Jean Renoir’s peak was so great that it’s possible for the rest of his work to be a bit forgotten. There are hardly two better films than Grand Illusion and especially The Rules of the Game, both from the late-30s as Europe fell apart. Renoir ended up in Hollywood for a few years, and The Southerner is generally regarded as his best American film. That sounds like damning with faint praise, which is unfair, for if The Southerner is a notch below The Rules of the Game (as almost every movie is), it is still a rewarding look at a poor sharecropping family in Texas, remarkable for its matter-of-fact treatment of its characters. As usual, Renoir sidesteps being too judgmental with people ... there are no “bad guys”, just people who aren’t as good-natured as others. The farmers meet adversity, but it’s natural adversity ... the soil and the weather and the immense hard work necessary to grow things like cotton.
It is always clear that the farmers’ work is made more difficult by their lack of money, but Renoir doesn’t turn them into exaggerated stereotypes of the poor. They are just folks. He also refrains from turning the movie into a narrow screed. There is a social stance in the film, but it’s under the surface. As he often does, Renoir somehow manages to let us in on his own point of view without making it apparent.
Zachary Scott was an interesting choice for the male lead. He had only just begun in pictures, and his screen persona was formalized when he played a sleaze ball opposite Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce. But The Southerner came out the same year as Mildred Pierce, and perhaps contemporary audiences had less trouble seeing Scott as a farmer, at least, compared to those of us who think of sleaze when we think of Zachary Scott. In fact, Scott was from Texas, and he gives an authenticity to the picture ... he seems like he belongs with that land. Betty Field plays his wife ... I’m not sure why her career wasn’t bigger, but here, she is believable out in the fields with her husband. The same can’t be said for Beulah Bondi, in her mid-50s when the picture was made, but seemingly playing a granny in her 80s. Every thing she does is annoying, and she is in a lot of scenes. If Scott and Field underplay, Bondi makes up for it by chewing the scenery.
Renoir got an Oscar nomination for Best Director (the only one he ever received, although he did get an honorary award when he was in his 80s). He lost to Billy Wilder for The Lost Weekend. Robert Aldrich worked as an assistant director, one of his earliest credits. These days, Aldrich is known as the guy Alfred Molina played in Feud.
The Southerner is more than just a movie you ought to see. It’s worthy in its own right. 8/10.