TAP ROOTS briefly bloomed in 1948, seeded from novelist James Street, whose 1942 book sprouted from the real Civil War experiences of Newton Knight. He and his followers attempted to secede their region of Mississippi from the Confederacy during the war (the story a mix of legend and fact), fed up with dying for a plantation aristocracy and defending slavery. As such, this beat 2016s recently touted Free State Of Jones out of the historical romance drama gate by nearly seven decades, during which the Civil Rights movement changed American racial attitudes and regional differences began to fade.
With Alan LeMay scripting, George Marshall directing and Walter Wanger folding a hefty $2,118,688 into producing, the adaptation owes more to Gone With The Wind and Hollywood than Street, Knight or history, and it withers in comparison to Margaret Mitchell’s saga.
Barely mentioning the racial or class components of the original tussle, the fictionalized ‘Dabney’s of the movie mill around in Southern-fried distress (those who even bother to attempt accents) for 109 minutes, with only the sparkle of Technicolor and some noisy whambam in the action finale to leave much impression. Emulating Scarlett, Rhett, Ashley and Mammy just serves to bolster the appeal of the real thing.
31-year old Susan Hayward had Arrived, fresh from another period piece success (Canyon Passage) and her first Oscar nomination (Smash-up, the Story of a Woman) so she hit the red clay running here, reminding folks she had been one of the hopefuls close to nabbing Scarlett O’Hara in GWTW. Alas, the character here can’t hold a field ‘tater to Miss Scarlett, though her red mane and fit-filly form (sue me) command some attention. Van Heflin was also flush with meaty roles in big costume pix, having recently survived the travails of Green Dolphin Street, he was great as ‘Athos’ in the same years version of The Three Musketeers. In distressed Dixie, he’s left holding the bag for performance conviction, let alone casting acumen, witness Boris Karloff, with skin dye and a pigtails, less buyable as ‘Tishomingo’, loyal Indian pal and voice of reason. Just a few months before, Boris had also been tap-rooted, playing ‘Guyasuta, Chief of the Senecas’ in DeMille’s epic musket n’bodice buster Unconquered—someone had loaded studio peace pipes with something besides tobacco. Ward Bond goes crazy as the leader of the revolt, and other roles are filled by Julie London, Whitfield Connor (“and introducing”—totally bland as a sort of Ashley Wilkes-lite, he didn’t make it further up any career ladder) and Richard Long.
Critics were not bowled over, and though it did pull in $3,294,000, its cost factor marked a loss of $380,385. Apart from fudging history, the moviemakers also show mountains in the background (location shooting in the Great Smokies), which might surprise anyone familiar with the stories Mississippi setting.
With Arthur Shields, Ruby Dandridge (mother of Dorothy), Russell Simpson and in a bit part, Elmo Lincoln, the first movie Tarzan (Tarzan Of The Apes, 1918).
James Street wrote five acclaimed and popular novels about ‘the Dabney family’ and their course through Southern history: “Oh, Promised Land”, “Tap Roots”, “By Valor And Arms”,”Tomorrow We Reap” and “Mingo Dabney”.