Wednesday 9 April 2008

The Cabin in the Cotton (1932)

There can't be too many movies that start off letting us know that we're about to watch a bunch of cotton picking peckerwoods but that's what this one's about. They're the poor folks who labour in the fields to pick the crop for the rich folks (the planters) to benefit from. What ought to be surprising but isn't is that we see plenty of black cotton picking peckerwoods in the fields in stock footage but the characters we watch are white cotton picking peckerwoods on sets with rear projection. Even when exposing racist conditions Hollywood can't help but be racist in the process.

Lane Norwood owns the fields that our sets are supposed to be part of and he's not too fond of the current concept of poor people getting a chance at education. Tom and Lilly's kid (for want of a better term), Marvin is someone who's taking advantage of that, starting to go to school and learn how to read and write, but Lane Norwood wants him back in the fields as a cotton picking peckerwood. Given that Marvin is played by precode legend Richard Barthelmess, who played all sorts of roles that talked to social issues, you can be sure that he doesn't play ball, but he doesn't actually have to rebel because Norwood's daughter Madge talks him into letting him go back to school and letting him work in his store to boot.

Barthelmess was a huge star in 1932, one of the biggest, and his work stands up to modern viewing, but he's not the star to anyone watching from the perspective of over three quarters of a century on. Madge is played by an up and coming young actress by the name of Bette Davis, still only in her second year of films. She isn't the leading lady, that role going to Dorothy Jordan as Marvin's sweetheart Betty, but she certainly makes her presence known.

She doesn't have much of a role, merely a rich girl who enjoys playing with the help, but Barthelmess certainly does. After he gets his education Norwood sees him as a planter, almost his right hand man, and he wants him to investigate the peckerwoods who he believes are stealing his cotton. On the flipside, the peckerwoods, who include his family and everyone he grew up with, believe that Norwood is stealing the cotton from them and they want Norwood to represent them as their agent in Memphis. He's stuck between both sides, not really belonging to either and manipulated by both.

The problem is that the film can't take sides. It backs out of the whole concept at the very beginning with the introductory text talking about good and bad on both sides. Marvin Blake can't take sides either, and as the film progresses he finds less and less to like about either of them. This is a short film, only 78 minutes long, but it really should have been a short film with the cotton picking peckerwood leaving both sides about 20 minutes in to go find some real people. Maybe if the story allowed Barthelmess to actually do something other than dither around in every direction at once it would be a lot more palatable. Only towards the end when he leads a town hall meeting in which he has everyone by the balls does he actually get a chance to act. It seems almost criminal to have someone as talented as Richard Barthelmess wasted like this, especially in a precode!

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