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SOUTHERNER, THE (director/writer: Jean Renoir; screenwriters: Hugo Butler/from the novel Hold Autumn in Your Head by George Sessions Perry; cinematographer: Lucien Andriot; editor: Gregg C. Tallas; music: Werner Janssen; cast: Zachary Scott (Sam Tucker), Betty Field (Nona Tucker), J. Carrol Naish (Devers), Beulah Bondi (Granny Tucker), Percy Kilbride (Harmie), Charles Kemper (Tim), Paul Burns (Uncle Pete Tucker), Paul Harvey (Ruston); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Robert Hakim/David L. Loew/Samuel Rheiner; United Artists; 1945)
“The land is pictured as being so real that you can almost taste it.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

French director Jean Renoir’s (“Diary of a Chambermaid”/”Grand Illusion”/”The Rules of the Game”) humanist drama with a sharp social commentary is about poor southern dirt farmers and is considered to be his best Hollywood film. It’s adapted by Renoir and Hugo Butler from the 1941 novel Hold Autumn in Your Head by George Sessions Perry.

Zachary Scott plays Sam Tucker, a devoted family man and a sharecropper in the rural south who is married to the loyal Nona (Betty Field) and has a hard life trying to provide for his family. Sam’s Uncle Pete Tucker (Paul Burns), an old-time cotton picker, is ill at work in a Texas field and urges his young nephew to quit working for someone else and get his own land. Sam follows his advice and gets his boss Ruston (Paul Harvey) to rent him a piece of his idle land. The whole family chips in to help, including the young school children Jot and Daisy.

The film follows a year in the life of tenant farmer Sam Tucker and family as the plotless film uses vignettes to chronicle their struggle to survive with limited means while living in a ramshackle house and working long hours in the harsh terrain. They undergo many hardships, including dealing with no water in their well by borrowing water from their mean-spirited unfriendly jealous neighbor Denvers (J. Carrol Naish), Jot’s sickness because of not having milk and vegetables, putting up with the constant whining of Sam’s cranky acid-tongued mother known as Granny Tucker (Beulah Bondi), and finally after their cotton harvest is ready they have to struggle with a heavy downpour and flood that could take away everything they worked for.

It proves to be a genuinely moving story, told with sparse dialogue, without clichés and in a realistic way Hollywood seldom realizes. It doesn’t sentimentalize the struggle and the land is pictured as being so real that you can almost taste it. It has both a romantic and realistic feel to its gripping tale, that portrays a slice of Americana in an accurate way that has seldom been done on the screen.

Jean Renoir was nominated for Best Director, and it would win Best Film at the Venice Film Festival in 1946.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”