The Southerner (film)

The Southerner is a 1945 American drama film directed by Jean Renoir and based on the 1941 novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand by George Sessions Perry. The film received Oscar nominations for Best Director, Original Music Score, and Sound. Renoir was named Best Director by the National Board of Review, which also named the film the third best of 1945.[3] The film, now in the public domain,[4] portrays the hardships of a poor family struggling to establish a cotton farm in Texas in the early 1940s.[5][6]

The Southerner
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJean Renoir
Produced byRobert Hakim
David L. Loew
Screenplay byHugo Butler
Jean Renoir
William Faulkner
Nunnally Johnson
Based onHold Autumn in Your Hand
1941 novel
by George Sessions Perry
StarringZachary Scott
Betty Field
J. Carrol Naish
Music byWerner Janssen
CinematographyLucien N. Andriot
Edited byGregg C. Tallas
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
May 18, 1945[1]
Running time
92 minutes
CountryUnited States


As the film opens, Sam Tucker is a share-cropper, in Texas, picking cotton in a sunbaked field along with his wife Nona and his elderly Uncle Pete. Pete suddenly collapses due to the extreme heat and to what he blames as "my darned old heart". Before he dies, he tells his nephew, "Work for yourself; grow your own crops." Sam heeds his uncle's advice, so he, Nona, their children Daisy and Jot, and "Granny" leave the migrant camp and set out to work a vacant tenant farm with little more than two mules, a second-hand plow, and some cotton seed and fertilizer. The land that the family leases includes only a decaying shack and a well, a dry one. In immediate need of drinking water, Sam visits a gruff neighboring farmer, Henry Devers, who reluctantly allows the Tuckers to share water from his well.

Sam and his family nearly freeze and starve during their first winter on the farm, surviving largely on a limited diet of opossums, raccoons, and other small game that he is able to shoot. As spring arrives, Jot falls ill with "spring sickness". The town doctor informs Nona that the boy needs more diverse, vitamin-enriched foods, including vegetables, fruits, and milk to survive. The Tuckers immediately plant a garden, but its produce will take time to mature. Daily servings of milk would provide the suffering Jot with some timely relief, but the family cannot afford to buy or even rent a cow.

Sam's friend Tim offers to help get him a factory job that pays the attractive wage of seven dollars a day. Sam, though, remains determined to succeed as a farmer. Soon the family's prayers are answered when Harmie, who owns the local general store, and Tim arrive in Harmie's flatbed truck with a milk cow, which young Daisy names "Uncle Walter." The family's cotton crop and the much-needed vegetable garden they planted finally begin to flourish. Meanwhile, the embittered Devers and his strange nephew Finlay plot to ruin the Tuckers so Devers can buy the tenant farm for a cheaper price from its owner.

After Finley destroys the Tuckers' garden, Sam confronts Devers at his farm. There Devers, armed with a knife, declares he will no longer share his well water, whereupon the two men have a near-deadly fight. Sam leaves and Devers gets a rifle and follows him. Soon he finds Sam at the nearby river pulling in a fishing line on which he has hooked "Lead Pencil," an enormous catfish that Devers has been trying to catch for years. In return for the fish and the bragging rights that he was the one who caught it, Devers agrees to give Sam his garden and allow him continued access to his well, a deal that effectively puts an end to the trouble between the two families.

Harmie now marries Sam's mother, and a party is held at his general store to celebrate the wedding. Life at last seems to offer true promise for the Tuckers amid the joy of that occasion. Unfortunately, a violent rainstorm rolls in as the party is ending. The next day the family returns to their farm, where heavy winds and flooding from the storm have ruined their entire cotton crop and ravaged their home. Sam, stunned by the sudden devastation, lets Tim accompany him as he searches for the family's missing cow. They find the animal alive but struggling in the swollen river. Tim nearly drowns in the deep water, but Sam rescues him. After pulling his friend from the river, Sam tells him that he is giving up farming and is now willing to take a factory job. However, upon returning again to his battered home, he reconsiders his decision about quitting once he sees the resilience of his wife and grandmother, who are busy cleaning up what remains of the house and professing their resolve to start over again. The film ends with Sam and Nona, months after the flood, standing together in a freshly plowed field preparing for a new season and a new crop.



The Southerner was the third of five feature films that Jean Renoir directed while living in the United States during the 1940s. It was also the first of his independent Hollywood productions.[7] Renoir's other "American" films are Swamp Water (1941), This Land Is Mine (1943), The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946), and The Woman on the Beach (1947).[7] The Southerner, however, is now regarded by some reviewers and film historians to be his "Hollywood masterpiece" and generally recognized as the French director's "most American" film with regard to its content, structure, and overall presentation.[8][9]

Contemporary news items in Hollywood reported that Joel McCrea and his wife Frances Dee were set to play the lead roles of Sam and Nona Tucker in The Southerner, but the couple left the project in pre-production due to McCrea's dissatisfaction with the script and his "creative differences" with Renoir.[10][11] The roles then went to Zachary Scott and Betty Field. Although Scott did not possess McCrea's "star power" as a leading man and had relatively little experience in feature films, he did have one distinct advantage in preparing to portray Sam Tucker; he was a native of Texas, the setting for The Southerner.[12][13]

Robert Aldrich, at age 26, was the assistant director on The Southerner, which was filmed at various locations in California, including the Arthur Ranch in the San Fernando Valley, Hotchkiss Ranch in Firebaugh, California, at RKO Pictures' movie ranch near Encino, in Malibu, at sites along the banks of the San Joaquin River, and in cotton fields near the town of Madera, about 240 miles northwest of Hollywood.[14][10][15] The flood depicted in the production was created with water supplied from the Friant Dam and was shot where Millerton Lake is located today.

Critical reception

Variety magazine gave the film a favorable review: "The Southerner creates too little hope for a solution to the difficulties of farm workers who constantly look forward to the day when they can settle forever their existence of poverty with a long-sought harvest - a harvest that invariably never comes ... Zachary Scott and Betty Field give fine performances, as do Beulah Bondi, the grandmother, Percy Kilbride, Charles Kemper and J. Carrol Naish."[16]

Bosley Crowther, the film critic for The New York Times, also liked the film and in 1945 wrote, "The Southerner may not be an 'entertainment' in the rigid Hollywood sense and it may have some flaws, but it is, nevertheless, a rich, unusual and sensitive delineation of a segment of the American scene well worth filming and seeing."[17]

James Agee, among the most influential writers and film critics in the United States during the 1940s, admired several aspects of The Southerner, including the "sense of tactile reality" that Renoir captured in the film's general surroundings.[18] For Agee, however, that sense of reality ended with the dialogue and attempted southern accents used in much of the film, which he deemed wholly unrealistic, as were in his view the actors' mannerisms and overall behavior on screen.[7] The film, Agee contended, essentially "rang false", for it neither accurately portrayed the South's basic character nor the people who inhabited its rural subculture.[7] A native of Tennessee, Agee was very knowledgeable about the South and in particular about tenant farmers and "croppers". In fact, he had first-hand experience observing the day-to-day challenges facing poor cotton farmers. He had lived for two months in Alabama with sharecroppers in the summer of 1936 and had recorded in great detail their families' troubled histories and meager existence at the time. Later that written record, accompanied by the photographs of Walker Evans, formed the highly acclaimed book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which was published just four years prior to the release of The Southerner.[19]

Regional controversy

The release of The Southerner in 1945 provoked intense negative reactions in various locations throughout the southern United States. In spite of Sam Tucker's portrayal as an honest, hard-working, highly devoted family man in the film, some people in the South strongly objected to The Southerner due to what they viewed as the film's "sordid depiction of life in the southern states."[7] The film was even banned from being shown in Tennessee by Lloyd T. Binford, who for nearly three decades served as head of the Memphis Board of Censors and whose influence in that position extended to review boards and movie theaters across that state. Outside of Tennessee, Binford by the 1940s had already established a reputation in Hollywood and nationally as "the toughest censor in America".[20] Disgusted by The Southerner, he condemned the film as a "slur against Southern farmers" and for its characters being portrayed as nothing more than "'common, lowdown, ignorant white trash'".[1][21] The Ku Klux Klan also condemned Renoir's film and advocated boycotting it at theaters elsewhere in the South.[7][22] Yet, condemnation of The Southerner was by no means universal in the region. The United Daughters of the Confederacy was one of its supporters. The organization endorsed the film and complimented how its lead characters exemplified the South's best attributes of "'courage, stout-heartedness and love of our land'".[23]

The regionalized title of The Southerner contributed to the film's controversy, a title that was being criticized by reviewers and influential movie promoters well before the film started to reach theaters in August 1945.[24] The film-industry trade magazine Boxoffice, in its issue of May 5, 1945, cautioned theater owners that although The Southerner was an "outstanding picture", it was hampered by "an inept title" and by "a cast of questionable drawing power."[24] One of the alternate titles considered for The Southerner by its producers and its distributor United Artists was The Tuckers of Texas.[25][26] If the film had been released under that personalized, more geographically specific title, any objections to it in the South would have likely been far less intense.

Theater promotion for The Southerner in 1945

In the 1940s the film industry's weekly trade magazine Boxoffice provided foreign and domestic news of special interest to movie theater operators, as well as advertisements for theater equipment and furnishings. It also provided details about the content, casting, production, and distribution of Hollywood films, along with movie reviews and reports about the public's response to releases in every region of the United States. Boxoffice issues also had a "Showmandizer Section" that gave "exploitips" to theater owners on how to promote each coming attraction and what publicity tactics they could use locally to draw more ticket-buyers to their venues.[27] With regard to promoting The Southerner in 1945, the magazine furnished a card-sized reference to theater owners that contained the following "Selling Angles" for the film:

Obtain bookstore tieups on George Session[s] Perry's novel "Hold Autumn in Your Hand," from which the picture was adapted. Get cooperation of 4H Clubs, the Grange and similar organizations in endorsing and publicizing this film. Window hookups with farm supply stores and feed shops—with live exhibits if possible, such as baby chicks, suckling pigs, etc.—should prove advantageous. Play up angling [fishing] angle: offer ticket prizes for largest fish caught, or biggest whopper [exaggerated fishing story] told.[28]

The recommended "angle" offered by Boxoffice to attract even fishing enthusiasts to The Southerner relates to scenes in the film involving a catfish so large that it has "chin whiskers like lead pencils". Later in the story, when Sam Tucker actually catches "Lead Pencil", its huge size proves that Finley's earlier description or suspected "whopper" about the fish was no exaggeration. Boxoffice also gave theater owners "catchlines" or promotional phrases to use on their marquees and to send to newspapers and local radio stations to publicize The Southerner. In addition to "There Were Two Loves in His [Sam Tucker's] Life—His Family and His Farm", one other catchline given by Boxoffice to exploit the fishing angle, though misleading, was "Things Went From Bad to Pieces . . . Until Fisherman's Luck Changed an Enemy Into a Friend".[28]




References and notes

  1. "The Southerner". American Film Institute (AFI), Los Angeles, California. Retrieved July 10, 2017.
  2. "Indies' $70,000,000 Pix Output: Record Negative Coin Investment". Variety (New York), page 3, column 3, November 1, 1944. News report that includes monetary investments by independent producers in unreleased films, including The Southerner, which in the newspaper is cited by the novel's title "'Hold Autumn in Your Hand'". Variety Incorporated, New York, N.Y. Retrieved July 7, 2017.
  3. "The Southerner (1945)". Internet Movie Database (IMDb), an affiliate of Amazon, Seattle Washington. Retrieved July 7, 2017.
  4. King, Susan (24 February 1991). "How Hollywood Dealt with Great Depression". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 12 March 2018.
  5. "The Southerner by Jean Renoir". A full digital copy of The Southerner is available for viewing, along with independent reviews, on Internet Archive. San Francisco, California. Retrieved July 7, 2017. Other copies of the film are also available on YouTube and elsewhere.
  6. Although calendars depicted in The Southerner include no year dates, and no dialogue in the film refers to a specific time setting, the styling of a tractor and truck in scenes at Devers' farm and a car model in the street of the nearby town identify this to be a contemporary story, one set in the early 1940s.
  7. Affron, Mirella Jona. "The Southerner - Film (Movie) Plot and Review". Film Reference. Avameg, Inc., Hinsdale and Naperville, Illinois. Retrieved July 8, 2017.
  8. Travers, James (2014). "The Southerner (1945): Synopsis and Film Review". Films de France ( Retrieved July 8, 2017.
  9. Badgley, Shawn (2002). Review of The Southerner originally published in the Austin Chronicle, Austin, Texas, March 29, 2002. Reprinted by The New York State Writers Institute, University at Albany, State University of New York. Retrieved July 8, 2017.
  10. "The Southerner (1945): Notes". Turner Classic Movies (TCM), a company of Time Warner, Inc., New York, N.Y. Retrieved July 9, 2017.
  11. "Articles: The Southerner (1945)". TCM. Retrieved July 8, 2017.
  12. "French Twist: Jean Renoir’s Forgotten Hollywood Classic", December 14, 2009. Hollywood Center Studios (now Sunset Las Palmas Studios), Los Angeles, California. Retrieved July 8, 2017.
  13. "Zachary Scott". TCM. Retrieved July 8, 2017.
  14. "Robert Aldrich: Complete Filmography", TCM. Retrieved July 8, 2017.
  15. Bogdanovich, Peter (2011). "The Southerner". IndieWire, January 18, 2011. Penske Media Corporation, Los Angeles, California, and New York, N.Y. Retrieved July 14, 2017.
  16. "Review 'The Southerner'". Variety, transcription of review originally published in Variety (New York) on April 30, 1945. Retrieved July 7, 2017.
  17. Crowther, Bosley (1945). "THE SCREEN...'The Southerner' Is New Picture at the Globe". The New York Times, film review, August 27, 1945. Retrieved July 7, 2017.
  18. Hagopian, Kevin Hagopian. "The Southerner", a review by Kevin Hagopian of Penn State University for the New York State Writers Institute, New York State University at Albany. Retrieved July 15, 2017.
  19. "'You Ain’t Never Seen Trouble Till You Lose a Youngun'". Slate, New York, N.Y., and Washington, D.C. Retrieved July 15, 2017.
  20. Finger, Michael (2008). "Banned in Memphis". Memphis Flyer, Memphis Tennessee, July 2008. Retrieved July 10, 2017.
  21. "Higher Criticism in Memphis", Time magazine, August 13, 1945.
  22. LoBianco, Lorraine. "The Southerner (1945): Articles", Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Retrieved July 9, 2017.
  23. Shlyen, Ben (1945). "Blindsight", BoxOffice magazine (Kansas City, Missouri: Associated Publications), August 11, 1945, p. 6.
  24. "The Southerner", highlighted in the "Showmandizer Section" of Boxoffice magazine, May 5, 1945, pages 11-12 of cited section. Digital copy of original publication in Internet Archive. Retrieved July 10, 2017.
  25. '"The Southerner",. AFI. Retrieved July 10, 2017.
  26. Another working or alternate title considered for The Southerner before its release was Down By The River. Refer to "The Southerner (1945): Notes" at TCM. Retrieved July 17, 2017.
  27. Fraze, Hugh E.; editor (1945). "Showmandizer Section", special guide in Box Office, May 5, 1945, p. 1 (facing page 102 of main content of magazine). Retrieved July 14, 2017.
  28. "EXPLOITIPS: Ideas for Selling the Picture; Adlines for Newspaper and Programs", Boxoffice, May 5, 1945, "Showmandizer Section", page 12 of that special section or guide. Internet Archive, San Francisco, California. Retrieved July 10, 2017.
  29. "Awards for 1945". National Board of Review. Archived in "Wayback Machine" by Internet Archive, San Francisco, California. Retrieved July 7, 2017.
  30. Faulkner, Christopher (1979). Jean Renoir, a guide to references and resources. Boston, Massachusetts: G.K. Hall & Company. p. 28.
  31. "The 18th Academy Awards|1946", "Winners & Nominees" presented at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, Los Angeles, California, March 7, 1946. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), Beverly Hills, California. Retrieved July 7, 2017.
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