Note: Tobacco Road screens Saturday February 16 at the Museum of the Moving Image, as part of the Museum's ongoing Ford at Fox retrospective. screened Wednesday February 6 2008 on Fox DVD in Weehawken NJ
Expectations were high for John Ford's screen adaptation of what, at the time, was one of Broadway's most successful stage plays. The film was a flop; while it, alongside The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley, formed a trilogy commemorating the everyday struggles of the working classes, the bawdy hick tenor of Tobacco Road couldn't be further removed from the dignified grandeur of those two Oscar-winning classics. In Grapes and Valley, Ford strives to lift the working man from the soil and exalt his persevering human spirit; in Tobacco Road Ford seems gleefully insistent in rubbing his characters' faces in the dirt - in fact, the wanton Gene Tierney is caught literally writhing in the ground in an attempt to nibble on her brother-in-law's radish (literally and perhaps figuratively).
Central to the spirit and tone of Tobacco Road is Charley Grapewin's oversalted performance as Jeeter Lester, in which his wheezy Roscoe P. Coltrane-esque ramblings outdo Walter Brennan for beef jerkiness. (When my high school history teacher screened The Grapes of Wrath to our class, he paused on a frame of Grapewin as Pa Joad to remark how the actor deserved a citation for worst scenery-chewing in what he otherwise considered a masterpiece). Even Ford biographer Joseph MacBride laments the film's condescending hick vaudeville as an embarrassment to Ford's career, particularly in its performances: "William Tracy's hideous screeching as the moronic Dude Lester and the embarrassing spectacle of Ward Bond and Gene Tierney writhing toward each other in the dirt to convey sexual passion are among the lowest points in Ford's oeuvre."
And yet amidst this grating crudity lies some of Ford's most interesting work. The redneck shenanigans of rock chucking, radish chawing and grand theft jalopy give way to occasional moments of grace, when the characters take a moment to wonder at the immense inscrutability of their outcast fates, with Ford bathing them in multiple layers of light and shadow, giving their characters visual dimensions that their limited thought and speech couldn't take them. The rhythm of the film is littered with unexpected shifts of tones - in one remarkable sequence the film goes from comedy to social melodrama to lyrical romance to slapstick. There's a rangy freedom in this film that seems to blow raspberries at the exalted impeccability of The Grapes of Wrath and especially How Green Was my Valley. His achievements are limited by Max Steiner's rather obvious score, that draws thick pencil underlines to every shade of mood that Ford establishes.
Ultimately for me the film raises questions about just what is the "best" way to make a movie about the poor - a line of inquiry that I think are implied in Ford's direction. Whether he's struggling with finding the right level from which to regard his proletarian subjects (highbrow? lowbrow? anywhere but the mediocre middle), or deliberately issuing their bad behavior as a provocation against propriety, Tobacco Road is nothing if not dull. As he would do later with The Quiet Man, Donovan's Reef and many other films, Ford constructs a micro-community with its own set of logic and customs, that can come off as either charmed or obnoxious, sometimes both at once.
Want to go deeper?
Right off, the answer is no—and you who have entertained doubts that the screen version of "Tobacco Road," which John Ford has made for Twentieth Century-Fox, might somewhat resemble the stage play may rest assured that it does not. As a matter of fact, it barely resembles a believable slice of life, and just comes under the wire as an amusing but pointless film. For the process of disinfection, which the Hays office sternly required, apparently left the original so full of ragged holes that Script Writer Nunnally Johnson despaired of filling them up and passed on to Mr. Ford little more than a genial character sketch. As a consequence, the Roxy's new tenant is a slightly soiled family film—a poor-white family film—and not a great deal more.
There are many people in this country who feel strongly about "Tobacco Road," But whatever one's personal reaction to that fabulously long-lived play, the fact cannot be denied that it is a brutal, morbid but strangely trenchant chronicle of human degeneration. Underneath its filth and grossness one catches a glimpse of utter tragedy. Not so in Mr. Ford's screen version; the story is played for laughs. And although the film is introduced with a solemnly sentimental exploration of the wasted Georgia back lands, of the once respectable families whose pride and property have gone (as the narrator actually puts it) "with the wind," the mood very soon becomes one of bucolic levity and remains on that note throughout.
- Bosley Crowther, New York Times original review, February 21, 1941
Review in Time Magazine, March 10 1941
“The result, to me, was a fiasco. I had, and still have, a certain respect for that curious play and its curious people; the play was, in my opinion,a fascinating caricature of the truth; but I’m afraid I found nothing whatever of this in the picture. To me it was just a crude, clumsy fake.” - Nunnally Johnson (1955) (Letter to Lindsay Anderson)
“The whole of Tobacco Road, which for the extraordinary balance and control of its continual variations of mood - wistfully elegiac and wildly slapstick, crually satirical and tenderly sentimental - constitutes perhaps the most sheerly virtuoso performance of Ford’s career.” - Lindsay Anderson
The above quotes are found on The Camera Journal
Peter Bogdanovich interviewing John Ford:
Q: Would you have changed Tobacco Road even if the play hadn't had censorship problems?
A: Did the play have censorship problems? Oh, the girl. Well, we suggested that, but I think we did it nicely. I don't think it offended anybody. I enjoyed making the picture. I saw it on television recently and enjoyed it again. Poor Charlie Grapewin was a fine actor, and a wonderful guy to work with, always cracking jokes and playing practical jokes, and then he'd go and get right into his part again.
- from Bogdanovich, John Ford, p. 80
Ford's next film but one after The Grapes of Wrath, obviously intended by Fox as a follow-up in the Oscar-winning social conscience stakes, was generally castigated as a crude, stagy mockery, derived at one or two censorship removes from the play based on Erskine Caldwell's bawdily earthy novel. In retrospect, however, it emerges as a fascinatingly subversive piece, undermining the starry-eyed humanism of the earlier film's 'We are the people' view. Instead of Steinbeck's Joads of Oklahoma, stubbornly maintaining their faith in the American Dream even in the depths of misery, we get the Lesters of Georgia, poor white trash perfectly content to wallow fecklessly in their mire of animal sexuality (when young) or tranquil sloth (when old age takes over). Beautifully realised by Ford, not unlike Kazan's Baby Doll in its blackly comic blend of dark sexuality and overheated melodrama, Tobacco Road is often very funny, sometimes deeply moving, and always provocative in its acknowledgment of an alternative to 'the American way of life'.
Not John Ford at his best, but still full of interest, this somewhat dry-cleaned version of Jack Kirkland's play adaptation of the famous Erskine Caldwell novel, scripted by Nunnally Johnson, offers a bittersweet view of Georgia hillbillies that doesn't register fully as either comedy or drama (1941). Reportedly the same thing was true of the original play, which became a comedy only after audiences started laughing at it, but Ford benefits from this ambiguity by putting a wry spin on the populist humanism of The Grapes of Wrath, which he'd recently made for the same studio, Fox.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader
TOBACCO ROAD inevitably invites comparison with Ford's GRAPES OF WRATH. The differences between the two films are those also of the books on which they were based. Steinbeck's story was a bitter protest against a great social wrong, which Ford treated primarily as a documentary. Caldwell's plot however concerned the "poor whites" of Georgia, reduced to poverty due to misfortune and their own ignorance rather than by injustice. It was a story pervaded by sex and immorality, and Ford, faced with obvious censorship problems, rather than bring about a weak compromise, chose to leave the sex aspect largely to inference. He injected a surprisingly effective note of frequently uproarious comedy, which was completely absent in the original, and which he handled with a skill which carefully avoided ridiculing the moohshiners around whom the story revolves, or their simple dignity. In spite of this comedy element, however, the film remains primarily a study - and an intensely moving one - of the tragedy of poverty and human depravity. Charles Grapewin's performance stands as one of the finest the screen has ever given us, and the film as a whole, though admittedly second-best to the Steinbeck, ranks among Ford's best works.
- William K. Everson, notes for the 300 Film Club, October 20 1949
Ford revisited - and parodied - the themes and milieu of The Grapes of Wrath a year later in Tobacco Road, Fox's film version of Erskine Caldwell's 1932 novel and the long-running stage adaptation by Jack Kirkland. Unlike Steinbeck's novel, Caldwell's revels in the comedy and pathos of proletarian defeatism. Ford evidently welcomed the opportunity to unwind from the liberal gravitas of The Grapes of Wrath with this bizarre divertissement about a decadent white-trash family in rural Georgia... Schizoid in the extreme, it alternates between the crudets, most grating low-comedy scenes Ford ever directed and some deftly sketched moments of sentiments as moving as any ever put on the screen...
But for the director of The Grapes of Wrath to stoop to ridiculing impoverished sharecroppers as lazy and stupid, as Ford does throughout much of Tobacco Road, is inexcusable. William Tracy's hideous screeching as the moronic Dude Lester and the embarrassing spectacle of Ward Bond and Gene Tierney writhing toward each other in the dirt to convey sexual passion are among the lowest points in Ford's oeuvre.
It's almost as if Tobacco Road were directed by Ford's evil twin, the dark-hearted mess he became whenever he crawled into his sleeping bag between pictures to drink himself incoherent.
- Joseph MacBride, Searching for John Ford: A Life
And yet, this shrill hicksploitation, packed with lowest kind of humor outside of fart jokes, is graced with some of the loveliest and most thematically evocative imagery in the director's career, courtesy of three-time Oscar winning cinematographer Arthur Miller. That's not an easy claim to make of a filmmaker known for such rich visuals as Ford, and thus is the film's split personality: hacky, low-rent comedy mashed-up against sublime black-and-white cinematography that gives the barbaric content poetic resonance that it frankly doesn't deserve.
Then, there's the film's imagery, which is not merely worth saving, but apparently good enough to propel the film to the top 1000 films of all time, by at least one yardstick. Perhaps that's as it should be - cinema is visual, and Tobacco Road is a visual masterpiece for virtually every shot of its 84 minutes. On the simplest level, it's a pretty movie, full of frames you just want to grab and put on the wall, but it goes deeper than that. The leaf-dappled light on every surface is lovely to look at, but it's also a reflection how the characters are marked by the land, and it suggests that the land keeps the Lesters in perpetual half-light, the full sun being blocked by the natural world which once gave the family its livelihood.
- Tim Brayton, Antagony and Ecstasy
Glenn Kenny reviews the Ford at Fox DVD Box Set: "This set is as much a portrait of Ford as a working director in collaboration with a studio as it is a study in Ford as auteur. Maybe even more the former than the latter. That the relatively turgid Tobacco Road, a workmanlike adaptation of a once wildly popular stage work starring poor Gene Tierney in a hilariously inapt dirty-gal role, could exist in such close temporal proximity to the sublime How Green Was My Valley is a question worth pondering. "
The film is beautifully shot and its perversity is impressive if not exactly entertaining. (Some might find the whole thing worthwhile just for the chance to watch a scantily-clad Gene Tierney slithering lustfully through the dirt like a sex-crazed slug -- surely the strangest thing she was ever asked to do in Hollywood.) It almost seems as if Ford was indulging his worst instincts -- to get them out of his system before tackling How Green Was My Valley. Apparently it worked -- in the latter film he hardly makes a single wrong move, and takes the poetic possibilities of filmmaking about as far as anyone ever has.
- Lloyd Fonveille for mardecortesbaja.com
Collective throwing, although rare, creates typically Fordian situations. In How Green Was My Valley (1941), the family members throw their salaries into the mother’s huge apron. Collective throwing as a family ritual can be found in a completely opposite context in Tobacco Road (1941), where the decline of farmers during the Great Depression is symbolised by the brutality of the unemployed son throwing a baseball against the wall of the wooden house. The starving family members, cued by a silent signal from the mother, throw rocks at the house of son-in-law (Ward Bond) in order to steal his turnips. Like in a military operation, they each carry a large rock and silently approach the young man who has been seduced by the girl in the family (Gene Tierney). Thanks to this collective rock throwing, they succeed in getting some turnips. This sequence devoted to human misery is transformed into an optimistic scene close to light comedy. Is it because of the magic of the Fordian theme of throwing?
- Shigeki Hasumi, "John Ford, or the Eloquence of Gesture" in Rouge
Biography at Books and Writers
The New Georgia Encyclopedia offers notes on Erskine Caldwell's novels Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre, with comparison to their stage and screen adaptations.
Senses of Cinema Great Directors Bio by Richard Franklin
More apropos to Tobacco Road (while not discussing it explicitly) from the same site is Ford biographer Tag Gallagher's essay, "Ford Till '47". Some salient passages:
What Ford learned was how to intensify a character's relation to the space containing and surrounding her or him: the way her emotions permeate the entire screen, and the way milieu – customs, culture and tradition, duty and ritual – operate determiningly upon her. An actor's movements become sculpture-in-motion, modelling the light and geometry of the frame. The fundamental Ford composition is a person acting freely within a geometric space –
a formalisation of a central mystery of Christianity, our terrifying freedom within a deterministic world. “Tout le monde a ses raisons”, says Renoir famously in La Règle du jeu (1939). Ford makes the same point visually cutting from one cameo to another...
Ford's characters may seem “types” at first, when they present themselves and do their “turns”, but Ford prepared full biographies for each of them – with tastes, opinions and eccentricities – and then would slip in these tidbits. His actors become their roles. Part of his legend as a director was that he gave only basic directions and refused to discuss anything, yet on screen seems to have moulded every tic. Perhaps this was because everyone was so afraid of missing a signal that attention was riveted on him and his sets were quiet (like a church, said Harry Carey, Jr.). “This man directs less than any man in the business”, remarked photographer Arthur C. Miller. “As a matter of fact, he doesn't direct – he doesn't want any actor to give an imitation of him playing the part. He wants the actor to create the part – that's why he hired him, because he saw him in the part. You'd sit at a big coffee table in the morning – everybody was there, whether you worked that day or not. You'd drink coffee until you couldn't swig it down any more.”