When I first saw Jean Renoir’s name on the list of people who’d been nominated for Best Director but not Best Picture I automatically assumed that it was for a French movie. Little did I know that, after 1939, Renoir came to America and started making movies in Hollywood with the next film on our list; The Southerner being regarded as the best. However, whilst watching this film, I could tell that it was a foreigner behind the camera as Renoir’s image of the American life felt as if it were being delivered by someone whose only experience of American life had been the movies he’d seen. The result was a movie that I struggled to invest in and therefore it took me a couple of goes to actually make it through one of the most dated movies on the list so far.
One of the issues I had with The Southerner was that the lead characters were so thinly drawn that it was hard to sympathise with them. This is certainly true of Zachary Scott’s share-cropper protagonist Sam Tucker; a wide-eyed dreamer who drags his family from their Texas base to start his own farm. However, events conspire against him immediately as he arrives to discover the farmhouse he’s rented is little more than a shack and that he’ll struggle to fit his entire family inside. Events continue to conspire against Sam when he meets his vengeful neighbour Devers who begrudgingly allows our hero to borrow water from his well but later shows his true colours when he later sabotages the Tucker’s vegetable garden. Meanwhile, Sam’s son Jot contracts the ‘spring sickness’ as the family have been devoid of milk and vegetables over the winter, a problem that is overcome when the local merchant Harmie presents the Tuckers with the present of a cow partly because he’s courting Sam’s widowed mother. The final third of the movie seems to suggest things are looking up for the family with the wedding of Harmie and Sam’s mother bringing a much-needed sense of jubilation to the movie. Unfortunately, this is revealed to be a simple respite as a torrential storm lays waste to both Sam’s land and the farmhouse; causing him to temporarily reject his initial dream. But, upon saving the family’s beloved cow, he has a change of heart and is overjoyed to see the work his wife Nona has done trying to resurrect their homestead following the storm. The film’s optimistic closing tone is an odd one, especially for someone like me who felt very little for the Tucker clan and therefore didn’t care about their fate throughout the movie.
Alongside the all-American Sam the other thinly drawn characters included his incredibly annoying children, Devers’ dim-witted comic relief nephew Finlay and Beulah Bondi who brought nothing but irritation as the Tucker’s nagging grandmother. In fact, the only character who I felt really rose above stereotype was Devers himself, who initially felt like he could transition into a pantomime-villain only to be saved thanks to the strong performance given by J. Carrol Naish. Naish managed to transform the film’s antagonist into almost the most sympathetic character after his delivery of a monologue in which Devers described the various tragedies he’d experienced and how it made him despise Sam. The scene in which both Sam and Devers catch a fish that the latter had been after for years was possibly my favourite moment as it was the end of a rather tedious feud which bogged down the movie. The plot was similarly simplistic as it followed the traditional Hollywood narrative of problem and resolution, something I tired of by the time the storm clouds started to gather. I think one issue I may have is that, as a Brit, The Southerner was just too much of an all-American film for me to enjoy however I do feel those living in the states would have had similar issues with it. I feel that Renoir has presented an image of what he thinks the American farming life is like but the result is a thinly-drawn story that felt dated even by 1940’s standards and had very little redeeming features.
There’s no denying that Renoir deserved at least one Best Director nominations during his long career but in my opinion, they should have been for masterpieces such as La Grand Illusion or The Rules of The Game. I found some of the direction in The Southerner to be sloppy including the shots which introduce us to the rundown farmhouse for the first time. Although Renoir did succeed in making some set pieces come together beautifully, most notably the climactic storm, there was very little that convinced me that he deserved an Oscar nomination for his work on the movie. Even though there’s another movie from that year’s ceremony to evaluate before I pass my judgement on whether The Southerner deserved a Best Picture nod I think it’ll be a no. Featuring wafer-thin characters, underwhelming performances, a predictable narrative and some genuinely awful camerawork; it’s fair to say I didn’t enjoy The Southerner and I’m glad to have got it out of the way so I can move on to something more enjoyable.
And I’m hoping that might be the next film on our list which begins a quadruple bill of films from a multiple Best Director nominee.