Tobacco Road (1941)

Charley Grapewin, Gene Tierney, Marjorie Rambeau, William Tracy,
Tobacco Road is a movie starring Charley Grapewin, Gene Tierney, and Marjorie Rambeau. Hillbilly family life in 1941 rural Georgia.
  • 6.5 /10.0 IMDB Rating:
  • DatePublished:
  • 2018-09-07 Added:
  • Erskine Caldwell, Jack Kirkland, Nunnally Johnson, Writer:
  • John Ford, Director:
  • Darryl F. Zanuck, Producer:

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5 / 10

Disappointing film version of Broadway success...

It's hard to even understand why TOBACCO ROAD was such a long-running success on the Broadway stage. Fox has taken the play, cut all of the more sizzling elements that made it intriguing, and reduced it to a tale of dirt poor farm folk too shiftless to make a living off the land with the accent on comedy rather than focusing on a few of the more poignant moments.

It's certainly a disappointment to find Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney totally wasted in small roles early in their careers at Fox. Tierney, especially, has little to do but say a few lines and look as unscrubbed as possible. It's really an embarrassment to watch her in this role.

Overacting is in abundance, particularly from William Tracy as the imbecilic son, Dude, who is crazy from start to finish (with Ward Bond delivering him a well-deserved punch at the finale). Marjorie Rambeau as a gospel-singing fanatic overacts too and even Ward Bond is irritating at times.

But in the central role of the shiftless farmer who spends the whole story trying to devise ways to save his land with a $100 down payment, Charlie Grapewin gives a fine, nuanced performance, slipping easily from comedy to drama without a strain. Elizabeth Patterson tries to give some dignity to the role of his equally downtrodden wife.

John Ford's uninspired direction is largely responsible for the lackluster overall impact of the film, based on the play taken from an earthy Erskine Caldwell novel. Whatever elements made the play so enormously successful have been eliminated in Nunnally Johnson's screenplay.

Summing up: A huge disappointment on many levels although it contains some striking B&W photography.

3 / 10

Just too annoying

A very rare instance when I couldn't get through a movie. After about 40 minutes I couldn't take any more of the hymn singing and the screaming of these stupid, stupid, unsympathetic characters. I'm not familiar with the play the movie's based on, but Ford's version elicits only disdain for these characters, rather than empathy. And Ford's lapdog, Ward Bond, always creeps me out. After reading his bio, it turns out he was exactly the kind of idiot I expected him to be.

5 / 10

Altered State

Tobacco Road as was written by Erskine Caldwell and dramatized on Broadway for 8 years was brought to the screen by 20th Century Fox in a considerably altered state. It was thought of probably by Darryl Zanuck as a great property for John Ford seeing what he did with The Grapes Of Wrath.

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck is a great piece of social commentary, an immortal work whether in print or on the big or small screen. Ford kept the spirit of Steinbeck's work completely intact and got a well deserved Best Director Oscar. In this one because Caldwell's Jeeters are not quite as noble as the Joads of The Grapes Of Wrath, they're not prototype rural proletarians. The changes took a lot of the drama and commentary and left the film not too far above the Weaver Family films and Ma and Pa Kettle.

Charley Grapewin and Bessie Patterson are Mr.&Mrs. Jeeter Lester and Jeeter is a guy determined to get by doing as little as possible. The whole family has his spirit. He's married most of his children off. One of the daughters in serious trouble of being an old maid at 23 and that was Gene Tierney if you can believe that. Her character in the book and play has a cleft palate and you can understand why she's not married off. Here she's just gorgeous Gene Tierney and a crucial element is missing.

There's another daughter Pearl whom we never see, but who's married to the loutish Ward Bond. She keeps running off and Bond just doesn't get it. Here he's just rustic lout, I suspect that the 13 year old Pearl figures she can do a whole lot better. That one I'm sure the Code was breathing hot and heavy over 20th Century Fox.

There's another physically deformed character and that's Marjorie Rambeau who has in the book a nose like a pig's snout. Grapewin palms off his 16 year old son as a new husband for Rambeau to get his hands on the insurance money her old husband left her. William Tracy as the kid who's no prize figures she's experienced and eager even if she's a psalm singer which she is.

The rough house comedy that typifies many a Ford film is funny, but hardly in the spirit of what Caldwell was writing. In the end I have to say that the film is not good John Ford, though he's done worse.

8 / 10

One-of-a-kind picture

Director John Ford was certainly an odd duck; the stories he was attracted to ran the gamut from "The Searchers" to "The Quiet Man" to this one, a head-scratcher of a tragicomedy based on Erskine Caldwell's book and Jack Kirkland's popular stage-adaptation. Eccentric Georgia farm family is threatened with poverty when the bank forecloses on their land, leading patriarch Jeeter to use his wiles in hopes of raising $100 for a year's worth of rent. Movie swings wildly from hick-slapstick to poignant drama; however, once you've had a chance to get attuned to Ford's rhythm, it's a pretty terrific ride. Charley Grapewin gives an Oscar-caliber performance (he wasn't even nominated!), and it's fun to see Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews looking very youthful three years before "Laura". Good show! *** from ****

9 / 10

The Beverly Hillbillies as directed by America's greatest poet

The back side of the same coin whose front is The Grapes of Wrath. It's a Depression piece about a family of Georgia dirt farmers who are about to be driven from their home. Here John Ford stays much in his comedy mode, so most of his detractors will certainly want to stay clear of it. And even I admit that at times it can be obnoxious. Dude Lester, the youngest of the 16 (or 17) children Jeeter and Ada Lester had, and one of only two who still live on the farm, is particularly hard to bear. One wonders whether Jeeter and Ada had the same parents. Dude runs around screeching and imitating his car's horn. He can be funny, but he's certainly the most grating element of the movie. Luckily, he gets his comeuppance, which makes it well worth putting up with him. The other child, a 23 year old girl, Ellie May (Gene Tierney, in a very early appearance and gorgeous as the earthy farmer's daughter ? Ford really fetishizes her, to tell you the truth), is in love with her brother-in-law, Lov (Ward Bond, whom I didn't even recognize). He chose Ellie May's younger sister because he wanted a young wife ? 23 is too old and he feared he'd be the laughing stock of Tobacco Road. Most of the movie focuses on Jeeter (Charley Grapewin), who is trying to remain on his land. It's quite amazing. These characters are so stereotypical, and they can certainly be construed as highly offensive. The Beverly Hillbillies probably contains less offensive material about hicks. With any other artist at the helm, it would be completely reprehensible. Yet, in Ford's hands, Jeeter Lester exhibits as much humanity as Tom Joad. We laugh at his ridiculousness, but we care for him very much. His wife (played by Marjorie Rambeau) doesn't get a lot of screen time, but when she does, she reminds me much of Jane Darwell's heartbreaking role as Ma Joad. After Dude tears into his parents about being at death's door, the two have a solemn conversation about their numerous, departed children. `I thought at least one of them would write,' Ada sighs. The film also boasts the greatest number of occurrences of Ford's favorite hymn, `Shall We Gather at the River'. It even serves as the base of the film's score. If the wackiness doesn't put the detractors off, that song very well might! I love it myself. As funny as Tobacco Road is, and it is quite funny almost all of the time, it contains dozens of moments of the greatest American poetry. 9/10.