SPOTLIGHT: Dramatic Pre-Code Davis (II)

Welcome to a new Film Friday and the start of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of the untamable Bette Davis (1908-1989). Though this diva of the silver screen’s best and most well-known work came in the late ’30s and ’40s after the enforcement of the Production Code, Davis made severable notable Pre-Codes in her earlier career. We’ll be covering three of them in this series. Last week, we began with The Man Who Played God (1932). This week…

 

The Cabin In The Cotton (1932)

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A sharecropper fighting for better working conditions succumbs to the boss’s seductive daughter. Starring Richard Barthelmess, Dorothy Jordan, Bette Davis, Hardie Albright and David Landau. Screen play by Paul Green. From the novel by Harry Harrison Kroll. Directed by Michael Curtiz.

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Bette Davis steals the show with a legendary line and a dynamite presence in this social drama of the south that finds Richard Barthelmess caught between two opposing strata. While I was unexpectedly blown away by last week’s The Man Who Played God, I knew it was imperative that I lower my expectations going into this film. Unfortunately, my expectations weren’t low enough. For instead of a sensitive drama that explores deep human issues through the central arc of its main character (like in the aforementioned picture), The Cabin In The Cotton is a listless self-important attempt to hinge a story on the age old (and then hot-button) exploration of the worker vs. the boss. Through all the mediocrity, there’s one shining force; it’s Bette Davis, and she’d “like to kiss ya, but [she] just washed [her] hair.”

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“After Southern tenant farmer Tom Blake dies, Lane Norwood, the owner of the cotton plantation, puts Tom’s son Marvin through school, later hiring him to work in his store. The other sharecroppers suspect that Marvin is now on the side of the owners, but Marvin is torn between his loyalty to his family and his gratitude to Norwood. He is also attracted to both Betty Wright, the daughter of a sharecropper, and Madge, Norwood’s daughter. Marvin learns that the farmers are stealing cotton from Norwood, but as he understands how hard their life is, he says nothing to his boss, who has taken Marvin into his own house to live. When a tenant shoots a planter, Marvin and Norwood join the hunt for the killer. Marvin is sickened by the lynching that follows. Burdened by their debts, the tenants burn down Norwood’s store. Marvin reveals that he has kept a duplicate set of books which will prevent Norwood from being ruined, but the tenants beg Marvin to destroy them so they can start again without debts. Marvin refuses to give the books to the sharecroppers until one of them explains that Norwood’s high interest rates were responsible for the overwork that killed Marvin’s father. Caught in the middle, Marvin calls a meeting between the planters and the farmers and proposes a cooperative scheme for farming that will be fairer to the tenants without asking the planters to assume all the financial risk. When some of the planters refuse, Marvin threatens to expose the truth about the lynching. Finally everyone signs the trial contract, and Marvin looks forward to better times.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.) 

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I must confess that I’ve never read the book upon which the screenplay is based, however I do think the story is well constructed and has conflict that is both logical and could potentially allow for great drama. How well that can be translated to the screen is a different story, for my biggest complaint with the picture is that I simply didn’t care what happened. And I think a lot of this is from the simple fact that by producing a film about sharecroppers vs. owners, the film takes on a high and mighty air of misplaced social relevance. The word misplaced is applicable because the drama doesn’t support the kind of “important” debate that the story seems to want to foster. We’ve seen this dilemma elsewhere. And we’ve seen it better.

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We’ve also seen Richard Barthelmess elsewhere. And we’ve seen him better. Misplaced in his role as the go-between, or bridge between both worlds, he would seem to be an appropriate choice, as Barthelmess excels at registering quiet inner conflict — exactly the type upon which this film’s premise is founded. However, without anything worthy to which he can react, his performance (the one that’s supposed to carry the film) becomes lethargic, and drags the picture down instead of enhancing it. With a better script, he would have been a blessing. Because the script is inferior, he’s a curse.

The only real redeeming grace is Bette Davis, who, in addition to uttering the iconic line that I quoted above, blows the other female (the boring one with whom he ends up) out of the water. What may surprise most fans of the oft-imitated diva is how genuinely sexy she is in this film. She’s a true Pre-Code dame here, exuding a mature sensuality with a delightful naivete that softens the hard-edges that would somewhat paralyze her later works. She’s the film’s greatest asset, because she deepens the conflict and adds complexity to all the characters, particularly Barthelmess’. Her performance is consistently brilliant in this picture — truthful, exciting, and hot. What a dynamic celluloid presence!

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This film is only recommended to hardcore Barthelmess, Davis, or Pre-Code fans. Casual viewers — there’s much better stuff elsewhere.

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Come back next Friday for more Davis! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment! 

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