TOBACCO ROAD was successful at the box office with the $5,300,000 making it the 23rd most attended picture of 1941. But critics ripped it, and apart from one excellent performance and some nice cinematography it’s a disappointment coming from director John Ford. Nunnally Johnson wrote the screenplay, adapting from Jack Kirkland’s stage play of Erskine Caldwell’s controversial 1932 bestseller.
The worn-out farmlands around Augusta, Georgia during the Depression don’t offer ‘Jeeter Lester’ and his kin much besides dire poverty, hunger and likely eviction. Choices are stark: wage-slaving in a mill, or the poorhouse. Manifest ignorance doesn’t help, and the grown children (out of “seventeen or eighteen“, Jester’s not sure) who haven’t skedaddled from the coop seem content to serve their most primal urges.
Caldwell’s book—set in a fictionalized version of his home town—was a lurid, scathing, seriocomic indictment of a decrepit system that left already marginalized people little beyond a diet of base instincts. Though many locations banned it because of its randy sexual content, eye-pokes at holy-rolling religion and overall wallow in depravity, when the woe harvest was turned into a play by Jack Kirkland it became a sensation. By the time the movie came out it was (then) the longest-running play Broadway, clocking 3,281 performances. Three revivals followed.
Stuck between aroused expectations from the success of book and play, and whatever the censors would allow, the material was bowdlerized, neutered into farce, and Ford further fumbled into the backwoods of Caricatureville by allowing supporting players to grossly exaggerate. With Arthur C. Miller’s often striking camera work styling black & white chiaroscuro compositions fitting for drama, the tonal shifts between clownish horseplay and moving moments of drama were jarring. A native Georgian himself, veteran screenwriter Johnson (who’d just won an Oscar adapting Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for Ford’s magisterial film version), felt Ford for the most part simply didn’t know how to handle it. *
Hardest to take is the awful screeching of supporting actor William Tracy as ‘Dude’, the moronic and destructive teenage son who marries constantly caterwauling ‘Sister Bessie’ (Marjorie Rambeau), twenty years his senior with an I.Q. to match, possessed with belting gospel songs at the top of her lungs, a gag that wears itself out in a Hee Haw minute. Ford favorite Ward Bond is somewhat easier to take as oafish ‘Lov’, pining over his 13-year-old child bride.
In smaller roles are two newcomers 20th Century Fox was grooming for stardom. Dana Andrews, 31, has brief but effective scenes as someone who tries to help Jeeter out a little to temporarily stave off what seems inevitable (the book’s brutal finish giving way o screen to something with a thin ray of hope). Figuring (so to speak) strongly in the advertising, Gene Tierney, 20, is the picture of wanton lust as daughter ‘Ellie May’, projecting animalistic desire that would pause a panther. She gives Hedy Lamarr’s ‘Tondelayo’ from White Cargo some down-home competition in the Writhing Department. The standout in the cast—a most fortunate saving grace since he plays the central character—is 71-year-old Charley Grapewin, who’s wonderful as the cornered but ever-conniving Jeeter, a one-man course in “coot”.
David Buttolph’s score lays on folk standards. With Elizabeth Patterson, Slim Summerville, Grant Mitchell, Russell Simpson, Zeffie Tilbury, Jack Pennick and some turnips. 84 minutes.
Johnson: “John of course hadn’t seen the play and he didn’t know the first thing about a Southern shack hollow….He was much too powerful for me, and it was just as if I were talking to him in Greek. To him, a low, illiterate cracker and a low, illiterate Irishman were identical. They reacted the same way. Since he didn’t know anything about crackers, except me, and he did know about the Irish, he simply changed them all into Irishmen. The whole thing was a calamity.”
Maybe the intent was ribald ribbing of rubes, but the excessive clowning rubs raw. The crude stereotypes come off as mocking the ignored and uneducated rural “poor white trash”, which is at odds with Ford’s sensitive and sympathetic depiction of the destitute “Okies” of The Grapes Of Wrath.
Broad as hell, for sure, but Grapewin’s rich tragi-comic performance is certainly more than worthy of praise. Also released in ’41, Ford’s next movie, before he went off to war, was the superb How Green Was My Valley.