destruction of property.  The effect is to take Caldwell's metaphorical screed...and turn it into "L'il Abner."

It's a little dispiriting.  The material is so compromised as to be toothless, with no bite at all (although one might fear rabies), but any more mean-spirited and one couldn't see Ford—who could have trouble tackling tough subject matter head on—directing it.  It's a bit like how Ford started handling the production of Mister Roberts as a service comedy, rather than a barnacled "rust-and-all" look at the war-Navy.  But here, the strategy was sanctioned by Zanuck and the powers that be, not only at Fox, but at the Breen Office, just to get a hot property on the screen.

Compromise is not new to the movies, it's an integral part, actually (unless you're ideologically fundamentalist on the auteur theory).  But, as it was, the only reason to make this version of the film was to make hay, cashing in on the notoriety it had generated, while still getting away with it, something that must have appealed to the huckster-showman in Zanuck.  The producer loved a good story, liked to push the envelope, but also knew what chances he could take, before bringing down the ire of the blue noses.  And Ford could do comedy—he was better at it when it provided a relief from drama, or as texture inside of it—but he could do it, and economically, in a minimum of footage.

So Tobacco Road was made a comedy, curdled and dusty, and if some of Caldwell's malice got into it, so much the better, better than none at all.  Such compromise brought Maugham to the screen and Faulkner and Hemingway and Fitzgerald.  Not unadulterated, but some of it. 

One could make a case for Ford trying to desanctify his image of "the people," away from the respectful, earnest portrayals of The Grapes of Wrath, but Ford never painted with a wide brush and not all of his "po' folk" were saints.  Far from it, in fact.  So, there has to be some back-story to this one, some vital piece of information, but for now, the "get-it-on-the-screen-any-way-you-can" theory fits Occam's razor.

However, it has had one effect on me.  It's going to be tough to watch Ford's westerns with their solemn funerals with ragged voices singing "Shall We Gather at the River" after seeing what's done with it in this film.

Like I said, "compromise."

Ford still makes it look gorgeous, though.

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