From Caldwell to Ford: The Curious Case of TOBACCO ROAD (1941)

November 16, 2013 § 1 Comment

Erskine Caldwell’s controversial 1932 novel about poverty-stricken sharecroppers in rural Georgia is the kind of lurid, febrile Southern fiction that one might imagine being adapted by the Elia Kazan who filmed Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll (1956) or the Anthony Mann who filmed Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre (1958). These are movies that treat their impoverished Southern characters with just the right mixture of lunatic hysteria and abject pity, milking the moral, spiritual, and sexual baseness of poor rural life for all of its crazed tragi-comic potential.

The John Ford of 1941 seems like a good fit for the material on the surface. The 1930s had proven Ford’s interest in the mythological South in such films as Judge Priest (1934), Steamboat Round the Bend (1935), and The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), and in 1940 he had attended to the plight of Midwestern farmers incontrovertibly damaged by the Great Depression in his much-lauded adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. And surely Ford, more than any filmmaker, was qualified to capture the inborn love of the earth and the headstrong insistence on continuing a family tradition that mark Jeeter Lester, Tobacco Road’s weathered, used-up patriarch protagonist.

But Caldwell, contrary to Steinbeck and certainly contrary to Ford, was no romantic purveyor of the noble poor, and the ‘heroes’ of his novel are nothing of the sort. Rather, they are degenerate, delusional creatures ruled by their most primitive instincts, callous toward the evil they inflict on one another and completely oblivious to the fact that they are perpetuating their own sad misfortune through the stupidity of their actions. Caldwell reportedly intended his novel to be a starkly serious account of the harsh realities of poverty in the rural South, though the failings he piles atop his halfwit characters—everything from physical deformities to unchecked animalistic lust—come to feel excessive, and many readers frequently mistake the novel for a derisive black comedy. Likely, Caldwell’s total detachment from his characters was a function of his realist agenda, but in denying them the most basic sympathy, he wrote a story that comes across as grotesquely surreal, as if the Lester family exists in a vacuum of amorality—anything goes, nobody cares, and the reader is left agape. Intentional or not, the novel is funny, albeit appallingly so.

Tobacco Road, then, is not a novel tailored to John Ford’s warm and affectionate sensibilities, and to say that his 1941 adaptation, scripted by Nunally Johnson for 20th Century Fox, is a sanitized version of the story would be a rank understatement. Not only is every lecherous detail in the original papered over and the characters transformed into lovable hillbilly stereotypes, but the gravity of the novel’s basic dilemma—that Jeeter and his family will starve to death if they can’t figure out a way to reap the benefits of their now barren farmland—is severely diminished. Ford spins from the original story a kind of whimsical fable about kooky old farm-folk who, through enough prayer and stubborn persistence, manage to find poverty’s great escape clause before they are banished to the county poor farm. It is worth noting here that a highly successful Broadway play bridged the gap between novel and film, and while online synopses read as a tamer version of the novel, they still retain plenty of the more vile aspects that the Ford interpretation jettisons entirely.

The novel opens by introducing us to Lov Bensey, who stops by the Lester house on his way home after scoring a sack of turnips several miles down the road. Standing at a cautious distance from the porch, Lov complains to his father-in-law Jeeter that Pearl—Jeeter’s 12-year-old daughter and youngest offspring, to whom Lov is married—refuses to sleep with him. Jeeter, who is out of money, food, and credit on which to purchase seed cotton and fertilizer, tries to negotiate a deal whereby Lov will give him his turnips in exchange for his help in hog-tying Pearl to the bed—a deal that Lov obstinately refuses. Ellie May, the only one of Jeeter’s daughters who has yet to marry because of an unseemly harelip, proceeds to seduce the sex-starved Lov—which Jeeter permits as an opportunity to lunge for the turnips while he is distracted. Jeeter’s pellagra-afflicted wife Ada and his elderly, nameless, and routinely abused mother then emerge with sticks, which they use to violently jab Lov into submission. The Lesters have won the day—and the turnips—and Love is left empty-handed on his return home. It’s a chilling scene that sets the savage tone for the rest of the novel, which only compounds the sexual transgressions, physical ailments, and inter-familial brutalities.

In the film, Charlie Grapewin plays Jeeter as a cackling old coot, and his designs on his son-in-law’s turnips are played for easy cartoon laughs. Ward Bond plays Lov as dopey and easily flustered, and Gene Tierney is beautiful harelip-less Ellie May, here undesirable only because she is deemed too old to marry. The scene plays out not as a bleak illustration of the lengths these people will go for a bite to eat or a shred of sexual contact, but as a slapstick introduction to the family’s endearingly backwards peckerwood ways. Ford takes what Caldwell depicts as defects and turns them into foibles.

The question inevitably becomes whether Ford’s appropriation of Caldwell’s material is, as we say, Fordian. Is his whitewash of Caldwell’s unflinching catalogue of barbarities an improvement on the material, a gateway into the scenic richness, visual poetry, and emotional complexity that is typical of Ford’s greatest work?

Well, no. Ford and Johnson alter the story’s tone but fail to sufficiently alter the plot so that it meshes with their more humanistic reworking. In the novel, the characters’ absence of depth is at the very heart of Caldwell’s diatribe against Depression-era poverty and the morally debased human beings it produces. Ford and Johnson, however, employ simplistic characterizations to coddling, affectionate ends, and the result is a patronizing storybook portrait of idiot innocents. Narrative threads that spool to tragic completion in the novel have no satisfying comedic counterpart in the film. In Caldwell’s story, the marriage of Jeeter’s empty-headed son Dude to a widowed female preacher named Bessie occasions fierce religious satire (which in Ford, of course, becomes religious sincerity), prickly social commentary (while driving, the two accidentally kill the black driver of a parked wagon and speed on indifferently), and countless testaments to the characters’ self-destructive stupidity (which includes, climactically, the pathetic disassembly of the remaining dregs of the Lester clan over a petty “I wanna ride in the automobile” dispute). For Ford, Dude (William Tracy) and Bessie (Marjorie Rambeau) are just comic relief, and their automobile subplot occasions little more than opportunities for Jeeter to perk up optimistically (he can use the car to wheel his lumber into Augusta and try to make some money) and then slink back down into melancholic despair (nobody’s buying).

Indeed, Ford’s Tobacco Road is little more than a series of alternations between broad comedy and wistful reflection. By day, Jeeter is a bundle of harebrained energy scheming for the money he needs to keep his property from being repossessed by the bank; by night, he’s a lonely old failure who muses forlornly about the land he loves (these latter scenes are almost invariably set to an organ rendition of ‘Shall We Gather at the River,’ an unmistakably Fordian touch that nonetheless fails to rings true). The cycle repeats itself multiple times, but it doesn’t actually intensify until the third act, when Jeeter finally comes to terms with moving to the poor farm.

While the novel ends in Jeeter’s accidental self-immolation—every year, the farmers set fire to their land as an inherited ritual that serves no actual purpose—and finds just the right note of arbitrary, self-inflicted tragedy, the film ends with a deus ex machina in the form of Dana Andrews’ benevolent Captain Tim (a character who does not exist in the novel and is imported from the play). The son of the landowner who originally gave Jeeter permission to live on the property, Tim intercepts Jeeter en route to the poor farm and explains that he has paid the bank out of his own pocket so that Jeeter and his family can stay on for another six months and hopefully succeed in getting a cotton crop going.

Though the movie, for the most part, strikes me as only nominally Fordian—the gorgeous low-angled shots of sun-bathed hills and pastures arched by overhanging foliage are filmed in the spirit of his best films of the 1940s but devoid of the usual lyrical heft—I believe he alights on something truly personal in the film’s ambivalent final shot. Soon after Jeeter has gained his Capraesque salvation from Captain Tim and appears more energized than ever to finally put his soil to good use, he finds himself slumped down on the front steps of his porch, mumbling a few words about putting it off till next week and then drifting off to sleep. The suggestion is that Jeeter may truly be burnt out, no matter how much help from above he receives. It’s the same sort of double-edged conclusion—a formal triumph beset by private sadness and defeat—that Ford would return to in his masterpiece The Sun Shines Bright (1953), another bittersweet film about an aging Southern patriarch.

Tobacco Road is ultimately something akin to The Grapes of Wrath or the film he made immediately after, the immeasurably beautiful How Green Was My Valley (1941). All are films marked by a regional poeticism and identification with the working poor. But Tobacco Road is the odd man out here, a film that never quite finds the pivot point between serene sentimentality and crude provincial humor. In explaining that the novel had been cleaned up for his screen adaptation, Ford told an interviewer, “We have no dirt in the picture. We’ve eliminated the horrible details and what we’ve got left is a nice dramatic story.” In light of Caldwell’s original novel and the other movies Ford was making at the time, it becomes resoundingly clear that the dirt is precisely what’s missing. The Grapes of Wrath is a ‘nice dramatic story.’ Tobacco Road is a disposable folktale. – Stuart

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