Monday, March 15, 2010

GOD'S LITTLE ACRE (1958)

Anthony Mann's production of Erskine Caldwell's once-famous novel has a pretty memorable theme song. In fact, it was practically the only thing I remembered from when I used to see the film on cable TV as a kid, before I knew who Anthony Mann was. All I knew back then was that it was about hillbillies -- and I hated hillbillies. It was nothing personal against Southerners or mountain folk. I mean I hated all the hillbilly-type stuff they had on TV in those days. I hated The Beverly Hillbillies and shows of that kind. I just didn't find it funny, and I figured that God's Little Acre was going to be another hillbilly comedy, so I zoned it out whenever it was on.

I'm grown up now, in theory, and Anthony Mann is one of my favorite directors, so when TCM scheduled it for tonight as part of an evening dedicated to Tina Louise, who made her movie debut for Mann, I decided that I owed it a look. It's one of two films Mann produced for Security Pictures (Men In War is the other), and I can see the book's appeal to him. Mann's unrealized dream project was an Old West staging of King Lear, something that could well have been an American Ran. You can see hints of it in films like The Furies, The Man From Laramie and Man of the West, and in Caldwell's story Mann found a patriarch who starts out at least half mad and has the requisite three sons, along with two daughters.

Ty Ty (Robert Ryan) is a cotton farmer who's abandoned his cash crop because of his obsession with a treasure of gold his father supposedly buried on the family property. He's cratered the land in search of the gold, but proudly spurns his sons' (Jack Lord and Vic Morrow are still on the farm) advice that he consult a conjurer. Instead, he takes up the suggestion of Pluto Swint (Buddy Hackett), a candidate for sheriff and for the hand of Ty Ty's remaining unwed daughter (Fay Spain), that he find himself an albino to dowse for the gold. Since albinos have an innate sense for gold, this option strikes Ty Ty as respectably scientific. The infallible willow branch is soon in the hands of Dave (Michael Landon), and in the one other scene I remember from childhood viewings the "all white man" spasmodically stumbles across the pockmarked landscape, finally settling just in front of Ty Ty's front porch. But this is "God's Little Acre," the proceeds of which Ty Ty has reserved for the benefit of the church. However, Ty Ty had only just relocated God's Little Acre to that spot on a whim earlier in the picture, so it's easy enough for him to move it the river's edge now on a fresh divine inspiration.

If it sounds like I'm describing a broad comedy, that's what the movie is for its first two-thirds. If that doesn't sound like Mann is playing to his own strengths, you're right again. Pictorially he's as good as ever, filming on location with fine compositions in depth and good cinematography from Ernest Haller. Mann and Haller do all they can to make Louise and Spain look as alluring as their print counterparts were for titillated readers. But there's clearly a problem with tone that becomes more apparent as the film turns more serious. One major subplot of the story is the repressed romance between Ty Ty's daughter-in-law Griselda (Louise) and his son-in-law Bill Thompson (Aldo Ray). At first this just seems part of a general landscape of Southern lustiness, no different from sister-in-law Darling Jill's flirtations with Pluto and the albino. But Bill evolves into a tragic figure. He was a foreman at a textile plant (making him a "linthead" in his brother-in-laws' eyes) that has long been shut down for business reasons. Bill becomes obsessed with reopening the mill, upon which multitudes of poor folk depend for their livelihoods. I get a feeling that Erskine Caldwell meant us to see an analogy between the mill left idle and the farm left idle by Ty Ty, but while Ty Ty's story is never anything but absurd, Bill's storyline turns deadly serious as he defies the mill owners in a quixotic quest to put his neighbors back to work. Once that storyline plays itself out, Mann tries to import that more serious tone to Ty Ty's story, and it just doesn't work. Robert Ryan has been playing the character as such a complete clown until then that we just can't take him seriously when Mann wants us to. We're meant to understand that he has a kind of blow-to-the-head induced epiphany while two of his sons try to kill each other that leads him to renounce the error of his ways, but the change in tone is too drastic, and Mann may be too insistent on superimposing his ulterior tragic theme where it doesn't fit. I don't mean to say he ruins the film here. The problem is that he'd already ruined it to the point that his efforts to save it probably only confused people.

God's Little Acre has an additional problem for 21st century viewers. While the 1958 ballyhoo billed the Caldwell novel as the best-selling novel of all time, it hasn't stood the test of time since then. The film is now a remnant of an obsolete pop-culture phenomenon. It simply can't resonate with us the way it was meant to do (it flopped) with its original audience. Worse, apart from the novel itself, our perception of hillbilly or Southern culture has changed profoundly since Mann made the film or Caldwell wrote the novel in the 1930s. Back then, with mainstream American culture still officially repressed, hillbillies embodied a titillating regression to a less inhibited state of earthy intimacy and looser morals -- something to deplore for the record yet fantasize about. In the wake of the Civil Rights movement, and after Deliverance (cinematically speaking) the eccentricities and perceived pathologies of the region are harder to contemplate with the kind of wink-nudge complacency displayed in Mann's movie. The film is probably more awkward looking now than it seemed 52 years ago, but I think it's an objective failure no matter how or when you look at it.

Is it Anthony Mann's worst movie? That's hard to say when I haven't seen everything he made, but I think God's Little Acre is the weakest of what I've seen. I have a lot of problems with Fall of the Roman Empire, but that doesn't come close to this film. If anyone's seen worse, maybe I don't want to know.

This YouTube upload from jacklord1920 combines several promos for the film, so forgive some redundancy.

3 comments:

Crhymethinc said...

Why was I not told about albino's natural affinity for gold when I had my own albino? People need to keep me informed of such things.

Sam Juliano said...

"Pictorially he's as good as ever, filming on location with fine compositions in depth and good cinematography from Ernest Haller."

Absolutely Samuel, and oddly enough in answer to your late-review query "Is this Anthony Mann's worst movie?" you might be surprised to know that Mann himself considered this one of his very best films, a contention that I do find rather bizarre, in view of his bevy of Western masterworks. But there's no doubt that The Beverly Hillbillies was patterned after this, and while I can agree with you that the early 60's sitcoms like GREEN ACRES and PETTICOAT JUNCTION were lame, THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES worked on the strength of the "dumb" humor that always brings belly laughs, the kind of humor we saw on display in Hal Ashby's BEING THERE with Chauncy Gardiner. Show someone as an idiot, and it's tough not to snicker.

Calwell's literary work is thematically rich, and although Mann's film is seen now as incredibly racy, there's some compelling drama afoot here, though sadly I must agree with the you that the change in tone is simply too drastic.

And Samuel, I always go for FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, as I do for Hawks' LAND OF THE PHARAOHS. There are all sorts of issues, but they are plain and simply campy fun.

Another great review here at Mondo 70!

Samuel Wilson said...

Crhymethinc: I suspect that you got your albino second-hand because the gold-finding stuff is all clearly spelled out in the manual. Did you perhaps get yours the same way Ty Ty got his, in a manner best left unfilmed???

Sam, my guess is that Mann's fascination with the Lear archetype colored his view of a film that had arguably his most Lear-like protagonist -- though Ty Ty gets a sort of happy ending. And as for Fall of the Roman Empire, which I may be watching again soon for a review, I enjoy it immensely but I don't know if I'd call it "fun" except when James Mason is on the screen.