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.
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.