Friday, February 19, 2016

The Southerner

A few months back, I recorded The Southerner and finally got a chance to catch it. It's going to be on TCM tomorrow morning at 4:30 AM, so if you haven't seen it before, you've got a chance.

Zachary Scott plays Sam Tucker, who at the start of the movie is a white sharecropper working the land -- not his, of course, since he's only a sharecropper -- that his family has worked for generations. There's his wife Nona (Betty Field), two children, Granny (Beulah Bondi), and an Uncle Pete. However, while working in the field picking cotton, Uncle Pete falls ill and needs a rest. Actually, he needs a lot more than a rest, since he's pretty much worked himself to death. Pete's death makes Sam realize that he doesn't want to wind up like this. Sam's old friend Tim (Charles Kemper) has a good idea: the family could move to the city, since the factory where Tim works has jobs aplenty.

But Sam just can't do that, since he's always felt like he belongs to the land and the land belongs to him, or some such nonsense. And, I suppose, he couldn't do that to Granny. Indeed, Sam has dreams of farming his own plot of land, except that he doesn't have any money or any other way of procuring land. But he's in a bit of luck, as it turns out that the man he works for has one piece of land that's lying fallow, and that piece has a farmhouse on it. Sam offers to work that land in exchange for the opportunity to buy it outright at some later point. The boss agrees, but not without warning Sam of the difficulties inherent in such an undertaking.

That's putting it mildly. The first thing Sam discovers is that the "farmhouse" is a shack in worse shape than the house Mr. Blandings wants to buy, only to have to demolish and build from scratch. Oh, and there doesn't seem to be a working well, so fresh water is going to be a problem. And Granny doesn't like the idea. But Sam is determined, so he soldiers on. He's going to have to do a lot of soldiering, since it seems as though every problem you could think of that might befall a farmer happens to him. There's flooding rain, a sick child, and Devers, a neighbor who doesn't warm to Sam (J. Carroll Naish). Devers keeps Sam in his place by repeatedly sending his farmhand Finlay (Norman Lloyd) after him.

And that's pretty much all there is to the plot. This is more of an episodic movie than one with a real plot. For the most part, that structure works. Sam's scenes with Tim provide one outlet of relief from the unrelenting grind of farming one's own land; another good scene is when Sam's mother (Blanche Yurka) gets remarried, to poor Harmie (Percy Kilbride). These are two people who don't have the typical romantic love you see in the movies, but instead the experience to know they can make it work through the tough times.

That having been said, I find The Southerner to be a mixed bag. Perhaps I think of Zachary Scott too much as Monty Beragon in Mildred Pierce, but I found it hard to believe him as a sharecropper, or Betty Field as a sharecropper's wife. And Beulah Bondi is given an absolutely thankless role as the grandmother from hell. But there are bright spots, such as the wedding scene and all of the scenes with Finlay, who just has something really odd about him. It's as though Norman Lloyd decided to play the part by channeling Frye from Saboteur.

Overall, I'd say that The Southerner is certainly worth making the time for one viewing. And some of you will probably be more interested in a second viewing than I might be.

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