Although Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road is one of the best books I’ve read for this blog, I’ve been dreading its film adaptation. Mainly because of this quote by its director, John Ford, cited on Wikipedia:
“We have no dirt in the picture. We’ve eliminated the horrible details and what we’ve got left is a nice dramatic story. It’s a tear-jerker, with some comedy relief. What we’re aiming at is to have the customers sympathize with our people and not feel disgusted.”
Ick. Gross. I feel as filthy as a Dust Bowl Okie just reading that.
Caldwell’s Tobacco Road is a very dark book about a very dark time in history. It’s a shocking, ruthless, almost misanthropic portrayal of a farm family slowly starving to death on their now useless land. The horrible details are exactly what make this story so great.
Now having actually seen the movie, though, I can say it both was and was not what I was fearing. Yes, they did cut most of the edgy scenes. The son, Dude, doesn’t kill anyone, overt sexual references are out, and rape is only implied in the vaguest of terms rather than described in violent ones.
Nevertheless, I was surprised to see how much of the Lesters’ destructiveness was left in, as much as was possible under the suffocating constraints of 1940’s Hollywood. Yes, old man Jeeter Lester is a tad more sympathetic, but he still lies, steals, and is too lazy to bother finding out if his own mother is dying alone in the woods. His son-in-law, Lov, is still explicitly a wife beater. Older evangelist Bessie Rice still lures young, mentally-disabled Dude into marriage, along with all the creepy sexual coercion that implies.
Even the infamous scene in which Ellie May distracts her brother-in-law with sexiness is still there in some form.
Ok, so she’s not masturbating in the dirt like she is in the book, but it’s still way more sensual than I would have expected.
By the way, in Caldwell’s version, Ellie May is ugly and harelipped. Snort. I also love that actress Gene Tierney takes a prominent position in all of the movie posters, despite having about three lines of dialogue and an equivalent amount of screen time.
However, if Ford’s goal is to make the audience sympathize with the characters, I think he definitely achieved that, and without too much revolting sentimentality. Jeeter’s wife Ada, in particular, seems only to exist to make the audience to feel sorry for her, what with her children who have abandoned her and her few humble hopes for herself going unfulfilled.
Ada and Jeeter also have a camaraderie between them that didn’t really exist in the book
The most baffling choice to me, though, were the changes wrought on the Lester’s landlord, Captain Harmon. In the book, the captain never makes an appearance, but is implied to be a sort of amoral businessman, using poor farmers for his own gains.
In the movie, he takes a much more active role, and is, in fact, so sympathetic to the Lester’s plight he decides to help them out, to his own financial detriment.
And it is in this action that Tobacco Road wildly diverges from the book on which it is based. Up until the last 10 minutes of the film, it is relatively faithful to Caldwell’s plot, but the ending swings in a completely different direction. Spoilers ahoy.
At the end of the book, the Lesters die in a house fire, and it is implied their son Dude will take up the mantle of hopeless poverty.
By contrast, in the movie, the Lesters have given up and are sadly tromping to the poor farm, when Captain Tim Harmon comes in to save the day. He pays six months of the Lester’s rent and gives them ten dollars to get started on a new crop. But the movie hints lazy Jeeter won’t get up from his porch long enough to even buy new seeds.
I just…don’t know how to feel about that. On the one hand, it feels like the usual cheap Hollywood deus ex machina, a happier ending than the film has really earned.
On the other hand, it’s really more of a bittersweet ending, with the same implication as Caldwell’s that the cycle of poverty would not be broken. In that sense, Caldwell almost took the easy way out in having them die quickly, rather than starve to death through their own inaction.
On the other other hand, the book doesn’t let us off easy with the poor farm safety net, letting us instead live with the actuality that many of our fellow citizens were starving to death in their own homes.
Also, making Captain Tim into the best-behaved character of the story just leaves me feeling kind of queasy. I mean, why was it done? Just so middle class audiences could feel better about themselves? It’s like an all-white version of the Great White Hope.
At the end of the day, I just can’t reconcile the fact that Hays-Code-era Hollywood had absolutely no business trying to adapt Tobacco Road with the fact that this story was relevant to 1941’s audiences in a way it would never be again.
And the movie was a huge box office hit at the time, with many saying it even surpassed the Grapes of Wrath. Although it really had no business not being a hit, considering the wildly popular Tobacco Road Broadway show ran a then record-breaking ten years. The only reason it took Hollywood so long to adapt the story in the first place was the controversial nature of the story.
Critics, though, did tend to give it mixed reviews. So let me add my hat to the ring as a mixed-up reviewer. This wasn’t a bad movie by any means, but, unless you just really have a thing for the Great Depression, I’d say the book is far more worth your time.