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TOBACCO ROAD (director: John Ford; screenwriters: Nunnally Johnson/based on the novel by Erskine Caldwell/adapted from the play by Jack Kirkland; cinematographer: Arthur Miller; editor: Barbara McLean; music: David Buttolph; cast: Charley Grapewin (Jeeter Lester), Marjorie Rambeau (Sister Bessie Rice), Gene Tierney (Ellie May Lester), William Tracy (Dude Lester), Elizabeth Patterson (Ada Lester), Dana Andrews (Captain Tim Harmon), Ward Bond (Lov Bensey), Grant Mitchell (Banker Payne), Slim Summerville (Henry Peabody), Zeffie Tilbury (Grandma); Runtime: 85; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Darryl F. Zanuck; Twentieth Century-Fox; 1941)
“If you can get past its flaws, especially its stereotype characterization of the hillbillies, there’s a subversiveness to it that is pleasantly intoxicating.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

John Ford’s (“Fort Apache”/”The Iron Horse”/”The Horse Soldiers”) follow-up film to his Oscar-winning The Grapes of Wrath was the less successful seriocomedy about a poor white trash clan living in the Georgia backwoods in a place called Tobacco Road that was once prosperous a 100 years ago because of tobacco but is now a downtrodden farm area. The wacko pic is based on the long-running Broadway play by Jack Kirkland, that opened in 1933, and was based on the novel by Erskine Caldwell. Caldwell. It was based on the folks the author grew up with in his native Georgia, but their amoral antics has to be expurgated for the Hollywood film because of censorship and thereby loses much of its bawdy flavor. Charley Grapewin repeats his stage role as the elderly shiftless ne’er-do-well head of the Lester clan, and is quite a sympathetic figure as the cheerful but ignorant character forced to undergo a life-altering experience and swallow his pride to try and save his long-time family home.

The lumpy black-and-white shot film is much criticized for its crude low-brow comedy, dullness, shrill performances, stagy presentation and artificial sets, but if you can get past its flaws, especially its stereotype characterization of the hillbillies, there’s a subversiveness to it that is pleasantly intoxicating.

Lazy patriarch farmer Jeeter Lester (Charley Grapewin) is told by his friendly long-time landlord Captain Tim (Dana Andrews), whose father Captain John hired Jeeter to farm for him, that because of the bad times the bank in Augusta owns his property and banker Payne (Grant Mitchell) wants an annual rent of a $100 or else the surviving members of Lester’s large clan will be evicted. With just a few days to raise the rent, we witness a number of odd ways Jeeter tries to raise the money. Things turn most madcap when Jeeter talks his dimwit 20-year-old son Dude (William Tracy), newly wed to the 38-year-old over-the-top preacher lady widow Sister Bessie (Marjorie Rambeau), to take him and his wife Ada (Elizabeth Patterson) in their new car, bought with the widow’s insurance settlement, to Augusta to sell firewood on the banker’s home turf.

This is one of Ford’s lesser films, but still blows some smoke when you least expect it.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”