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God's Little Acre (Blu-ray Review)

26 Aug, 2013 By: Mike Clark

$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Robert Ryan, Aldo Ray, Tina Louise, Buddy Hackett, Fay Spain.

Judging merely from one early bathtub scene with Fay Spain alone, one might speculate that American censors (or what was left of their laughing-stock selves by ’58) would have had a field day with the movie of Erskine Caldwell’s same-name 1933 novel, which is still one of the biggest sellers of all time. But apparently, this Anthony Mann take with a screenplay by Philip Yordan (“fronting” for Blacklisted Ben Maddow) came off minus too many hitches, despite an earlier screen attempt around 1950 or so that never stood much of a chance of getting made. The book, notorious, had sparked a favorable court decision following a court challenge initiated by something called the New Society for the Suppression of Vice: Such was the timeless appeal of sex and especially shanty-tramp sex as reading material. A case in the point is that great scene in Mister Roberts (both play and movie) where Henry’s Fonda’s revered lieutenant chides bunkmate Ensign Pulver (Oscared Jack Lemmon in the screen version) over never having finished any project he ever started. Whereupon, indignant Pulver replies that, by God, he finished God’s Little Acre.

A Security Pictures production from producer Sidney Harmon, the movie Acre reunited Harmon, Mann, Yordan-Maddow, cinematographer Ernest Haller and leads Robert Ryan and Also Ray from the previous year’s Men in War, one of the best dramas about the Korean conflict and one that made a big impression on me as a kid when it came out, due the battle-fatigue crackup of the story’s colonel, played by Robert Keith. But even had I been able to do one of my standard end runs around my mother in 1958, there wouldn’t have been too much of chance of my seeing Acre theatrically upon its release because this was one of those movies from the pre-MPAA Ratings System days where they still wouldn’t let in kids without parental accompaniment (Baby Doll, Elmer Gantry and Splendor in the Grass were others). Maybe the authorities speculated that all the shots of Tina Louise leaning over in her screen debut (low-cut household dresses and all) would have proved too much for young adolescent males. And to be sure, this movie does give Louise certain bonus points in the never-ending “Ginger vs. Mary Ann” debate over whether she or co-star Dawn Wells would have been the preferred fantasy babe were one to be stranded on Gilligan’s Island with little else but Jim Backus or Alan Hale Jr. to look at.

In a central role that could have made a lot of actors look silly, the never-bad Ryan plays rural-Georgia patriarch Ty Ty Walden, father to three sons (one off the farm and successful in the city) and three attractive daughters, two voluptuously so. Obsessed by gold that his own father supposedly buried at some unknown spot on the property, Ty Ty is even driven (on advice from a sheriff’s candidate played by Buddy Hackett) to hire an albino who can divine its location. That the albino is played by future TV star Michael Landon (plus a bottle of peroxide) makes it hard to keep a straight face; name another actor who got immortalized as a teenage werewolf and an albino in successive screen years. On the other hand, the story cuts such a loopy swath that Hackett fits in fairly comfortably as a lawman cut from the same but slightly larger cloth as Barney Fife. Like John Ford’s generally maligned earlier movie of Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, the result is entertaining without benefit of a resonant emotional core, the same feeling I usually get in general get Mann’s non-noirs and non-Westerns despite the director’s strong visual sense. Some of his career has always seemed arbitrary to me; I’ve never been able to figure out where the lines intersected via this movie, The Glenn Miller Story and El Cid.

Cast as the sisters are Helen Westcott (attractive, but something of an outsider in the clan’s va-va-voom-ish company); Louise (married to Jack Lord but attracted to Ray, who plays Westcott’s townie husband); and starlet Spain (the one getting Hackett so hot and bothered that he falls into and joins her in the bathtub, whereupon he becomes cool and bothered). By this time, actor Ray’s off-screen problems with the sauce were starting to show in his appearance, making him look like someone who may not be the greatest bet for any of the Walden femmes. As an admitted non-fan of farm living, Ray’s character has been flailing ever since the mill closed and laid him off with many of his buddies. Apparently — and one of the things this movie has accomplished is to make me want to read Caldwell’s novel — some of this political context got eliminated from the movie, as well as the Louise character’s relationship with the successful Walden brother (Lance Fuller), which would have definitely caused some censorship hassles.

Olive’s prints are no-frills affairs, but what we get here are the fruits of a nice UCLA Archives restoration by Robert Gitt, which definitely displays Mann’s gifts at composition. The cinematographer was Ernest Haller of Gone With the Wind and Rebel Without a Cause, though what we get here is a good example of what he could do in black-and-white, which is what he was known for when David O. Selznick gave him a shot on GWTW. The scoring is by Elmer Bernstein who was still in the part of his career that could be termed “early.” Just two or three years earlier, he’d been laboring on The Ten Commandments, and now here he was back-dropping lurid women in suggestive garb — though, come to think, DeMille’s blockbuster had a few of those, too.

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