SWAMP WATER, a special and too-little-known winner from 1941, was adapted by the prodigious Dudley Nichols from a novel written the year before by Vereen Bell. Flavorful and touching period drama, marked by a richly conveyed atmosphere and telling detail, it holds a non-judgmental sense of humanity’s many faces and proffers a raft of strong performances. It joined a remarkable slate of Americana classics helmed in that last peaceful year by some of the industry’s finest directors: Ford, Capra, Hawks, Hathaway, Wyler, Walsh, Sturges and an upstart named Welles. What gives an added measure of respect to this entry is that its sojourn with ‘down home’ rural folks was directed by a foreign visitor, a French exile from the war in Europe who’d only been in America for a few months. But then Jean Renoir was not just your random everyday Parisian. *
When his dog ‘Trouble’ gets lost in Georgia’s trackless, peril-laden Okefenokee Swamp, amiable hamlet dweller ‘Ben’ (Dana Andrews) defies his ornery Pop, ‘Thursday Ragan’ (Walter Huston), and goes after the hound. Ben is captured by ‘Tom Keefer’ (Walter Brennan), fugitive from a murder rap. The encounter turns from fear to friendship, but Ben’s fellow townsfolk, a cussed lot, are suspicious of his mysterious doings in the big bog, and soon a different kind of Trouble boils over, with secrets that harbor pain or hold promise for all concerned.
Though the average moviegoer of the day was not likely to be up to snuff on Renoir’s professional reputation (or lineage as son of Impressionist legend Auguste Renoir), fellow film-makers, critics and discerning audiences knew that the Nazi-fled arrival was responsible for masterpieces like Grand Illusion and The Rules Of The Game. Working within the restrictions imposed by Hollywood’s feudal system, over six years Renoir made five pictures in the USA, including another highly regarded rural study, The Southerner. His maiden effort is a real pleasure, visually striking and emotionally deep.
Though billed 4th after 3-time Oscar winner Brennan, a fire-eating Huston and the arresting 18-year-old Fox ingenue Anne Baxter, fast-rising talent Dana Andrews had the biggest part, and he’s superb. He was 32, but convincingly projected such youth as to pass, per the character, a good decade younger. Not given nearly enough credit for his top-rate work in the 40s, Andrews pushed the envelope for actors who would follow, in the way he showed naked, honest candor portraying men secure enough in their masculinity and moral strength to reveal anguish, fear and confusion. The others shine as well: can you go wrong with a vengeful Brennan or fierce Huston, and not be moved by Baxter’s innocence? The supporting cast is peppered with familiar faces from John Ford’s redoubtable stock company, hardies like John Carradine, Ward Bond and Russell Simpson. To contrast Baxter’s oppressed, fawn-like servant lass (she does it beautifully), the story’s heedless ‘bad girl’ is played—equally well—by another fresh face from the Fox farm, Virginia Gilmore, who exudes primitive sex tease armed with cagey smarts. **
Renoir shot extensively (and expensively) on location in the actual swamp (it’s a big’un, 438,000 acres), with some other exterior shots at Lake Sherwood, just north of L.A. The interiors were finessed on effectively appointed sets back in Hollywood. The mood-redolent camera work came from J.Peverell Marley and, sans credit, Lucien Ballard. David Buttolph’s music score reinforces the Ford connection with several refrains of “Red River Valley”, used more appropriately a year earlier in The Grapes Of Wrath.
With Mary Howard, Eugene Pallette, Guinn Williams, and Joe Sawyer, who gets to play a halfway nice guy for once. Costing $601,900 to make, the gross of $2,500,000 placed 97th in a jam-packed lineup. Remade in 1952, in color, as Lure Of The Wilderness, with keen visual stylist Jean Negulesco directing. Brennan replayed his role, with Jeffrey Hunter replacing Andrews and Jean Peters in the Anne Baxter part.
* Superficially, Renoir’s swamp saga is kin to Ford’s also Georgia-set Tobacco Road and Henry Hathaway’s Ozark fable The Shepherd Of The Hills, both from the same year, each also featuring fresh new actresses as coltish country girls: Gene Tierney and Betty Field. Was it the sense of imminent violent change that filled 1941 with assorted examinations of the nation’s character? Besides the above, stand up like you haven’t given up, and cheer the art, craft, hope, pride, laughs, darkness, light, questioning and reassurance of Sergeant York, Sullivan’s Travels, Meet John Doe, The Strawberry Blonde, The Little Foxes, The Devil And Daniel Webster, and…oh, yes… Citizen Kane.
** First seeing this, I was certain I was seeing a young June Lockhart, but the Swamp Vamp Next Door turned out to be 22-year-old Virginia Gilmore. Miss Gilmore had a too-brief run in films, but was married to Yul Brynner for 16 years, taught drama at Yale and became a force in Alcoholics Anonymous. Now then, June Lockhart, 16 at the time, was in another of ’41’s epics, Sergeant York, and appears to have been—Lassie and Lost In Space notwithstanding—more than cheerfully forthright about Being Hot and Knowing How To Use It, which—with a few more years for propriety’s sake—would have made her a natural for the Gilmore role in Swamp Water. Ever-conscious of unbiased reportage duty to the public, I deal with this Sexarcana so you don’t have to. Shame is for hypocrites.
“Swamp Water” was Vereen Bell’s first of just two novels. Thirty years old, he died in 1944, one of 3,000 American casualties in the massive and desperate naval Battle of Leyte Gulf.