The Southerner

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I saw Jean Renoir’s The Southerner (1945) described so beautifully on 4 Star Film Fan,  that I had to get it. I was curious about how a French director would portray the Old West.

The Southerner begins with Sam Tucker’s old uncle dying in the cotton fields where he’s picking cotton along with Sam, his wife Nona, and Granny. The uncle’s dying words to Sam are that he should get his own land and not work for someone else. This convinces Sam to buy a plot of good land that’s been neglected for years. His boss lays out all the risks inherent in farming on your own and promises Sam, he can always return to work for him. The boss isn’t a villain; he does seem to care about Sam and his family and someone needed to give him a head’s up, because contrary to what I’d learned and seen in films farming is not a sure thing.

Sam packs up his family and belongings on an old jalopy. When they get to the land, they see that the house is a shack that’s one windstorm away from destruction. Sam admits that he should have checked out the house before buying the land, which was when I knew that the outcome for Sam sure wasn’t certain. Sam’s a nice guy and strong. Both he had his wife work hard, but Sam held some romantic notions about farming that gave me pause. He’d forgotten to check on the condition of the well.

The well wasn’t usable so Sam had to beg an ornery neighbor for water. As time goes on, the skinflint neighbor resents Sam more and more. As mean as the neighbor was, he did have a point. Sam and other pioneers should thought out their plans more.

The tensions build as bad luck and naive pelt the Tuckers throughout the film.

Hardworking and always cheerful, Nona is the perfect wife. She soon makes the shack homey and repairs what she can. She keeps the kids clean and happy and usually puts up with Granny’s constant complaints.

Sam’s friend Tim has moved on to the city where he works in a factory and makes a fortune, $7 per day. He offers Sam a job, but Sam envisions the life of a small farmer as his vocation. Often I thought Sam should take his family to the city.

A major threat in these parts is Spring Sickness. Granny’s a Cassandra always harping on about it because several of her children died of it. Caused by poor diet, lacking dairy and produce, Spring Sickness can be lethal. Just as you can’t see a gun on a set in Act One and not have it go off in Act Two, someone was bound to get Spring Sickness because the Tuckers’ diet was mainly fish, coffee and corn mush. Sure enough, Jot, the son who’s about 4, comes down with Spring Sickness and has a massive open sore on his face. The boy is lethargic and may not make it. The kindness of the doctor and a friend of Sam’s helps the Tucker’s obtain milk and veggies. The idea that one can make it on his own in the West is simply not true. It probably ain’t true anywhere. I did think that Renoir would have the boy die. I wasn’t long into the film before I expected disaster and I think sparing us the worse was a shortcoming of The Southerner (both the novel and the film).

Hard times hit repeatedly. Storms beat down the house and the fields, the final one sets the family back to square one.

One of the best lines in the film comes from Tim:

All you farmers is just the same. Gamblers! That’s what you all are, to a man. Year after year you starve yourself to death and hope that some fine day – well, I think you’re loco.

I’d never considered how true this line is. Farmers, especially in the past, were in some cases just as reckless as the people who raced to San Francisco or Australia during the Gold Rushes.

The Southerners is an earnest film that showed me a different side of Western Expansion from what I’m used to. There’s no language that would be a problem for children. There’s a scene with a “lady of easy virtue” in a saloon, but she comes across pretty tame and the banter veils the non-family friendly subject matter.

Renoir’s The Lower Depths

Before Kurosawa adapted Gorky’s The Lower Depths in 1957, Jean Renoir made a French version. Well, sort of French. He kept the Russian names of characters, but set the film in France so it’s gotten a blend of Russia and France.

This film portrays a softer poverty. All the actors wear clean, apparently ironed clothes. Most have an air of dignity and polish. Most could pass mustard in any middle class social event.

The cast again includes a drunken actor, a venial husband and wife, who’re slumlords and the wife’s sister, whom Pepel loves. He believes if only Natasha would marry him, he could give up his life of crime and become a better man. He believed she was his only means of improvement.

Natasha is almost married off (sold off, essentially) to a official of means. Her sister, aware and jealous of Pepel’s interest in Natasha, orchestrates a dinner with the unctuous, over-stuffed official, for whom I felt a sort of pity as his attraction to Natasha and his treatment of her was both caring and sincere. A big scene is when Natasha gets drunk at the elegant restaurant where the official has taken her and Pepel bursts in and starts a melee.

One character, who wasn’t in the Kurosawa film, was the Baron. An aristocrat who’s gambled away his fortune meets Pepel and learns about the tenement. Accepting his lowered state philosophically, he moves in and makes esoteric observations of his plight and joins in the card playing, finally meeting the players he can best. C’est la vie.

The film does look at poverty, but at a cleaned up easier to endure version of it. Renoir offers a pastoral view of poverty through this motley crew. I’m not sure what the aim of doing so was. I doubt it would change people’s minds or actions the way Charles Dickens, Émile Zola’s or Upton Sinclair’s work did.