1945’s The Southerner is a highly sentimentalized portrayal of the Southern sharecropping life. This isn’t the sallow-faced Gudgers, but it is Hollywood’s Bryl-Creem version of them. Set in the cotton-producing region of eastern Texas, the story follows one family through a laundry list of daily and long-term struggles faced by the (white) working poor in the early to mid-twentieth century South.
Our protagonists in The Southerner are the Tucker family, led by the calm, easygoing and forthright head-of-household Sam Tucker. As the film begins, we watch Sam (played by Zachary Scott) and wife Nona (played by Betty Field) picking cotton by the pound with Sam’s Uncle Pete, as the elder man falls down from the heat and dies right there among the cotton rows, muttering at Sam to get his own place, to work for himself. Inspired, Sam speaks to the boss man and inquires about a place he’d heard of but that no one has rented or worked in years. The boss man says yes, of course, adding in that he’ll feel free to break the deal if he so chooses, but Sam is a hard worker, ready to take his shot at independence.
So Sam Tucker loads up his lovely wife, two children, and the horneriest Granny that anyone has ever seen (played by Beulah Bondi, who you might recognize from It’s a Wonderful Life) and he heads for his new homestead . . . which is no Garden of Eden. The house is in shambles, the land is overgrown, the well is shot, and the neighbors are assholes. But that won’t stop the stolid Sam Tucker or his ever-optimistic wife from building a new life here.
Over the course of a year, which the film carries through seasonal shifts – autumn, winter, spring, and summer – these poor people face every kind of problem that a family can face. In the autumn, they’re trying to clear the land; in the winter, there’s no food and the drafty little shack won’t keep them warm; in the spring, their son gets pellagra from malnutrition. And if the normal natural obstacles weren’t enough: the family’s nearest neighbor, the grouchy Devers, is trying to sabotage them so he can buy the previously unwanted land; and when Sam’s brother shows up to take him for a beer in town, they damn near get killed by a swindling bartender and his whorish daughter.
But it works out for the Tuckers in the end . . . sort of. After a fist-fight with Devers, the near-death of his moaning child, and a prayerfully humble scene of askance, Sam’s cotton crop comes up, ready to be harvested and sold. Well, it would have been ready, if a rainstorm hadn’t come along and ruined it, flooded everything, and even destroyed the improvements to their ramshackle home. Yep, by the end of the film, the Tuckers are right back at square one— dead broke, but smiling, hopeful, and convinced that everything will still be OK.
Based on the novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand by George Sessions Perry, which won a National Book Award in 1941, The Southerner falls one tiny step short of docu-drama. The film is complete with plenty of diatribes and truisms about working life in the South, which with historical hindsight fall short of inspiring. The story is true to the realities of sharecropping and Southern poverty, but the Hollywood handling of them – complete with non-stop orchestral background music – makes a modern buy-in more difficult.
However, The Southerner has been praised by multiple sources, from then and now. The Museum of Modern Art speaks highly of this film:
Jean Renoir (1894–1979) made six films during his American exile—all of them worthy projects—but the consensus is that The Southerner is the best.
Though MoMA’s critical commentary focuses mainly on Renoir’s use of river imagery, not on historical accuracy.
About The Southerner, New York Times critic Hal Erickson wrote:
Told at a leisurely, unhurried pace, the film is the one American Renoir effort that comes closest to his “slice of life” dramas of the 1930s. The Southerner was not a box office hit, but did win the effusive praise of critics, not to mention the Venice Film Festival “best picture” award.
More recently, we have this commentary:
It was the most uncommercial project of all [of Renoir’s American films], the story of a sharecropper who tries to make a go of it on his own place, some waste land his neighbors have dismissed as unworkable acreage. The sharecropper struggles against disease, the weather, even the hatred of other farmers. A surprise hit, The Southerner is one of the finest films about rural labor between John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath and Elia Kazan’s Wild River.
For its time, The Southerner succeeded as an Everyman story. It brought World War II-era audiences to some acknowledgment of what the Southern sharecropping life looked like. Every day was tenuous. Even though we don’t like the neighbor Devers in this story, his description to Sam Tucker of the daily perils facing a Southern sharecropper are accurate, as is the ending of the film: you can work your fingers to the bone and still have nothing.