Wednesday 3 June 2020

Movie Review: Tobacco Road (1941)

A comedy with some dramatic elements about abject poverty, Tobacco Road never gets the balance right and is a mostly ghastly exercise in overacting.

It's the early 1930s, and the South is in the midst of the Great Depression. Elderly farmer Jeeter Lester (Charley Grapewin), his wife Ada (Elizabeth Patterson), daughter Ellie May (Gene Tierney) and son Dude (William Tracy) are squatting on the estate of Jeeter's now deceased former boss. Dirt poor and lazy, Jeeter barely scrapes together a living, and has no hesitation stealing from his son-in-law Lov Bensey (Ward Bond).

Jeeter is given a few days notice to come up with $100 in annual rent or else move off the land. Prospects look grim until neighbour Sister Bessie Rice (Marjorie Rambeau), a devout lover of religious singing, decides to marry the much younger Dude. Bessie has some insurance money squirreled away, but quickly spends it all on a new car. This does not stop Lester from scheming to fleece his new daughter-in-law.

An adaptation of a popular play from the era, Tobacco Road is an uncomfortably bumpy cinematic experience. The intent of the Nunnally Johnson script must have been to elicit sympathy for the plight of the poor through a mixture of humour and poignancy. But unfortunately director John Ford never sets the right tone. All the characters are portrayed as dimwits deserving their fate, and Jeeter's antics of joyfully taking advantage of family members erode any sense of empathy.

Humour derived from abject stupidity is always fraught with peril, and Tobacco Road often misses the target by astounding margins. Dude, an insanely intolerable and constantly shrieking moron, proceeds to wreck a brand new car within a few hours. Bensey plays a whiny victim while describing the stream of physical abuse he doles out to his wife Pearl (never seen).

Bessie is occasionally funny as she breaks into song at every opportunity, and Ford does frame a few magnificent landscapes in gloomy black and white, and at least wraps up the misery in 84 minutes. But with Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews (in a small role as the son of Jeeter's former boss) wasted, Tobacco Road is more spit than chew.

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