Southerner, The (Blu-ray Review)15 Feb, 2016 By: Mike Clark
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Stars Zachary Scott, Betty Field, Beulah Bondi.
There’s not much argument that Jean Renoir’s Hollywood career in the mid-1940s was on the spotty side, ending with the none-too-surgically re-edited debacle of Woman on the Beach at RKO. But even in its day, critics had to give him The Southerner (an independent production released through United Artists), even though it wasn’t, nor was ever going to be, much of a box office performer. Zachary Scott and Betty Field were the leads, and the subject matter was Texas sharecroppers, a combo without the turnstile clout of, say, an Esther Williams musical and all the chlorine that MGM’s coffers could bankroll. And yet, Renoir got an Oscar nomination for director and picked up “best” honors from the National Board of Review at a time when some of the NBR’s choices weren’t as off the rails as they became in the 1960s. This is a movie I read a lot about as a kid and was anxious to see even as a pre-teen, though it was probably obscure to the general public.
Like a lot of UA releases of its day, the picture mostly circulated in crummy 16mm prints by the time I first got a chance, so it’s a treat to see it in a form much closer to what Renoir intended, thanks to UCLA restoration efforts. A lot of The Southerner takes place outdoors, which is in keeping with its married protagonists’ occupation — to say nothing of providing a visual respite from the shack that houses the couple, two vitamin-deprived kids and a grouchy grandmother played by Beulah Bondi, who usually played more harmonious maternal figures (often to James Stewart). Being a Renoir film, this was never going to veer into the gamier territory of Erskine Caldwell or William Faulkner, even though Faulkner was an uncredited contributor to a screenplay adapted from a George Perry Sessions novel. You wouldn’t exactly call the movie rose-colored, but even the closest thing it has to a villain (J. Carrol Naish) is more stubborn than evil, and Field doesn’t look all that bedraggled after a day in the fields or struggling to fix up a hovel whose best days were probably in the Buchanan Administration.
I didn’t realize until looking up his filmography that The Southerner came in only the second year of Scott’s screen career, which may explain how he came to be cast as in a rare sympathetic lead. Otherwise, the actor always seemed to be shooting somebody or getting plugged himself in some ultra-heated Warner melodrama of the day (Mildred Pierce, which came out the same year, may have the quintessential Scott role). Here, he’s just an average, hard-working guy not at all inclined to stir up any trouble, which he leaves to neighbor Naish (unhappy because he no longer has a monopoly on the land) or a goodtime city-Joe buddy (Charles Kemper) who largely orchestrates a barroom fracas that I still remembered from my first viewing in the ’60s. Kemper would like Scott to retire from the sharecroppers’ grind and come to work in a factory for seven bucks an hour, which certainly sounds like a much better deal for the time and milieu. But Scott is kind of a romantic when it comes to soil and just can’t pull the trigger on an occupational switch.
Ultimately, the whole family is prey to the whims of nature’s “elements,” which likely explains the inclusion on this disc of Pare Lorentz’s classic documentary short The River (as in Mississippi), which was about as ahead of its time ecologically speaking as any film you can name — though given the catastrophic damage years of flooding had already done just in time for the Depression was also of its time. Rounding out a package that goes an extra mile or two is a much less seen 45-minute companion: Salute to France (1944), which Renoir co-directed with Garson Kanin from a script on which Renoir shared credit with Philip Dunne and co-lead Burgess Meredith. Obscure enough that IMDb.com provides no information beyond the barebones credits, it was a government propaganda film (possibly not released in the U.S.) to remind us that Americans, the French and the English were all in the war together despite superficial differences. Not without interest (familiar face Claude Dauphin also has a major part), its French opening came in October 1945, by which time one would assume that this message was already clear.