Monday, October 22, 2012

Bright Leaf

A few days back, I mentioned that Bright Leaf was one of those movies I had been meaning to blog about for some time, but never got around to. Now that there's a day with not much interesting on that I haven't already blogged about it, it would be a good time to do a full-length post on Bright Leaf.

Gary Cooper stars as Brant Royle, whom we first see at the beginning of the movie entering some small southern town at about the turn of the century. It's fairly clear that he had lived here before, that he hasn't been back for some time, and that he left unter less than ideal circumstances. One can guess he's looking for some sort of revenge even though it seems that he doesn't have any means to exact that revenge. Fortunately for Brant, however, he's about to acquire those means, in the form of one old friend, and two people who just happen to be passing through town. First is the old friend, Sonia (Lauren Bacall). She runs a "boarding house" for young women which probably would have been a burlesque house or bordello had the movie been made before the imposition of the Production Code. The story is never totally clear about her business and how it's made her surprisingly well-off, yet at the same time made her part of the impolite society.

Passing through town is John Barton (Jeff Corey), who's invented a machine that will roll tobacco more efficiently, making cigarettes and cigars cheaper and offering the possibility of a fortune to the person who will buy the rights to use it. John is in town trying to sell the local tobacco magnate, Major Singleton (Donald Crisp) on the machine, but the Major wants none of it. Brant hears about the machine, and would love a crack at it, but he doesn't have the money. So he teams up with Sonia and Chris (Jack Carson), a man going throuhg town as part of the traveling medicine show. They've got the money that Brant doesn't have, and together, they can team up and go into business. Needless to say, the invention works well, and serves to make all of them wealthy.

Brant, as I mentioned above, seems driven to gain revenge, and it turns out that that revenge is on Major Singleton, who "stole" the Royle's land years ago. Brant wants to get his land back, but also wants the Major's granddaughter Margaret (Patricia Neal). And dammit, he's going to stop at nothing to get what he wants! If you think this is going to be his undoing, you're right. But Bright Leaf isn't so much a movie about the tobacco industry circa 1900 as it is a character study of obsession.

Bright Leaf is an interesting premise, but there's something about the movie that just doesn't click with me, and I can't quite put my finger on it. Perhaps it's Cooper's character, Brant Royle. As the movie goes on, he becomes more and more unappealing. Lauren Bacall isn't my favorite actress, and I think she's miscast here. She doesn't look at all like a Southern belle from 1900. (Cooper, on the other hand, fits in fine.) Jack Carson starts off well: he seems almost born to play smarmy schemers like a medicine-show man. But he morphs into more of a conscience to Cooper of the sort you could imagine James Gleason playing (as in The Last Hurrah which will be coming up later in the month at the end of the Star of the Month salute to Spencer Tracy). It's well-made, but it's well-made piffle.

Bright Leaf has gotten a DVD release courtesy of the Warner Archive collection.

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