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Just as Anthony Mann's long tenure with Universal was coming to close, the wheeling 'n' dealing writer-producer Philip Yordan signed him to direct two pictures to be released through United Artists. The relatively inexpensive Men in War came first, and then most of the same creative team moved on to a film adaptation of the 'unfilmable' Depression-era "Sex in the South" tome God's Little Acre. Still wildly popular in the '50s, the book was currently sharing shelf space with Peyton Place, another paperback steamer likely to have certain pages flagged and passages underlined.
Among his many profitable pursuits, Philip Yordan ran a script mill that sold many scripts to the studios. It was an open secret that he employed blacklisted writers, and put his name on their work; as Yordan wrote as well authorship paternity is difficult to trace in some cases. Both of these Mann-directed films were written by Ben Maddow, a prominent blacklist victim with honorable leftist credentials. Maddow had written a documentary on the Spanish Civil War and contributed to the powerful pro-union docu-drama Native Land. The book's author Erskine Caldwell was a Southerner transplanted to the North, and nobody's idea of a conservative: the main theme in God's Little Acre -- other than sex, that is -- is the closing of a textile mill due to labor trouble. If sex and labor politics didn't make the story controversial, Caldwell's writing style would -- most of his Southern characters speak in a local idiom so stylized that one would swear that Li'l Abner's hometown of Dogpatch was just over the hill. 1
The Walden farming family is a wretched mess in more ways than one can count. Fifteen years ago the "inspired" paterfamilias Ty Ty Walden (Robert Ryan) stopped farming to instead lead his sons Buck and Shaw (Jack Lord & Vic Morrow) to dig in search of a golden treasure that he has convinced himself is buried somewhere on his property. The area around the Walden house looks like the cratered surface of the moon. Ty Ty has set aside an acre of land as belonging to the Lord, but keeps moving the marker because he doesn't want to follow through on his promise to donate the treasure to the church. Youngest daughter Darlin' Jill (Fay Spain) is an oversexed flirt who loves to tease and torment, the chubby, foolish Pluto Swint (Buddy Hackett), her faithful suitor and a candidate for local Sheriff. The hotheaded Buck is livid with jealousy over his wife Griselda (Tina Louise), a spectacular, sensual beauty: he's convinced that Griselda is carrying on an affair with Will Thompson (Aldo Ray), the husband of the other Walden daughter Rosamund (Helen Westcott). Will and Griselda are strongly attracted to each other, but Will's focus is on the cotton mill that has closed down, putting the whole town out of work. Will gets drunk most every night, and the locals expect him to take the lead in getting the mill going again. It's sitting there ready to go, at the turn of a power switch.
Ty Ty and his sharecropper Uncle Felix (Rex Ingram) kidnap an albino, Dave Dawson (Michael Landon) under the superstitious belief that albinos can find things (like hidden gold) with a divining rod. Ty Ty also takes his daughters to the city to visit his eldest, estranged son Jim Leslie (Lance Fuller), in hopes of borrowing money. The oversexed Walden hothouse can blow up at any time: Buck is threatening to kill Will Thompson, Rosamund is terrified that Will might get hurt causing trouble at the closed mill. Will Ty Ty come to his senses, and set the family right again?
"What in the pluperfect hell?" .... well, dog my cats!" This movie abounds in colorful overwritten dialogue that now sounds like material for a farcical skit. God's Little Acre gets an A-minus for maintaining the basic gist of a book deemed unfilmable. Anthony Mann's movie can also boast interesting performances by a remarkable cast. Where it goes wrong is establishing an acceptable tone. The earlier parts of the story are supposed to be something of a farce, but Mann was never a director with much of a sense of humor. He lets Robert Ryan dish out Ty Ty's weird blend of hick idiocy and paternal wisdom in such a straight manner that we sometimes find ourselves laughing at the movie instead of with it. A comparable picture is Elia Kazan's wickedly funny Baby Doll, which has its hicks but gives them more of a chance to breathe. Ty Ty grins at his daughter-in-law Griselda all but cascading out of her low-cut dress (this movie has a lot of cleavage) and remarks how pleasant it is to have such a woman to look at. He unintentionally comes off as a pervert.
God's Little Acre eventually becomes more serious. The sight of the Waldens turning their front yard into Swiss cheese and throwing shovels full of dirt at one another fades somewhat when Buddy Hackett's Pluto Swint takes over buffoon duty. The comedian has a scene in which Fay Spain (straight from starring roles in Juvenlie Delinquency exploitation) teases him mercilessly. Lying naked in a water trough, she makes Pluto close his eyes and work the pump to cool her off. It's pretty daring stuff. Jack Lord would play another furious hothead for Anthony Mann in the same year's Man of the West. His cuckolded Buck gets so worked up over his wayward wife, we think his head is going to explode.
The book focuses on scenes of White Trash depravity that would raise eyebrows even today. In one chapter Will makes love to Griselda in a bed also occupied by his wife Rosamund. Another notorious passage sees Will ordering Griselda to strip in front of the entire family, after which he drags her into a back room for a long session of rough lovemaking. In her first big-screen role Tina Louise had to somehow deliver on the book's promise of overheated sensuality - at a time when movie screens were crowded with sex symbols. She and director Mann solve the problem by making a relative spectacle of Griselda in the first scene or two, and then backing off. This is where the cleavage shots come into play. She also wears a light cotton dress with no slip, pretty much a no-no in 1958. After that introduction, her steamy midnight kissing scene with a bare-chested Aldo Ray seems almost restrained. Yet this is probably Tina Louise's most rewarding role, and is surely the one that made her a star. Griselda cannot help but inspire trouble between two handsome but flawed men.
Ty Ty tries to stay out of the "children's" love affairs, and Griselda's romantic issues become quite serious. It's all happening more or less in Rosamund's face, and she becomes a nervous wreck. Will Thompson ridicules Ty Ty for hanging on to his dream of gold fever, but he's blind to his own irrational dreams. In what are some of Aldo Ray's best acted scenes, Will talks about how wonderful it was when everybody was working, and their lives had direction and meaning. Caldwell's poetic words sound good in his gravelly voice.
Although the clues are there, the movie version of God's Little Acre doesn't spell out the fact that the mill has closed down because the workers have walked out when the company cut their wages. We wonder why the lines of textile machines are threaded and ready to function. If that's the problem, one would think that somebody would be suggesting that they give in and accept the lower pay. In any case, Will comes off as a tragic fool, not a symbol of labor.
As I said above, Robert Ryan is splendid in this interesting role, but the film's tone undercuts his performance. Aldo Ray and Tina Louise are standouts in the film's uniformly good acting; Anthony Mann is good with crowded scenes. He apparently loved stories about family conflict and often worked the theme into his westerns and epics. It's nice to see seemingly incompatible actors -- Buddy Hackett, Fay Spain, Rex Ingram -- mesh in such eccentric ways. If some audiences reject the movie, it's probably because everything in that happens seems so eccentric, abnormal. They might think it's a The Beverly Hillbillies prequel called The Smutty Years.
Adding to the list of bizarre elements is the albino played by Michael Landon -- the Michael Landon of Little House on the Prairie fame. Dave Dawson is kidnapped and held as a prisoner, as if he were a circus freak. Behaving like a slaveholder, Uncle Felix apparently has plans to exhibit Dawson for money. Nobody worries a moment about his basic rights. As it turns out, the sex-mad Darlin' Jill sees the albino as an exciting novelty, and takes him on an amorous boat ride. Ty Ty watches from afar, with a big grin on his face. It's obvious what was going on; the only question is how God's Little Acre ever got by the Production Code office back in 1958. It's very doubtful that harder material was filmed and then cut out; I have three books on Hollywood censorship but none of them mentions the title.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of God's Little Acre is an excellent transfer of this hot-cha title. It disappeared from view for years and finally showed up again on TCM a few seasons back. The B&W HD image is quite good at all times, with Ernest Haller's camerawork often finding good deep-focus compositions. For some reason, during the main titles the focus on the left side of the screen is soft. Did the movie always have that flaw?
The disc package illustration is an attractive stylized close-up image of Tina Louise in ecstatic mode. It's a good choice -- a sexy angle of Griselda Walden might lead purchasers to expect a skin flick. Most of the production stills show grimy men standing sweating in the heat, which wouldn't be much of a buyer come-on either.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
God's Little Acre Blu-ray rates:
1. One of James Thurber's short stories is "Bateman Comes Home", a selection in the book The Thurber Carnival. It's a brief and devastatingly funny lampoon of Erskine Caldwell's writing style. Highly recommended.
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