Southern Movie 36: “Hot Summer in Barefoot County” (1974)
Alongside the 1970s fascination with Southern culture that manifested itself in action films like Walking Tall and comedies like Smokey and the Bandit was also the inclination of some filmmakers to make campy, dumb-bunny comedies like Hot Summer in Barefoot County. Released in 1974, the movie was directed by Will Zens, who also made 1967’s The Road to Nashville, 1975’s Trucker’s Woman, and 1985’s The Fix, and it was released by the Preacherman Corporation— as in the same folks who made the 1971 movie Preacherman. The story line centers on the efforts of a big-city special agent to find the source of bootleg liquor in a rural North Carolina county. Yet, this movie isn’t something to be taken seriously, and it’s got everything that’s needed to make sure that we don’t: stereotypes, bad acting, cheap stunts, the works.
Hot Summer in Barefoot County begins on a rural two-lane road with a speeding red hot-rod Ford, piloted by a young woman in a man’s straw hat and aviator sunglasses. Of course, we have banjo-picking to accompany the scene. As the car, which we understand to be a moonshine runner, flies by, we see the roadside sign declaring this to be Barefoot County. Soon, the red Ford is chased by a fat, heavy-bearded sheriff and his buffoonish deputy, but the bootlegger outmaneuvers the sheriff, who can’t do much more with his defeat than grimace and throw down his hat.
After the credits roll, the next bit of the story that we get brings in Special Agent Jeff Wilson, who we meet in a big-city law office. Wilson, who is youngish and perhaps supposed to be handsome, is receiving his orders to go to Barefoot County to put a stop to this bootlegging mess. He will have to go there by himself, undercover, and infiltrate the local scene.
Next, the disguised driver delivers a small load of white jugs to the back of store, and after she drives off, we cut to the backwoods, where a mother and two of her three grown daughters are filling those same plastics jugs at a moonshine still. Mama does a little quality assurance, then wonders out loud whether Mary Ann, the third daughter, the one in the Ford, will be back soon. She tells her daughters, who are decked out like Daisy Duke in short shorts and tied-up shirts, to hurry. Back home – in broad daylight, mind you – the mother and two daughters load more white lightning into the trunk of the Ford. The mama asks Mary Anne if she had any trouble, and with a laugh, she replies that there was none . . . except ol’ Sheriff Bull Tatum. Then they all laugh.
After we see Special Agent Wilson arriving in the area, Bull Tatum and his deputy Clyde are back at their office, when Clyde tells Bull that he got some mail. The letter tells the sheriff that the folks in the capitol are aware of the bootlegging in the area, and Bull worries out loud that another one of “them pesky agents” might come down there to look into it. “We got some sheriffin’ do,” he tells Clyde, and they leave.
But they don’t exactly get to work. Instead they go to the local gas station/diner, where Bull spills the beans to owner Otis Perkins that he will be setting up a road block to check cars, then he orders a couple of plates of bacon and eggs. Two young men Clarence and Junior play pinball in the corner, a few scattered locals sit at other tables, and then the scene cuts to local tomcat Culley Joe forcibly making out with a girl in the front seat of a truck. We find out momentarily, when the two pinball boys are sent outside to find Culley Joe, that the two lovers are out back of the cafe, that she is the waitress at the cafe, and that she is the sheriff’s daughter Nadine!
Inside the cafe, Culley Joe is instructed to go see Stella Holcomb – the mother who is leading the moonshine operation – and tell her that he has some “new developments” to share. (Of course, he knows that the road blocks are for her daughter Mary Ann.) Culley Joe does as he’s told, loads up his two pals into his topless Jeep, and rides out to the Holcomb place. Of course, Culley Joe and his friends see this as an opportunity not only to deliver the message but to molest the Holcomb girls. Finding that their mother is not at home, Culley Joe moves stealthily into the barn and halfheartedly tries to sexually assault the dark-haired sister, who fights him off pretty handily. Stella soon arrives though, and Culley Joe is told at gunpoint to take his philandering elsewhere, but he does manage to deliver his father’s message.
Out on the road, Jeff Wilson is just getting near to the town, and he is spotted by the Jeepful of wild boys. Hooting and hollering, they run Jeff off the road, then proceed without remorse to the sheriff’s road block. Of course, the sheriff finds nothing in the boys’ Jeep, but as the Holcombs are heading to the local cafe to find out what the news is, they find Jeff in his wrecked car. They pull him from the wreck and take him home, but also step out back to get the red Ford ready for another run (again, in broad daylight). This time, Mary Ann comes upon the road block and blasts right through it at full speed! Bull and Clyde try to jump in their car and make chase, but once again Mary Ann’s driving leaves them in a field, scratching their heads.
Pulling up to the cafe, with the second load of moonshine in two days, Mary Ann asks Otis what the news is, after explaining that her mother couldn’t come because they found a man in a car wreck. A road block, she finds out. She has a good laugh, then suggests that they unload the liquor before Bull Tatum shows up. And show up he does, with Clyde, disheveled, and empty-handed.
Out at the Holcombs’, Jeff Wilson wakes up, with a bandage on his head, and finds the mother and her three daughters at the dinner table. He sits right down, and Stella explains how he got there, then introduces her daughters. Mary Ann is giving him the sweet eyes across the table, while the salacious dark-haired sister Vicky looks him over, biting her bottom lip. (The third sister doesn’t seem too interested, or interesting.) Jeff lies, telling them that he was passing through, looking for work, and Stella suggest that he might find work with Otis at cafe.
After an evening on the porch, where Jeff tells the women about his upbringing on a farm, they take him to Sunday services, where he is introduced around and gets to speak to Otis about job. Otis offers him all he can, pumping gas mostly, and now the big-city law man all set to scope out the scene. He even has a pay phone at the cafe, which he can use to call his chief.
Among his first customers are the three Holcomb sister in their blue truck. However, as Jeff tries to pump their gas and check under the hood, Culley Joe butts in and wants to dominate the girls’ attention. Manly man that he is, Jeff deals with Culley Joe pretty easily, making his first enemy in the small community. Later on, inside the cafe, Otis suggests to Jeff that he move out of the Holcombs’ house and into the apartment at the cafe, which Jeff agrees to.
The next few minutes of the movie contain an awkward love scene between Jeff and Mary Ann, who are walking through a field as Jeff explains that he will leave their house. What makes the scene awkward are two things: mainly, the two are shown from about a fifty yards away, but also, in this hokey and oversexed comedy, a moment of sentimental sincerity is way out of place.
When we’re through with that, we’re back at sheriff’s office, where Bull tells Clyde that they need to go out to the Holcomb place and find out more about Jeff Wilson. Clyde objects on the grounds that they live not in Barefoot County but in adjacent Bedrock County, but Bull overrules him, saying that they aren’t going to arrest anybody. Out on the place, they’re met by Stella and Mary Ann on the porch, who explains that Jeff has left, yet when Clyde attempts to snoop in the barn, the two other sisters playfully detain the middle-aged deputy by undressing him. Of course, when he leaves barn with clothes unbuttoned, neither Bull nor Stella believe that it was they who were trying to “rape” him . . .
From here, the twisted plot begins to pick up the pace. As Culley Joe plays some music on the jukebox, the moronic sheriff and deputy try another roadblock. This time, Bull leaves Clyde there with the instructions not to let anybody through, then goes back to the cafe. Jeff is talking to Nadine there, which Culley Joe doesn’t like, and Otis discreetly sells a jug of moonshine to a man, who walks right out with it past the sheriff. (Of course, Jeff notices the transaction.) The conversation from there centers on Nadine, the sheriff’s daughter who flirts with every male who passes her, until a black man pulls up in a car to tell Bull that there’s a traffic jam up the road— Clyde has followed instructions perfectly and has let no one through.
By now, Jeff is putting it all together. From his apartment window, he sees Otis unloading moonshine from Mary Ann’s car. Inside the cafe, Mary Ann tells her dancing sisters to get moving, since they are heading to the swimming hole. Culley Joe hears this and sees yet another opportunity.
Knowing that he must take action, since his real job there is to stop the moonshiners, Jeff tries to go to the Holcombs’ to warn them but no one is there. (They’re at the swimming hole, of course.) So, Jeff goes walking in the woods and sees Stella making moonshine. He jots some notes on his notepad, and we know that the jig is up.
Out at the swimming hole, the three naked sisters play in the water, and Culley Joe goes to pick up Clarence and Junior. All is well, until Mary Ann gets out of the water and Culley Joe is there to attempt yet another sexual assault. She struggles with him for a moment, but then here comes Jeff, who saves the day in a fight scene that any bad 1970s movie would be proud to have. Mary Ann is then so appreciative, and the two lover kiss happily.
Yet, Jeff still hasn’t fessed up to why he is there and what he is about to do.
The next few scenes are awkward once again. In the first one, Stella and Mary Ann talk in the dark kitchen about the moonshiner’s life, giving what almost appears to be an apologia for this illegal, backwoods tradition. Then, the next two scenes, which bounce back and forth, involve Jeff and Mary Ann falling in love, making out, and discussing trust, while Jeff sits alone his apartment mulling the difficult decision he must make. These out-of-place bits are problematic in a movie where sexual assault is taken lightly and where the law is merely a playground for shiftless buffoons. Periodically attempting to tug at our heart strings just doesn’t work.
With more than an hour gone and less than a half-hour to go, Hot Summer in Barefoot County gets tiresome by this point. The sheriff decides to try one more effort to catch that red Ford, but his plan fails again when Clyde, who has been placed to shoot out the car’s tires, shoots out Bull’s tires instead. Jeff then witnesses Mary Ann once again delivering a load of moonshine to Otis, this time on dirt road rather than at the cafe’s back door. Culley Joe gets his comeuppance when he is caught by the sheriff rolling in the sheets with Nadine, and we have a wedding at gunpoint, which will be followed by a big party. Also, Bull thinks he has discovered that Jeff is his moonshiner he finds him at the Holcomb’s still, which forces Jeff to reveal his identity— an identity that Bull shares with everyone at the party! Including Mary Ann, who feels utterly betrayed. Everything is all tied up in knots.
However, all’s well that ends well, as Shakespeare put it. Before he leaves, Jeff makes sure that the Holcombs will not be caught for making moonshine, the two younger sisters start their own new still in another location, half-wit sexual predator Culley Joe is off the streets now that he is a married man, and for the movie’s end, Jeff comes back for Mary Ann! The two close things out, kissing in the fading sunlight.
Trying to find critical commentaries or reviews of Hot Summer in Barefoot County is somewhere between difficult and impossible. It’s seems generally agreed upon that it is a bad movie— and not good-bad. Just plain bad. That absence may also be because the seminal Southern moonshine movie White Lightning preceded it by a year, and this movie can’t hold a candle to that one.
As a document (albeit fictional) that portrays the American South, Hot Summer in Barefoot County relies almost totally on stereotypes in the same way as its predecessor Preacherman. Its flippant approach to the supposed stupidity of Southerners, especially rural Southerners, includes the ideas that complete idiots are likely to be law enforcement officers, that the poor passively accept poverty and a lack of opportunity, and that everyone is sex-starved, immoral, and devoid of self-restraint. Films like this one use the modern cinema to perpetuate caricatures, created earlier by print media and touring shows, which reinforce the notions that Southerners are good-for-nothing, good-timing, and lazy. While it may have made for good comedy in the decade before political correctness, it was also harmful to a region trying to rebuild itself in the decade after Civil Rights.
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